Note: an earlier version of this piece was published in the literary journal Ganymede Fall 2008 and on the website Mr. Beller’s Neighborhood.
They called him the neighborhood watchdog. He was the ancient, antic super of 515 Edgecombe Avenue, an immense, pre-war slab of yellowed bricks and mortar at the corner of 158th Street. His complexion, shaded always by a bibbed cap, was so pale it resembled a whitewashed wall. Forever dressed in a soiled white T-shirt and painter’s pants, he was tiny, built as if he might blow away, but his Cagney-esque air assured you he was no pushover.
His most entertaining feature was his voice. When he spoke in that croaking drawl that reeked of age, whiskey, and cigarettes, he sounded like a pirate set loose in Harlem. That rasp annoyed me on mornings when I was late for the train. Whether I was running or merely walking fast, he’d scrunch up his small toy face, and in that bark on its way to a cough I’d hear, “Ennis, slow down, you’ll kill yourself one day.” In winter, if my coat was open or I was without a hat, you could be sure he’d let me have it: “Young man, you’d better put something on your head.” Always he’d fling the words like someone who’d been deprived of his morning coffee; always I’d toss him a shrug and a stupid grin as I hurried past, piqued at the man’s paternal presumption—as if knowing my name gave him the right. I didn’t know his.
Most mornings, my craggy super sat across the street in Highbridge Park. Often he was with this massive guy whose head belonged on the face of a nickel. He and the Indian made a strange pair, but when I saw them together I was grateful: so focused were they on each other that my passing went unnoticed. By evening he’d be back by the gate at his building’s rear, alone—I assumed the small alley beyond, piled with stacks of lumber and rows of garbage cans, led to his apartment—ready to scold my morning lateness with some variation on “I see you slowed down.” Sometimes he’d drop his admonishments, cornering me instead with neighborhood gossip: who got evicted, who got arrested, who had a fire, or who had a fight. He was a fixture on my street, like the woman who minded the stoop of the building across from his, or the man who went in and out of her apartment, the one who smoked and pitched bootleg DVDs to every passerby. I didn’t know their names either, but I’d say hello. Occasionally the woman on the stoop would tell me how nice I looked as I headed out for work, or a night with friends; once, the smoking man confided he’d been in prison and asked for money. My response was a too smiley “No, sorry,” walking a hair faster in case he didn’t like my answer.
The super’s arrival dovetailed with an unexpected shift in our Harlem Heights landscape. Around 1997, 515 Edgecombe went co-op, something I discovered when the then-super—a decrepit black man, from whose tentacled mustache dribbled bits of crust—accosted me like someone looking to unload hot goods before the feds arrived. After I demurred, he never spoke to me again, which kind of hurt my feelings. How to explain that I was in no position to purchase a doorknocker, let alone property?
Back then I was an actor on a low budget with no assets. My office gig just covered rent, food, Con Ed, phone, cable, and the essential tools of my trade: headshots, acting classes, voice lessons, and the maintenance of my one good suit. It wasn’t just that I’d become adept at the art of living below my means—I was a transplanted Midwesterner mired in the belief that one bought a house, not an apartment.
It was poverty, and an appreciation for old things, that slowed me down one night outside 515 Edgecombe Avenue. The garbage was out, and as someone whose apartment comprised a fair amount of street finds, my heart leapt at the possibilities. Out of the heap of busted chairs, bundled paper, dusty lumber, and garbage bags, two items got my attention: a cement pedestal and an iron grate, its Art Deco curves dotted with minor bits of rust.
Examining the pedestal, I heard a voice over my shoulder. “What cha’ gonna do with that?” The super ambled up, his blue eyes accusing as he pushed his round specs off the tip of his nose.
Nosy and proprietary—I should humor him for fear he’d claim ownership and try to weasel a few bucks. “I could put a plant on top of the pedestal,” I mused, noting the caked mud at its base and a squiggle of graffiti down one side.
He saw the markings too. “Damn kids, I swear they muck up everything.”
“That grate—did it come from one of those windows?”
He flipped it over. “Nah, it’s been in the basement. They’re clearing it out so people can store stuff down there. You used to see ’em everywhere, but people want those new gates…”
“Fire gates,” I said. “I had to buy one of those when I first moved to New York.”
“Yeah, well, guess you need to get out if something happens.” We both laughed at his dark jab. “Nobody likes this stuff anymore. New, new, new, that’s all I hear from these folks here—and the crap they buy still isn’t worth a good goddamn.”
I picked up the grate; it was awkward but manageable. “I’m gonna take it.”
“You want this too?” He ran a cracked dry hand over the pedestal. “It’s heavy as hell.”
