My handyman, the thief

April 26, 2010 at 12:02 AM 2 comments

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When I moved into my place on 239th Street, some women in the neighborhood told me about a handyman who had good hands. His name Franco Melendez* and he lived with the Koenigs, husband-and-wife furniture restorers who didn’t mind Franco hiring out his services when he had free time. I saw a nice looking highboy and a set of Eames swivel chairs that Franco had fixed up, and I wanted him to work for me.

I had never hired anybody before and employing Franco made me feel prosperous. The fact is, I was working full-time at IBM and I had some extra money for the first time in my life. In the course of two years, Franco put shelves up, hung framed prints, repainted the walls when they got smudgy, laid down all-weather flooring on the terrace and even built a modular sofa for me. Whenever I hired Franco, I felt like Samuel Pepys, the seventeenth-century English diarist who kept track of the personal and political details of his life, including the renovations he made to his home.

I needed to compare my home improvement to Pepys’ because I wasn’t comfortable spending money on cosmetic changes to my home. My parents always did their own paint jobs. Until recently, my eighty-five-year-old father chopped wood for the wood-burning stove and my eighty-one-year-old mother laundered the living room drapes. But I figured that if a literary man like Pepys loved his home enough to hire workmen, I could do the same. Pretty silly to think I was in the same league as the Secretary of the English Navy under Charles II.

Ay, mamacita! You’re gorgeous!

Franco said he first saw me in a building lobby not far from my home. “I fell in love with you,” he said. He pronounced it “luff.”

“That’s ridiculous,” I said.

“For real,” he said. “Your shape, your hair, your eyes. Ay, mama! Your eyes!”

Whenever Franco saw me, he inhaled through his teeth and said, “Ay! Dios mio!” His emotion was over the top. I told him I didn’t take him seriously. But you know how it is. With each passing year, attention from men becomes like the appearance of Halley’s Comet — infrequent and spectacular — and it flattered my vanity to think that my handyman, fourteen years my junior, was smitten with me.

Franco was enormous. Some of the Spanish workmen he knew called him gordito, but “fatty” doesn’t begin to describe what those extra hundred pounds did to Franco. He was borderline diabetic, so several of us cooked him special meals. Friday was my big cooking day. Franco showed up in the afternoon to stand in the kitchen doorway, exclaim at my beauty and wait for me to hand him a plate of fried chicken cutlets and hot sauce.

“I do good work for you, don’t I?” Franco said.

I said, “I can’t complain.”

Franco delivered his pitch in a singsongy Spanish accent. “Wouldn’t you like to have somebody here all the time to paint the walls, mop the floors, cook chimichurri?” he asked.

“Not necessarily,” I said.

“Ay! Some day you will be married with me,” Franco said.

“Tell that to your girlfriend.”

“I don’t love her like I love you. She’s nothing to me.” Franco said “nuffing.”

“She’s the right age for you.”

Franco told me a story about a friend from Costa Rica who met a young woman in San Jose. As soon as he saw a photograph of her mother, though, he wanted to meet her. “He got married with the girl’s mother and they are very much in love with each other,” Franco said. “Deep down you luff me.”

“I don’t.”

“I can become a Jewish,” he said. “Then you can be married with me.” He said “wif” and “Yewish.”

One time Franco came by while I was cooking and listening to a CD of Yiddish music. He thought it was the ugliest sound he had ever heard.

“If you were married to me, you’d have to listen to Jewish music,” I said.

Franco thought about listening to Belz, Mein Shtetele Belz for the next forty years. He laughed and said that was asking too much of him.

He beat me so much, he made me stupid

I was a sucker for Franco’s story. He was born in Los Angeles and had only bad memories of the place. He was twelve when two older black kids dragged him into the school bathroom and raped him. When he began playing hooky, his father whipped him around the head with a studded belt. He was so cut up that he went to school wearing a wool cap. His father said, “If you tell anybody what I did, I’ll kill you.”

