A Story of Pittsburgh
Women have no wilderness in them, they are provident instead.
Women by Louise Bogan
Ralph Cappazolli turned over in bed and poked his wife’s leg with his toe.
“Hon. You up?”
“You up?” He poked harder.
“Yeah, I’m up—now.”
“I gotta get going.”
Gina got out of bed and, standing, looked at her husband. She smiled.
“I’m goin,’ I’m goin.’”
Ralph Cappazolli, known to everyone who mattered as “Cappy,” put on his work clothes:
blue pants made out of a tough material, stained from contact with paint and grease, and a long sleeved blue denim work shirt, also stained. No short sleeves, even in summer. When he got downstairs, the coffee was ready and Gina was cooking scrambled eggs.
“You shouldn’t eat eggs every day, Cap,” said his wife. “Too much cholesterol. It’s bad for your heart.”
“AMA crap. I’ll outlive all the experts.”
“Just the same. How about eggs only every other day? Maybe oatmeal in between.”
“Who are you, the Angel of Death? Do I need this first thing in the morning?” The two looked at each other, smiling. Cappy shoved his food into his mouth and rose to leave, his mouth full.
“What, no goodbye kiss?” asked Gina, laughing.
“You want a mouth full of egg? I gotta go, hon. I’ll call you this afternoon.”
Cappy hopped up into the cab of his black truck that had “Ralph Cappazolli, Contractor” painted on both sides in gold. Many of his clients asked why black and gold? Cappy laughed in their faces. “You call yourself a Pittsburgher, huh? Black and gold, that’s the Steelers’ colors.” Cappy never lost a client from being fresh and what he called “outspoken.”
Once Gina remonstrated, telling him he should maybe watch his manners.
“Sorry, hon, ain’t nothin’ gonna change. The people like me like this. They smile and laugh and shake their heads after I’m gone and say that they just love Italians, always so colorful and vivid and full of life.”
Cappy, while driving the 15 minutes to his office, organized his thoughts. He felt good. Business was very good. For a small time, one man contractor he was doing fine. Being self-employed was no picnic, as he frequently told himself. This was late spring, and the whole three months of the coming summer were blocked off with jobs to do, mostly renovations and additions. He had a small, wealthy group of clients who wanted renovations, which was saying something, Cappy thought proudly. Pittsburghers were known for not wanting to alter things. They did not like changes, and you could see that in the handling of their sports teams, the Pirates and Steelers. Loyalty, stability, that was everything.
Gwen was already in the office, sitting at her desk and putting some papers in order. Cappy liked Gwen for several reasons. She was a good typist, a neatness freak, and she was pretty. He often told Gina that he absolutely needs to like the women who worked in his office, and this was true of the men he contracted, the plumbers, roofers, cabinet makers, electricians. It was of primary importance that these people were 100% efficient at their jobs; however, after that, he loved having genial, fun-loving people working for him. This, said Cappy to Gina one time when she questioned his hiring practices, is what makes life worth living. To eat their sandwiches together in the lunch break, laughing about some television show they saw last night, news of their families, stuff like that. Of course, you had to be a Steelers and Pirates fanatic to work well with Cappy, men and women alike.
“Hi, Cap. Watch the game last night?” Gwen was grinning. Cappy never missed a Pirates game unless he was kept late on a job. The Pirates had won last night again. Gwen was in her early 20’s with rusty red hair. She was engaged to a tall, serious, black-haired boy named Allan who was pursuing a graduate degree at the University of Pittsburgh in Chemistry.
Cappy picked up a big paper clip and threw it over the partition that separated them. Gwen giggled; it had lodged in her hair. She threw it back at him.
“Did I watch the game? Sheesh. I ought to fire you for that, Gwennie.” The two chatted through the partition about their families, television, and Allan, who in Cappy’s opinion was taking much too long to “get educated.”
“You’re a nice, warm, ripe young girl, Gwen,” said Cappy once. “Your Allan better get moving or some other hombre will come along and pluck you from the vine. You get what I’m saying here? Something happens to women in their insides who wait too long to get married. I had an aunt who waited and she went…”
Gwen, her face and neck enveloped in a dark red blush, told Cappy, firmly but politely, that there was no reason to talk about such matters in the office. Cappy, who knew when his friendliness and protective instincts had gone too far and was no fool besides, apologized and the subject was not aired again.
At 9: 45 the telephone rang. Gwen answered: “Ralph Cappazolli Contractors.” She stood up and said over the partition, “For you, Cap.”
“Ralph Cappazolli here. Can I help you?”
A woman’s voice, a nice, polite voice said, “Hello, Mr. Cappazolli. We do not know each other; I picked your name out of the yellow pages. I need to find a contractor who will help me renovate a house.”
Every time, in a self-employed person’s office, when the telephone rings, that self-employed person’s heart jumps. It doesn’t matter how well they’re doing, how many clients they have, or what is in the bank. They all are waiting for the ”Big One,” the job or client that will get them noticed, written up and photographed for the newpapers and magazines, and bring in a lot of money. That is what happened to Cappy when he heard the telephone ring, but his heart dropped when he heard the woman’s voice and what she asked for—a renovation on a house. Probably an old house, thought Cappy, that the woman thought was “charming,” with so much to be done to it that the only civilized thing would be to tear it down.
