The enigma on North Avenue that has stirred the curiosity of passersby — a roughly 12- by-12-foot tarpaulin weighted down by several rocks and bricks — wasn’t easy to find. My editor had told me to look for “plastic sheeting around a house on the lake side of North Avenue between the Elks Club and the Ethan Allen Shopping Center.” But when I biked by that roughly 250-yard stretch, no such sheeting was in sight. Confused, I dismounted and walked along the sidewalk, finally spotting the piece of plastic that actually doesn’t come close to covering the lawn, let alone surrounding the house.
I called my editor. Are you sure this uninteresting-looking material is what you intended as the focus of this week’s Whiskey Tango Foxtrot? OK, an assignment’s an assignment. But there was nobody to interview at the ranch house with an American flag hanging limply from a pole alongside the garage door. No name on the mailbox, either, although it did bear a number: 973.
In-depth investigative reporting — via the reverse directory at switchboard.com — produced a telephone number for that address, which I called six times over the next three days. No one answered. And so, with time growing desperately short, I returned to the scene on Sunday evening to find the homeowner unpacking his car.
“You’re not the first person to ask about it,” he tells me.
“It’s really nothing amazing. You won’t find Jimmy Hoffa there,” he jokes, motioning toward a bulge at the center of the square. “That’s just some bits of building material.”
The North Avenue tarp hasn’t been in place for nearly as long as Hoffa has been missing — the leader of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters disappeared in 1975 and was declared legally dead seven years later, though the whereabouts of his bones remains a mystery. The tarp has been there for about five years, the owner says. “It’s an uncompleted project,” he adds in an unself-conscious understatement.
The tarp covers pieces of stone that, this homeowner says, he’ll eventually use to construct a wall around a planned flower bed. He keeps the square patch under wraps to prevent anything from growing there. “It’ll make the digging easier,” once he gets around to actually building the wall.
And when might the project be completed?
“Definitely not this year. Maybe next year. Or the year after.”
Procrastination seems to be the man’s hallmark — but not in the case of the tarp itself. He discards the old and rolls out the new whenever he decides that Vermont’s weather has made the plastic unsightly. The owner recalls starting with green plastic, then switching to bright blue and, more recently, to camo — a progression that has further perplexed some New North End commuters.
“It’s looking a little weather beaten now,” he says, seeming to notice for the first time the holes and shreds that almost — but not quite — allow a visitor to see what’s underneath. “Might be time to change it again.”
And that’s all there is to report about the enigma on North Avenue.
Except that I’d been shivering intermittently ever since using the reverse directory, because it had also revealed the name of the home’s occupant: Brian Hennessey. Here comes the weird part of the story.
I had been given the very same name as a nom de plume 30 years earlier. An editor at the Guardian, the New York-based “independent radical newsweekly” that shuttered in 1992, had invented it for me because, she said, “it sounds as Irish as your real name.”
It had been necessary to disguise my byline because of my full-time job at the time: Capitol Hill press secretary. Although the congressman for whom I worked, Rep. Ted Weiss, faithfully represented one of the most liberal districts in the country — the Upper West Side of Manhattan — he probably would have been savaged by his more rabid colleagues were it known that his staff had been infiltrated by a “communist” journalist.
When I told the real Brian Hennessy that he was a character in my personal episode of “The Twilight Zone,” he said he understood why his name had given me the willies. “That’s really strange,” he affirmed.
Hennessey declined to have his picture taken and would not say where he works, but he and I did have a pleasant chat in his driveway. After all, he was wearing a Derek Jeter jersey — and Jeter’s my favorite ballplayer, too.