At school, Franco’s teacher asked him to take off the cap. Franco refused. She sent him to the principal’s office. The principal called his father. When Franco came home, his father beat him again because he had been disrespectful to a teacher.

“My father treated me real bad,” Franco said. “He beat me so much that he made me stupid. My sisters and brother aren’t slow like me because he beat them less.”

The Melendezes moved to Costa Rica. Eventually Franco and his siblings pushed their father out because he was beating their mother. Franco’s father moved in with another woman.

When Franco was in his twenties, he decided to come back to the U.S. to work for a swimming pool contractor he had met in Costa Rica. He told me how he sold his bicycle “for a real cheap price” and got a bus ticket from San Jose to Mexico City. From there he was supposed to get a bus to L.A., but he ran low on money. He stopped eating, but a girl took pity on him and bought him a sandwich and a Pepsi. He arrived in L.A. without a cent. Another girl gave him just enough money to get to the address in Brentwood where he had to meet the pool contractor. Franco said women always liked him even though he was ugly.

“The pool contractor and his partner made a slave from me,” Franco said. “They put me to work breaking rocks, but they didn’t pay me. I kept saying, ‘You need to pay me.’ They didn’t know I was an American citizen.”

Two weeks into his enslavement, Franco fractured his arm. “They wouldn’t let me go to a doctor,” he said. “Then I told them, ‘I am an American citizen. I have a right to see a doctor.’ They got scared from me. They thought I would report them.'”

Franco got scared of them too. For all he knew, these guys could kill him.

Franco had met a couple of furniture restorers in Costa Rica. They had given him their phone number and told him that he could come work for them in New York. “I was desperate,” he said. ” I called Mr. Koenig and said, ‘Mr. Koenig, I am in a real bad situation in L.A.'”

The Koenigs wired Franco money for a Greyhound Bus ticket. Fractured arm and all, he took the cross-country trip to Manhattan. The Koenigs met him at Port Authority in Times Square and brought him home to live with them.

I only want to dance with you!

Claudia, one of the neighborhood women, discovered that Franco danced salsa and merengue. Franco volunteered to come ’round on Saturday nights to teach us some  steps. Franco reminded me of a cartoon drawing I once saw of elephants dancing in a circle like the nude women in Matisse’s Dance. This galumphing steamer of a man, whose reading, writing and arithmetic skills were in short supply, was as light on his feet as a ballerina. His merengue was better than his salsa. That suited me fine. We began dancing once a week to Elvis Crespo, a great Puerto Rican merengue singer.

“I only want to dance with you,” Franco told me.

“Claudia’s a much better dancer than I am,” I said.

“But you are the one I want in my arms.”

Here’s a shabby confession: I had nothing to prove to Franco, so I didn’t care if I looked like an idiotic American. That wasn’t true elsewhere in my life, not at work, not in the Jewish community, not in my family, where I managed to look idiotic without any effort at all. Now I understood why men preferred marrying women who are less intelligent than they are. Life can be so much simpler.

My relationship with Franco was boring and fun, expensive and economical, flirty and non-sexual. We went to a couple of Tyler Perry movies together. He drove me to and from jury duty at the Bronx County Courthouse. Sometimes he joined my friends and me for dinner. He showed up with presents for me and my son. He gave me a marcasite necklace that he said once belonged to his mother, earrings in a Macy’s box and an upright vacuum cleaner. He gave my son a baseball signed, supposedly, by Babe Ruth. He said an old woman gave it to him because she loved him. Franco was our pet.

Missing money, missing shaver

Nadine, one of the women who had hired Franco, called me one day to say that she suspected him of having taken a thousand dollars out of her husband’s desk. She admitted that she wasn’t the most organized person and it was possible, although not likely, that she had misplaced the money.

Claudia, the friend who came over to dance on Saturday nights, thought some of her daughter’s jewelry had gone missing. Her children accused Franco. They also said he was stealing money from them. Claudia said nobody had any proof. She got angry at her kids for being racist.