“Jesus,” I gasped as I lifted an edge. It must have been the base for a birdbath or a water fountain. Getting it across the street would be one thing, but up five flights? Still, I wanted it. “Let me go change and drop this off, I’ll be right back.”
When I returned, the super was sitting on his stoop, smoking. I tilted the solid cylinder and began to roll it down the street, stopping every few yards to catch my breath. On it went, my Sisyphean slog caught in the super’s gaze, until I finally made it to my front door. As I pulled the pedestal up my stoop I heard a croak from down the block: “Careful, don’t hurt your back.”
At the beginning of the twenty-first century, the notion that buildings on our stretch of Edgecombe might convert to co-ops seemed absurd. The mere sight of our streets would have given the most desperate buyer pause. Though it overlooked the Harlem River and Yankee Stadium, the avenue was a functioning dump for anyone looking to abandon shopping carts, unwanted dogs, and especially stolen cars—shredded tires, smatterings of fenders and transmissions competed with the refuse left by motorists who assumed we wouldn’t mind the mess.
The noise was a challenge. Never mind the occasional bloodcurdling screams, lover’s spats, or the bass woof of someone’s stereo. Buses rumbled up and down the block—standing on a particular spot in my living room they’d deliver a jolt every time the wheels rolled across the uneven streets. They set off car alarms, a jangled dissonance melding with the roving SUVs and revelers who hurled empty liquor bottles against the sycamore trees. You could chart the seasons by these glass showers: summer nights increased the likelihood a jarring crash would shatter my middle-of-the-night peace.
Crack addicts lurched along the avenue like demented puppets. They’d buy their dope on the cross streets between Broadway and Amsterdam, then beeline over the hill to Edgecombe. None of the neighborhood’s residents could forget the sight of men and women anyone might peg as homeless, if not for their jerky physicality and their speedy gait. Back then newspaper headlines shrieked the rise of random drug-induced stabbings, so whenever I’d pass one of these frantics on the street I imagined he or she could turn killer in an instant. There I’d be, the victim of some crack-addled derangement.
About a year after the craggy super boldly croaked “good morning” for the first time, I woke to the grinding whirr of trucks and cranes. Five floors below green-clad men were on a mission of auto exhumation, pulling car doors and engines, pieces of fenders, trunk hoods, sometimes even whole automobiles, up over the cliffs through the thick brush of Highbridge Park. This went on all week, until the salvage resembled a sprawling metal sculpture done in shades of battered reds, scratchy blues, and rusty yellows.
The junk got whisked away. Sternum-high black iron fences went up on the park side; aluminum barrier strips appeared along the curb, a highway accessory out of place on a tree-lined city block. Green trucks emblazoned with the words “NYC Parks Department” became fixtures on our streets, followed by foot brigades of trash gatherers, mostly black and Hispanic women in smocks, the “welfare-to-work” crowd created by the Giuliani Administration. No matter the weather, they’d be out on the avenue, stabbing bits of trash by rote with long wooden spears.
The addicts who’d dodged Edgecombe’s swerving traffic to reach the park began to thin out, possibly fearing a Disneyland invasion similar to the one that robbed Forty-second Street of whatever character it once possessed. But not before they left their mark. For years I’d watched those poor fools scurry in and out of the park’s tangle of trees and grass, pacing the streets as if searching for remnants of life before the word “crack” invaded their consciousness. Over time their wanderings etched a narrow trail. Someone—the parks department perhaps—carved their path into a formal walkway that set off the jutting Manhattan schist in ways that were positively Olmsteadian.
The familiar voice leapt out of the dark back alley: “You guys wanna buy an apartment?”
Jonathan and I were headed home. We’d lived together for two years, our courtship begun during what would be my last major performing gig. My own gentrification began shortly thereafter; I’d decided to finish the undergrad degree I’d abandoned more than twenty years before.
I found I couldn’t get enough higher learning—the night the super called us over, I was on the verge of finishing my first year of grad school, a debt-laden situation that made his proposition sound hilarious. Only later did his implied presumption land: of course he knew we were a couple. He knew everything.
“It’s goin’ cheap, I tell ya. The tenant got sick and had to move down South with his people.” More background spilled out: the renter was one of the last holdouts, and in a few years, all of 515 would be co-opted. The super was giving us an inside track on the place.
“Sorry—right now it’s not in the budget.” I didn’t even want to hear the price, for fear it’d be in the ballpark of my tuition costs.
The super spat back. “How much you pay for rent?”
Why not just ask how much we made. “We’ve got a two bedroom. It’s still in the eight hundreds.” I couldn’t believe I told him.
“You been there a while, huh?” His cool blue eyes turned curious—more consideration than stare.
