August 18, 2022

You’re the Boss: You Really Can’t Fight Town Hall

Southampton Town Hall: Brendan J. O’Reilly/southampton.patch.comSouthampton Town Hall: “Good luck.”
Start-Up Chronicle

I cannot be the first person to walk out of Southampton Town Hall and long for a psychiatrist. The place is polite bedlam. Citizens shuffle down the halls muttering to themselves, aflush with high anxiety and low self-esteem, fists full of blueprints they cannot read and will have to change to something else they cannot read.

I exit the building into 90-degree sunlight. I feel like smoking a cigarette. I don’t smoke. I feel like flying down the steps. I don’t fly. Hallucination may be to blame, or a powerful wish to be a kid again, but I think I see Lucy van Pelt on a grassy knoll, sitting with her feet up on her little stand with the 5¢ sign and the words “psychiatric help.”

“Hello,” I say.
“I don’t take insurance,” she says.
“I have a nickel.”
“O.K. then. Spill the beans.”
“I feel awful, Lucy, impotent, like I’m stuck on a treadmill in a giant maze. I keep doing the right thing and making no progress.”
“We call that permititis. I’ve had good results with this. Tell me more.”
“One hour ago, when I ascended that staircase, I had pep in my step and my ducks in a row: five surveys, three drawings, one certificate of occupancy, a renovation estimate, something from the Suffolk County Board of Health with a red stamp, and a blank check.”
“You sound too responsible.”
“I need a permit to fix the hole in my restaurant.”
“What’s happened?”
“We had a small fire in the kitchen wall.”
“I’m getting the picture.”
“So I got in line behind a couple of nervous women and a few frazzled general contractors. When it was my turn, the dark-haired woman behind the counter perused my collection of papers and asked, ‘Do you have two copies of this application?’”
“No, only one,” I said.
“You need two,” she said. “And they have to be notarized.”
“I didn’t know this.”
“Are you fixing the plumbing?”
“No. Plumbing is fine.”
“No. Electrical is fine.”
“Who owns the property?”
“I do.”
“Can you prove it.”
“Indeed. I have a deed.”
“Where is it?”
“In the bank.”
“Can you get it?”
“The bank is in New York City.”
“We need a copy.”
“You never mentioned that.”
“I just did.”
“It wasn’t on the list.”
“It is now.”
“I hope my lawyer has a copy.”
“Good luck,” she said.

Lucy asks, “What is it?”
“She wished me luck, Lucy.”
“Luck counts,” says Lucy.
“I never figured luck had much to do with getting a permit to rebuild a kitchen wall in a restaurant after a small fire.”
“You sound like a very naïve person.”
“The fire showed what kind of luck I have.”
“Welcome to the club.”
“I have a confession, Lucy.”
“Now we’re getting somewhere.”
“I was hoping to find someone to pay off.”
“You mean graft?”
“Yes. Good old-fashioned, time-honored corruption. It gets things done. Eliminates the luck factor. Very efficient.”
“Sorry, but we have to stop for today.”
“Stop? Did I say something wrong?”
“That’ll be a quarter. Exact change, please.”
“A quarter? The sign says 5 cents.”
“You’ve got permititis in extremis. I used five times the empathy I usually use.”
“I’m not done, Lucy. I still feel terrible.”
“Of course you do. But my 10:45 is waiting.”

I turn to see a long line of good citizens disguised as zombies, frayed around the edges, frozen into a state of disbelief and unknowing. They have nickels in their hands. They have P.T.H.T.S.D.: post town hall trauma stress disorder. They all need Lucy. Not that the bureaucrats inside the building are malefactors or mountebanks. It’s just that they have seen applications for a thousand fireplaces and two thousand swimming pools and have a pretty good union and fairly poor motivation and cannot afford to get emotionally invested in any one project.

A copy of the deed is faxed to me and a second application is completed and I return to Southampton Town Hall. Lucy has apparently closed up shop for the day. Being a mirage, even a cartoon mirage, is a part-time gig. Reality is my only companion now. Reality and the dark-haired woman behind the counter who is looking through all of the papers again. She smiles and turns to a computer screen and strikes some buttons and says, “You have an open demo permit.”
“A what?”
“An open demolition permit. Until you close it out, you cannot get any other permits.”
“How do I close it out?”
“You apply for a demolition inspection.”
“But I demolished the building three years ago. It’s long gone. There is a new building in its place. The new building was approved by this office. That information must be in your computer too.”
“A building is not demolished until you have a demo inspection.”
“How long will that take?”
“A week or two. Can’t say for sure. Not my department.”

I hear someone giggling. I look around. It is me. Nothing humorous has just happened or will happen but I am giggling. I shouldn’t giggle. I remind myself that you can placate more bureaucrats with molasses than vinegar, so I say, as treacly as I can, something like, “Not only do I not understand the relevance of a demo permit at this moment, but we demolished the old night club quite legally, with all permits in place, and built a new restaurant, quite legally, with all permits in place. That’s how we got the certificate of occupancy and a liquor license. That’s how we got to operate for the last eight months without incident or complaint. That’s how members of the planning board have dined at the restaurant. Ask them if we demolished the old building.”

