Night & Day
Night and Day
Clip, clop, clip, clop—BANG.
Clip, clop, clip, clop—BANG BANG.
Clip, clop, clip, clop—BANG.
Clip, clop, clip, clop—BANG BANG.
I don't know.
An Amish drive-by shooting.
They were just fucking around. They yelled and ran. They overturned all the garbage cans on her block. They were probably going to the park. They were methodical. They turned them over, one after another, and bellowed. They leaped around, up and down, and then one of them—four males and a female—threw a garbage can at a first-floor window. He missed. Then he and another guy aimed garbage cans at a car, which they hit. Any moron can hit a car with a garbage can.
Car alarms went off. No one could sleep. Windows opened wide. People hung out their windows. Their mouths hung open too. It was pathetic.
Elizabeth was looking out her window.
Everyone was asleep and in messed-up T-shirts or ratty robes, tied strangely at the waist. They all looked strangled. It was the middle of the night or the morning. It was hot. Only people with their air conditioners on ever slept through the night. That's how the block divided in the summer, with A/C or without. It was pathetic.
Elizabeth wanted to kill them. Someone should kill them. She wanted to use a crossbow and steel arrow. Much easier to buy than a gun, entirely legal, no waiting period. But crossbows had just been on the news, and she suspected that everyone would be buying them, the way everyone suddenly bought red eyeglasses. Maybe she was too exhausted to be unique, but she would take severe satisfaction in shooting an arrow right into a guy's head—right through the middle of it, between his eyes or from one ear to the other. He'd look like a comic book character sporting that goofy toy parents bought for their kids years ago. Made them look like they'd had their skulls split in half.
Elizabeth's arrow would be real, and she'd murder the guy, and the instant before his death, he'd be surprised, but still he'd exhibit no remorse and she'd feel no regret. The cops would be called. She'd be taken away. So what if she went to jail. She'd have the support of the neighborhood, the block anyway. She didn't have a record. How long would they keep her in. Eight years was the max. She wasn't sure why, but that figure occurred to her. Maybe because she'd heard about a serial rapist who'd been let out after eight years and he'd mutilated one of his victims, left her to die. That's cruel. Maybe she'd be able to read in jail. She wondered if it was quiet in there. She wondered if the women were as noisy as the men or noisier or not noisy at all. There have been so few women in prison movies, she didn't know. She'd kill a white guy. Maybe he'd even be in school or have a job, so his weekend, late-night marauding would be less likely to be described as driven or desperate. Her victim would be no deprived social misfit. Just a jerk, a prankster. She wasn't Bernhard Goetz, subway vigilante, going berserk and into overkill. She'd kill someone like herself, she'd make a clean hit, have a clean and lucid, if angry, response. It would be a reaction, and, she'd be called a reactionary. She could handle that, especially in jail, where other people would've done much worse things. More senseless anyway. Her reaction would be considered crazy, or she would be. Everyone she knew would think she was nuts and had overreacted. She could hear people saying that, see their mouths moving, and she felt like throwing up.
Everyone would know what it was about. She'd make sure of that. It was about being able to sleep through the night. Being able to turn down your covers and get into bed and not have to wake every hour and run to the window because someone was screaming, sitting on a stoop, screaming and laughing or blasting music and yelling. About nothing. It was always stupid stuff. But even if it was smart, she'd hate it, hate them. Who cares then.
She couldn't sleep. She might as well stand by the window, vigilant about nothing. 911 didn't come unless you screamed Murder.
Some neighborhood morons who lived on the street, not bridge and tunnel or whatever, woke her the other night. They were on the church steps, playing stickball with glass bottles. Yelling every time a bottle shattered. It was 5 A.M. Elizabeth opened the window as wide as it would go, and stuck her head and body out. She watched one of the males saunter to the pile of beer bottles and choose one carefully. As if it mattered what kind of bottle he hit. Three females followed the play like despondent cheerleaders. Another male wound up, on the street mound, and pitched to the hitter. He missed. The bottle shattered. The hitter assumed the stance for another swing.
Elizabeth restrained herself from leaping onto the fire escape. She walked through the dark apartment, trying not to wake Roy. She phoned the precinct. The desk cop said he'd send a car. Thirty minutes passed. They were still shrieking. Bottles crashed to the ground again end again Elizabeth called the precinct again. The precinct's phone machine answered. At the end of the recorded message, the same cop picked up:
—This is the woman who called before.
