Keep on Truckin’
“You have red hair—what color your hair down there?” Jerzy Sulek once asked a woman who takes yoga classes around the corner from his home.
“She get offended,” he admits, laughing.
But it’s not even Jerzy’s joke. In “Water for Elephants,” a book he read years ago, “awoooman,” as Jerzy says in his accented English, asks the same, fairly vulgar, question of a man. Jerzy scrunches his shoulders and lifts his palms to the sky. Translation: not my fault. The wrinkles beside his eyes deepen and a schoolboy grin spreads across his face. From that moment on, whenever Jerzy tires of talking to me, he asks what color my hair is.
Jerzy’s home is inside a dark grey, 1987 Toyota, mottled with rust and parked permanently in an empty lot on Franklin Street in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. In addition to the yoga studio, there is a bakery catty-corner to his lot, selling iced sugar cookies for five dollars apiece. A few blocks north, several chichi boutiques, cafes and wine shops have surfaced in the last five years. But having lived here for the last thirty, legally—he does, in fact, pay property taxes—Jerzy is used to the neighborhood changing all around him. His pickup truck’s wheels are sunk deep into the mud, and cancerous rot has left jagged tears in the vehicle’s fender. Tree roots have wrapped themselves around the front bumper. The land itself seems to have made the decision for him: You are staying.
* * *
Jerzy lies in the truck’s cramped cabin, underneath masses of lumpy beige duvets and floral blankets, books, Polish newspapers and worksheets. He’s a lanky, bearded man in his seventies, with a prominent nose, chipped right front tooth, hollow cheeks and pale blue eyes. And he is sick. Beneath the blankets, he wears a red striped shirt, under a sweater in drab shades of brown, orange and green, jeans and a black jacket—the same outfit he has worn all month. Plastic bags are tied over his socks to keep his feet dry.
The cold started the first week of January, the day Jerzy went to a nearby, Parks and Rec gym, where he swims and showers. He washed his clothes and then put them back on. Jerzy does not believe in medicine, but he’s sick enough that he’s not up to talking today.
“Mañana,” he says.
The next day we talk through the truck’s window.
“I didn’t come from a poor family. I have car, I have money and education,” Jerzy says. By American standards his parents weren’t rich, he continues, but in Poland they lived comfortably.
In the mid-1950s, while still a student at Warsaw Polytechnic, one of Central Europe’s leading technical institutes, Jerzy worked in an architect’s office. After graduating, he worked for another six years for the firm, before leaving for America. Jerzy has not returned to Poland since he left, and he does not call or write to any of his three younger siblings. “For me the post office and telephone company does not exist,” he says.
Any time I misunderstand what Jerzy is saying, he asks, “What time your brain turn on?” His own mind is like a pinball machine. One moment he’s talking about Churchill’s speeches. The next, a pinball hits on a story of Latin American presidents, then it’s flung over to his defense of Obama (“a visionary, no accountant,”) and flipper-kicked sideways to Africa (“The black continent doesn’t progress.” He blames imperialism.) Between all of these anecdotes, which do connect, though tenuously, Jerzy shares his life story.
He won’t tell anyone his age, but records suggest that Jerzy is seventy-five years old. He won’t even say when he came to America, though he was granted U.S. citizenship between 1975 and ’77, when he was around forty. (Bear in mind, Jerzy also repeatedly says that time does not matter to him.) So, sometime in the late ’60s or early ’70s, he was sitting on Greenpoint’s Manhattan Avenue, with a large army duffel and one other bag, when a stranger stopped and asked if he had a place to sleep. Jerzy conceded that he didn’t. The stranger, a Polish priest, asked Jerzy if he would mind washing dishes. “In Poland we have an expression, ‘You don’t lose your crown from sweep the floor,’” says Jerzy. In exchange for a promise to work, the priest paid Jerzy’s first month’s rent to a landlord on India Street, approximately $120.