“Since 1983. It’s only the second New York place I’ve lived in.”
That impressed him. “Don’t give it up. These greedy bastards are asking too much. If I had your deal, I wouldn’t move either.”
I could tell J was ready to go, but I wanted to know more. “Are there a lot of renters left here?
He cleared his throat, and I thought, God, don’t spit. He didn’t. “About ten. They got a lot of ’em out for nonpayment; some of ’em were Section8. One of the long-timers died last year. But they’re not messin’ with the renters who are keepin’ up every month. Makes you wonder what people gonna do who can’t afford to buy. Around the corner, those buildings went co-op too. Piece of shit, those buildings, but people are buyin’. I tell you, money’s flyin’ roun’ this neighborhood like rain.”
In late June I was clearing dead blossoms from my fire escape garden. Across 158th Street, the super was snatching up tattered sale circulars left by one of the area supermarkets. The folks streaming in and out of his building were of a different class—a snootier crowd less inclined to say hello, or tolerate the quips of an old man who earned his living changing light bulbs or picking up trash. For them I wondered if 515 Edgecombe was a dress rehearsal, a way station before a brownstone or the suburbs, or if their interest in the neighborhood was genuine. If anyone knew the truth, it was the tiny wisp of a man who’d stopped his cleaning to chat with a woman waiting for the M2 limited.
These new immigrants were easy to spot. Young strivers dressed in suits, or armed with iPods and a mod confidence that screamed Williamsburg,USA sprang out of the usual sea of dark complexions along the avenue, at the supermarket and on the subway platforms at 155th Street. Designer dogs and their owners took daily promenades on a strip that now gave semblances of other, better-groomed Manhattan burbs. I’d ponder these obvious signposts of gentrification as I calculated their rents, and the odds of whether such changes meant that tastemakers would now perceive my neighborhood as cool and hip.
I doubt the newbies were barely noticed by seekers of the neighborhood’s authentic flavor. On weekends, busloads of foreigners besieged the historic Jumel Mansion for their dose of the way we were circa late 1700s. As part of the package, they also visited a few prominent Baptist churches—not for the gothic architecture, but to see the natives at prayer. Holy flashbulbs: the Timesreported various pastor’s complaints of noisy, disruptive crowds that made them feel like sideshow attractions, but that did nothing to stem the flow of Anglo Europeans anxious for a glimpse (and a photograph) of pagan worshippers caught in the rapture of the Holy Ghost.
The August morning I breezed past the shrine of flowers and prayer candles at 515 Edgecombe’s back gate, I was late again. That evening a light shower coated me with drizzle as I headed home. Approaching 515, I saw how the day’s heat had withered the bouquets, how the rain had extinguished the candles fragile flames. I stopped to read a typewritten placard sheathed in plastic. The shrine was for the super. The placard referred to him as Shag, and announced an upcoming service somewhere in Jersey. It also gave his real name: William.
A man’s voice tapped my shoulder. “Man, was that Shaggy?” The corner streetlight shone on pockmarked caramel skin and deep circles under filmy brown eyes. He was in his thirties, wiry, a hair taller than the deceased. I paused, annoyed by the stranger’s easy use of a nickname I’d only just learned.
“Yeah, the super.” I couldn’t call him Shag so casually, didn’t feel I had the right to call him anything. I wondered how the stranger knew him—casually? As a tenant, or was he like me, another neighborhood resident unwillingly shanghaied by a familiar manner, by cool blue eyes? For the first time it dawned that others welcomed Shag’s peculiar familiarity. This man knew his name, and I wondered how often they’d stopped to chat, to hash over things that bond men easily, like sports or politics, subjects the super freely discussed with the Indian perhaps, but ones in which I had no special knowledge.
I hadn’t seen the Indian in a while.
We stood there, two black men mourning the absence of an old white guy under a crying sky. Behind us theM2 bus rumbled as the evening traffic keened across the wet asphalt. Other commuters—some solitary, some trailed by kids with backpacks babbling tales of school or daycare—passed, but none stopped. From the sky over Yankee Stadium came the crack of thunder; the rain thickened. Such storms meant that by morning, broken branches would litter the avenue, a guarantee I’d be woken prematurely by a brigade of Parks Department trucks.
My new friend shook his head. “Man, that’s a shame. He was a damn nice guy…damn shame. That cat got around, he used to be everywhere.
And now Shag was nowhere; there was nothing left of him here except the memory of his toy face and that disgruntled rasp. I found out later from a friend who lived in the building that Shag had died of a heart attack. One of the tenants looked out of her window to see him face down on the walk beyond his back gate, as if he’d jumped.