Kensington Street by Robert Boucheron

Robert Boucheron's character starts work at an architecture firm in 1970s Connecticut, and learns on the job.

Ray Constantine is a burly, middle-aged man who used to be a remodeling contractor. After a heart attack, his doctor told him to ease up, eat less, and stop smoking. Now he runs Fair Haven Housing, a nonprofit agency, and chews on an unlit cigar all day.

On a Monday morning in June, Ray teaches Zach and me how to measure existing space using the office, an old house. We are graduate students at the Yale School of Architecture, and this is a summer job, our first day. Ray looks at our sketches.

"Use the one with fewer smudges," he says.

That is mine. I hold one end of a steel tape measure and write dimensions on a rough plan, while Zach holds the other end and calls them out. Zach is at the smart end, Ray says. We discover that I misjudged the thickness of walls, made the stair too small, and missed some closets. I erase and redraw. When we complete the first floor, I hand the sketch to Zach.

"Did we leave anything out?"

Zach stares at the paper, crowded with numbers, notes, and arrows. "Beats me."

On his way to a meeting, Ray overhears us.

"Add a string of numbers and see if they equal the overall number," he says. "Did you leave enough space for exterior dimensions?"

Zach grins, since I did not.

"You'll figure it out," Ray says, waving his cigar. "Check and double check. I'll be back late this afternoon. If you get in a bind, ask Suzanne, the secretary. She actually runs the place. I'm just here to look pretty."

Ray takes us in his pickup truck to Kensington Street, two blocks long, where a dozen houses will be renovated. They are rental properties whose landlords have given us permission to enter. The houses have two or three stories. Some are divided into apartments, and some are vacant with windows boarded up. The street is pleasant, lined with trees. Until recently, this was a middle-class area.

In 1977 the neighborhood is poor and black, part of New Haven's inner city. Zach and I are white, as are Ray and most of his staff. As we climb out of the truck, Zach is uneasy.

"If a problem develops," Ray says, "just leave. Don't argue, and don't hang around. Tell me, and I'll make other arrangements."

The morning sun is hot, but the air is cool in the shadows. The grass and bushes are wet with dew.

"Field work in the morning," Ray says. "Afternoons at the office."

He takes us inside a house. All cabinets and fixtures have been removed. Walls and ceilings are stripped to the wood framing. The studs show ghost marks where lath and plaster were.

"The old plaster was cracked and crumbling," he says. "Repair is not cost-effective. This method allows for new wiring, ducts, and insulation, as well as repairs to the framing. The floor joists were undersized, resulting in floors that sagged. The fix is to sister the joists - add new ones alongside the old. The windows will be replaced. We use double pane glass with spring-loaded sash, all clad. No painting that way. This is not historic restoration. This is affordable housing. The goal is to keep the neighborhood alive and healthy."

We go upstairs. Workmen are installing ducts. We thread our way through electrical cords, ladders, and construction debris. As Ray talks to the workmen, I try to notice things - how wiring is attached, the way a duct is hung, what type of insulation is used. Zach stares out a window, then traces a finger on the dusty glass.

"Construction sites and abandoned houses are full of hazards," Ray says. "Watch where you walk and wear sturdy shoes."

Zach is wearing sandals, and I am wearing loafers.

"I'm not saying you have to blend in," Ray says, "but you can tone down the preppy thing."

The next morning, Ray hands us a key to a vacant house on Kensington Street. Zach drives, and I ride with a kit bag in my lap. The bag contains a large sketch pad, pencils, a sharpener, two tape measures, a camera, and a map of New Haven. The route is simple, less than two miles. The school of architecture is a few blocks away. Still, as Zach parks among the wrecks and clunkers, we might be in another world. We lock the doors.

"I hope it's still here when we get back," he says.

"Let's walk through the house and see if there are any problems. Or surprises."

"Such as a dead body?"

"For example."

After some wiggling and forcing, we get the key to work. Inside the house is dim and cool. As we walk through empty rooms, I open blinds and try light switches. The power is turned off. There is a musty smell. Dead flies litter the windowsills. A poster hangs on a wall, a psychedelic portrait of Jimi Hendrix.

"Do you want to sketch or photograph?" I ask.

"Today I'll be the camera man."

I hand him the kit bag. He extracts the camera and heads outside. I sketch the first floor plan, standing in the middle of the living room. I hold the pad awkwardly in my left arm and draw with my right. In a few minutes, Zach returns.

