Wednesday, August 06, 2008

The Flop House

My near-decade in the Bronx, spanning the fall of 1987 through the spring of 1997, was spent in a boarding house. I recall while working in advertising in the early 90s, one of the guys in the office who knew my set-up, asking me about my life up there, with the introductory question: “So, how are things going back at the flop house?”

I’m not even sure how much boarding houses even exist now, but that was the image of many of them: big old mansions that had seen better days, an elderly owner who rented out rooms to drunks, traveling workmen, shady characters who paid in cash and lurked in shadows. The guys at work could have thought whatever they wanted. My rent, at first was $180/month. By the time I left, after living about three years in the largest room, was $320/month. I was saving money there hand over fist. My last two years there, I was making over $50K a year … do the math on how much money I was banking.

(Of course, I’d burn through nearly all of it a few years later when I ditched the ragged corporate job I was at and took an entire summer off to get my head on straight. Money flies out the door when your rent goes from $320 to $640/month plus utilities. It’s just now that I’m starting to surpass the amount of money I had saved up by the spring of 1997, which is a good feeling.)

That boarding house was hardly a flop house by traditional standards. It was run by Eddie, a Puerto Rican guy in his mid-30s at the time who had lived in one of the rooms himself and bought the house from the old Irish woman who had owned it before him. He lived there on the ground floor with his sister and son, gather he was divorced although I never saw his ex-wife. He had two floors of rooms above him he rented out, four on the second floor, two on the top, bathroom on each floor, a kitchen on the top.

You’d be surprised how little a kitchen and bathroom mean to you when you live in a situation like that. I’m sure a kid in a dorm room or sharing with roommates could tell you the same. That seemed to be the sticking point with people when I told them how I was living: but you don’t have your own bathroom and kitchen. Well, you take a few minute to shit every day, a few to shower, and probably no more than half an hour in a kitchen, unless you’re into cooking. It wasn’t that big a deal.

The house was high on a hill overlooking the Harlem River and northern tip of Manhattan, of which there was a great view from the kitchen window. Eddie also had a backyard, although we never used it as it had fallen into a sort of storage area for various tools Eddie used for his job working for the parks. That part of the Bronx, the northern part of Sedgwick Avenue, was once a ritzy Jewish neighborhood in the 20s and 30s, mansions and apartment buildings, that had fallen into disrepair over the years, particularly after the white flight from the Bronx of the 60s and 70s. Physically speaking, the lay of the land in that area was beautiful: rolling hills, wide streets, a lot of vegetation. It grated on me to see it covered in graffiti and junk, just a real negative sign of what was allowed to go on there. Broken glass and dogshit was the norm, and through the early 90s, crack vials were all over the sidewalks. They were harder to see, but you’d often hear them crunch under your feet as you walked.

Despite not being a flop house, the boarding house had its fair share of characters. There was Mikey, who lived in the big room upstairs, a Dominican cab driver with puffy eyes and a butterfly tattooed on his chest. You could see the tattoo because he’d often walk around in a red silk bathrobe opened just enough to show it off. I was never quite sure what Mikey’s story was, but he seemed reasonably responsible and had a slew of girlfriends he worked his way through before moving out.

Next door to him was Manny, who I wrote about years ago in this piece. Manny Upstairs. Old Irish guy working for decades in various subway token booths. (For those who can’t recall, this used to be a very dangerous job, with a very bad spate of incidents of token-booth workers either being set on fire or shot in various robbery attempts. This sort of brazen crap hasn’t happened in a very long time in NYC, or at least I haven’t been aware.) As the story referenced notes, Manny was prone to drinking too much and becoming an oddly-annoying drunk as opposed to abusive and weird. A gentle, old soul who valued his privacy and seemed, to me at least, to be pretty happy with his life despite any number of negative readings one might be tempted to apply to him. I learned a lot from Manny about personal happiness: that it’s yours to define, not anyone else’s. And if someone’s trying to define yours for you … that’s someone who needs a new hobby. I’ll always remember him striding down the sidewalk early in the morning as the sun rose, coming off his graveyard shift in some godforsaken subway station in the Bronx, smiling, whistling, carrying a copy of The Daily News and tipping his cap, an old white guy walking alone without fear in a place where no one would have expected it.

Annie lived across the hall from me for a long time, a woman from Trinidad who was milking her student VISA for as long as possible, doing nanny work, and hoping to find a real job that would allow her to stay (she eventually did) and bring her son over. We had a minor fling – she looked a bit like the singer Sade – but probably thought better of it since her situation was up in the air. A good person – kind-hearted, friendly, from what I’ve gathered a very Caribbean vibe about her in a good way.