—There's been no car.
—Yeah? You haven't seen it? 'Cause I sent one.
—I haven't seen it. and I've been standing here pretty much for the whole thirty minutes.
—Yeah.... Well. I sent one.
—They're still breaking bottles. I can't sleep.
—Yeah. I asked for a car, but we're a little busy this time of night. . . . Unfortunately.
Unfortunately. The cop sounded rueful. It was rueful. Having to call cops or be a cop. At least he hadn't lied. She hated being lied to. Except that she lied too. When Elizabeth phoned about an all-night party, a female cop said, We're sending a car. The car never came, the music kept blasting. Elizabeth took a pill. The party was for the Policemen's Benevolent Association. In the basement of the church where a variety of morons often sat on the steps.
Now Elizabeth leaned out the window. Garbage was everywhere. She'd murder the guy. She'd murder him with an acute pleasure that might last only a second. It would thrill wildly in her body for an evanescent, unimportant moment, but it might be worth it. He was bouncing up and down now, rocking with laughter at how the car's window had shattered, how broken bottles were lying everywhere, how spilled garbage wantonly littered the sidewalk. It would rot and become fetid. It would rot and smell. She was rotting and rotten. She would smell when it came time for her to die.
The arrow would pierce his insignificant, preemie brain, and blood would spurt from the wound, the way it did in a Peckinpah movie, which is the only thing you remember about his movies, so it was a mistake to do it, not what she was intending, what Peckinpah did. A special effect is no legacy. She'd say her response was about—she'd say this when she was interviewed—not hatred, but dignity and a social space, a civil space, actually a civilian space. Not a place where life is a series of unwanted incidents. A place where people could thrive without having to move to the country or a small city, to expire quietly from lack of interest. She'd wax romantic about what you could expect or hoped to get from other people, and what you didn't get. She'd call it respect. Everyone did.
You talk mostly about what you're not getting. Respect, sex, money, sleep. If you have it, you don't need to mention it. When you have it, you're bored if other people even bring it up. Of course, people with lots of money also think about it all the time and want more of it, were afraid of losing it, but they probably had the sense not to talk about wanting it in public.
The morons were spilling garbage on the church steps. They were proud. The wild ones, the wild morons. The mild ones. Roy called himself and his friend Joe the mild ones. Elizabeth laughed silently.
She was capable of doing it, she could murder them. She didn't care. In prison she'd laugh maniacally, she'd sing, she'd write her jail notes, she'd take care of birds, she'd become famous for her legal acumen, she'd find a calling, she'd discover the nobility of suffering. She'd destroy herself meticulously.
The morons were proud of how they destroyed things. Things are easily destroyed. Elizabeth was proud of her restraint. She didn't climb out the window and run down the fire escape, holding her robe so her nakedness wouldn't be exposed, fly onto the street, arms flailing, and strangle them or stab them repeatedly, leaving a multitude of gashes. They wouldn't know what hit them.
She might lose her mind, lose herself, just long enough to be declared legally incompetent, temporarily insane, and do it.
Judge, your honor, I found myself standing on the street in my robe and my hands were around his neck. Their necks. I had a knife in my hand. I don't know who put it there. I was surrounded by dead people. They were everywhere. Blood was everywhere. It was awful. I don't know what happened. There was so much noise and then I saw red. I suppose it was blood. And everything went black. I fainted dead away.
She probably wouldn't say fainted dead away.
The fantasy contented her for a vacant minute. It became the content of her life. Her fantasies were tacky home movies, not features. At the movies she wasn't in her own world, she was in another world that was hers for the time of the movie. Ninety minutes, two hours, three hours. In her own movie house, she was wrapped up, projecting, and it might just be a few seconds. A few seconds devours a lifetime.
Time was getting later or earlier. Elizabeth had spots in front of her eyes. The clock rested on a black metal stool. It turned time out and over. Like garbage. Elizabeth—the Lizard, to Roy—stared at its eternally dumb face. She watched the little hand spit its way forward. The hands of time jerked on. How much time would it take to murder the morons. She clenched her hands. They weren't big enough to strangle anyone big.
A couple strolled on the other side of the street. They were holding hands, their arms and bodies entangled, octopus like, they were devouring each other. Then they saw the garbage. They moved away fast into the middle of the empty street. They kissed there. There were no cars around. Just garbage. And rats. The lovers didn't care about the rats underground or behind the garbage cans, their homes uprooted. Love lets you forget rats. She wondered which of them would be disappointed first. Which of the lovers. The disappointment of rats was beyond her.