"I shot as much of the exterior as I could," he says.

I tear a sheet from my pad and hand it to him. "You sketch the second floor."

"Wait. I'll trace the outline first. That way our sketches will be the same scale. They may be off, but they will be off together."

He traces with a few pencil strokes then goes upstairs. I hear his footsteps overhead as I complete my sketch. I join him. He holds the paper against a wall as a drawing surface.

"We need a clipboard," he says. He hands me the paper. "Here, you're faster."

Once we have the two floors roughly drawn, we get out the measuring tapes. One is twelve feet long and rigid, good for small things and verticals. The other is fifty feet long, with a little crank to rewind. I hold one in each hand.

"Inside or outside?"

"It's getting hot. Let's do outside first."

"Do you want the smart end?"

"What do you think?"

"We'll take turns."

For the next hour, we perform a gymnastic routine, working around and through overgrown bushes, steps, and fences, devising ways to get the tape against the walls. I crawl along the foundation and get dirty and scratched. As I call out dimensions, Zach writes them neatly on the plan. He adds the front porch when we get there, and moves a door opening that I drew wrong. When we have done the whole perimeter, I brush myself off, and Zach darkens some lines.

"We make a good team," I say.

"Rah, rah. I hated high school sports. Is it lunch time?"

Our second house has three stories with one apartment on each floor. On the third floor, a neatly dressed young woman is leaving for work. I explain our mission.

"No problem," she says.

In the young woman's apartment, we work around furniture. If we move a lamp or table, we try to put it back where it was. There are no dust shadows, so this becomes an exercise in memory. The house may be shabby, but the tenant is a good housekeeper.

A family occupies the second floor. Out of school for summer, children are getting up late, eating bowls of cereal, and spending time in the bathroom. Clothes, toys, cardboard boxes, and small appliances lie scattered. In the living room, two young children sit on the floor and watch television. They ignore us as we measure. In the kitchen, a tall older boy drinks a can of orange soda, as his mother scolds him.

"You're late for summer school," she says.

He mumbles a profanity.

"Excuse me," I say. Zach and I stretch our steel tape through this domestic scene. I prop the sketch pad on a clear patch of countertop. A teenage girl has to be rousted from her bedroom before we can enter. The mother cooperates, but it is clear that she has her hands full.

"Thank you," I say as we leave.

When we reach the first floor, it is late morning. Outside, the summer sun is strong and the air is heating up. The tenants have gone out. Windows are shut and shades are drawn. The apartment is choked with furniture - chests, wardrobes, lamps, tables, and framed pictures. A mosaic of rugs and carpets covers every square inch of floor. The air is close and smells of mothballs. We can't reach from wall to wall for a clear dimension, so we take what we can and estimate.

"We got the other two floors," Zach says. "How different can this one be?"

"We still have the outside to measure," I say.

"After lunch. I'm starving. And running out of oxygen."

The next morning, Ray looks at our cramped field sketches and the photographs developed overnight. Taken from odd angles and against the sun, the photographs show leafy branches and dark shapes, with stray architectural details that caught our fancy.

"Good work, boys. Each of you pick one house and draw it."

While we were at Kensington Street, he cleared space in the office and set up two drafting boards. He offers an assortment of mechanical pencils, rulers, triangles, and other tools left over from past years and projects.

"If there's something you need and it's not here, ask Suzanne for petty cash. Use these vellum sheets and use them wisely - they're expensive."

Ray's cigar at this stage is full length, lodged to one side of his mouth. As the day proceeds, it gets shorter. From time to time, he picks shreds of tobacco from his tongue and discards them. He is out of the office more than in, visiting properties, directing workmen, and meeting lenders. The financial side of housing renovation is complex and fraught with government forms.

"Ask questions. If I'm not here, write it down, or ask Suzanne to call me. I'll get back to you as soon as I can."

For the next three hours, Zach and I puzzle over our task. I add the field dimensions and compare the sums. There is a difference of several inches, but I cannot find the error. I draft with light pencil lines, knowing that some will be erased. Comparing floors helps, as windows and walls tend to line up vertically. I connect what I know about wood framing to what we measured, and I feel a sense of progress. When Zach looks over my shoulder, I jump.

"How do you know where to start?" he asks.

I look at his drafting board and see a few doodles. I explain my method and point to my drawing, where I added a question mark.

"Trial and error. You can do this."

"I don't know. You're so organized. Do you want to go across the street for lunch?"

