THE FIRST TIME we went to the Hamilton Arms to see William, Mallard, he was not there. Old William, they call him, or just plain William O.William who did the wood carvings. It was William who has worked there since 1954 and it was William - old William, etc., etc. - who will be the last one left, a watchman waiting for the wrecker or the renovator or whoever is coming. "William," we called , but William was not there.
So we went through the place. It is on 31st Street in Georgetown, across from the Post Office, and it looks like it should be a in New Orleans or Key West or not in this country at all. It is all pastels and tiles and pools closed years ago for reasons f sanitation or health but certainly for good sense. It is apartments and little houses and walks and shrubs. It is historic and decadent Georgetown, a monument to another era and to a woman named Mary Reid. She owned the place and she went through it with an eccentric paint brush.
She painted flowers on the benches and she made tiles and she painted those tiles. She had Mallard put up wooden beams and paneling and then she showed him how to carve them. She did her paintings and then Mallard would come along behind her and he would make grooves in the wood - curlicues and things. It was art. She said it was art and she was a lady and so it was art.
"William," we called when we came back from lunch. "William, William." There are 40 units and maybe 12 of them are still occupied. The properties have been sold and a new owner wants everyone out. The marshal had been there earlier in the day, serving eviction notices on the last of the tenants. The old owners, all of them, are dead. Most of the tenants are gone. In years past, thers's been insanity here and suicide and some genteel drug addiction. In its time this place has been very Southern, very Gothic. That's all history now. The place is coming down and it's being renovated or something. "William," we yelled. "William, are you here?"
We walk through the place.We go down a walk and then over by the old pool and then through the early spring grass where the tulips are coming up among discarded lightbulbs. "William, William." People trail through occasionally. They come in off the street and they look and wonder. Quite a place, this place. They look at the tiles. William set them in place. they look at the wood. William carved it all. "William, William."
The person with me wants me to write about Mallard. A lot has been written about the Hamilton Arms, she says, but nothing about William Mallard. He was the place, she says - the maintenance man, the superintendent, the one who put so many patches on the place that he put patches on the patches. He's in there somewhere, she says, unless he's been forced to move. I come because I want this to be about old men who live in basements or unrentable apartments - old men with no last names and no women and lives spent in service to buildings or families. They have been there, always, usually black, sometimes white, usually smiling, usually pleasant, always old, full of stories about what the place used to be like, visions of what they looked like in uniform but never anything about themselves. At night they are along and they close the door and you can see their thoughts. "William," we called. "William."
A voice comes back. Up there, to the left, on a second floor porch - William. He's old, 64 years old, actually, wearing a tan raincoat and a white painter's hat. He's a black man and he wears rimless glasses and moves with deceptive speed. Be right down, he says with a wave to the person with me whom he knows, and then he's gone. The minutes go by and there's no Mallard. He's in there somewhere, in those empty apartments and walkways and porches and tiles and wood and that sad grape arbor. He emerges.
Up close, the coat is not a raincoat but a heavy winter coat, one button replaced with a safety pin. There's a couple of days's growth of beard on his face but the smile from the porch is still there and the handshake, when it comes upon introduction, is strong and sincere. The personsal history is brief and uncomplicated: no children and no wife and family back in North Caroline. He has lived, it appears, usually as the superintendent or maintenance man or whatever you call it, and he has been the man called when something leaked. No matter, he does not want to talk of himself, but of this place. He starts his tour.
"This here was the kitchen," he says, pointing to a part of the building where the restaurant used to be . "That was the dining room, clear back to the street." He went on and we followed and sometimes when you asked, he would say something about himself, but not often and then not for long. "Got any money?" he was asked. "I got nothing but myself and a hat and there's a hole in that." We laughed and he repeated the line and then he moved on to something about the Hamilton Arms - the tiles or the wood or something like that.
He showed us his carvings, the designs gouged into the wood - gouged into the hailways and the stairways and the apartments. He showed us the furniture he had built into the walls - a chest of drawers here, a gilded mirror there. He told us how he used to work alongside his former employer, Reid, and you had to guess that he started as s student but wound up as an artistic equal. Together, they had created this place and Mallard, for one, was proud of what they had done - proud of what he had done.
So now out in the courtyard he was asked what it feels like to see it all go, to know it will be coming down or changed and replaced maybe with wallboard and formica and lines that are neat, clean and easy to dust. He is not a man who talks easily of himself so he tells you that it's a shame, of course, and a pity, of course and course, he loves this place. But he got paid for his work and now he can retire anyway and he is probably going to stay on as a watchman. He'll be there when they come with the wrecking tools, and they'll call him William and think that he was once the maintenance man. They'll be only half right. He was also once the artist.