They both heard it -- a strange scraping noise from above, just days after their new tenants moved in.
Oh boy. What the hell was this?
The old Brooklyn couple, Mr. and Mrs. Gruber, wondered if they'd goofed by renting the upper level of their two-family house to those newlyweds. They seemed fine -- the husband was an art director at an advertising agency, and the wife was friendly and outgoing.
It was the old New York City landlord's lament -- you never know what you're getting until they're in.
Mr. Gruber went upstairs to check out the strange sounds, and he couldn't believe his eyes.
There was his tenant, putty knife in hand, removing old paint from the fireplace mantel.
"There's beautiful stonework underneath," the tenant said. "Hope you don't mind, I thought I'd restore it."
When he got over his shock, Mr. Gruber nodded. "Go ahead," he said. He went back downstairs to tell his wife what the noise was all about, she could barely believe it, either. Who ever heard of a tenant doing restoration work on his rented home?
Peaceful months passed, and then came a pounding from above. It jolted the Grubers, and when they went upstairs to investigate there was their tenant, hammering away at freshly-cut lumber near the bay window.
"Hope you don't mind," he said. "I'm building a window seat. Thought it would be nice for my wife to sit here in the morning. You see, she's pregnant."
Again, the Grubers were stunned. The guy was obviously a skilled craftsman, and why would they object to a beautiful bit of woodwork? They congratulated the couple on their big news and went back downstairs.
The baby was born, and soon another was on the way. The tenants paid their rent on time every month, and the wife kept the place cleaner than an operating room. The husband buffed the hardwood floors until they gleamed. He painted this, painted that.
The house had no locks on any of the doors -- can you imagine that? -- and when the tenants were out for the day, Mrs. Gruber would actually bring her friends upstairs to show them the flawless apartment.
"See how beautiful they keep it!" she'd say.
But behind their joy was dread, knowing the tenants would be leaving when the second baby arrived.
That's the bad news Mr. Gruber was expecting the day his tenant came down to his basement workshop.
The old man made his living down there, engraving delicate patterns into glassware. He braced himself for the worst, but something else was on the tenant's mind.
"Mr. Gruber, I have a job for you," he said.
The tenant was working on the Jell-O gelatin account, and for a print ad he needed three glass dessert bowls engraved with fruit images -- raspberry, cherry and strawberry. Could the old man handle it?
He sure could. Mr. Gruber engraved the bowls for the tenant, who was delighted with the results. The bowls appeared in a magazine ad that was a huge success.
Then came the matter of the old man's fee. He usually charged ten cents per engraving, so should he submit a bill for thirty cents? Or maybe a little more, since his work appeared in an ad?
"Let me handle it," the tenant said. He came back to Mr. Gruber with a check from the agency for three hundred dollars -- a thousand times his going rate!
The old man was overwhelmed. He engraved more bowls for a follow-up Jell-O ad, and another whopping payday.
In the midst of this excitement, the news hit like a bomb -- the tenants, now with two children, bought a house in Queens. The Grubers were tearful on moving day, and not just because they would be losing $65 a month in rent.
"You have improved the value of my property," the old man said as he bid farewell to my parents.
Yes, those tenants were my parents. They still live in the Queens house, which is where I heard the story about the ridiculously sweet relationship they had with the Grubers from 1954 until 1957.
Sorry if you were expecting a tale about Tenants From Hell, but think about it -- isn't a story about a happy landlord-tenant relationship more unique?
Anyway, I went online and checked out that little Brooklyn house. It's now worth more than $400,000, but of course the days of unlocked doors are long gone. Now there are bars on the windows.
But I'd like to believe the window seat my father built sixty years ago is still there, catching the morning light through the bars.