When she and Roy were new, sometimes she waited for him to come home. She'd stare at the clock's face, expecting it to talk. The hands ticked, Where is he? Then he'd show up, tock, tick, drunk, impish, surly, or tired. She'd be angry, ragged, or relieved. With time passing, that didn't happen anymore. She didn't worry when he came in. She trusted Roy. He had no reason to hurt her. Not that you had to have a reason to hurt somebody.
Roy was sleeping.
He was inexplicable. They loved each other, whatever that was. Sometimes they hated each other. They had love scenes and hate scenes. They interested each other over time. He wished Elizabeth cooked, but she didn't.
Lights turned on across the street. Third floor. A man leaned out. T-shirt, no shorts, no pants. Hard to tell. He was half a body. He stared down at the garbage and then across and up. He looked her way, like TV screens registering each other. Elizabeth moved away, to the side of the window, so that she couldn't be seen, only in profile, if at all. She couldn't really tell if he was looking at her. If he was, she couldn't tell if his look was complicitous, a garbage-thrower-watching look, or hostile, lascivious, or sinister. She couldn't tell if he was a danger to her or the community. At a distance it's hard to tell who's an enemy. She wouldn't be able to identify him in a lineup. The distance was too great. His face was mushy, blurred. She couldn't make him, she'd tell the cop who was encouraging her to nail the guy. She couldn't say, Yes, that's him, instead she'd have to say, I can't make a positive identification. The cop would be pissed and tell the other officers out of earshot, except she'd hear, She couldn't ID the guy. Scared.
The man in the third-floor window turned his light off.
Elizabeth didn't know if he was a potential enemy. She had some enemies. A couple had been friends of hers. It's hard to make a positive ID even when you're up close. Her best friend had been the worst. Her mother hated Elizabeth. Elizabeth was a threat. She remembered that and her friend's big, placid, lying eyes, her laugh, and that her friend hated to vomit. Now, whenever Elizabeth thought about her, she thought about vomit. Another friend schemed behind her back. Elizabeth found out. The friend manipulated everyone. She had no friends. She didn't know that.
A few enemies were strays, accidental acquaintances. Accidents are sometimes dressed up as people. She'd had sex with some accidents. Accidents were always waiting to happen. Maybe she'd looked at someone funny once. Maybe she'd sided with someone in an unimportant bar argument and another person she hadn't even noticed became enraged. This person was plotting against her secretly. She had a few secret enemies.
A couple of her enemies were blatant. They were disappointed, dangerously overweight men. She worked with them one week on, one week off, in the proofroom. She read proof with them. It was an outdated occupation. The two fat men taught her not to sympathize automatically with unhappy people. The emotionally crippled and downtrodden can be vicious. She worked with a lot of miserable people. There were many miserable people in the company, misery wants company. Proofreading didn't make her miserable. She liked focusing on typos and misspellings, on periods, commas, quotation marks, neutral characters in her life.
Five out of ten working days she rolled out of bed and over to the proofroom and worked late into the night. Ten hours, twelve hours, silver time, golden time, good overtime. The first time she saw the proofroom, she was in the building to take a proofreading test. She'd prepared and memorized the symbols, for delete, add, cap, small cap, wrong font. They were listed in any adequate dictionary.
Elizabeth didn't know it, but on the way to the test, she passed her future co-workers. They were sitting in a small room, with no door, at a long table, reading aloud to each other. Doing hot reads, she learned after she had the job. When you read silently to yourself, it's a cold read. It was confusing, six voices going simultaneously, people reading business articles to each other. Others were eating take-out food from different restaurants, but all the restaurants used the same plastic or Styrofoam containers. Some were reading the paper. Some were waiting for copy to come through a slot in the wall.
There's a field of ostriches. They all have their heads stuck in the ground. Another ostrich comes along. He looks around and says, Hey, where is everybody?
The proofreaders were low down in the company. It was obvious from their exposed quarters. The proofroom was similar to a stall in a barn, there was no privacy. No door, no windows. Company status was exhibited by the size of the office, the number of windows, closeness to the boss, a door that shuts others out. Status used to be access to the telephone, but now even janitors in the company had remotes.
The proofroom had one phone for twelve people. Even though proofreaders might do nothing for hours, might be waiting for the editors to edit, for the writers to finish writing or the fact checkers to check facts, they weren't supposed to be in touch with the outside world.
