The Mayor of Ryer Avenue
Hello Everybody: Hope your Thanksgiving Day left you with a heart full of gratitude for the wonderful hours spent with family and friends. I know mine did.
What follows, is another clip from the cutting room floor. An incident that happened the day I went back to Ryer Avenue searching for my roots, or, more specifically, searching for what had been my first home, what social scientists call the "uber" place. When I left you lastweek, I had found myself on the block, with no one around. Here goes!
About to call it quits, I’m chucking the Cyber-shot under the front seat when an architectural detail of the building at 2108 Ryer catches my eye—a foot-wide band of multi-colored bricks providing a garland effect around the entrance way. A detail original to the building that I feel certain my mother would have noticed, as we went and out on errands each day.
Thankfully, she would not have seen that polythermoplastic front door that has bout as much charm as a bulletproof shield. What we have here, between the door, the intercom and the industrial lighting, is a case of security trumping aesthetics. The thought of having spent my dim dewy years in this dump is downright depressing. But at that very down spirited moment, in mind’s eye, in mind's eye, I catch sight of my parents leaving the building.
Sunday morning. Ed and Veronica hurrying to Mass at the Church of St Simon Stock. My father—dark wavy hair, laughing blue eyes— is wearing his Sunday best suit, a navy-blue serge with deep-cuffed trousers and soft pleats. A Knights of Columbus pin on his lapel glints in the morning sun. When a breeze kicks up, my mother—the Bette Davis eyes, the Elizabeth Taylor brows tapering to feathered lines at the outer edges— tugs the brim of a cloche to keep it from rolling like tumbleweed down the street. Hurry, you’re going to be late, I whisper.
The nostalgic pipe-dream aside, beauty and charm are hard to come by in the neighborhood. A patina of grime suggests that the residents are none too finicky about appearances.
Hey, Miss. Why you takin’ pitchers of that buildin’?
My eyes tiptoe the street to where a thirty-something guy, arms akimbo, is dropping his terminal endings into the gutter. I pretend to pay him no mind, if secretly pleased to be mistaken for a Miss.
With the compact build of a gymnast, he swaggers toward me, as if he's the mayor of Ryer Avenue. Ducking behind a panel truck, hoping to keep out of his line of vision, I’m giving myself a pep talk: What’s it to him what I’m doing? Does he suspect I’m from the Department of Housing, investigating complaints about no heat, no hot water? Does he take me for a reporter working on a piece on the corrupt practices of slumlords for the NY Post?
Hey, Miss! Ya’ hear me? I aks you, why you takin’ pitchers?
Trying to paper over my irritation at his mispronunciations, I jerk my thumb over my shoulder in the direction of the building, For your information, I’m taking pic-tures of the building because I once lived here. Wahja’ say? I said…I once lived here.
As he lumbers toward me in a modified simian gait, the eyes darting from me to the building and back again, it dawns on me that this business of tracking memories in the South Bronx is nutty. What’s the point? I lived here, so what? Hey, Miss, he says, his eyes sliding from a string of pearls topping a robin’s-egg-blue sweater down past the Not-Your-Daughter’s-Jeans to a pair of Thierry Rabotin leopard flats. Whatcha’ doing?
Judging from the look on his face, what I thought sensible attire for a day of sleuthing might be over the top. If so, put the blame on Nancy Drew, she who dashed around River Heights in sundresses with matching jackets, the white gloves and purse at the ready. Nancy told her friends that if they dressed well, doors would open for them.
With a measure of calculated bravado—the left hand turning over palm up, a conciliatory gesture—I ask: What’s your problem? Doesn’t anyone take pictures around here? When we lived here years ago, the neighbors would stand right here on those steps posing for pictures. All the First Communions and Confirmations, Bar mitzvahs and Bat mitzvahs, graduations and birthdays. You're talking about a million Polaroid moments.
The grand inquisitor scratches his head: You lived here? Where? Lowering my voice, hoping to add a note of intrigue to the encounter, I tell him that I no longer recall the floor or the apartment. All I remember is a bright sunny bedroom, most likely facing the east. Rocking back and forth on his heels, his bottom teeth clamped over his upper lip, he remains deep in thought, if only for a moment. Pearls or no pearls, I’m hoping he doesn’t take me for a snooty dame with attitude.
Hooking his thumbs on the belt, he hitches up his pants, rolling his shoulders backwards in one of those exaggeratedly male gestures. Like John Wayne squaring off with a bunch of rustlers on the range. What’s your problem?
