Sunday, November 4, 2007

Friday, November 4, 1977

Day 24
Psalm 8
We Move

Got up early. Packed up. Fussed, cooked, ate. Aunt Sinah came and we checked out of our hotel. Aunt Sinah had to stop at the garage for a new gas pump. Finally we moved in our apartment. It's dingy, the plaster is falling off, but otherwise it's alright except there's no light, heat, hot water and hardly any water. Went to Kentucky Fried and ate. Came back. Went to bag.

So there you have it... from beautiful, sunny Jamaica and a nice airy house by the sea, to 'Two-Five in the '70's.

The place *was* dingy.

There was a long narrow hallway, maybe 24-30 feet long. Really, only one person at a time could go down the hall. Toward the end of the hall was a window that overlooked airshafts in the building. The tiny bathroom sat at the top of the hallway so that you could literally walk down the hall and straight into the bathroom. On the right was a smallish room that had a fridge and stove. I think there was a tiny piece of a kitchen sink, but I don't remember cabinets or counters of any kind. The large bright window overlooked 'Two-Five. On the left adjacent wall was another window that overlooked an airshaft and the brick wall of the building next door. That room became where the parents slept, as well as where we cooked. On the left side of the hall was a larger, darker room. That became our room. It had three windows in it, but one was on the same side looking onto the brick wall of the building next door, just like in the front room. The back window overlooked an airshaft and the apartment on the other side of the building. The last window also overlooked an airshaft, and the window of an apartment across the hall from us. Eventually, that last apartment became the Professor's and my own apartment, but not for years. The front doors of those two apartments faced each other.

The apartment was at the top of 5 flights of stairs. The good thing about that was that at least we got some light. The bad thing was that later on when the Crack Wars started, we could hear the crackheads running over our heads to come down through our roof door and down our stairs when the cops came to bust the crackhouse next door. But in '77, crack hadn't gotten to Harlem yet; it was still a heroin market and junkies don't move that fast.

It probably hadn't been painted in 30 years, easy. The walls had at one time been blue, but they were covered in a layer of soot. The plaster on the ceiling was peeling so bad that if you looked straight up, it was almost like looking into a cloudy sky. At least that's what I told myself... it looked more like camouflage. The water pressure was exceedingly low--just a trickle. There was no lock on the front door; just two holes where the lock had been and a huge chain anchored to the door frame in the middle link, so that the two ends of the chain ran through the holes in the door. A large heavy silver padlock locked up. When we were inside, the padlock was in the inside of the door, but when we went out, the padlock was on the outside. I still remember the way the heavy chain sounded as it was being threaded into or out of the holes. If you can believe it, we lived with that padlock and chain for YEARS. The professor and I eventually got good at quietly slipping the chain in or out of the holes so that we could sneak friends ( and boyfriends) in or out. Usually out.

There was no electricity or gas. Very little heat, if at all.

I don't know who the owner of the building was back then; some white slumlord. But the super's name was Ozzie Click. Mr. Click was an older darkbrown-skinned man, and a serious alcoholic. I think he had a wife in the very beginning. I'll have to check. I think the deal was that Mr. Click snuck us in, and Poppy was paying him directly.

We had nothing; no beds, no furniture, no money. Pops had the idea to get bagasse board cut to a certain size at the hardware store. For us, I think we only needed two each. He had propped them up off the floor on purple egg crates--he had salvaged them from somewhere. We each had a sleeping bag. The parents zipped theirs together so that it made one big one, but the Professor and I each had our own, even though it probably would have been warmer to share. It was hard... and I was a skinny kid with no padding and later on developed sores on my hips which I never told anyone about. It never occurred to me to complain, really... it's just the way it was. We slept in sleeping bags until I was probably 15 or 16 years old. The summer I was 16 and started working in my boyfriend's bike shop, I bought one of those folding foam chairs popular in the '80's to put under my sleeping bag.

To be fair, as a furniture system for a small apartment, the boards worked really well, since we could pick up the boards and make floor space during the day. If only the padding had been more comfortable.

The words I wrote were a reflection of my mother's thoughts on the apartment. She was NOT happy. But we all knew we couldn't stay at the Gramercy Park indefinitely... and as long as we stayed there, Aunt Sinah would pay the bill. At the daily rate. It must have cost her a fortune, but she REFUSED to pay for a month, or even a week, at a time.

Some of our colorful neighbors included Alice Calhoun who lived in our apartment on the second floor. Miss Calhoun was old. And senile. And violent. And had a million cats. Her apartment contained a smell that could not be believed. She could be frequently heard at the door to her apartment shouting, cursing someone out. She said she was Cherokee, and she looked it. We didn't bother her, though and she didn't bother us. But she was evil. When she died sometime in the early '80's the cops had to go find her body. They walked around with masks on.

Miss Frances lived next door to Miss Calhoun. She never had any kids that we knew, never married. Never said much of anything. She's still there.

On the floor below us, in what would be the apartment next door lived a man who's name escapes me at the moment. He moved after awhile but years later when I lived in New Jersey, I was watching the news and saw he had been arrested for trying to fondle a young girl in the swimming pool in Marcus Garvey Park. I have a story about him but I'll leave that for later.

My parents still live in the same apartment. The walls are much brighter, the ceiling was repaired, the kitchen is actually a kitchen with a sink and cabinets. The parents still fight the layer of soot that swirls around the airshafts off of the street, but it's decidedly better than it was. There has been a succession of slumlords; the only black landlord we had in the '80s once made the New York Daily News Annual Worst Slumlords list (which I think they've discontinued doing), but we got to be friends with his family and so got a few perks here and there. But now the building is owned by a real estate company that has been trying to force out the last remaining original tenants by never emptying the garbage cans in the hall, allowing rat infestations to multiply, only rehabbing those apartments that are empty and leaving the original tenants to suffer with whatever apartment ills they've suffered with.

But that building has a spirit all its own... it's been standing on that corner of 'Two-Five for over a hundred years; I once saw a picture of the corner c. early 1900's and the building was there. Back then it was inhabited by Jewish people and in the picture you see a few people standing outside. The apartments all are weird shapes, and there are two sides to the building with two separate staircases. We still can't figure out what it's original purpose was... a hotel? An office building? As old as it is, it's pretty sound structurally. I often wonder what will become of it, when the slumlords succeed in getting everyone out--if they ever do.

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