The apartment was in Bay Village, a part of Boston near Chinatown developed in the mid-1800s. The narrow streets, which were lined with red brick row houses and gas lights, had become a shady, quiet haven from the bustle of the Massachusetts Turnpike, just a few short blocks away.
I was on the second floor. The Chinese landlord and his extended family lived below. Their apartment had one more room attached to the back of the building than mine, to my great benefit: I had an outdoor deck on top of it, accessed through a door with glass- louvered windows in my bathroom.
It wasn't a beautiful deck. The railings were rickety wrought iron, and the surface was covered in wrinkled, dirty AstroTurf. But I was able to go out on the deck after work and on weekends, fire up my tiny hibachi, and enjoy barbecues outdoors, right in downtown Boston. It was my little piece of heaven, and I cherished it.
The landlord spoke almost no English. If he wanted to communicate with me about something, he left a cryptic note under the door. Not on full sheets of paper, though. And not placed in an envelope. These were tiny strips ripped off the edges of store receipts, junk mail, and newspapers.
His handwriting was minuscule, and the little curled pieces of paper were difficult to see – especially if my cats had decided to play with what they considered a new toy that had appeared under the door just for them.
So it's no wonder I missed the note late one night after returning home from work. Having eaten a takeout dinner in the office hours earlier, I came in, washed, and flopped right into bed. Thank goodness, I thought. Tomorrow was Saturday, and I could sleep in.
I was deep in slumber land when, at 7 a.m., there was knock. It was persistent. I staggered out of bed, put on a robe, and peered out. There on the landing were the landlord, his wife, their three young children, his wife's parents, and a family friend. They were carrying dozens of plastic shopping bags – and the landlord had a crowbar. I stared. They smiled.
The landlord looked at the floor near my slippers and picked up the microscopic note I had missed the night before. Still smiling, he handed it to me. "We take apart deck tomorrow morning," it said. "City order."
With that, they all filed into my bedroom, through the bathroom, and out onto the deck. With the crowbar they lifted pieces of the green flooring and the decayed tarpaper below it, put the pieces in the plastic bags, and threw them over the side to the courtyard below.
I was mystified. I'd had very little sleep, I was still in my pajamas, and I couldn't use the bathroom. Worse, my deck was disappearing as I watched.
The family spent a few hours demolishing it, every now and then coming through the apartment to go downstairs for more bags. They invariably smiled and were charming about destroying the best feature of my home.
Once they left, I washed, changed, and hurried up the street to the corner market. The owner had lived in Bay Village his entire adult life. He knew absolutely everyone and everything, and would surely have heard about the city's order to demolish my deck.
"It's a blockwide thing," he said. "The city inspector saw one deck on your block he didn't like, so he condemned them all. Don't worry, it'll be rebuilt."
I started paying close attention to my floor each evening. The next Friday, there was another little note, this time curled up under the dining room table, a good distance from the door. It said, "Deck build on weekend."
I set the alarm; this time I was ready. At 7 a.m., there was a loud knock. It was the landlord, his wife, two young Chinese men in work clothes, and an older Chinese man wearing horn-rimmed glasses, a suit, and a trench coat.
They smiled. I smiled back. The two laborers hauled construction materials into the bedroom, through the bathroom, and out onto the deck. The man in the suit and trench coat, who was clearly in charge, followed, giving orders in Chinese.
I watched through the bedroom window as they put down new wood flooring and erected a gazebo-style fence. "Pretty fancy," I thought. When the flooring looked safe to walk on, I went outside. The workmen were installing a bench all the way around inside the fence. As the man in charge saw me, he jumped up onto a sawhorse, beaming, opened wide his arms, and leaped off onto the new flooring. "We are building you a beautiful deck!" he exclaimed. Still beaming, he vigorously pumped my hand.
I agreed. It was a beautiful deck. It had wood floors, wood fencing, and a built-in wood bench all the way around. I not only had my little piece of heaven back, heaven had been upgraded.
That night I stuck a teeny-tiny note under the landlord's door: "Thank you!"