Wednesday, November 07, 2012

Apres Le Deluge

Every day of last week, our octagenarian client quavered, in a strident New Yawk accent, about each item in the house, in turn loudly berating her ancient lover, her shrunken South American spinster housekeeper, and a desiccated little African American gentleman who’d served as her minion for four decades, ordering them to move this, remove that, pack such and such, unpack thus and so. Little pleased her, and what had been decreed one moment was reversed dictatorially half an hour later.  She even went through the pantry to check the expiration dates on the canned goods.  Not only did the house contain more than 15,000 square feet of space—three kitchens, five bedrooms, five full bathrooms and four half-baths, a ormolu-laced mirrored ballroom lit by a Waterford crystal chandelier the diameter of a king-size bed, and a billiard room—it was still full of paraphernalia from her two careers as an Avon saleswoman and then as a sought-after interior designer, and every single item had to be approved for disposal by her, personally.  For months we’d been encouraging her, gently but firmly, to pack up that which she planned to redistribute to four other locations—two condos (one in Florida), a storage facility, and someplace else—and here it was Monday, the morning before Hurricane Sandy was to come roaring ashore, and she was still very much in residence, willfully deaf to my bosses pleas to remove herself and her belongings from the premises.

I’d spent Sunday night over at my bosses, sleeping in her daughter’s room, watching my Korean dramas on my laptop after I’d finished tagging and pricing the jewelry that we’d been given for the sale.  There was a good bit of it—though only a couple of fine pieces—highly saleable costume for the most part.  We’d packed up all of our stuff from the sale we’d finished off Massachusetts Avenue that evening, stuffing the last bits into the corporate minivan around 7 in a cold drizzle.  All the tables were in the car, and the owners of that house, who themselves wouldn’t be leaving for Florida for another ten days, bid us what seemed to be a fond farewell—I shook hands with the husband, and the wife insisted on bussing both my boss and me on the cheek.  Yet once we were home, about 9 PM, my boss came upstairs and plunked herself on her daughter’s bed in a flummoxed state.  She’d just gotten off the phone.  She’d been screamed at by the woman for fifteen minutes—she said she wanted to call the police “on the person who’d done it”, she cried thrice that she felt “raped”, and insisted that she’d never, ever, recommend our company to anyone.  Our egregious fault?  One of my colleagues had used part of a roll of toilet paper squirreled away in the master bedroom.  The upstairs’ bathroom was out of tissue, my colleague needed to use the facilities sometime during Sunday’s hectic sale, and so she’d peeked into the bedroom, spotted the paper, and taken the liberty of using a few squares.  Oh my goodness.  The horror.  The violation of privacy and the right to property.  The sin. The shame.  Mind you, this was the same woman who’d fussed when she’d found out we’d put our lunch in her fridge while we were working.  I’m not saying that she should have fed us peeled grapes and bonbons during the setup and sales process, but denying us basic necessities, like a small space in the refrigerator and toilet paper?  She was wacko.
So, we moved from that one kind of wacko—the woman who wanted to file an official complaint because of toilet tissue theft—to another.  We had four days to set up the mansion sale.  Four days to organize, tag and price the contents of a space which usually would have occupied the better part of a month.  We worked all day Monday, flat out until the storm shut off the power at 9 PM and we had to find our way to the lower level by means of cell phone screen glimmer and a couple of scrounged flashlights.  The owner and her geriatric significant other retired to the one bed upstairs, and my boss and colleague and the housemaid and I made shift in the basement.  There’s nothing like unfolding a duvet in the mostly-dark to make oneself a pallet on the floor and spotting an enormous spider nestled in its folds.  Fortunately I managed to stun it with my shoe and my Yugoslavian coworker finished it off.  We raided the bar thereafter, and Masha settled in to tell the story of how she and an American friend visiting eastern Europe during the early 1970s withstood an attempted sexual assault by a drunken Austrian ambassador and his wife.  Masha is a pistol, and she talks like a machine gun, with expletives stuttering out like high-caliber rounds.  She reminds me a lot of my sister, actually. Bitter, hilarious, intelligent, attractive, and occasionally profoundly sentimental, she can charm and verbally eviscerate by turns.  She’s both inspiring and also thoroughly exhausting to be around.

Maybe it was the drink, perhaps it was the long day, maybe it was Masha’s frenetic energy, but I didn’t have any difficulty falling asleep, nor with going back to sleep after the burglar alarm went off several times in the wee hours, while the storm continued to rage outdoors. 
The electricity was out all day Tuesday. We worked until we could no longer see our scissors and painter’s tape, then went back to my bosses house to price another basketful of jewelry.  Our departure was delayed half an hour by the fact that the corporate minivan’s alternator had gone out, and we had to abandon it overnight in the driveway.  There were trees and power lines down all over, but we didn’t have a clue about the true severity of the storm in other regions until we turned on the TV that night.  New Jersey and New York traumatized.  I repented of my remarks about the weather people exaggerating the potential of the storm—for once, they got their forecasts right.

Thank God the power was back on at the house when we returned Wednesday morning.  We worked flat out, finally pushing the reluctant owner out the door at 1:30 AM Friday morning.  She kept demanding we put entirely unreasonable prices on her possessions ($12,000 for a secretary that an antique expert we called in said was at best worth $1,800), and taking item after item out of the sale and packing it away.  Back at my bosses house, I typed and printed out signs until 4 AM, and then I was up again at 7:15 and back at the sale house by 8, putting them up.  There were already customers waiting. 
The sale itself was huge.  I prayed a lot for peace and patience, both within me and among the customers.  Thank God He saw us through—at one point, my boss chased down a customer who shoved his way past her elderly husband at the door, and successfully demanded he leave immediately—I was in the jewelry area, but I could hear the shouting from the front hall.  By Sunday evening we were all wrung out, though plenty remained in the house.  It was cleaned out Monday by a platoon of moving men.  Cumulatively, I worked 75 hours on that one house.  In a week.  And my boss was there every moment I was. 

“I think,” my bosses hospital chaplain husband remarked as we were breaking down and packing up the jewelry area Monday morning, “That she [the owner, who collected her Lewis Comfort Tiffany candlestick from my display, planning to pack it, along with three whole truckloads of additional items for shipment to storage] suffers from mammonitis.”  “I think it’s also called ‘affluenza’,” I responded.  “No,” he said.  “You can recover from affluenza.  Mammonitis kills you.”  I conclude that it’s like secondhand smoke—even association with someone who indulges in it can sicken.

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