At the new job, he met a second man, the director of a social service program, who, learning of Jerzy’s architecture and carpentry skills, hired him to help renovate his family’s house in Connecticut. So, on weekdays, Jerzy scoured heavy pots and pans for a Greenpoint charity. On weekends, he led a team of workers in building walls and laying floors. In Connecticut, Jerzy turned down an offer of a bed, opting instead to sleep in the family’s battered Buick Skylark. The car doors didn’t open, so he shimmied inside through a window. When the job finished several months later, Jerzy received the Buick as part of his payment.
This first gig led to him doing repair work on a few churches in Brooklyn and eventually drafting building designs for Pratt Institute, where he rose to become an assistant professor, before joining IBM’s architecture department in Stamford, Connecticut.
As he tells me his story, Jerzy clambers out of his truck and onto the sidewalk. He is preparing to leave for lunch at a nearby soup kitchen. In a rare moment of self-pity, he says, “You see how big success I get. Turn around.”
Beside his Toyota, which is parked facing the street, is his outdoor kitchen: a glass table, iron-shaped cutting board, and three stools. No electricity or plumbing. He keeps food in a plastic grey trashcan. Cold items he keeps in his fridge—a five-gallon paint bucket filled with water—and an abandoned maroon box truck serves as his closet. (The truck once belonged to a business associate. Tired of paying for car insurance and parking tickets, he left it in Jerzy’s yard.) Across the way is the weight room—a set of bars and a bench, next to a full-length mirror. A dirt path cuts between the weeds and brambles from the front gates to the bathroom at the back, a hidden spot between the box truck and a concrete wall. The yard is overflowing with stuff, most of it useless: a miniature television, a blender, a coffee machine, wooden skis, more than twenty pairs of shoes, though Jerzy wears only his sneakers, and about five bikes—one of which is missing a front wheel. “I tell you, lady, I collect things I don’t need,” he says. If anyone ever stole from him, “they do me favor.”
Neighbors say there was a building there once, cream colored with four floors, until 1994 or ’95, they guess. Jerzy lived there with his wife. Her name was Christina and she was tiny, only four-feet tall, or so they say. Coincidentally, another Christina—Christina Salerno, eighteen—has lived in her family’s apartment, down the block from Jerzy, all her life. Salerno says her mother, who grew up in the same apartment she lives in now, was there around the time Jerzy’s building, old and leaning to one side, finally collapsed and fell.
Dennis Camacho, who has lived in the neighborhood for twenty-five years, remembers Jerzy’s house being wooden and three stories high. “At one point it looked like it was caving in from the middle,” he says. Jerzy neighbors were complaining of rats, and ultimately, the city took the building down, claiming it was unsafe. “I don’t know what happened, if it was depression that he got, and he just let it go,” says Camacho.
Some aspects of the story need correcting. For one, Jerzy says he never married.
“Do you know how many woman in my life was? You don’t believe me because you find me ugly. I have more women than I can hold,” he says.
He was nine when he realized that you could do something more with girls than just talk. He recalls sneaking into cemeteries with them. “Always, they push me to climb some gate or some fence. They like dangerous situation,” he says.
Jerzy met his first serious girlfriend at seventeen. She was twenty-seven.
He particularly liked athletic women: swimmers, runners, skiers and volleyball players. Once, he says, he had a woman in his apartment while another, more jealous, girlfriend was on her way into the house. The first woman, hoping to avoid a fight, asked what floor they were on in the apartment. “Second,” he told her. The woman was ranked seventh as a parachutist in the Polish army, according to Jerzy. Up flew the window and out she went. He bends his long legs into a squat to demonstrate how she landed without hurting herself.
The woman he lived with at the time—who others assumed was his wife—was named Christiane, he says, not Christina. She was French and a world champion ultra-marathon runner with a beaked nose, pale cheeks and short brown hair—“like tomboy,” he says. She had been married twice. They met at a New Year’s Eve party that a Pratt colleague had invited him to. I ask how long ago and get the same response that comes from any question related to time: “Doesn’t matter. A thousand years.”
Jerzy and Christiane split up because she wanted to get married and he didn’t; she left before the building fell. Speaking of which, Jerzy claims the city tore the building down.
