My father worked his whole life at one job. He was a Building Manager for a bunch of warehouse buildings in what is now known as the Dumbo section of Brooklyn. I was told by my mother that he had actually started as an “Office Boy” whatever that meant and worked his way up to managing all 15 or so buildings. I didn’t know too much about what he did as a Building Manager, but from the bits and pieces of conversation I would overhear around the kitchen table at dinner time I gathered it had something to do with negotiating the tenant leases, overseeing the buildings upkeep, and handling the general issues that popped up day to day. The tenants seemed to be a mixed bag of low end manufacturing companies, lots of stationary products, pens, rubber stamps, that sort of thing. Dad must have been very well liked because he spoke of the tenants as if they were his friends. When he passed away in 1983 I recall seeing lots of unfamiliar faces at the Leo F. Kearns Funeral Home in Woodhaven. Strangers continually came up to me during the two days of viewing letting me know they had worked with my father and assuring me that he was a great man. Some of these people even remembered me as a little boy from those summer days when Dad would bring me to the office and let me play on the big clunky calculators. They’d remark how big I had grown, how I was the spitting image of my father or they’d relay some anecdote that they assumed was comforting to me during this sad occasion but in fact only had the effect of making me feeling that there were so many things about my Dad I did not know, and now, would never get to find out.
When I was a kid, Dad would frequently bring home little gifts the tenants gave him for no other apparent reason except that they liked him. When my sister and I were cleaning out my parent’s house many years later, I saved handfuls of these treasures as mementoes of my father’s career, 5 x 7 note pads imprinted across the top with “From the Desk of Charles Baran” in various fonts and designs, ball point pens personalized with his name, and once, a special gift for me, pencils that were stamped “Chuckie Baran”, of which only 5 remain and that I use rarely if at all so as to make them last forever. Every time I put one in the electric sharpener I observe the pencil getting shorter and shorter, approaching the imprinted gold letters, perilously close to erasing another piece of my father’s legacy which I am determined to not let happen. At the end of each year, the tenant’s generosity was in full Christmas bloom. Everyday Dad would bring home boxes full of quality liquor, Dewar’s Scotch, Johnnie Walker Black, never Red, Gin, Rye and Vodka. The hand carved Chinese Liquor Cabinet in our Living Room that supported the ceramic Holy Family and the three Wise Men with their Camels at Christmas time was stocked for another year. Mom took careful notice of “who sent what” and wrote it down on a page of one of Dad’s imprinted 5 x 7 note pads and compared the haul year to year. I’d hear her comment to my father as she wrote down the quantities and brands next to the tenant’s names, “Last year Amalgamated Rubber sent three bottles of Cutty Sark! This year only two!”. The subtle implication that my Dad was doing something wrong was clearly apparent.
When Dad first started his job as an Office Boy, the buildings were owned by Gair Industrial Properties. The Gair family, especially Mrs. Gair, was well liked by my parents and I’m pretty certain the feeling was mutual. My father spoke often about her and how nice she was to him. From the reverent tone of his voice, I imagined Mrs. Gair being a large benevolent figure in a long black dress, high lace collar and gray hair tucked under an ever present hat. The kind of lady that wore gloves and carried a parasol. Someone like Ethel Barrymore in all those old Hollywood movies from the 30’s. Mrs. Gair took my father under her matronly wing and was instrumental in seeing that he advanced up the ranks to Building Manager.
My father was not much of a talker or sharer of tall tales, but one story he did like to repeat and tell with pride, was that the Gair family had invented corrugated cardboard, and that it was basically by accident. Some defective machine making the cardboard had malfunctioned, spitting out a bunch of wrinkled cardboard, until someone at the plant got the bright idea that it was actually better and stronger than regular cardboard. This story made me feel like my family was “connected” to a bit of history, even if it was only cardboard.
My father managed those Brooklyn buildings over the course of several successive owners. The Gair’s sold the buildings to a group called Schwartz, Meyer and Harrow who then later sold them to Harry Helmsley and his company. These gentlemen must have thought highly enough of my father as he maintained his employment without worry or fear of losing his job through all those many years.
