If you're a regular reader of all the columns on the Cleveland Park Listserv, then you will have read the story in Tuesday's Tech Column about the complete failure of our central air conditioning system during a heat wave, ending eleven days later with a total system replacement. So now I have two loss-of-AC-during-a-heat-wave experiences in my life, but I still like the first story the best. It happened when I was fifteen and living with my parents in a rented house in Baltimore. Our landlord was Dominic Piracci, a big city building contractor and father-in-law of the then-mayor of Baltimore, Tommy D'Alesandro III (whose sister is Nancy Pelosi, but at the time she was not a public figure, so this little factoid is completely irrelevant to my story, and I don't know why I'm bringing it up).
On the fourth of July in 1967 on a day when the temperature was close to 100 degrees, the air conditioning in our house failed, and my mother called Mr. Piracci to report the problem. She started by saying that she was sorry to disturb him on a holiday but hoped he could send someone soon. Of course, she didn't expect a same-day visit but was thinking that it might be possible to have someone out the following day.
Much to her surprise, within an hour of that phone call, an AC service truck came up the driveway and a pair of technicians appeared at the front door. My mother led them to the central unit, which they were able to put back in working order in perhaps as little as twenty to thirty minutes. My mother, after signing the work completion order, marveled at the speed and efficiency of the repair company and how wonderful it was that they would come out so promptly to fix someone's air conditioning on a national holiday.
The head technician shook his head ruefully. "No, lady," he said, in a gravelly voice, heavy with a Baltimore accent, "We don't normally work on a holiday. We don't even normally do private homes at all. We only do work in big buildings." Then, lowering his voice to a respectful near-whisper, he continued: "But when Mr. Piracci says go...you GO."
The story doesn't end here. A few months later, we read in the newspaper that Mr. Piracci had entered into a plea bargain with prosecutors who had charged him with corruption over certain city building contracts. He would be going to prison for at least the next few months. My mother, having been so impressed with his diligence as a landlord, decided to send him a sympathy note, something to the effect of "sorry to hear about your troubles" and sending him her best wishes and warm regards.
At the end of the following summer, my father unexpectedly died. Over the course of the next month my mother had to figure out how best to deal with our radically changed circumstances. One of the decisions she made was to move from Baltimore, where my father had worked at the headquarters of Crown Oil, to Washington, where she had her job at the ACLU, thus enabling her to give up her long twice-daily car commute. The only hitch was that shortly before my father's death, my parents had just renewed their lease on the house for another full year. So she called Mr. Piracci and hesitantly asked to be released from the terms of the agreement.
His initial response was to tell my mother that it was his longstanding policy never to let a tenant break a lease for any reason. Then he paused a moment and added, "You know, when I went to jail, a lot of people turned their backs on me. Some of them were business associates, and some of them were people I thought were my friends. But you wrote me that note. You don't need to worry about the lease. You can leave whenever you like, and just pay what you owe up to the day that you move out. And I wish you and your children only the best." With the magic of the Internet, I have just learned that he died in 1982 at age 69 in his native Baltimore. To us he was a gentleman, and I send his descendants my warm regards.
Published on the Cleveland Park Listserv on June 11, 2010.