EAST 140th STREET SOUTH BRONX …There’s No Place Like Home !

| August 8, 2012 | Comments (0)

I live on East 140th Street in the South Bronx. The tonier name for the neighborhood is Mott Haven. When I moved here  fourteen years ago, I had some posh stationery printed up that included “Mott Haven” in the letterhead  logo.  Now, that stationery has been used up and I see no need to put on airs about living in a Camelot called Mott Haven when the reality is: I live in the South Bronx, plain and simple.   I guess in the past fourteen years I have become a tad defiant about my address and where I live ! Love me, love my Bronx !

I live on a leafy block bound by Willis Avenue to the West and Brook Avenue on the East.  If the trains are running without a hitch, by taking the  6 line I can be at Grand Central in just over 15 minutes. So even though we are not in Manhattan, I tell my friends I am an honorary Broadway Baby !

This morning I was awakened  from a wine-induced slumber in my third-floor bedroom by the snarl of pitt bulls. No, we don’t have such creatures roaming about our house; those canine sounds rose  to my window from the neighbor’s back yard, two houses to the east. Still blinking, I look through the window blinds and see three dogs tethered  on short chains, trying to move about. It seems  my neighbor’s grandson is breeding dogs. But why must they be kept on short leashes ? Is he training them to be cruel fighters ?

The  pitt bull house is inhabited by a black family and includes at least four generations. The Big Mama of the house, who is said to have been a seamstress for the late society doyenne, Brooke Astor, moved there from the projects down the block before we arrived in the neighborhood. Presumably she owns the house which is the same size as our brownstone, the big difference being: whereas we are TWO people rattling around in our four storeys, there seem to be dozens of people living in Big Mama’s house, family members, friends. visitors. A steady stream of human traffic comes and goes, up and down Big Mama’s front steps. It reminds me of my adopted country, Indonesia where there are always people about and one is never lonely.

In front of Big Mama’s house, as is the case with most other dwellings on the block, there is a lot of “stoop action”, people hanging out on the front steps, lounging in folding chairs on the sidewalk, chatting, playing music, drinks in brownpaper bags being consumed. Particular attention is given by the “stoopsters” to the act of car parking which is a much indulged-in activity on our block given the city’s alternate-side parking rules that dictate the moving of cars every two days to accommodate  those useless monsters called street cleaners.

Every other day, one side of the street is to be emptied of cars so these behemoths with gigantic brushes can whisk the street clean. The only problem is: they don’t do the job they were designed for. Debris that finds its way to the road seems to be merely re-arranged and re-distributed by the street cleaning trucks to a different location a foot or two from its original resting place. The other morning I tested the efficacy of those giant brushes by putting a piece of newspaper on the street. After the cleaning monster had come and gone, that piece of paper was still on the blacktop; the only difference being it was wet. I think the planted scrap of paper contained the obituary of Gore Vidal. Gore would have been proud that even a two-ton street-cleaner could not remove his likeness from the road !  (Note to the Mayor of New York City: sell all these trucks and import a thousand Indian street sweepers from the lanes and alleys of Calcutta; they’ll do a much better job and we won’t have to move our cars.)

In any event, the parking of cars is a much-watched activity and keeps the stoopsters busy,  kibbitzing during late morning hours for most of the week. Their running commentary as cars park and re-park is not unlike a sports-caster following an Olympic event. The stoopsters are mainly male, predominantly black and don’t appear to be gainfully employed since they populate the stoops during what are normally considered weekday working hours, 9-5. The main reason we got rid of our car, a cute little silver Honda that we dearly loved, is I could not stand the stress and pressure that came with parking under the watchful eyes and wagging tongues of the stoopsters. Tight city parking is no easy task and I do pride myself on being an expert in navigating my vehicle into the tiniest of spaces. The only thing is, bumper-kissing is inevitable; you cannot park on a crowded city street without sometimes touching the cars in front and behind you.

The stoopsters who station themselves by Big Mama’s house are particularly exigent observers of how cars are parked. Needless to say, a number of Big Mama House inhabitants are car-owners. One of her grand-daughters – or is she a great grand-daughter ? She must be around 20 years-old – owns a shiny, new Lexus. Another female off-spring has an imposing SUV. At least ten pairs of eyes are glued on me and my pitiable Honda when I extricate my vehicle and re-park it. Even when the tenderest bumper kiss occurs – when my car touches the fender of the Lexus, a Hallelujah chorus erupts from the stoop and, like as not, Big Mama’s  grand-daughter emerges from the house,  a frown on her face, hands on hips, her  three-inch painted  fingernails digging into her skin tight jeans (how DOES she get into those pants ?), glowering at me while I  execute  my vehicle removal. And ofcourse,  when my little Honda does kiss her Big Lexus, all hell breaks loose.  Even the softest tap threatens legal action.  “You damage ma car and I’m gonna sue your ass !” You would have thought I had engaged in date rape ! She wishes….