During their work time they were supposed to be available. They were supposed to be ready for copy that dropped through a slot in the wall like slop thrown at pigs or food shoved under the door for prisoners in isolation. When the pages would finally drop through the slot into the metal basket, they produced a swishing sound. All the proofreaders would hear it. The person nearest the slot in the wall was the supervisor or the next in command. One of them took the copy out of the basket, logged it in, and handed it out.
The proofreaders were a despised minority, a rung above the lowest group, the mailroom workers. The mailroom was in the basement. The mailroom workers were male, mostly black or Hispanic. Occasionally, when Elizabeth mailed one of her own letters and didn't want it routed through the system, because she wasn't supposed to use the company's system, she hand-delivered it to the mailroom. She went down in the elevator. She saw the black and Hispanic men. They were always surprised when one of the people from above came down. They stopped sorting the mail briefly to take in her presence, or anyone's. Though she was a nothing in the company's eyes, she still came from the world above, two floors up. It was pathetic.
The proofreaders were white, college graduates, middle-class misfits who accepted inferior jobs and were not ambitious. They had no future except the copy desk. The copy desk was allowed to change sentences. Proofreaders could only correct mistakes in spelling or find errors in fact. Any other change had to be reported to the desk. The proofreaders were beneath the desk, beneath contempt. The proofreaders were also beneath the janitors, who called the head of the company Boss. The janitors lived in houses in the suburbs and had two cars.
Elizabeth had won the steady part-time job over many applicants. She'd scored high on the test and the head of the room liked her best. Elizabeth had worn black socks with heels, a black jacket, and black pants to her interview. The socks made her a weirdo in the supervisor's eyes. The supervisor decided she'd fit in with the room. The proofreaders referred to their quarters as "the room." It was a correctional facility, Roy said.
A doctor said to his patient: I've got some good news and some bad news. The bad news is that you have two weeks left to live. The good news is that I fucked my secretary this morning.
Elizabeth joined the proofroom with reluctance. She was getting older, freelance didn't cut it anymore, and the room provided health insurance. If she was hit by a car or contracted HIV or MS, she was covered. The company also had a pension plan.
The room didn't let outside light in, it kept them separated from the world. While Elizabeth did hot reads and cold reads, even while she focused on the little black marks on shiny white paper, she deliberately thought about other things. She tested herself. It was possible to catch mistakes without being resigned. She never entirely submitted to the page at hand.
Elizabeth liked some of her fellow workers. Even one of the disappointed fat men had his moments. Everyone does. The other disappointed fat man was her sole implacable foe. He was unattractive and self-righteous. He collected stamps. He was easy to hate, and he hated her. He despised her. She could see it in his eyes. He was a company boy. Every time Elizabeth used the company mail he was offended, outraged. She flaunted it in front of him whenever she could, She liked having him as an enemy.
—Enemies last longer than friends, enemies define you, friends don't, Elizabeth said to Roy.
—They're both under dickheads in the dictionary.
—Dickheads won't be in there.
Apart from her enemies who had been her friends, and apart from some of her co-workers who hated her, Elizabeth had pretty good relations with friends and with most people on the block.
Except her landlord's manager, Gloria. Elizabeth complained to Gloria about the upkeep of the building. There was no upkeep. Gloria was married to the owner. She had a vested interest.
Elizabeth modulated her voice when she complained to Gloria. The Big G always smiled. It was a careful, broad smile. It was plastered across a too-rouged white face. Elizabeth would let them know when there was a gas leak, if there was the sick smell of gas in the building. She'd tell them there was no heat or hot water that day. Gloria always thanked her. Gloria was blustery and bad-tempered. She enjoyed deceiving tenants, renting and not renting, evicting or threatening eviction, delaying work on broken-down apartments, stalling tenants about the boiler in the basement being fixed or replaced.
Elizabeth didn't want to linger next to Gloria in the office. The Big G reeked of discontent, of frustration. From Gloria's point of view, she was made to sweat unnecessarily. She was the one who was wronged. When the Big G spoke about how hard it was being a landlord, how many things they had to take care of, how many boilers were broken down and how many tenants in their buildings didn't have heat and hot water, she rustled with indignation.
We don't have the time to get to the halls. But, dear, we'll get to it as soon as we do. We have emergencies right now. I'll talk to Hector when I have the chance.
