In summertime the slums are ripe with yelling, fighting, running, playing children, whose parents can’t afford to send them to camp. Groups of thin, undernourished, underloved and dirty children riotously course the streets, investigating every piece of discarded refuse, rifling sundry garbage cans in search of alluring treasures, wading through slimy and befouled puddles of undrained water, stagnating in the torpid fetid streets. They can be known simply by listening, since most of these children do everything as loudly as possible.
The sound levels related to slum children’s activities are numerous and diverse. They range from a mother’s indignant shrieks of fatal injuries done to a hapless and bewildered urchin on whom the pack turned, to lustily bellowed directions to participants in a stick-ball game. But the most dreadful sound is the agonizing protest screech of brakes, when drivers barely miss some careless, reckless child. Then there is a veritable deluge of imprecation directed at the boy who did not look, before galloping blindly into the gutter.
The fortunate children, bathing suited and full of curses run screaming under the spray of open fire hydrants. The older children control the flow with their hands, turning powerful jets on the buses. When a bus is caught unaware, the frantic yells and attempts of the drenched passengers to close the windows brings loud squeals of delight to the children, who take flight before vengeance can descend. They leave their elders sitting on the stoops and leaning from windows, to enjoy the chaos. This was my first real glimpse of the lower east side.
I had arranged to sublet an apartment on east 14th street for July and August. Since the rent was only $40 a month, this was years before gentrification, I wasn’t too particular about the neighborhood. All I could tell about the area was that the buildings were ancient and decaying. I had only seen the apartment at night for a few moments. It was a railroad flat with a bathtub in the kitchen. The toilet was in a tiny room in the hall, shared by the other tenants on the floor. The surroundings were so novel to me that instead of seeing it as a squalid roach-infested firetrap, I felt the beginnings of my first adventure away from home.
I didn’t have a phone yet and I had to make some calls, so I went down five flights of stairs to the dingy bar downstairs. I could barely see when I went inside. One naked light bulb burned, swinging back and forth on a furry, fraying cord. It cast eerie shadows twisting on the walls in a solemn ritual that reflected on the sawdust floor. The faint light dimly lit the length of the gloomy, ancient bar, casting a feeble glow on an old, weather-beaten bartender talking baseball to a bar-fly. A sodden woman sat hunched and mumbling at a beer-stained table.
The bar occupied the ground floor of the crumbling tenement. I discovered by reading the mailboxes that it was overflowing with Poles and Puerto Ricans. The ghostly room could have been hacked from a razed forest, with stumps of people as the only surviving witnesses to the blaze. Save for the whiskey and beer signs, the layers of dirt, and the almost fossilized people, all that was noticeable was a large screen television broadcasting a baseball game. A prominent sign over the cash register warned: ‘Credit is for Heaven. Pay now.’ The desiccated barkeep stood guard behind the scarred and cigarette-burned bar. “Do you have a pay phone?” I asked politely. He stared at me blankly. “Téléphono, por favor?” I tried. No response. I mimed dialing and said slowly: “Tel-a-phone?” He shrugged and pointed to the back of the room.
With misgivings that I might be entering an astral black hole, I cautiously made my way through the dark room, wondering what could be lurking in the back. After careful groping, guiding myself by running my hand along the greasy wall, I found the phone. It was situated between the aromatic bathrooms and I breathed through my mouth to endure the odor. I made my calls as quickly as I could, then fumbled my way to the front door, where I didn’t pause, saying: ‘Thank you’ over my shoulder to the indifferent bartender.
Once safely outside, I took a deep breath, relieved to have survived the foray into the stygian depths. I climbed the five flights to reach my new home on the top floor, legs aching from the ascent, chest panting from the altitude. I unlocked the apartment door and reached for the light switch. I heard a faint, scurrying sound and the sudden illumination highlighted dozens of cockroaches, fleeing for cover. The flaws in my tenement paradise were rapidly revealing themselves, but the feeling of not being answerable to anyone was intoxicating. I went to bed, still exhilarated from the heady feeling of being alone in my own place. As I was falling asleep, my last thought was that I’d check out my new neighborhood in the morning.
Gary Beck’s recent fiction has appeared in 3AM Magazine, Fullosia Press, EWG Presents, Nuvein Magazine, Vincent Brothers Review, The Journal, Short Stories Monthly, L’Intrigue Magazine, Babel Magazine and Bibliophilos. His poetry has appeared in dozens of literary magazines. His plays and translations of Moliere, Aristophanes, and Sophocles have been produced Off Broadway. He is a writer/director of award-winning social issue video documentaries.
Photo Courtesy of morquefile.
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Story Copyright © 2006 Gary Beck. All rights reserved.