It was about fifteen years ago when John D’Agostino started coming into the shop. He was working at a tree trimming company at the time, and his bosses, two cousins from Haiti, would send him in to pick up a lift, or a chainsaw, or a stumpgrinder. I don’t remember everything they rented, I just remember John walking up to the counter with his straight, jet-black mop of hair and his irascible little rat’s eyes, and a green t-shirt tucked into blue jeans that were hiked halfway to his armpits. He always asked to borrow the phone. I told him he could use the one in the parts room, and he would go in there sometimes for twenty minutes or a half hour, claiming they were business calls.
Sometime after that, this seventy-something Jewish lady started chauffeuring him to the shop. It was his new girlfriend. He was in his forties, but she had money, enough for him to quit working for the Haitians and start his own business. He called it Johnnyboy’s Stumpgrinding and Tree Removal Service, and when I asked him about it years later, he said at the high point he had 104 men working for him, and 47 trucks on the road. I pretended to believe these outrageous numbers, but I had heard from one of the Haitians the most he ever had working for him were two illegals from Guatemala, and the only truck he ever had on the road was his pickup.
“The thing about John,” said the Haitian, “is he’s illiterate. He can’t read or write. But when it comes to laying on the con, he’s got a silver tongue.”
One day when John’s seventy-something girlfriend had chauffeured him to the shop, I looked out at her sitting in her Cadillac. She had dyed maroon hair and a wide mouth covered in cherry-red lipstick. She looked mean as a coral snake. Or maybe she was just pissed because she had to pay for the chainsaw John was renting. He was standing at the counter looking at my brother D. with eyes that had absolutely no lights on in them.
“You beat your wife?” he asked, just after he signed the contract.
“No,” said D, “I don’t.”
“How long you been married?” asked John.
“3 years,” said D.
John folded up the contract, put it in his pocket, grabbed the chainsaw and strode to the front door with those long tarantula legs. He turned around just before exiting. “Give it 4,” he said.
Not long after that I heard that John’s girlfriend’s son pulled a gun on one of the Haitian cousins. It had something to do with a loan of $10,000 she had given to John. The son was livid and blamed the Haitians for it. Something like that. I never really understood the story. I heard it third or fourth hand in broken English. But a few months after that the old lady served John his walking papers and I didn’t see him for a couple years.
Then, in 2009, I was delivering a forklift to a shopping mall in Lake Worth and as I was unloading it, John stepped out from the shade of the big white circus tent that was set up in the field. He looked terrible. He’d gained about thirty pounds in the maw, his hair was a mess, there was chickengrease all over his shirt and his trousers were twisted into corkscrews.
“Youse need a pumpkin?” he asked.
There were hundreds of them in all different sizes under the tent.
“No thanks, John.”
“Oh, it’s you,” he said. “The rental guy.”
Then he started telling me all about the pumpkin business. “I figure with the right people, and the right amount of money injected in it, I should have no problem goin national in five-ten years. Thinkin about sellin Christmas trees too. Youse rent tents?”
“What about portojohns?”
“No, just construction equipment.”
“Youse ever think about rentin tents or portojohns?”
“It’s a cryin shame,” he said. “We coulda done a lot of business.”
About a year later, I was sitting at my desk in the shop when the front door flung open and a loud, grating voice shouted, “Got an SC252?” An SC252 is the model number of the stumpgrinder John liked to rent, and he’d hardly crossed the threshold of the door when he shouted across the vacant showroom for it.
I got out of my chair and greeted him the way I always did.
“Back in the tree business?” I asked.
“Just startin up again… gettin my feet wet… thirty years in the field, three years in arbor school… I kinda know trees. I can tell you every tree dere is in Florida – Australian pine, Brazilian pepper, Florida holly, cabbage palms, queen palms, royal palms, etc etc. I can go into a whole spiel if you want. It’s like I tell my customers… if youse got the time, I got the answers…”
He said he only needed the stumpgrinder for a day, but ended up keeping it for a week and never paid the balance. He said he would when the customer paid him, but we never heard from him after that. The balance was $300.