Hector was the super of the building. Hector lived on the first floor. He'd been the super way before Elizabeth and Roy moved in. He was entrenched. Hector was a courtly man, part French, Greek, and Spanish. Talking to him about cleaning the halls, which was his job, was like talking to the morons on the street, Hector was imperious to dirt. He was completely unmoved by and indifferent to dirt and emergencies. He caused dirt and emergencies. What Elizabeth wanted was modest. Relatively clean halls and stairs.
Elizabeth tried to reason with Gloria.
—Our halls need to be cleaned weekly.
—The people in apartment F, they're the problem. It's their cigarettes. They're pigs.
—It's not just them. The halls get dirty. They need to be cleaned weekly.
—The super's too old.
—Why don't you hire someone to help Hector, once a week for twenty-five dollars?
—We can't afford that.
—We shouldn't have to live with garbage in the halls.
—Hector has a drinking problem.
—You get rid of Hector. Get a petition going with the other tenants.
—I don't want to get rid of Hector. Your job is to keep the building clean.
The Big G clenched her teeth.
—Do you know Hector hates you? she said.
—Hector hates you.
—Why are you telling me this?
—I think you should know.
—Why do I need to know?
—I think you should know.
—Have you told Hector I'm the one complaining about the halls?
—You must have complained to him.
—I haven't talked to him, except to say hello, in two years. You told him I was complaining.
The Big G was trapped in a discoverable lie. People lie about the obvious. People do the obvious. Elizabeth lifted her head high and told the Big G she was cruel. Then she walked out of the office. Hector's alcoholism and indifference to filth, and the Big G's obnoxious presence, were preferable to nothing, to no super at all. For a long time Elizabeth avoided the Big G and hardly ever called the office. If she saw Gloria on the street, Elizabeth pretended to be blind.
She was no more blind than most people. Elizabeth noticed other buildings in the neighborhood. Some of their halls gleamed. They shocked her with their simple cleanliness, which was just an absence of filth. Her friend Larry's building was clean. He paid less rent than she did. He liked her apartment better. It was bigger. Maybe her friend Larry's hallways were clean because he had a super who was like her aunt and uncle. They cleaned their apartment the whole weekend, together. They enjoyed it. After she found out what they did every weekend, Elizabeth stopped visiting them.
Maybe, Elizabeth decided, the point was to hire someone who's compulsive about dirt, someone who has to clean. Someone who'd be happy to do it for nothing. Some halls and buildings were immaculate. She'd seen them. Some garbage cans were not overflowing. Some buildings had enough garbage cans, and garbage wasn't all over the street. If they had someone who was obsessed with dirt, who was driven to be clean, someone you wouldn't want to know, but someone who was essentially harmless, and they hired him or her to help Hector, life would be better.
Roy told Elizabeth she was crazy.
A man goes to Hell and the Devil says, I usually don't do this, but I'll give you your choice of room for eternity. So he takes the man to the first room. All the people are ankle deep in shit. In the second room all the people are knee-deep in shit. In the third room all the people are waist-deep in shit, and they're drinking coffee. The man says, I guess I'll take the third room. The Devil says, OK. Then he turns to the people in the third room and yells, Coffee break's over. Back on your heads.
Elizabeth knew the halls could be maintained, even in her degraded neighborhood. It couldn't be accomplished if the super, whose job was to clean and maintain the building, was a pathological junk collector.
Hector was incapable of throwing anything out. He was attached to garbage. He was like a vampire running a blood bank or a pyromaniac firefighter. The firefighter goes rushing to a fire, he knows what his job is, to put out the fire, but he's on the fire-red engine, where he's wanted to be ever since his mouth was snatched away from his mother's breast, and now he's racing to a fire, he's along for the ride, for the thrill of it, and once he's there, he doesn't want to extinguish the fire. The flames shoot up around him, they engulf him like a large woman, he's swallowed up and warm. But he looks around, and he sees his buddies in danger, and they see him. He's hanging back, or worse, he's feeding the flames, so he has to pretend to fight the fire he loves. If there aren't enough fires, he sets them. He's unfit for his job.
Hector the super.
Sol Wachtler was chief justice of New York State. He stalked and threatened a woman who'd rejected him. You'd think that a judge who jails people for committing stupid, venal acts, who get caught by making asinine mistakes, would not make them himself. He can't stop himself, can't help himself. He's possessed, obsessed. Wachtler threatens her—her name is Joy—over his car phone. Traceable. Stupid.
Hector the super and Gloria.
