She was black, from Jamaica, a woman past 30 who came to the U.S. in 1980 to escape a hard life. He was white, a few years younger, a railroad engineer and Solidarity agitator in Poland who fled to the West in 1981, just four months before the imposition of martial law. They met in Brooklyn at a party thrown by her sister on Christmas Eve, fell in love, and five months later got married.
Skin color never entered into it.
Newlyweds Joyce and Chris Kalkucki made their way to Lincroft, where they worked as domestics for a surgeon. That didnt last. Chris’s English was iffy, but he had superb skills with wood, and metal, and electronics even. There was no shop he couldnt hold his own in, or quickly learn to; he laughingly calls himself one of the miracle children of the Communist era. He found a job at a stair-building company. Not long into it, I basically came to the conclusion that theres pretty decent demand for stairs here, he says.
Joyce did housework for a woman in Holmdel who, when she learned about Chriss skills and his desire to go out on his own, put him in touch with Jerome Morley Larson, an architect/developer in Red Bank who was then building a riverfront project called The Bluffs.
Larson took a chance on the squat, muscular man with the Andrei Codrescu stops in his diction, giving him a single staircase assignment. This wasnt charity, or even much of a risk, as Larson saw it. If Chris had done a lousy job on the first stair, Larson says, he wouldnt have done a second.
This was not a stairs-from-a-box job. The Bluffs were swank and idiosyncratic, and practically every staircase involved a curved stringer, the outside support timber for the steps. As Kalkucki didnt have a shop, Larson let him build the stairs on-site. It was an unusual arrangement, but in the end, worth Larsons trouble. Kalkuckis work turned out to be of a quality Larson wasnt used to seeing from the trades.
Hes a craftsman, Larson says.
Kalkucki got the job to do all the staircases on The Bluffs, and set up shop in space rented from Larson on West Street. This was my first break, Chris says. I was able to capitalize on it and reinvest.
The Kalkuckis were in business. They had a house on Sunset Ave. And all this happened by 1983.
Since 1990, their company, B&C Custom Wood Stairs and Rail, has been located at the corner of Drs. James Parker Blvd. and Bridge Ave., on Red Banks West Side, just around the corner from their home. For the past ten years, the Kalkuckis have owned the building. They have a 23-year-old son, Keith, whos on a nuclear submarine with the Navy. Their daughter, Christina, is 21 and works with the business.
The company has eight employees. With some ups and downs by season, business has pretty much been booming, thanks to all the home renovations going on. B&C doesnt do cookie-cutter, mass-produced work; its all custom. Some jobs cost $5,000, others $75,000.
The Kalkuckis like being part of the West Side, where a surge in the immigrant population, mostly of Hispanics, has displaced many African-Americans of long residence. Joyce, an immigrant with black skin that her white husband does not see, is not at all conflicted about this. Seated at her desk, where she runs the business end of B&C, she voices her opinions, come what may. Too many of the black people she saw when she moved here were lazy, she says. There were able-bodied men hanging out in front of Cocos bar, drinking and doing drugs. By contrast, more of the HispanicsJoyce calls them the Spanishwork hard and make the rent. The Spanish, she says, will come in with their money every month, no matter how bad it is.
Cocos is gone now. A floor-covering business that replaced it failed, and the storefront has been empty for several years. But the drug users are gone, too. There are some townhouses across the street nothing spectacular, but better than blight. And all over the West Side are new restaurants and businesses and homes. Property values and rents are soaring. Three years ago, Joyce and Chris sold the house next door to the shop, which they used to rent out for $900 a month. Joyce heard recently that the new owner is charging twice that.
No one has ever broken into the staircase shop or even tried. Joyce has some mild complaints about the borough government and its regard, or lack thereof, for the West Side. I think everybody has forgotten about us over here, she says. Id like to see a little more attention to usfix up the roads a bit. But she agrees that things are changing for the better, and B&C is part of that. The Kalkuckis have lately been sprucing up the exterior of their building with new stucco and windows, and have plans for a nice fence maybe next year. Its our Taj Mahal, Joyce says, chuckling. Were not millionaires. Maybe after we sell the building we will be. Not that they have any plans to do so.
Chris English, by the way, is now impeccable, each word a hand tool hes mastered. “I guess ‘challenge’ is my middle name,” he says.
Jerome Larson believes he knows the secret to the Kalkuckis success, and it takes just a couple of words to describe. Its called sheer, hard work.