Not long after that, I moved to Berlin, and have been coming back to Florida to work ever since. My last trip back I asked about John. My brother said he hadn’t heard a thing, so we looked him up online and found out his old business went under, but he’d just opened a new one in West Palm Beach called Eager Beaver Complete Tree Service and Landscape Design.
I called him up, disguised my voice as an old man named Feldbaum with a Brooklyn accent. “I need some tree work done at my property in Boca,” I said. “Do you people handle that?
“We sure do, Sir. We do a wide variety of tree care, thinnin, take down, crownin, reducin, shapin, injections, reduction, fertilization, we do chipper work, stumpgrindin. We do a lot of stuff for new construction, lot clearance, land development. I been 30 years in the industry working for other companies, and had 3 years in school as an arborist. I kinda know what I’m doin. In fact, I know every tree in Florida. Australian pine, Brazilian pepper, Florida holly, cabbage palms, queen palms, royal palms, etc etc. I can go into a whole speil. If youse got the time, ya know, I got the answers.
I told him I did have some questions but I was driving and would call him when I had a chance.
We hung up, and I forgot about the whole thing until that night at 7 when my phone started ringing off the hook. 13 calls came in, none of which I answered. Instead, I wrote him a text with the address of the place I wanted him to meet me at the next morning (I didn’t know he was illiterate at the time), and turned off my phone for the night.
The address was to an equipment rental shop in Boca, owned by a guy I’d known since I was 15. His name was Jan, and he was the one who gave me the idea to get into the rental business nearly 23 years ago.
“I’ve got a deadbeat coming by your shop,” I told him. Remember the guy I used to joke about? “You beat your wife? That guy. He thinks there’s an old man from Brooklyn that’s going to meet him there.”
A text from John (or whoever had written it for him) came in at 8:48 a.m. telling me he had just left his place and was on his way. He arrived at Jan’s place about a half hour later. Jan called me and put the speakerphone on so I could eavesdrop on their conversation.
“So what is it you do again?” Jan was asking him.
We do a wide variety of tree care, thinnin, take down, crownin, reducin, shapin, injections, reduction, fertilization, we do chipper work, stumpgrindin….
…I can go into a whole speil if you got the time… ya know, I got the answers.
All of this was said in the most soul-dead monotone imaginable. It was the voice of someone who’d just murdered his whole family and was fessing to it.
He started imparting his wisdom about how to deal with customers.
“Always treat the customer fair, be nice to the customer, the customer is always right, let the customer do most of the talking, let them, let them tell you what they want, don’t be too pushy and you’ll be successful…”
Jan’s other line rang. He picked it up, said a few words and hung up.
“That was my wife,” he said. “Man, she pisses me off.”
“I know what you mean,” said John. “Women..:”
“Yeah, but… she just makes me so fucking angry sometimes… I mean…”
“Trust me, I understand. It’s women…”
“Sometimes I just wanna kick her,” Jan went on. “You know what I mean? Not hard. Not hard at all. Just enough to get my message across. Do you do that? You beat your wife?”
“I can’t say I do that…”
“How long you been married?”
“Never been married,” said John. “Last girlfriend took me to da cleaners. She robbed me blind.”
I got a phone call then, so I don’t know how the rest of their conversation went. But about ten minutes later, Jan texted me a photo of John’s truck and his feet on the other side of it. This photo.
He was in front of Jan’s shop waiting for me. And then he called me. “Is this Mister Feldbaum?”
“Yes, yes, it is,” I said, and apologized for not making it on time but told him I had footage of him standing at the agreed upon address. I texted the photo as proof, but he never replied or called back. He must’ve realized then that the deal was a sour one. Kind of like it was for me when he screwed me out of the $300.
The only difference – I’m still laughing. That’s worth $300 if you ask me.