“OK. Where is this house? What neighborhood?”
“On Allequippa Street, on the edge, between Oakland and the Hill.”
Crap, thought Cappy, double crap. Something old and charming and on the edge of the Hill. He was not prejudiced, he didn’t think so anyway, but renovating a big house in one of the blackest neighborhoods in Pittsburgh? He would be polite to this woman but get her off the telephone quickly.
“Look, I’m sorry, lady. That ain’t my thing and anyway, I have too much to do as it is.”
The woman on the telephone started to cry.
“You’re the tenth person I’ve tried, and everybody says the same thing. I’ve got to find somebody who will believe in this project, someone who is capable and not so afraid!”
Then two things happened. The woman broke into sobs, the last syllable of “afraid” tailing off into a wail—and Cappy got mad. It was something in his guts, he said, long afterwards, just hearing the word “afraid,” which meant that he was being accused of not working hard. And hearing this woman crying—it was too much for him.
“Listen,” he said. “Please stop crying, lady. I will look at this house on the edge of the Hill and I am 100% sure it will be a washout, but I will look. Where is it?”
“It’s at the very top of Allequippa Street, just outside of Oakland, before you get to the Hill. You know, the Hill District?” Her tears were abating.
“No address, I take it?”
“No. It sits by itself at the end of a cute little overgrown lane.”
Cappy ground his teeth. Getting more charming by the minute.
“OK,” said Cappy. “I will meet you there in a half hour. And I’ve got to ask you something. Do you carry any kind of protection? Like Mace, for instance?”
“Why would I want to do that?”
Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. This is getting worse every second, Cappy thought.
“Just asking, lady. You can’t hang around the Hill without thinking about protection,” he said, trying to keep the testy tone out of his voice.
”Oh, no,” answered the woman. “I don’t believe in that. I think that negativity breeds negativity and positivity breeds positivity as well. Is positivity a word? I don’t know. Well, you know what I mean.”
“A half hour, lady,” he said shortly.
Cappy, having a vast knowledge of the streets and neighborhoods of Pittsburgh, had no trouble finding Allequippa Street. He drove to the top of the short, bumpy street. The woman’s red station wagon sat parked off to one side. He saw her, half hidden in the brush and trees, struggling to make her way down the path.
“Hi, lady,” said Cappy. “Be careful there. I see a bunch of jagger bushes and what I am sure is poison ivy.”
The woman, turning, emerged from the leafy growth, and, smiling bravely, held out her hand.
“Hello. I’m Letitia Silverblatt.”
“I’m Ralph Cappazolli. My friends call me Cappy.”
The woman had a good, firm handshake, but she was thin, very painfully thin, Cappy thought. Thin women looked as if they were in pain. It wasn’t the same with men. Thin women made him want to invite them home for a plate of Gina’s lasagna, then put them to bed under an electric blanket. Her eyes were living and alive, though. She wore a simple skirt and blouse. And Silverblatt—most likely Jewish, but she wasn’t dressed and groomed like the other Jewish ladies he knew. He liked Jews, but never said this aloud. If he told somebody, “You know, I like Jews,” it was too readily seen as a backwards kind of put-down, as if you secretly were an anti-Semite.
“People call me Letty,” she said happily, too happily for Cappy’s sake. Cappy did not answer. Did she think he was really going to do this, and they would be on a nickname basis?
Together, they pushed their way through the vines and brush. Then, Cappy saw the house. It stood, four stories high on a wide plot of land; Cappy could see another building, probably a garage, set behind, and he was pleased with what he saw. That was how he put it, to himself, later that night as he lay in bed. As a builder and contractor he was happy to see that a mind had been at work, a mind of a person who knew things about building. Although the paint on the outside was hanging in long strips and the windows were covered in boards, as was the front door, the porch was lop-sided, and horrible graffiti covered everything, Cappy liked the house.
He turned to the woman.
“Do you have a key? How are we supposed to get in with the door boarded up like that?”
Letty produced a key to the back door, the pair entered, and very soon Cappy was in love. He was familiar with the sensations, and he knew all the signs. His builder’s hands began to itch, that was what came first, his hands twitching to gather together a hammer, nails, several two by fours, a handsaw, and get started. He dreaded it, falling in love with a building, and it had almost cost him dearly but not quite. It was always a woman, showing him some old behemoth that they “just knew would be perfect if only…” Never a man—Cappy had all his defenses operating when dealing with men. If a man took him to show him an old wreck, he was all business. Goom-bye! Cappy had very nearly got himself involved in such a catastrophe, twice, but his seasoned years of experience in the building trade stopped him. Today was the worst falling in love Cappy ever had. The kitchen, poorly fitted with appliances from the 1940s, could be wonderful; the staircases were a work of art; the floors, magnificent; even the windows were wide and tall and a joy to look out of. One large room on the first floor had a fireplace.