The city owns the vacant and clean parcel of land beside his, behind another locked fence. They have tried to buy him out “more times than I want remember,” he says, but long after his residence bit the dust, he refuses to leave his home.
* * *
Jerzy lost his job at IBM when his boss got into an argument with a senior executive. “The boss go, you go,” he sums it up. Jerzy will not say when IBM fired him, or when he left Pratt. Neither company will verify his employment without a signed waiver from him. But it’s likely he lost his job in the late eighties or early nineties, around the time the complaints from the city Department of Buildings began.
“At first I work for the money,” Jerzy says. But he found living off unemployment wasn’t too bad. Being a frugal person who didn’t eat out, and who rode his bike instead of using the subway, he was able to save money. Jerzy used whatever money was left over to buy second-hand books about building design and copied them word for word, along with the sketches.
But by this point, his philosophy on work had changed. “If you work in office, you are no risk taker,” he says. He chose short-term projects, working for the employers of his choosing, instead of full-time jobs.
To make additional income, Christiane would buy furniture, Jerzy would fix it, and she would sell it from their home.
Jerzy also had a big investment idea. In the early ’80s, he and Christiane bought two Greenpoint properties—one on Franklin Street, and on one on Greene Street. (According to city records, the Greene Street property was in Christiane’s name.) Jerzy had a hunch that the areas would become popular and planned to renovate both buildings through investments from venture capitalists and rent half of them out to tenants. “Both area get pretty fancy, plenty club, small theater, and workshops for clay. So I was right!” he says.
In 1989, the buildings department received the first complaint about the house at 59 Franklin Street, informing them that it was on the verge of collapse. The DOB called the complaint “unsubstantiated,” and no action was taken. A total of nineteen complaints were filed between 1989 and 2005. These included working without a permit and selling commercial goods in a zone that was residential. They mentioned fire escapes being removed, lighting and wires being scrapped, and the fact that the building itself had begun to lean.
Whatever repairs Jerzy tried to make to 59 Franklin had failed. In June of ’98, the DOB approved the Department of Housing Preservation and Development request to demolish the building. All of the previous “unsubstantiated” complaints suddenly mattered.
In the midst of all of this, Christiane left. She moved to Greene Street, sometime before 1998, then sold the property in 2003 and left New York. As a child, Jerzy’s mother told him, he needed a woman to wake him up in the morning, to motivate him. “She say, ‘You need someone who can steady you,” Jerzy remembers. In some ways she understood her son, but she was only partially right.
After Christiane left, he found another woman, whom he refers to simply as “the black woman,” to help him sell furniture at flea markets, but she ended their business relationship because she believed he was flirting with her teenage daughter. Jerzy said it was the other way around. The next blow came when the clutch gave out on his Toyota. Jerzy didn’t have the $300 he needed for repairs.
* * *
These days, Jerzy wakes early to put out and sort the trash for two neighbors and a tapas restaurant down the street. He is paid approximately $100 a month by one neighbor. The Salernos, Christina’s parents, also pay him but they will not say how much. They also fill his kettle with tea every morning and bring him food when the soup kitchens are closed. Sometimes the restaurant gives him leftover cuts of meat in a giant pail, which he brings home to his cats. He doesn’t have names for them; there are at least a dozen.
One morning in early January, two middle-aged women in sweatshirts and jeans come by with metal cages. I ask them what’s happening.
“What we do is called TNR— Trap, Neuter, Return,” says a woman with glasses and a long ponytail sticking out of a baseball cap. She smiles like a kindergarten teacher talking to a student as she explains that the cats will be vaccinated and spayed and returned next week. They caught nine cats yesterday, she says.
Jerzy is disappointed that his cats could be caught so easily. “I like them but I never thought my cats are so stupid,” he says, his face drawn.
He blames himself, too, because he forgot to feed them for a few days. “Maybe they going get killed,” he says, staring ahead. “I have sources for food but sometimes I have not. I cannot save everybody including myself.”