Facing the office across Grand Avenue is the Grand Diner. The Art Deco interior gleams with chrome and glass. It's a busy place, and the booths are all taken. We perch on round swivel stools at the counter and rotate slowly to admire the décor. The menu dates from the same era. Zach is worried about grease and mentions his wife.

"If Rosa finds out, I'm dead."

"Don't tell her."

"What are you going to order?"

"A cheeseburger and fries with extra grease. What about you?"

He studies the menu and looks at what other people are eating.

"Is that an omelet?"

"Careful, it might be quiche."

"No way, not here. A diner wouldn't have quiche. Anyway, I'm secure in my masculinity. You can't tell me what not to eat."

"Rosa can."

"I wonder if Ray eats here."

"He used to, before the heart attack."

"That's what caused it, eating lunch at the Grand Diner. Should we leave?"

"Once is not going to kill you."

We place our orders. When the food arrives, we eat in hungry silence. We pick up our checks and walk to the front to pay. The cash register sits next to a glass case with a display of cigars.

"Look at that!" Zach says. "White Owl, Dutch Masters, El Producto, Muriel. Remember the TV ads with Edie Adams? What brand does Ray smoke?"

"He doesn't anymore."

"Okay, what brand does he chew?"

"No idea. Are you going to buy one?"

"If you do. It's a dare."

"In that case, yes."

We each choose a cheap cigar and pick up a pack of matches from a bowl. The woman at the cash register holds up a small metal tool.

"Do you want me to clip the end? The little hole won't draw properly."

We agree, and she clips the end of each cigar. We step outside and try to light up. A breeze blows out our matches. Turning my back to the breeze, I manage to set the tobacco on fire.

Zach does likewise. He chokes.

"I don't think you should inhale," I say.

"Maybe it's optional," Zach says. "If you don't inhale, does that wreck the image?"

"We could ask Ray."

Puffing our cigars, we stroll across the street and into a cemetery, a relic of the nineteenth century. When I stop puffing, my cigar goes out.

"What do you think?" I ask.

"Maybe an expensive one tastes better." Zach examines his cigar critically, then puts it back in his mouth.

"Maybe it's an acquired taste," I say.

"Rosa will have a fit."

We arrive at another house on Kensington Street. We knock on the door of the second floor apartment, shout "Hello," wait a minute, then use the key to enter. The place is dark, with curtains drawn. I switch on a light, but the bulb is dim. Zach and I now have a routine. I sketch the floor plan, while he goes outside with the camera.

This apartment is a mess, with dishes in the sink, uneaten food lying here and there, and a peculiar odor, sickly sweet. As my eyes get used to the low light, I notice dirty clothes on the floor and stains on the walls.

Turning a corner, I am startled to see a young man slumped in an armchair. Is he asleep? Eyes open, he watches television with the sound turned off.

"Sorry," I say, "I didn't think anyone was home."

The man does not respond. I explain why I am here, and he mumbles something that sounds like indifference. I continue to sketch the floor plan. When Zach returns, in a low voice I mention the man in the chair.

"Maybe he's on drugs," Zach whispers.

Zach stands beside me as I open a door. The closet is alive with cockroaches. They cover the walls in a brown mass and scurry away. The odor is stronger here.

"Gross!" Zach says. He is wearing sandals and shorts. He squirms, as though exposed to radiation. "I don't know if we should stay here."

"Do you want to go home and change?"

Zach considers.

"If it bothers you that much, I can do this one solo."

"I'm okay. Let's ace this and get out of here."

We whip our measuring tape through the mess and scribble dimensions. We talk in normal voices, and the man never moves. Each time we open a door, cockroaches run. We finish in record time and step outside.

"I feel like I need a bath," Zach says.

"You may be infested," I say.

Zach stamps his sandals on the concrete sidewalk and shivers. Then, realizing he's been had, he glowers at me.

"Ready for lunch?" I say.

Some days later, we park on Kensington Street and get out of the car. It is early morning and already hot. I carry the kit bag, and Zach has the camera slung around his neck. A middle-aged black man stands nearby, next to a lawnmower. He eyes us suspiciously.

"You can't park there."

We look around for a street sign or pavement marking.

"Why not?" Zach asks.

"Because I said so. This is my house."

"There's no sign," Zach says.

I touch his arm to get his attention, and the man becomes belligerent.

"This is my house, and that's my parking spot. What do you think you're doing here?"

It turns out that this man is not participating in the renovation program.

