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A Very Insipid Passion

bamboo divider

A Rain Full of Ghosts
A Detective Story
by R.N. Mitra

ONE


It started off by being a quiet city block. Only about four houses. Very exclusive, very private and with a premium on their rental. The buildings, mostly duplexes, were cozy and warm. Manhattan had grown in height over the years and that meant less privacy, guards with hidden leers in their eyes at the doors, and elevators that obviously did not work during blackouts. These residences were more friendly. Constructed with clients at the high end of income in mind, furnished extravagantly, a long way from the old tenements, and French Flats that were built to solve the population crises that beseize Manhattan on a regular basis.

There were obliging neighboring shops, most of them making home deliveries, providing fresh and unusual wares. No one minded that they charged considerably more than the supermarkets. If the lettuce was wilted, and mostly it was not, for the owner of the store inspected them personally, it was replaced without a fuss. The meat consisted of the choicest cuts and in season, venison was available. Imported cheeses abounded. Bread was freshly prepared and sold out by five o’clock. The housewives sent their husbands to work after feeding them breakfasts that tasted home cooked, but from faraway kitchens; took the children to school and if there were babies, they were sent off to the parks with nannies. They, at that time, took a leisurely bubble bath and talked on the phone with friends and planned dinner and vacation. Then they went out to the local boutiques. Newer people came; younger generation, who profited by the booming economy. Prices went up and were paid without a grudge. For the houses gained a reputation of being unique.

Economic recession came into play. Madison Avenue advertisers started downsizing. Computers were changing the world. Without knowing word processing, spread sheets or web graphics, jobs were difficult to come by. City was becoming once again crime ridden and the successful people were migrating to the suburbs. Long Island properties were skyrocketing as fast as the upward spirals of the dot com businesses. Neighborhood stores were replaced by upscale supermarkets that had online listings.

Someone at City Hall wanted to make a profit. They proposed a raise in property taxes at that particular site. It was after all, exclusive, high priced and had no vacancies. So no kids went to public school from that area; police were never called in and the lone Fire Department workers played poker to pass their idle times. Who cared? City needed additional funds. It was ill advised, but no one knew that. It is true that lawyers are able to make a hell of heaven faster than Milton could dictate poetry. The owners, in an ill-considered move, hired top lawyers to fight the increase. Those brilliant and high priced attorneys, came up with an idea so ludicrous, no one knew how it got off the ground. They contended that the row of houses on that particular stretch did not belong to the City of New York. They were more likely an extension of Yonkers or Westchester or whatever. They threatened the Riverdale Drive houses situated on that private grove of a road, could secede from New York City. They raised the specter of a civil war. However, the Mayor of the city declined to play either Sherman or Grant and said simply, “Nothing doing.”

A lawsuit ensued. That was the first nail in the coffin of the locality. Its eliteness did not help. More nails were driven in as counter lawsuits, other suits followed. It was the topic of hot discussion in the Pierpont Morgan Club, where the venerable practitioners of law downed their pints. Precedences were sought; judges scratched their heads and looked at the clocks longingly; and lawyers let off blasts of verbal storms that swept away arguments both frivolous and fair. Finally, the City threatened to cut off electricity and water to the block. And actually did for a period of two hours. The owner’s lawyers were ready to sue for hundreds of million dollars in damages. Attorneys, best of friends other times, snarled at each other and reached no conclusions. The entire lawsuit(s) stagnated, stymied like two armies facing each other with the exact same weapons. The occupants left. Soon the empty properties stood side by side, neglected and run down. A block of curiosity. Signs by the City and the Owners perished over the years in the exposure to changing elements. Only the bricks and mortar stood. Abandoned, neglected and sore to the eyes. The owners consoled themselves with some taxable losses. The lawyers tired of EBTs, court appearances and postponements finally turned their attention to more profitable businesses of making money off others’ greed.

The matter was forgotten for almost a decade.

The City had a new Mayor. He found out about Riverdale Drive one day. He said what the hell! He reviewed the situation. He called on some judges who owed him favors and lawyers who wanted to settle other deals. With judiciously applied carrot and sticks, the new Mayor being a past master at the game, the matter came to an amicable solution almost overnight. Riverdale drive stayed within the City limits. Proposals for new Hi Rise buildings were approved speedily.

The next day the bulldozers were on the scene like hungry beasts in a gladiatorial arena. A crew arrived. It was nearing the end of Summer and demolition began. Brochures were printed, and people booked the apartments and wanted to move in before Christmas. Without promising a date, the builders said nothing was impossible, as long as they got the down payment. The customers were buoyed, they wanted to feel the electricity of the greatest City in the world during the biggest holiday of the year. The tragedy of 9/11 notwithstanding, Manhattanites were ready to revel in a holiday spirit to demonstrate their resilience.

The Producers continued its record-breaking run and $400 for two seats available as late as show time continued to sell out. Others contentedly waited for two years and considered themselves to be lucky. Yankees and George Steinbrenner rolled along. Mets languished. New York City raised fines at parking meters, while paying out millions for damages from potholes not repaired on time. Life in the greatest city continued its grandiose march. Ground Zero was fast becoming just a memory; although no one in Manhattan could ever forget it totally.

The day after Labor Day.
The sun still baleful and hot, frowned at a Manhattan hit with water shortage. Rains were scarce in the Northeast that year. The city gleefully conserved water or thought it did by telling couples to take shower together. The waterfalls on 6th Avenue were temporarily shut down. No one seemed to care. Every one was busy back to work after the holidays.

John Rittes got up in the morning and had a fight with his second wife of three months over the quality of the coffee. He stormed out, went to Doughnut shop for a 12 oz fix and went to work. He led the demolition crew on what used to be 86 Riverdale Drive. “Let’s get this baby blown away by evening, boys,” he said. It was a private firm with no female crew member.

Work went on monotonously as brick after brick came down. Porcelain, metal and plaster flew around; workers in masks and gloves industriously started creating space as trucks prepared to carry the debris away.

Suddenly the action stopped.

“John,” one of the workers said, “Come here, quick, see what is here.”

John removed his mask and hard hat and scratched his head. He put the hat back and walked over. He swore softly at first and then increased the volume of it. A skeleton, a human skeleton almost intact lay among the broken masonry. That meant he was not going to get the work done on time. He reached for his cell phone, his face getting redder and redder as his swearing became increasingly explicit. He did not need that, man, as he did not deserve what his second wife was dishing out. Finally, he went for another cup of coffee. He could not do more.

A police car arrived without the siren. Soon more cars arrived. Finally the reporters came.

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