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DOB

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“Department of Buildings,” said Frank. “We have a complaint. Can we come in?”

https://www.guernicamag.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/06/dob-top-feat.jpg
Illustration by Ansellia Kulikku.

The big man got out of the small car in the mid-morning sun and pretended to spit on the clipboard. The little man had already gotten out on the passenger side. They met at the curb where the big man handed the other the clipboard, and they walked together to the gate of the house. The gate was unlocked. The big man gestured magnanimously but the little man hesitated.

“Age before beauty,” the big man said.

“But you are older than me, Frank.”

“But I’m more beautiful.”

“Could it be also that you are an idiot?”

“Not a chance. Your mother mentioned no such thing when I went to see her last night.”

The little man, who was Russian, was vaguely amused. The big man, who was nearing retirement, liked to have fun with the Russian, though others in the Department distrusted him. He asked the Russian if he was afraid.

“There is here no reason to be afraid.”

“Then get moving. It’s your turn.”

They proceeded up the walkway to the front door and knocked. They waited. Then they rang the bell. The curtains were drawn in every window of the house. On the avenue side, there were numerous cars parked in front of and in the driveway. There was music inside the house, not booming, but tinny, whining.

“They are not answering,” said Misha, the Russian.

“I never doubted that you were a genius,” asserted Frank, the American.

“I do hate this.”

“Don’t hate. It’s a nice day, Misha. Be happy you’re not chained to your desk.”

They knocked once more and rang again, then Misha raised his clipboard to remove the notice he had already filled out. He taped the notice top and bottom to the middle of the door.

“That’s my tape,” said Frank

“Stop it, Frank,” Misha snapped. “Just stop it.”

They filed one after the other down the steps and back to the car. Misha turned quickly to look at the house.

“Anything?” asked his partner.

“You didn’t see that?”

“Curtains?”

“The ones in the upstairs window. So childish.”

They were both looking. The curtains in that window were still now.

“My mother wanted me to go to law school,” said Frank.

“Frank,” said Misha, “I am sorry I snapped at you.”

“You’re forgiven. In America we forgive.”

“You know I do not like this cat and mouse,” said Misha. “They have illegal shower in the basement, they should confess it, pay fine, that’s that. They still are playing music.”

Frank stepped into the street with his car keys jingling. “Look, you’re a young man with a wife and a child. You got a decent job here. Don’t take things so seriously.”

“Everybody takes bribes but me,” continued Misha. “My daddy did not raise me this way.”

“I take things seriously. I go to jail for it.”

“I know all about it.”

“Everybody takes bribes but me,” continued Misha. “My daddy did not raise me this way.”

“He raised you to go to jail.”

“You insult my daddy?”

“You’re not in Russia anymore.”

“You insult my daddy?”

“Shut up, Misha.”

“I take it seriously,” grumbled Misha, climbing into the car.

They drove. It was lunchtime and they stopped for a snack by the park. Then they drove into the park and used the restrooms. In the parking lot they finished their sodas and Frank pulled up the next complaint on the in-car computer.

“Uh-oh,” he said. “Here we go again.”

Misha glanced at the screen. “Oh yes. This guy does not like us.”

“Does anyone like us?”

“This is why I prefer working at my desk,” said Misha. “No public.”

“Your mother likes me,” said Frank. “She told me last night in bed.”

They drove out of the park and back to the avenue and arrived at the house right after the mailman left and rang the bell, which set off a dog barking. They knew the dog. It was medium-sized, not a problem. Misha fingered the pepper spray at his hip but caught Frank looking at him and took his hand off the spray. After a few moments the door opened.

“Department of Buildings,” said Frank. “We have a complaint. Can we come in?”

The man did not seem to recognize them and told them to wait a moment while he put the dog in another room. He returned momentarily and squeezed out through the storm door to join the men on the front porch. The man, dressed in baggy sweatpants and a wrinkled t-shirt, was slender, tired-looking, irritable. The inspectors did not know what he did for a living but he was a smart one, he knew his stuff.

“What’s it for this time?” the man asked. “Who filed it?”

“We don’t know. Actually, there’s two complaints.”

Frank looked at Misha, who held up the clipboard.

“Let me see.” The man took the clipboard from Misha, who did not object. The man squinted as he read the first notice. Then he read the second notice. He was shaking his head the whole time.

“Why are you harassing me?”

“We are not harassing you, sir.”

“You’re working with them.” The man pointed with the clipboard and waited while the two inspectors followed where he was pointing. He was pointing at the house across the street on the corner, perhaps one hundred yards away.

“You know that’s an illegal conversion,” the man continued. “The neighbors here, the civic association, the community board, the police and fire department, they all know. The City Council, the state senator, our representatives, they know. They’ve all known for years. That house is used by Orthodox Jews as a community facility, without the proper paperwork, without the required permits. It’s all been thoroughly documented with the City. So who’s protecting them? Who makes the telephone call to the mayor telling him that this illegal conversion can stay?”

“We’re the DOB,” said Frank. “We’re good workers.”

“What does that mean?”

“It means, sir, we’re among the best in the Department. We’ve been honored.”

Frank, as always, kept a straight face saying this. The man snickered.

“And, sir, it means we follow all the rules. All of them.”

The man looked at Misha. “They snap their fingers and someone in your agency gives you your marching orders. Isn’t that right?”

“We do not know what you are talking about, sir. We have complaints on this address. May we come inside?”

“Everything written on those notices of yours is lies.”

“So may we come inside?” asked Misha forcefully.

“Not a chance. I used to let you people into my house as a courtesy.”

“Right,” said Frank. “We know that.”