There was a Mets catcher, Mackey Sasser. He had to quit playing. He developed a block against throwing the ball back to the pitcher on the mound. He couldn't throw it. He could throw the ball over the pitcher's head, to the second baseman, but not to the pitcher. The Mets put him in the outfield for a while. It wasn't his position. His position was behind the batter, squatting. But he was neurotic, blocked. His time in baseball was over.
Hector the super was blocked. He couldn't do the job he was paid to do.
Hector's apartment was incomprehensible. He, his wife, their grown children and their kids and an old dog lived in it. It was like the halls and stairs. But it was also cluttered with old newspapers, boxes, broken knickknacks, unrepairable lamps, and bottles for recycling that were never recycled, only stored. The overwrought apartment was stacked with unusable junk from the street. Sometimes, when Elizabeth happened to be walking downstairs or upstairs, and Hector or his wife happened to open their door a crack, she spied a narrow pathway between piles of boxes. She saw years of accumulation, things hanging from the ceiling and everything thrown together, piled up, even several broken-down wooden dressers stacked on top of each other that reached to the ceiling. She couldn't take it in. The halls and marble stairs in a turn-of-the-century building built for immigrant labor could be kept tidy, even though the building stood shabby and tired in a mongrel neighborhood. It couldn't if the super's attitude toward his own apartment challenged and expanded the limits of what was fit for human habitation. His apartment exceeded standards. It was a mental condition, an excessive response to the burden of the physical world on the mental one. There didn't seem to be a table or chairs. There didn't seem to be chairs to sit on or beds, but she couldn't see that far back into the long apartment.
They probably ordered out. She and Roy ordered take-out from Chinese, Thai, and Italian restaurants. On another night Elizabeth was walking along the street. A foreigner approached her.
—Please, could you ask me, he said.
—What means no menus?
Buildings have NO MENUS signs in their windows or on their front doors. Thousands of menus for take-out restaurants are thrown into vestibules. It's the super's job to get rid of them. Hector never did. He didn't even save them. Elizabeth picked them up and threw them out. The Big G said it wouldn't pay to put a notice in the window saying NO MENUS. Restaurants ignored them.
—No menus means the tenants of the building don't want restaurants to advertise their menus for take-out food. . .
—Take-out food is food you can order over the phone from a restaurant. The restaurant delivers it to your apartment.
—They send a boy or a man on a bicycle usually. He carries the food you ordered.
—Why take out?
—So you don't have to cook. So that you don't have to go out to eat. You can eat in.
—Eat in your apartment. It's short for eat in your apartment.
—No menus, thank you, he said.
—You're welcome, Elizabeth said.
He turned away. He appeared confused. He looked at the sign on the door again. NO MENUS. He was apartment hunting. He turned her way again. He pointed to the sign and, after an exaggerated sigh of relief, mimed for her benefit, he smiled poignantly. He waved good-bye.
Because of Hector, the landlord regularly received health and building violations. The landlord had to pay the City for the misdeeds of its super. Finally Hector was ordered by the City to clean out the basement. It was a fire hazard.
Modern architects denied buildings basements and attics, banished them. Basements were where people had stored the inadmissible and unnecessary. The modern idea was rational, no one should hold on to anything, people should live neatly in a clean place in the present, which was ridiculous, since the present is collecting irrationally as the past, but now, with those disorderly shelters gone, everyone had to get rid of things continuously. There was no breathing room for the wretched, the worthless, the disgusting, the disreputable.
Sometimes Elizabeth understood Hector.
The basement in this premodern tenement was like his apartment, but it was home to the boiler. Hector's behavior and activity in the irrational basement was an immediate, imminent fire hazard. Oil, rags, and newspapers were stored near the boiler. He left them to combust.
Hector stored junk in the hallway. No one could get past his door. You had to shove cartons out of your way. Your clothes got dirty. There was no path. There'd be no chance in a fire. A News Channel 4 Special reported that a fire engulfs a tenement in seconds, no one gets out alive. Everyone in her building would die, no tenant had a chance to escape, because Hector's crap was blocking the exit. There were fire escapes. But if you weren't near them, the front door was the rational exit. There was no rational exit. She didn't want to be burned to death.