I like some of Big Mama’s  “family” and I’m not too crazy about other members of her household.  Her son, Jeff-Jeff is likeable and always dresses in red. He must be in his mid-30s and, on a good day, stands around 6 feet tall. His  imposing pot belly is testament to his being a regular customer of McDonald’s and White Castle and to his sedentary life style. Jeff-Jeff usually appears on the stoop around 10 AM and hangs out till dinner time. We have amiable chats and he tells me how when he was a teenager, he was almost tapped for basket ball stardom. As he waddles back to the stoop after giving me a good-morning hug, I think, “You’ve come a long way since your basket ball days, Jeff-Jeff.”

Another member of  Big Mama’s coterie is Wally. He is tall, athletic, handsome and courtly and I must admit I have a crush on him. He is my favorite person on the block. Probably in his late forties by now, last year Wally’s hair suddenly started going white. Is that what happens to black men in their late 40s ? It seems to be happening to our President !

Jeff-Jeff’s sister is a piece of work. Seesy, by name, she likes to hit the bottle. One evening our paths crossed as she staggered up the street and snarled at me, “Get outta my way, you white homo mother-fucker.” Racism and homophobia are alive and well on our block !

Most of the other neighbors on the block are latinos of one provenance or another. There are Puerto Ricans, Mexicans, a black guy from Honduras. Friendly and eager to chat as latinos are wont to be, I was glad for a certain period to have the opportunity to practice my spanish with them. Far better than the Spanish classes I took at the United Nations, these street encounters were the real thing where I learned useful phrases and interesting slang.

Alas ! My chats with the latino neighbors have ceased. It seems that word has gotten out that I am queer and they no longer speak to me. As we say in Spanish, “Me dan la espalda.” They give me their back. When I walk down the block, they turn away from me and no longer give me the time of day. No “Que Paso’s ?” or “Buen Dias!” Just silent stares.  Probably when I was younger this would have bothered me. Today it doesn’t. There’s something about being 73 years old that is comforting. I’ve been there, done that, seen it all and experienced almost everything. Smoked heroin and danced with Henry Ford II’s daughter at a Wilmington, Delaware  debutante ball for a DuPont ingenue ; flown on the Concorde twice and shook  hands with the King of Bhutan ! Attained Nirvana and came back to this flophouse world for a little more nasty action ! There ain’t nuthin’ I haven’t done, Baby. Probably half of those latino stoopsters are closet queers anyway, I tell myself ! The joke’s on them. If you haven’t tried it, don’t knock it! Christopher Hitchens famously said picnics, champagne, anal sex and Proust were over-rated. At least he was 75% right !

But back to the pitt bulls. As I watch them from my third-floor bedroom window looking down as they strain on their tight, short chains, howling and barking, I am tempted to knock on Big Mama’s door and ask her if she knows how those dogs are suffering.  But I guess I am a coward. I might run into Seesy or the long-nailed Lexus owner.

I suppose Voltaire was right when he said, “Il faut cultiver son propre jardin”, or words to that effect. “Cultivate your OWN garden”, mind your own business and don’t mess with the neighbors.

It may sound strange , having written these words above, but I still love my street. At least it’s not boring and  the antics of the stoopsters give me something to write about ! Remind me to tell you about the “cane people.” that army of able-bodied young men who walk my street wielding canes, hanging out when they should be working. The Bronx is the “poorest” county in the United States.

Could the reason be: why work when you can get welfare? I’m just tellin’ it like it is. If you don’t believe me, come and live in my ‘hood.

The influx of Mexicans to the neighborhood is refreshing. They are hard-working, happy people. Even with  almost no knowledge of English, they are not deterred. They open streetside taco stands and hawk cheerfully from vegetable carts, they sell giant hunks of watermelon and helados, shaved  ice flavored with mango syrup.  Old-fashioned immigrants who aren’t afraid of work. I just hope they don’t get hooked on the welfare drug and become navel-gazing, self-pitying stoopsters.

South Bronx, warts and all, I love ya !




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