Then a video game vanished on the same day I bought it for my son. His electric shaver, stored inside the medicine chest, was gone too.

I asked Franco if he accidentally had swept up the video game when he was cleaning up after a painting project. I didn’t ask about the electric shaver. My son was always losing books, shoes, cellphones. He must have lost the shaver too.

The more Nadine thought about the thousand dollars, the less doubt she had that Franco pocketed it. Claudia refused to believe that the handyman whom she relied on for so much renovation work, and whom she had fed, danced with and entertained, would steal from her.

Cheese in the mousetrap

Occasionally, we women would loan Franco money, especially when he needed airfare back to Costa Rica to visit his mother. Despite all the work he did, he rarely had cash on hand. He told us that he was squirreling all of it away for an ice skating rink he wanted to build in Costa Rica. Claudia used to scoff that somebody as retarded as Franco could run a business, especially one as risky as an ice skating rink in a semi-tropical country.

Franco told us that he once owned a wristwatch factory. He lost it only after an angry ex-wife burnt it down. Claudia said somebody as retarded as Franco couldn’t possibly have owned a factory. Maybe he had worked there as a night watchman or a janitor.

A nurse I knew once observed that it doesn’t take much to function in the world. In fact, too much intellect hampered your ability to act fast. She said that middle-class people place too high a premium on intellect and underestimate the part that craft and artistry play in making your way in the world.

I decided to put some cheese in the mousetrap.

Franco was working off three hundred dollars I had loaned him for airfare. I put five twenty-dollar bills on my work desk next to the computer. I went to the back of the apartment for a few minutes. When I returned, the money was gone.

I made a big show about my having misplaced the money.

Franco said, “I didn’t take it.”

“Franco, why would I accuse you of taking my money?”

Franco told me I owed him money for the vacuum cleaner he gave me.

I went to the closet and dragged it out. “I thought it was a gift,” I said. “Please take it back.”

Of course he couldn’t take it back. He had stolen it from somebody else.

So, the man had not been captivated by my looks. He did not need us women to feed him or dance with him or listen to his sad story. He flattered us and made himself look pathetic so that we would be caught off guard. Not bad for a retarded guy.

Missing Franco

Every so often I hear about a woman who let some younger man worm his way into her life. He flatters her. He makes her feel young and sexy. Then, when she goes to make a bank withdrawal, the coffers are dry. I always think, “What a fool she was!”

I know of one such woman. She was married to a handsome guy who said he did publicity for the New York Rangers. As far as she knew, he got on the subway every morning and went down to the Rangers’ office at Madison Square Garden. Yet he never contributed to the household expenses. Not rent, not food, not entertainment. Her husband’s story was bunko. She spent fifteen years of her life with him before she figured him out.

Nadine’s basement flooded. She misses Franco and wishes she could call him for help.

Claudia’s sewage system overflowed. She is too embarrassed by Franco’s scam to miss him for anything.

One afternoon post-Franco, my son walked over to the Koenigs’ apartment and gave the Babe Ruth baseball back to Franco.

The last I heard, Franco was no longer living with the Koenigs. They threw him out. I don’t know if they ever got wind of his thefts. Franco used to argue with the Koenigs’ son. He did not like to share the Koenigs, especially Mrs. Koenig, with him.

I have not danced merengue or salsa in two years, although sometimes I listen to Elvis Crespo on Fridays when I cook. And whenever I vacuum the floors, I wonder, “How could he like an electric shaver more than he liked me?”

* All names, except those belonging to historical figures, have been fictionalized in this blog post.


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Entry filed under: Apartments, Co-ops, Emotions, New York City, Non-fiction, Working. Tags: , , , , , , , .

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2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Sara Bennett  |  April 26, 2010 at 9:01 AM

    What a great story for me to start off my morning with.

  • 2. Pesha  |  April 27, 2010 at 9:38 AM

    You got off cheap at $100, a video game, and a shaver. Franco’s sweettalk was on automatic pilot. If a woman understands that when she meets a guy like Franco she can just howl with laughter!


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