My father’s office was located on Washington Street in a one story nondescript building that had a permanent coating of soot and general New York City grime. It had a black door and one or two tiny windows, too high up for anyone to look in and too small for the sun to locate and send any light through. The office furniture was old and beat up. The drawers on the large wooden desks didn’t close properly or once closed were difficult to open. Mismatched desk chairs, some with wheels, others wooden and heavy, and file cabinets in several shapes and sizes that proudly displayed their well-earned dents accumulated over the years with the assistance of many past employees. If there was a bathroom I couldn’t honestly say as I had never noticed or needed to use it. There were one or two people that worked in the office with my father. I can’t recall their names, but I can recall vividly a smiling lady with auburn hair that always looked happy to see me when dad brought me to the office on my annual field day. When dad had to leave the office to visit a tenant or check out a situation in the boiler room, he’d leave me alone with this smiling lady who fed me a steady supply of paper and pencils to keep me busy as she got on with her tedious work of logging in rent payments and paying electric bills. She was very thin.
There wasn’t much excitement around my dad’s office, and I didn’t especially look forward to going every year. However, one year my dad announced at the dinner table that they would be filming a Sophia Loren movie on his block and would I like to spend the day watching the filming. “Oh boy, would I!” I was so excited by this news that I absentmindedly gobbled down my mother’s Spanish Rice which I never liked, and which always left a funny taste in my mouth. I couldn’t sleep at all that night. I laid in my bed thinking of meeting Sofia Loren face to face and what I’d say to her when I met her.
The next morning, I was dressed and ready to go by 7. My dad was still shaving as I waited at the kitchen table, sitting on my hands, legs swinging impatiently from the chair, my half eaten plate of bacon and eggs staring back at me. My stomach was a bit queasy and I was worried I would have to go to the bathroom the minute we got in the car. I repeatedly glanced up at the Kitchen clock over the sink, worried that we would arrive too late and miss all the action, and worse, seeing Sofia Loren. Finally, Dad walked into the Kitchen, took one last sip of his coffee and said, “OK, let’s go”. “Have a good day, Chuckie” my mother announced as she dried her hands on a dish towel. “And get Sophia Laurent’s autograph!” “Loren” I mumbled to myself as Dad and I headed out the door. We were off. The weather was perfectly June, bright sun, no clouds and 80 degrees. Life was perfect. And exciting.
When we got to my father’s office block, the street was already closed off for the filming. Dad had to park a few blocks away which he gladly did. The excitement of seeing Sophia Loren had rubbed off on him too. Dad wasn’t as addicted to celebrity culture as I was, but as a young man in the 1930’s, Dad wrote letters to his favorite singers care of the New York Radio Stations. From time to time he’d show me the sepia toned photos signed in fountain pen of Ruth Etting, the Boswell Sisters, and his biggest prize of all, a personalized letter from Bing Crosby thanking my Dad for listening to him and being a fan. Dad had agreed to let the film company use his office as a holding room for the cast and crew but as my father was the boss we were allowed entry. We walked in, past the group of gaffers, and production assistants chomping on cold bagels and drinking styrofoam cups of coffee. Inside there were more people than I had ever seen in that space which at best was twenty feet square. The desks had been cleared off and important looking papers were neatly laid out on one desk, while on the other, small pieces of equipment and cords were arranged for easy access by a tech person in a hurry. My eyes scanned the room. The smiling lady with the auburn hair had been given the day off by my father. But at her desk, sitting quietly all by herself, was Sophia Loren. She saw me look at her and a little smile crossed her face. My father gave me a gentle shove and whispered, “Go say hello”. I went up to her and said “Hi” and she asked me my name. I told her it was “Chuck”, not “Chuckie” as I wanted to appear older and more mature than I was. I asked her for an autograph, at which time she did the strangest thing. She opened an envelope that was laying on the desk and handed me a glamorous black and white postcard size photo of her already pre-signed in black marker. I took the photo, said “Thank you very much”, and turned around, seeing my father nervously gesturing me back over to him. “We have to go. The office is too crowded, and we’ll be in the way.” I turned around to get one last look at Ms. Loren, but she was already preoccupied speaking to her assistant, and she didn’t see me give her a little wave. I looked down at my autographed card and back at Ms. Loren. I couldn’t believe I was seeing someone so famous in person, and that she was sitting in my Dad’s office. I remember finding the absurdity of the situation and how surreal it all seemed very funny. The people working on the movie didn’t even seem to notice Sophia Loren was in the room and I found that just great. My mother had always told me “Famous people are not like us”. Looking back at Sofia Loren, as she sat at that desk, waiting patiently to be called to the set, I realized that my mother was wrong, and they indeed were “just like us”. She had to work like everyone else.
