Tuesday, April 15, 2008
The Aqua Mustang 7 - COMMUNITY?
I knew this period on West 25th, in the time before the subway vision and the aqua Mustang journeys, to be an in-between time. But between what and what I was not clear – past and future both now entering realms of mystery.
An unshaven tiny old Hispanic man started a bicycle repair business in front of my building. He squatted on the sidewalk, bits and pieces and parts of bicycles and screws and nuts and wrenches spread out in front of him, frames and wheels chained to the sturdy post of a sign that tried to explain New York’s alternate side of the street parking rules. The tiny old man always had open bottles in paper bags, but was seen as so reliable that some women on the block trusted him to watch their children.
Across the way, on the corner of 8th & 25th, a new Korean run grocery opened, and people in the neighborhood who had not met before bought flowers and fruit there and talked to each other around the salad bar/ hot dish section. I began to know my neighbors, which seemed hopeful if strange. In the time I was seeing none of the hundreds of people I knew in Manhattan from my times living there, which by now spanned nearly 30 years.
A confident woman in the apartment next to me worked an airlines counter out at the airport. Her husband, a dark, jolly Venezuelan, was studying for an accounting degree, for which I helped him with his papers. Sometimes he came over in the uniform of a Central Park soccer team. Sometimes he was in ski gear, ready, with the paper done, to head to Cortina Valley in the Catskills. A couple on the 4th floor, small, round regurlar people I might not have noticed in another time talked in the elevator of how they too go upstate. They had just collided with and killed a deer, totaling their car. It sounded like something happening a thousand miles away.
When the Korean grocery man waved as I went by and said “Have a nice day,” I felt my eyes water, as if this were something meaningful, some actual new life, or model of a life, in which I might be surrounded by people I loved and trusted. Feeling the possibility of it, for I also knew that I might be one of many customers who looked alike to him. Sometimes his pretty young daughter was there between her art classes around the corner at F.I.T. Seeing her took me deep into my past.
For a year I had been a cliché figure, a divorced man living nowhere – borrowed places – friends couches, a maid’s room on 87th St., a stifling condo off season in Florida on the edge of the Everglades, a fancy renovated coop loft in the popular new Flat Iron district with fancy people from my not always fancy international past, a dirt encrusted illegal loft on Canal Street, where I rendezvoused with a woman from 30 years back who flew in from California, and neither of us could accept who and what we had become. She noticed, as she had 30 years ago, that I had no permanent abode.
I had arrived on this block as a boarder – another cliché figure – via an old friend who knew someone who knew a warm hearted Puerto Rican woman who rented rooms illegally in a sprawling rent control apartment in a long low-rise Bronx-style building. She knew everyone on the block, and was kind to everyone, though she was also, like the ladies she sat with in folding chairs on the sidewalk, a great fan of a drug-crazed young man named Bernie Goetz who had just made headlines for shooting young black men in the subway. She was also a great fan of Ronald Reagan though she was the very sort of person this genial old molester was attempting to do in. She had mastered many government aid programs, and distributed food from them – mostly gigantic blocks of cheese, to whoever wanted it, needy or not, on the block. She alerted me to the rent stabilized apartment across the street that just became free, so I had a place of my own again.
One night a naked woman, haggard face and young bouncing body, ran into the street. Rather than gawk or hoot the neighbors wrapped her in a blanket, stayed with her till hospital help arrived.
Chelsea was getting the reputation now, 1986, of being a chi-chi new neighborhood with an appeal to fashionable people, especially gays – yet the second most successful new business near me after the Korean store was a dingy Greek coffee shop. Across Eighth there were still stores that seemed out of my distant childhood – ice cream that was decades away from Hagan Daaz, a shoe store selling Thom McCann shoes, facing a very old store for non-designer fabric by the yard. And there was a faded, linoleum-lined place run by very old people who overcooked flat hamburgers separately.
Behind the stores across 8th were the massive, identical buildings of the International Ladies Garment Workers union, greenery and benches and big spacious apartments inhabited by a mixture of very old union members or their surviving spouses, and younger people who years ago had gotten on waiting lists as the old ILGWU people began dying off.
One intriguing aspect of my building was its facade, decorative concrete that made it look like a replica of something you would see in Venice.
Rita was always on our block as was Freddy the super, a huge round man who, like so many here, had lived on the block since birth. He was usually seen in silhouette walking down the center of 25th Street, tilting from side to side, one thick arm stretched out daintily to hold a leash attached the world’s smallest dog. It was all so different from the more obviously colorful but unanchored places of my past. And so clearly this was the place where, in ways I could not delineate, I knew my life would change like night turning to day or vice versa.