The room next to me at first was a young white guy who smoked a few packs a day: I had to have Eddie put on an extra wood barrier through a boarded-up space between our apartments that cigarette smoke would sometimes creep through. Not a bad guy, save for the incessant cancer haze around him. Thankfully, he simply disappeared one day. His girlfriend somehow got my phone number and called me a few weeks later, asking if I knew what had happened to him, and I surely didn’t. Either he met with a bad fate, which should have produced a body, or he just skipped out on his life, maybe the one guy in the place who had the true boarding house spirit.

He was replaced by an old guy who wandered everywhere during daylight hours. Another salty old Irishman like Manny, save he never drank and was living on some sort of military pension. I’d occasionally see him walking miles from the house in places like Inwood and parts of Harlem, where I’d be riding my bike. Like most old people, and the sane, he avoided sundown in the Bronx like a Transylvanian villager, making sure he was safe at home by this time. I generally found it a good idea to get home before 10 or 11 at night. At which time, the Bronx became populated with kids who were either up to no good or simply should have had better parents.
The sundown rule wasn’t a bad one to follow.

A few strays passed through the house, too. Like the Indian cab driver who seemed like a nice enough guy, but when Eddie kicked him out due to his inability to make rent for a few months, he found three pots filled with rotting/decaying rice under his bed that were just about to enter “where’s the corpse” levels of odor emission.

The oddest by far was a white guy from Boston in his 20s who hit New York to make it big as a comedian. He looked and acted a lot like Keith Moon, a basically friendly person, but he seemed desperately irresponsible. Much like a real rock star, he had a staggeringly beautiful, ethereal girlfriend who visited him every other week, generally to fight tempestuously and make-up via long-distance phone calls. When I say fight, I mean to the point of him bolting off an exiting subway train and leaving his Snow White-style girlfriend to fend for herself in terms of finding her way back to the house, which was a cruel, stupid thing to do. Don’t think this guy realized how foul the Bronx can get circa two in the morning for someone lost, especially a white girl who looked like she just walked off the screen of an animated Disney flick. I recall him being despondent one night as he listened to Al Green’s version of “Unchained Melody” on the radio. Like most comedians, the guy was morose when not engaged in the act of being funny. He ended up living in the back cab of his pick-up truck for a few weeks on the lonely, crack-whore stretch of highway behind the house, which was another dumb/dangerous thing to do. I was grateful when I was saw his pick-up finally gone a few weeks later.

I look back on those years as one big learning experience. I learned a lot about race relations, the kind of things you can’t learn until you’ve lived as a minority in a given place. Most white people won’t ever forfeit their unspoken/unacknowledged "safety in numbers" vibe and do that – I did it simply by chance. Bragged about it at the time, but I can see now that you peel away the layers, and it’s mostly learning how to read people and situations and respond accordingly, whatever the racial set-up, often with race used as a mask to inspire or hide fear. And living smartly, i.e., recognizing opportunities for stupidity and avoiding them. (And recognizing street trash, who are legion and every color of the rainbow in the 718s of New York, and avoiding them as well.) Call it “street smarts” – you can’t live that long in a place like the Bronx without developing them. (I see white folks new to Astoria all the time who don't have an ounce of street sense and make me cringe with their stupidity, despite the college degrees.) After awhile the “cool” factor of being a solitary white face in a rough inner-city neighborhood wore thin. I’d say that was by about year 5. At which time, I was still saving money hand over fist. It took another five years or so to finally unhinge myself from the desperately cheap rent and realize I wasn' t learning anything worthwhile and had to go.

But I never tired of the boarding house, just the draggy neighborhood around it. I tell myself all the time, yeah, let’s go back, some weekend morning early, before everyone gets up, like it was for my morning runs when I’d do a few miles around the neighboring reservoir and hardly see anybody along the way. But I’ve only been back once since then, and that was within the first year of leaving. I just have no urge to go back there. Which is odd, because much like my college years, there are certain large chunks of my life that are growing increasingly vague in memory because I no longer have a physical connection to the place. With the Bronx, we’re talking almost a decade, most of my 20s, into my 30s.

But I can tell you something about New York, at least for expatriate rural Americans: you rarely get that nostalgic sense of home for neighborhoods you’ve lived in, probably because they’re always such a mixed bag of positives and negatives. I also can’t stand being given the redneck vibe from the locals when I come from a place that blows their moronic faux redneck vibes out of the water in terms of bullshit territoriality. Tom Waits has a song called “Anywhere I Lay My Head” that pretty much sums up the feeling of calling New York “home.” In a lot of ways, it just will never be. Not a bad thing, just different, and takes some getting used to, if you ever do.

1 comment:

Tim said...

Hi Bill, Nice story. I enjoy coming here and reading your posts. Hope you're doing well.