Up on the roof, they're just making a living

MICHAEL OLESKER

November 17, 1992|By MICHAEL OLESKER

Shorty and Brother are up on the roof. On a day like this, nobody should be up on the roof, except maybe The Drifters. The air is iron cold, and the wind is ad-libbing its way across the city, and Shorty is dangling over an edge with lots of help from Brother but none at all from gravity.

This is their time of year. Ronald (Shorty) Beasley and Charles (Brother) Kelly Jr. climb up to the tops of houses to clean leaves out of drains and trim tree branches that have grown too close to rooftops.

"You got me?" Shorty asks now, commencing to lean his industrial fire hydrant of a body out over a ledge maybe 30 feet from street level in Northwest Baltimore.

"I got you," says Brother. He's strapped a belt-like piece of material around Shorty's waist and has anchored himself on the far side of the roof and is holding firm. It's a picture not for the faint of height.

"I love it," says Shorty, for reasons not immediately clear.

"Not me," says Brother. He shakes his head slowly and tries not to notice how far he is from earth. A stiff wind slices across his face. He does not share the views of the deadpan comic Steven Wright, who declared: "some people are afraid of heights. Not me. I'm afraid of widths."

Brother doesn't like the heights, but he goes up anyway. He climbs an aluminum ladder into the air like somebody who's been asked to make his way back down by diving into a glass of water. He does this every day in fall, fighting back the waves of dread. This is the time of year when, in the drain spout cleaning business, you either make your living or you take an autumn leave of absence.

"I got four kids," Brother says, flexing his thick, muscular body, "so it's something I gotta do. That's all."

"Not me," says Shorty. "I love it. I love the physical part. Love climbing up on the roof, love being up here with the weather."

Below them, yards are filled with leaves. On this city street, teen-agers move door to door looking for a few bucks. . . . Wait a minute, this is 1992! They're seeking what feels like extortion money! . . . To rake the leaves from the homes of grown men incapable of tearing themselves from televised football games.

Shorty and Brother do the raking, too, but their specialty is above ground, where the leaves gather in spouts and the tree branches have grown so much over the summer that they're now threatening roof tiles and windows.

Some days are better than others. On this day, the wind blusters its way across rooftops and gives Shorty a little balance trouble. He's got his body at about a 45-degree angle over a backyard sniping away at branches from rooftop's edge.

The branches do not immediately yield to the hacking, and so he dangles his body farther out and hacks again. Brother holds tight from a distance. The roof tiles are a little slippery beneath Shorty's feet. The wind is playing tricks with his balance. Far below, the ground beckons.

"Don't lose me," Shorty says, mostly talking to himself. Over the five years he and Brother have been doing this, a kind of unspoken choreography has taken over. The two are bound not only in making a living, but in staying alive.

"If it's steep, or if I have to lean out to cut those branches, I put my life in Brother's hands," Shorty says. "That's why I go 50-50 with him. He gets his money, and we don't argue about nothing. He gets his way."

The two of them laugh at this: a little gravity-defying humor. Sometimes, they've been atop roofs when rain has fallen. They stay. Sometimes, darkness descends. They finish their work. Sometimes, there is lightning.

"We go," Brother says. "For lightning we come down in a hurry."

Some roofs are easier than others, and some homeowners are too.

Once, given an address to clean some drains, they went to the wrong house. They did a beautiful job, but the owner said, "who asked you?" and refused to pay. And the people next door, who'd originally asked for the cleaning, changed their minds.

"So neither one paid us," Shorty says. "It's just one of those things you live with."

"Let 'em clean their own drains," says Brother. "They'll see how tough it is."

He should know. A cold wind ripples now, and Brother stifles a shudder. It's a long way back to the ground. It's tough making a living up on the roof.

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