No problem, but youse don’t sound like youse from around here, he says, Whereja’ get dat aksent? Of course, the accent! Why hadn’t I thought of that. Some people say it sounds Tennessee Southern, others say cut-glass British. I assure him that I, too, once had a NewYawk accent. Said things like fuggedaboutit. Drank cawfee. Bought fillim for my camera. Hoped to go to Bermuder one day. Until I took a course in accent reduction. Change your accent, change your life, I tell him brightly. Anyone can do it. You could, too, if you wanted to, I say disingenuously, keeping a smile under wraps.
Ya know, some of dese apartments get lotsa’ light. Wanna’ see one? What’s he talking about? Going upstairs with him to see an empty apartment, his apartment? Does he think I’m here to rent? No matter how eager I may be to corroborate the details of the layout of the apartment, I balk thinking about tomorrow’s headline in the Daily News: Manhattan Dame Murdered in Tremont Tenement.
Riveted to a gummy spot, I rub my arms, stamp my feet, and wish I had not left my trench coat in the car. Doing a rapid-fire calculation on the back of my eyelids, I’m trying to figure the odds of taking him up on his offer—of walking through that unattractive doorway, climbing the stairs, making my way down a corridor missing its light bulbs, passing jimmied mailboxes awaiting the next batch of government checks, entering an apartment that may or may not have been mine and may or may not be his, and then living to tell the tale. Slim to none.
A note of pseudo-exasperation creeps into my voice: See it? What do you mean see it? Reaching into his pocket, he pulls out a key ring and, dangling it in front of my face, says: I’ve got a key. Is this a heaven-sent opportunity or a devilish trap? With those chocolate-bar abs, he sure doesn’t look like any other superintendent I’ve seen. I stall, hoping a tenant might go in or out or that a neighbor might pass by and call his name. Something to reassure me he is who he says he is, not some run-of-the-mill weirdo.
With the street as quiet as a tomb, I pepper him with questions about the layouts and amenities: are there black-and-white tiles the size of nickels in the bathrooms? a door with glass panels separating the bedroom from the living room? parquet flooring in the foyer? linoleum in the kitchen? You wanna’ go round back? See the fire escapes?
Setting off ahead of me, he waves a hand over his shoulder indicating I should follow. Not wanting to appear rude or give the impression I don’t trust him, I take a few tentative steps toward an alley steeped in perpetual gloom. Only to read another headline: Bronx Slasher At Large.
That’s awfully nice of you, but I saw the back of the building coming up Valentine Avenue earlier, I say skipping any mention of the threadbare tires, broken beer bottles, and mattresses too lumpy for any self-respecting bum to lie on. In The Clue in the Old Album, Nancy Drew insisted that a kindly approach and a sincere demeanor would encourage others to volunteer information that might prove critical to an investigation. Hang in there, little tomato!
Wait, wait a second, I say. here’s something I want to show you. Opening the trunk of the cart, I pull out a few art supplies – a Dixon Ticonderoga No. 2 graphite pencil, a transparent twelve inch ruby-red rule, a packet of Olde World Parchment Paper that’s perfect for certificates, diplomas, and greeting cards, and a couple of colored pencils—and sketch the layout of the apartment as best I can. This sketching business takes him by surprise. He watches closely as silky graphite lines appear on the off-white paper.
Yeah, we got some like that. With Kelvinator refrigerators, you know, the old-fashioned kind with the coils on top? Kelvinator? No way, we have G.E, top of the line. You wanna see ‘em?
Chilled to the bone, I tell him that I have another appointment, maybe some other time. At which he kicks a cigarette butt into the gutter, saying: Nah, come on, I’ll show you an apartment.
Does he take me for a complete nincompoop? Everyone knows that con men and serial killers can be charismatic one minute, deadly the next. Next time, I counter. You’re here now, he says, an eyebrow arching.
With January knifing through my sweater, I hop back into the car, trying to convince myself that had the place not been such a dump, I would have gone upstairs. Would have displayed more courage. Of course, there’s no deed to ask myself what that fearless super-sleuth Nancy would have done. A rap on the windshield brings me out of my reverie, the super asking: Change your mind?
No, no, I say, making a show of straightening out the glove compartment, tearing up a couple of expired insurance cards. What’s with this guy, has he nothing better to do?
Okay, guys and gals, that's it for today. If you were looking for this post early Sunday morning, my apologies. We can blame that on a computer crash last Friday. Next Next Sunday, it’s back to bopping around Manhattan, as I have some new findings to share with you. Until then, thanks for stopping by. And remember …sharing is caring!