“The people who visit that house on the corner put complaints on my house as retribution. You know this. You go close that house first.” The man pointed again with the clipboard then returned it to Misha. “Then you can come into my house. Got it?”

“Well, sir,” said Frank, “we have two complaints here that need to be addressed.”

“We’re finished. Understand?”

“No, you do not understand,” said Misha. “The complaint is open.”

“We’re finished. You can go now, right?”

“No, it is not finished. Complaints will be open.”

“Misha,” said Frank.

“Right,” said the man. “You leave without getting access and so the complaints remain open. I know that. Then what?”

“Then we come back again.”

“Misha.”

The man stepped back into the house, leaving the storm door open to talk. “And when you come back we have the same stupid conversation. Then what? Don’t tell me—you close the complaint because you came to the house twice and couldn’t get in.”

“Correct,” said Frank.

“Which means,” the man said, sighing, “that it’s done, that’s that, you’re finished with the issue. All done.”

“That is correct, sir.” Misha was in control of himself.

“Then we are finished here. Unless you go right over there to that house”—the man pointed—“and do something about that second-floor illegal kitchen—you see where I’m pointing?—that the neighbors have been complaining about for years. And you collect the fines that they owe the City for years, over seventy thousand dollars plus interest. And you penalize them for all the interior renovations they’ve done without permits. And you shut them down for being an illegal conversion for nearly a decade now. The DOB has known about it all this time and hasn’t done a damn meaningful thing! Are we still in America?”

“Yes, we are in America,” said Misha, angry again. “You do not have to ask me where I am.”

The man looked pleased. “Maybe where you are from, originally, your home country, they have widescale corruption that nobody dares disrupt. You understand that, don’t you?”

“No reason to get personal here,” said Frank.

“Sir, you do not have to tell me about corruption.”

“They have corruption where you are from?” the man persisted.

“The worst kind,” Misha affirmed.

“We have it here too,” the man said with satisfaction. “And you are the problem.”

“You’re against the Jews?” said Frank.

The man smirked. “I’m against whoever breaks the law. Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, politicians.”

“I am not a problem at all, sir,” insisted Misha. “Elsewhere I was enemy of the state. You know why?”

“Calm down, Misha.”

“Against corruption. That is right. You hear me right.”

“Calm down, Misha.”

“I am okay,” Misha said without looking at his partner.

“All I know is that if you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem. Do you understand?”

The man was looking at Misha. He looked for several moments. Then he cursed, though quietly. “All I know is that if you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem. Do you understand?”

Frank and Misha stood there.

The man was shaking his head. “Look at you two. Nothing to say and nothing to do but to harass a hardworking citizen. What a life. Do me a favor and wait here, will you? I want to take your pictures. Part of the harassment suit. The DOB knows about illegal activity and looks the other way but does not hesitate to harass honest, law-abiding citizens. Wait here while I get my camera.”

As soon as the door closed Frank and Misha turned and hurried back toward the car. Pulling away, Frank saw the door to the house open and the man come out with a camera, which he held up to his eyes. Frank lifted his left shoulder slightly but did not speed up the car.

“Jeeze, what balls on that guy.”

“I do not want to see him again.”

Cojones.”

“Someone else can deal with him next.”

“Don’t be a pussy, Misha.”

Misha was gazing out the window. “What about what he said?”

“That you’re a pussy?”

A car sped by with windows open and music blaring. Misha was gazing after it.

“You mean about being part of the problem?” asked Frank. “I don’t think about it. I got mouths to feed. I got bills to pay and all that, we’ve been over this. Get with the plan. That’s it.”

“Yes, that is it.”

“Yes, that’s what I said.”

They were quiet for a while. Frank was headed back to the park. He had a small and irritable bladder. He was driving and whistling some popular tune when he thought of something. He reached down to Misha’s feet and brought up the clipboard. He looked at it and laughed.

“You forgot to leave the notice.”

“Son of a bitch.”

“Your pronunciation is better all the time.”

“I do not want to go back there.”

“Your responsibility.”

“No.”

“You don’t have an option here.”

“I cannot face that know-nothing again,” said the Russian. “In this country, he has complaints like this. Don’t make me. You cannot make me.”

“I’m not persuaded.”

Misha swallowed.

“What do you say, Misha? Five? Five will ensure you don’t lose that famous temper of yours.”

“Five?”

“Five is what I said.”

“Well. Five.”

“You’d be happy to give me five. But you know something? I won’t take five.”

“Why do you toy with me?”

“You know the going rate. Why would I take less?”

“You know this guy has an illegal housekeeper? That’s right. Eddie Valenti told me. Let him give me lip about taking the notice, just let him. You can watch from the car.”

Misha went into his wallet.

“Now we’re talking, Misha. Come on, hand it over.”

Misha handed the ten to Frank, who nodded triumphantly. “You know this guy has an illegal housekeeper? That’s right. Eddie Valenti told me. Let him give me lip about taking the notice, just let him. You can watch from the car.”

Misha felt a headache coming on.

Frank pulled across two lanes of traffic and made a U-turn. “We’re good workers,” he said, touching his index finger to his brow.

Misha looked out the window. It was a nice day but he wanted to be back at his desk, where the work made the kind of sense that let you go home in the evening with a clear conscience, a decent appetite, and no headache at all.

G

Author Image

Arthur Diamond was born in New York in 1957. He received degrees from the University of Oregon and Queens College and has published twelve nonfiction books used as school texts. His stories have appeared in Ascent, Fiddleblack, JMWW, The Gettysburg Review, and other publications. He lives in Queens, New York.

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