"You're not going to get your hands on my property. I know what's mine, and I intend to keep it. So stay off."

Zach and I get back in the car, drive a few yards, and park. Zach exhales.

"This day is getting off to a great start," he says.

"Ray might have warned us about this guy."

"Which house are we supposed to measure?"

I check my notes. "Number 315."

"Which one is his?"

I twist to look back down the street. "Number 319, two doors away. He's going to watch us."

"Did he start the lawnmower?"

"Not yet. He's still standing there."

"Defending his turf."

"Come on," I say. "Avoid eye contact, and we'll be fine."

We hear the roar of a small engine. We exit the car and get to work.

On a Monday morning in August, we arrive at the office and Ray is absent. Usually, he holds a staff meeting to start the week. Instead, Suzanne comes to talk to us. A slender woman in her forties, she rests a hand on the carved wood mantel of the fireplace in our drafting room, the former dining room of the house.

"Mr. Constantine had an incident over the weekend. He went to the emergency room, but he didn't lose consciousness. His doctor recommended that he stay home for a few days as a precaution. We can phone him there. Ray never takes a vacation, so it may be just as well. Do you two know what to work on?"

Zach and I look at each other. We have measured all but one of the houses on Kensington Street. We have drawn the existing floor plans and started drawing proposed renovations. Ray reviewed our work on Friday. In his abbreviated way, he told us how to proceed. The question is whether we have enough time to complete the design drawings before classes start in September.

"We're good for this week," I say.

"When will Ray come back?" Zach says.

"When I know more, I'll pass it on. By the way, I need your time sheets." Suzanne returns to her desk in what was the front parlor.

"She doesn't seem worried," Zach says.

"That's not her style. Is there anything we need to ask Ray?"

Zach extends his arms as if to embrace the world. "Everything."

Ray returns from a week of vacation looking pale and subdued. He no longer has a cigar in his mouth.

"I switched to popping pills" he says. "I'm supposed to remain inactive, but what does that mean?"

The last house we will measure has been vacant for years. It was abandoned by the owner, seized by the city for taxes, and boarded up. It is an eyesore, the target of complaints by residents and adjacent property owners.

"The city asked whether it should be demolished," Ray says. "I inspected it. The structure is sound. A roof leak went unfixed and led to rot. There are some missing stair treads and a hole in the floor, so watch your step. Also, tramps used it as a flophouse. Conditions inside are less than pristine. Take flashlights."

We locate two flashlights. They emit a feeble glow.

"Get some petty cash for batteries. I have a week of phone calls to return, so I expect to be here all day. If you don't return by five, Suzanne will send a search party."

With a detour to the store, Zach and I drive to Kensington Street. We have a key to a padlock attached to plywood at the back door. The padlock is rusty and refuses the key. By shoving, we find that the hasp and hinges are loose. We pry the plywood wide enough to enter.

"That must be what the tramps did," I say.

"What if someone is in there? You go first."

I squeeze through the gap. By flashlight, I see clothing and corrugated cardboard - flattened boxes used as beds. There is food, paper plates, plastic bags, and piles of excrement.

"You're going to love this," I call out.

Zach enters, shines his flashlight over the scene, and groans.

"At least you're wearing sensible shoes," I say.

"Let's get it over with. This place is going to smell ripe."

We step over the trash. Our routine will not work here in the darkness. On the second floor, Zach trains one flashlight on the sketch pad as I draw, and the other on the space. He moves the beam of light as I direct, and we move slowly from room to room. As we measure, the tape picks up grime. We handle the tape, and our hands get grimy.

"When we get out," Zach says, "I'm going to sterilize my hands."

We pick our way downstairs to measure the first floor. Zach fiddles with the tape, which has developed a kink. As I enter the living room, I pause. A picture window covered with plywood faces the street. A hole in the plywood appears as a brilliant spot of light. On the opposite wall, the light projects the scene outside like a movie, upside-down. A woman passes carrying a bag of groceries, a man walks a dog, and a car cruises by, all in living color. There is no soundtrack.

"Zach, check this out. The room is a camera obscura."

"If you say so."

I linger and stare at the wall. The vision seems prophetic, but of what? Zach gets the kink out of the tape and joins me. He glances at the wall of inverted moving images, then breaks the silence.

"Are you going stand here all day?"

1 comment:

  1. Who would’ve thought that a story about two graduate students of architecture on a summer job could be so interesting! Nicely done.