Permit seekers behind me are not happy with my prolixity, and they are even less happy when the dark-haired woman disappears to the back of the office. I shrug my shoulders and scrunch my face into a “What can I do?” look. Artificially deep breaths keep me from screaming until the woman returns five minutes later with good news; the computer in the back room agrees with me and has officially overruled the computer in the front room. Relief fills my chest. I turn to my fellow citizens and smile humbly, bathing in the light of redemption and right, wondering how the battle of the computers will play out. (We have not heard the last from that theater of war.)

I have to write a check based on a percentage of the estimated work plus $200.
“What is the $200 for?” I ask.
“To bypass a full review by the planning board,” she says.
“How much would it cost to appear before the planning board?”
“Great,” I say, scribble on the check, and am about to leave when a gentleman public servant arrives at the desk to ask about the electrical permit.
“The electrical is fine,” I say.
“Didn’t you have an electrical fire?”
“No. The fire was caused by two hot screws.”
“The fire marshal said there were wires in the wall.”
“There were, but no more. We pulled them out. They were never used. They were dead wires.”
“And you have three lights hanging down from the kitchen ceiling?”
“They are heating lamps. They’re supposed to be hanging down.
They were always hanging down. They keep the food warm.”
“You need a licensed electrician to make the repairs, and then an electrical inspector to sign off on the building.”
“Repairs of what? An inspection of what?”
“The wires.”
“There are no wires.”
“The lights.”
“The lights are lamps.”
“Then you have nothing to worry about.”
“I have plenty to worry about. I have time constraints. I have to get the restaurant repaired and reopened.”
“The fire marshal has to sign off, too.”
“The fire marshal left this official pink slip. Here, I brought it with me. It says the restaurant can stay open for business and serve beverages to 100 people, but we cannot use the kitchen until it is fixed. We decided against serving booze for multiple reasons, chief among them that we are a restaurant, a seafood restaurant, a sustainable seafood restaurant, and not a saloon. The wall can be fixed in a day or two. The electrical system is fine and the gas is fine and the alarms — everything is working. People are living on the second floor. The damage is minimal.”
“I saw the damage.”
“You did?” I ask.
“I was there today.”
“Good,” I say.
“You have one more major issue.”
“I do?”
“The damaged wall, it is open to the elements.”
“Yes. We left it open so inspectors could see inside the wall.”
“You have to close that wall.”
“We can’t close the wall until we get a permit.”
“But we can’t give you a permit until you seal the wall tightly, protect it from the elements.”
“Let me get this straight. In order to get a permit to close the wall, you want us to close the wall.”
“Sort of.”
“And then open the wall for each inspector to see inside the wall.”
“And then you will give us a permit to close the wall?”

We seal the wall with plywood, replacing the plastic tarpaulin that had kept out the rain all along. An electrician is hired to do nothing. He does nothing. And then calls the inspector. The electrical inspector arrives. The wall is opened. He does nothing. He approves everything. The general contractor closes the wall. I return to town hall with appropriate paperwork, with approvals, with plans, with a headache, with a strong impulse to swallow many pills. I wait in line behind citizens scratching their heads and forcing smiles onto furious faces. I bum a cigarette. I still don’t smoke.

The dark-haired lady looks over my paperwork. She likes what she sees. We are ready to roll. A dark cloud is lifting. I ask her how long it will take to get the permit to close the wall. Four weeks, she says absently. I mimic what she has just said: four weeks. She repeats what I have just repeated: four weeks. She could just as easily have stated, without any affect, “We are cutting off your head, burying it in your garden, destroying your dreams, closing your restaurant, sending you to the poorhouse and doghouse and outhouse,” but she didn’t. She knew I would need permits for all those houses and she doesn’t want to be bothered. So, instead, she just says four weeks.

I exit Southampton Town Hall. My cellphone rings. It is my general contractor. He was notified by my insurance company this morning that he may want to consult a lawyer because he could be sued for the fire. His lawyer advised him to quit this job immediately lest there be a conflict of interest — that is, fixing a hole while being sued for creating said hole. I ask him to stay on board, that my faith in him might help mitigate the circumstantial evidence. He declines, recusing himself from the case of the two too-hot screws.

I take a phantom drag on the unlit Tareyton. This is like icing on the cake, the resignation of the general contractor. That his name and license were on all the permits I just handed in makes each and every one null and void. I look for Lucy. I need Lucy. The sign on Lucy’s stand says, “the doctor is out.” Too bad. Too bad the whole restaurant didn’t burn to the ground.


Next post: a real-life Lucy saves the day and the summer. We reopen on Thursday.

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