Dad and I spent the rest of the day watching the filming from in between two parked trucks down the block. The first hour or two was exciting, hearing the Director call “ACTION” and “BACK TO ONE” over and over again, but by noon tedium had set in and I was bored, plus my feet were tired from standing on the fire hydrant trying to get a good look at the action on the other side of the street. The film was originally called La Mortadella but was renamed Lady Liberty when it opened in the United States in 1971 to unanimously bad reviews. I never saw it. Very few people did. If it wasn’t a Western my mother wasn’t interested.
That day was probably the most exciting day of my father’s employment in the warehouse buildings in Brooklyn. I slept with Sophia Loren’s photo next to my bed and would look at it when I woke up in the middle of the night and run my finger over the signature that was ever so slightly raised from her use of a really wet and fresh black sharpie when she signed it. After a few months, the photo of Sophia Loren was retired to live alongside my autographs of Carol Channing, Lucille Ball and Mae West in a shoe box on the floor of my bedroom closet.
Several years later, Dad was retired too, by the newest owner of the old Gair Industrial Properties, a hot shot real estate developer from the Boston area. This fella purchased the buildings and transformed DUMBO into the hip and cool area we know today. After he took over the properties, my Dad asked if he could remain on in his position for a while, working three days a week in semi-retirement. My father figured this would be helpful to the new owner as my father was familiar with the buildings, and very well-liked by all the tenants. Unfortunately, Mr. Big Time Real Estate Developer had other plans and terminated my father’s employment on the last day of 1982. On January 2, 1983 my father died from a massive heart attack while shaving in the bathroom. I had just spoken to him on the phone that morning. He was planning on picking me up at the Roosevelt Avenue Subway station at noon that day and I was going to have a New Year’s dinner with my parents at our old kitchen table in Queens. I was looking forward to hearing my parents plans now that Dad was retired. I knew they wanted to get a place in Florida and sell the Queens house. They’d keep the little cabin upstate that they had bought a few years earlier from my Dad’s Uncle Tony. Dad never wanted to retire. He wasn’t ready for it. He loved his job and he loved those dirty old Brooklyn buildings.
There is a post script to this story. A bit of an odd one to be sure. Jumping ahead twenty years, when I was working as a Manager for the famous Interior Designer Naomi Leff, Naomi received a called from Mr. Big Time Real Estate Developer. He and his wife wanted to meet Naomi and discuss having her design their Penthouse loft in DUMBO, yes, in one of the buildings my Dad used to manage. Naomi was one of the most sought-after designers of the late 90’s. She was known for her stunning mid-century modern decors featuring original Jean-Michel Frank sofas, Ruhlmann sconces and Giacometti coffee tables. She wouldn’t even consider an area rug that was under 300,000 dollars. She boasted a celebrity clientele, Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman, Barry Diller, Steven Spielberg, and Ron Howard to name just a few. It was a mark of success to have Naomi design your home. A status symbol like Prada luggage or a Maserati. Naomi always brought me along on her prospective new business calls, and this was one I eagerly looked forward to going on. While Naomi’s driver, Bassam, drove us out to Brooklyn, endlessly chatting in the car about people who walk dogs without leashes while Naomi continually told him to shut up as she sipped on her ever present iced coffee next to me in the back seat, my mind was taken back to the days I’d spend with my Dad in his office playing on the clunky calculators. I was happy I’d be seeing the area once again after so many years. When we got there, pleasantries were made all around and Naomi introduced me as her Manager, Charles. Mr. Big Time Real Estate Developer and his wife shook my hand. After which I said, “I think you knew my father”. “Oh? Really? Who’s your father?” Mr. Big Time Real Estate Developer asked. “Charles Baran.” There was dead silence. Mr. Big Time Real Estate Developer looked at Mrs. Big Time Real Estate Developer. “Yes, well, I remember him” came the reply and they both managed a weak smile, trying very hard to not show that they knew anything unpleasant had happened. After a tour of the loft and hearing their ideas of what they envisioned for their 6,000 square foot home that Naomi would undoubtedly create for them, we left, after saying our goodbyes and yet more pleasantries. I could tell they really wanted to work with her. Bassam was waiting outside the building for us. I could tell Naomi was tired from the tour of the loft and the endless chatting of Mr. Big Time Real Estate Developer and his wife and there was quiet in the car. After a few minutes Naomi broke the silence. “I’m gonna pass on this one. They have no taste. Did you see their art? Reproductions.” I smiled, gazing out the window as we headed across the Brooklyn Bridge, Dad’s old buildings fading into the background, Bassam beginning a story of how frozen yogurt isn’t all that good for you while Naomi told him to shut up and quietly sipped on the last of her iced coffee through a straw.