Cityscapes by James McNabb
Cityscapes by James McNabb

Did you ever notice how books breed? It’s a well-known fact that when you’re re-doing your bookcases – with me, that means once every 18 years – the books seem, overnight, to reproduce. Books have babies. Old books, even. Young books also produce offspring, often bigger than themselves. I don’t know how this happens.

The only solution is to employ a really great carpenter who understands the problem of the book boom. I have one. And I’m keeping him against the odds, because he is much in demand in New York City. So much so that people employ profane language in efforts to retain his services. John R omine is a lovely, talented craftsman, an old- fashioned carpenter, a builder who delivers as he promises, has a brain, and was properly raised in New York City.

I am one of a group of people to whom John is as essential as caffeine or cashmere. He does not deserve it, but in speaking to him, the traditional salutation is not, “Hi, John. How are you? Could you make it Thursday?” Instead it goes: “Pssst, John. F**k Steven, I need you to do my bookcases.” This goes on uptown and down, East S ide and West, and even out to the wilds of Brooklyn where the aforementioned Steven has, improbably, moved, and is even now no doubt whispering, “John, pssst. F**k Reggie and her bookshelves, I need you to do my hand-carved cherry-wood staircase.” Cherry-wood staircase? This is what happens when you leave the city. Anyhow, I know that on the Upper West Side, Stephanie has secretly engaged John with, “F**k S teven. What about my stuff?”

And so it goes, all giving the lie to the idea that New York is a large, impersonal city. When it comes to any form of renovation, New York is a very small village full of obsessive, desperate people who have been made crazy by some architect whose ego is bigger than their apartments. Professionals like John who do the right thing (and wield a mean vacuum cleaner when they’re done) are scarcer than reservations at Daniel, and they — John the carpenter, Judith the accountant, Bernard the doctor – are passed from hand to hand like the most fragile china, the most succulent caviar, the finest vintages. I am currently celebrating the joys of John (pssst, don’t tell anyone), because a few weeks ago I found myself in renovation hell. This is a special hell for New Yorkers who imagine they can actually fix their apartments without spending half a million minimum.

A sucker is born every day, right? One like me who actually believed I could get my place done on time at a price. Weird how I didn’t notice the expressions on my friends’ faces. That look of pity. Ah well. How can I forget the R ussian tile guy who came to live in my bathroom and lay there for five days, apparently waiting for the handmade glass bathroom tiles to dry, while smoking cigarettes and dreaming of Mother R ussia? How too can I forget the architect who disappeared mid-job, leaving my loft covered in dust and the floor filled with every object I owned – china, glass, books, the lot? Well, never mind. Pssst, John? Don’t worry, he says. We can fix anything. And suddenly he’s here, with Michael, his sidekick, and they’re putting up shelves and painting walls. They practically whistle while they work and don’t leave until they’ve finished.

Most of you won’t be able to employ John (pssst, he’s working for me). Still, I’m happy to pass on a few tips from the land of interiors. Not the name of a cool designer or some newfangled objet from Holland. No, my tip is: buy Swiffers. One day my neighbour tapped on my door. “I know you’re renovating,” she said, “and I thought you might like these.” As if with a stash of drugs, she passed me a box of S wiffer dusters. I’m now addicted. This is more fun than a chemical high. A S wiffer duster picks up dust you never even knew you had. Run it behind the radiator, and big, fat, puffy dust balls come out. Talk about a dirty little secret. Oooh, I’m in love. Then there’s Gracious Home. For many years uptown (that’s uptown Manhattan) friends have sung the praises of this wondrous store. Not only does it have everything from S wiffers to toasters, sheets to towels, doorknobs, drawer pulls, paint, pots and pans – it also has human beings. I went in search of a hamper. Easy, right? Ever tried schlepping a hamper home without a car? But there was Greg. Greg with the dimples, who not only sold me the hamper, but carried it out and put it tenderly into a cab. And he smiled. S o here’s to Gracious Home, to S wiffers and most of all to John. Pssst, John… ✦ Gracious Homes, 1992 Broadway, New York, NY10023 (001212-231 7800; www. S wiffers, aka Flash Dry Dusting Cloths (£2.89 for 20, 0800-028 3292).


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