I try to reassure him that they won’t be hurt. “You are naïve,” he says. I repeat what the woman said about trap, neuter, return. After the women leave, a tabby cat slinks out from underneath the box truck. And Jerzy smiles. “A survivor,” he says, his eyes brightening.
* * *
Someone once asked me if I thought Jerzy was crazy. At the time, I honestly hadn’t thought about it. I decided he’s too clever to be insane. He can tell by looking in a person’s eyes when they have stopped listening and whether they believe him. He knows more about politics and history than most people I know.
He is also well read. Right now, he is reading an out-of-print copy of “Big Fish” by Thomas Perry, a novel about the gunrunning business set in Hollywood. He has read the classics and knows at least some Latin. He has an enormous Webster’s dictionary, “the America people’s Bible,” as he calls it, in his truck. Whenever he comes across a word he likes or doesn’t know, he will circle it and rewrite it in the top margin of his book to review later—words like “ostensibly,” “flinty” and “tight-assed.”
He is skeptical of female authors. A hardcover of Katherine Stockett’s “The Help,” in its sunny yellow dust jacket lies in the dirt next to his truck, its pages swollen from the rain. But Ann Patchett’s “Bel Canto,” in which an opera soloist and Japanese businessman fall in love during a hostage crisis, has Jerzy’s approval. So does Merline Lovelace’s “Strangers When We Meet,” a trashy drugstore novel, its cover graced with the requisite husky gentleman in a tank top, holding a swooning woman with half-closed eyes. Jerzy flips to the author’s bio where the words “career air force pilot” are underlined along with “30 million copies”—ostensibly.
Some days I’m convinced he’s as sane as anyone, although once when he was sitting on his stool facing the other direction, I passed by and heard him talking to himself. I talk to myself sometimes, too, I thought. Or maybe he’s right and I am just naïve.
Jerzy doesn’t have a license to be an architect in the U.S; he failed the exam. He can only work under someone else’s license, but he hasn’t stopped drawing. “If project is good, you always find someone who want put name,” he says.
On an overcast Sunday afternoon, Jerzy sits in his truck, holding a yellow measuring tape rusted in half. His cats are forgotten for the moment. He draws squares, dotted lines and calculates dimensions across someone’s math homework, taken from the trash. What are the x and y axis of the parabola? Jerzy doesn’t see the question or the grid beneath it. He adds another line, a door, a wall, and a stairwell. From behind his drawings peek the giant-headed cartoon children of a faded Candy Land game board—Jerzy’s desk. The designs are for buildings he hopes will be constructed on three excavated sites in Williamsburg. He maps out their locations.
A few days later, he is even more excited about his project, but the designs aren’t only for other sites—he is planning a new building, right here on his lot, where the old one used to be. He walks me backward onto the sidewalk. Picture a stairwell here in front of us, he says, pointing to his “kitchen,” and imagining a ramp for wheelchairs beside it. There will be a garage below ground with maybe an office and a swimming pool on the ground floor—over there where the box truck sits, frozen in time. It would be “up level,” he says. A person would have to climb over a wall to get in; it might have fish inside it, like a pool he heard about in Florida, with “double glass.” The rooms in the apartments could be convertible. Some would have four rooms, others six, others eight. They could be “double-decker.”
Jerzy has not sold his land but it isn’t for lack of motivation. He still has his old dream. “I have to put my drawing enough together so somebody who is professional can understand what to do,” he says. He doesn’t want the money—he wants to stay. If he can sell his idea instead of his land, he can be an architect again. “It’s my entry back into the business,” he says full of renewed hope.
“It’s a crazy thing for an outside person because I am living in car. I’m dreaming of what I’m saying to you,” he says. But, he explains, no one without big dreams has ever been successful.
Jerzy wants to be a mogul. Not someone who just collects wealth, but one who builds things. “Carnegie was mogul. Cooper was mogul. Pratt was mogul. Ford was mogul. Chrysler was mogul. If I make that, it’s reason I came to America,” he says.
“If not, I can say I try.”
* * *
Shannon Firth is a journalist living in Brooklyn. She has written about books, cemeteries and people living the American dream or trying to.