Cappy sat down on the back porch steps and Letty joined him. Cappy was looking wistfully, dreamily at the very old garage which he was almost sure had been a stable at one time—the building had a second floor with two small windows. There was almost surely a tiny two-room living space tucked up there that had once been meant for stable boys. Stable boys? What was he thinking? Cappy tried to break the spell that the house cast on him; his hands were shaking; he clenched them, drove his uneven fingernails into the flesh of his palms and tucked them down under his behind so that Letty would not see them.
“What do you think, Mr. Cappazolli? What is your opinion of this house?” Letty was being respectful, as well she should, thought Cappy. He took a deep breath.
“Mrs. Silverblatt. This is a magnificent piece of architecture and I can see clearly why you want to have it restored and, well—have it as your own. But you can see how impractical this is, can’t you? There are about eight bedrooms in there. Who’s gonna live here?”
“I’ve made a plan for that. I want to buy the house and rent rooms to lodgers. I’ll be the landlady and live on the first floor.”
“But who would live here? How far do you have to go to buy groceries? What will that hill be like in the winter?”
Letty continued to smile. “People will live here. Students, possibly retired men and women, single people beginning their careers and are in transition. I know what you’re saying, Mr. Cappazolli, but I believe that it could be beautiful and the rooms could be rented out.”
“The plumbing, the fixtures, the wiring, that terrible basement, the chimneys...it’s really almost impossible.”
Letty stood up and looked away and began to talk rapidly. “Mr. Cappazolli, my husband died a year and a half ago. You’ve been looking at me and noticing how thin I am. That’s why I’m thin, because I’ve been grieving. To rehabilitate myself and at the advice of my family doctor, last spring I began taking long walks, to strengthen myself and improve my appetite. Every day I walked farther. I began walking into Oakland from Squirrel Hill. I am living with my sister, and every day she fixed me a backpack with sandwiches and Twinkies and a thermos of milk. At first, I returned to my sister’s house with all that food practically uneaten. Each day, I ate more. The walking made me hungry. One day I walked all the way from Squirrel Hill to Oakland and through Oakland to this place. There was a rusty “For Sale” sign in front of the house, and I called the realtors. They were asking a very, very low price for the house as you can imagine. Anyway, from the first time I saw this place I began feeling better. My appetite improved still more and I was able to sleep. This is where I need to be, Mr. Cappazolli. If you won’t take on the job, I’ll just have to keep on trying until I find someone who will.” She took a breath and sat down.
“Please tell me, “said Cappy weakly, “that you did not sign anything yet. I mean, you’re not committed to this place all the way, I hope?”
“No, Mr. Cappazolli, I am not. But I am not giving up, either.”
The two sat silently. Then Cappy said “Let me have 24 hours to think this all over. I need time to—sort it out. I mean you should not expect an experienced contractor like me to make a big decision like this immediately.”
“Would it help you to sort it out if I told you that I have enough money and that money won’t be a problem as long as our goals are reasonable? I am a well-provided for widow and my house has just been sold.”
“Thanks Mrs. Silverblatt. Now I think I should go.” The two stood up to leave. Letty went back to the kitchen door, behind them. “I think I dropped something when we came through here,” she said. She leaned over and supported herself against the frame of the kitchen door by leaning on it with one hand.
“Oh! My God!” Letty almost screamed.
Cappy jumped up. “What’s the matter, Mrs. Silverblatt? Did you hurt yourself?”
Letty was laughing and tears stood in her eyes. She grabbed Cappy’s hand. “Look! Feel this!” She pressed his hand against a pronounced bump under the many coats of paint applied over the years.
“What is it, for God’s sake?”
“It’s a mezuzah,” she said in a soft voice. “You’re a builder, aren’t you? You should be familiar with mezuzahs.”
“You mean---you’re talking about that little cylinder thing that Jewish people put in slanted on their door frames? But how can you tell that’s what this is?”
“I just know it is. But here—I’ll show you.” Letty took a long, strong steel nail file from her purse and began chipping and hacking at the paint layers over the bump. Cappy stood up, gently took the nail file away from her, went to his truck and brought back a small tool that resembled a crowbar. He carefully pried the mezuzah free, creating a great crackling sound and, with paint flakes dropping, handed it to Letty.
“Oh, oh, oh, will you look at this?” moaned Letty. “Cappy, do you know what this means? It means that Jewish people lived here. This is a Jewish house.”
Letty held the cylinder to her heart, dried paint falling down into the neck of her blouse, and looked away from Cappy, out to the horizon. Tears ran unchecked down her cheeks. Cappy watched the Jewish lady, crazy enough to want to renovate the whitest elephant in the blackest neighborhood in Pittsburgh, crying over a little piece of metal holding scriptures that had probably rotted by now. Jews, he thought; they have had so little come easy to them, but they soldier on, producing the best and the brightest, but brought to their knees by an old scratched up metal tube, covered with coats of dirty paint, stuck on a doorframe of a forgotten house on the Hill.
Letty turned to Cappy suddenly.
“Oh, I ‘m sorry, Mr. Cappazolli. I got so carried away by finding this mezuzah that I called you by your nickname!”
“That’s okay, Letty,” said Cappy. “You can call me Cappy from now on.”