Hector couldn't contain it, himself. He couldn't stop it, himself. He couldn't control himself or what he'd collected. It spread everywhere. The landlord didn't fire him. The Big G said it was because they were trying to help him. Hector was old, he was an alcoholic, he had worked for them a long time, he was nice. Everyone felt sorry for him. No one wanted him to lose his job. He was just in the wrong job. But they didn't fire him mostly because Hector worked cheap. He added to his puny salary by collecting bottles, the ones he hardly ever returned. He couldn't give them in.
In the spring, summer, and fall, Hector and his wife set up a table in front of the building to sell some of the stuff he found on the street, couldn't keep, or couldn't throw out. Elizabeth despaired of the table in front of the building. Elizabeth discarded shoes or clothes in garbage bags. She set them on the sidewalk. Her throwaways landed on the table outside the building. She'd see a pair of her torn underpants or a ripped sweater hours later. Homeless people had no chance to rummage through the garbage bags and find something to wear. Even if she no longer owned it, after throwing it away, she was frustrated to see it lying forlorn on Hector's table. Mrs. Hector usually sat behind the table, grinning. In the heat of summer, Mrs. Hector relaxed under an umbrella. She watched TV too. They had an extension cord that ran from their apartment to the street.
No one on the street could have anything for nothing. Even the most useless object. It happened everywhere, shoplifted books, furniture off the back of a truck, the worn and the used, peoples' lives on the ground, bargains on blankets.
Everyone wanted a bargain. Even if it was stolen.
There was a man on Eighth Street and Sixth Avenue at Christmas selling answering machines in their boxes for twenty dollars. Elizabeth was with her friend Helen. The guy hawked hard and fast. A crowd gathered around him.
—With a remote, twenty dollars. A bargain.
—Can I see one?
The hawker held up a box.
—Why's a piece of tape there? It was opened.
—Factory rejects, lady, you want it or you don't. Twenty dollars. A bargain. Remote.
All the while he's talking to her, he's selling them briskly to people rushing by, people listening for thirty seconds, people convinced quickly. They take twenties out of their bags or pockets, then move on. A bargain. Elizabeth wanted a new answering machine. She hesitated. Helen said, If you want it, get it. Elizabeth handed the hawker a twenty, took the answering machine. She and Helen went for coffee. Elizabeth opened the box and pulled out a brick.
That was a while ago.
It was weird to see your torn underpants, your former underpants, with a fifty cents sign pinned to them. Elizabeth would glance at the table, her rejects, and smile at Hector's wife.
Mrs. Hector was friendly. The Hectors were good people. Mrs. Hector always said hello. She lifted her head up and down. She patted the dog. Their dog was big and slow, an old dog with a human name. Elizabeth would shake her head up and down in return or say hello. Then she'd go upstairs. She'd go inside. Elizabeth had no place inside for Mrs. Hector's table outside, though it was there. She didn't mention it to anyone.
—He's the one who's supposed to keep the halls clean, Roy.
—Why do we have to live like this?
Sometimes Elizabeth had the urge to sneak in and view Hector's apartment, the way she viewed dead bodies in coffins at funerals. From a distance, tentatively.
Now Frankie walked out to the street. He usually opened up the laundromat. That's strange, Elizabeth thought, staring at Frankie, who didn't notice her at the window, at least she didn't think he did, because if he did, he would say Hey or yo, they went back years together, it was too early for the laundromat to open. Frankie probably couldn't sleep either.
Elizabeth's chin rested on her hand. The night air was becoming lighter and thinner, distended.
Frankie lived in the Lopez apartment two floors below Roy and her. His mother had died nor long ago. Elizabeth had known Frankie since he was five. Now he was an adult, he played basketball, he was strong, a regular guy. He was trying to stay away from girls, he told her. He already had two kids, and he was only nineteen. He'd grown up in a way she couldn't understand. He knew that.
People with some money can bury their dead or cremate them. The Lopezes were poor in grief. When Frankie's mother, Emilia, died, the funeral parlor wouldn't bury her until all the money came from social services. You can expire waiting for social services. Gay Men's Health crisis gave the family some of the money, Emilia had died of AIDS, but her embalmed body was kept over the weekend in a dismal funeral parlor on Second Avenue. The Lopezes had come to the parlor on a Friday, to take the body away, to bury Emilia, but the parlor wouldn't let them remove the body. The entire family was there, and they couldn't bury her. People with money can bury their dead. The funeral parlor charged them over four thousand dollars for a bare room and some miserly solicitousness.
Roy and Elizabeth paid their respects. The children wanted her to touch their mother's stiff body. She tried to slip a rose under the swollen hand, but she couldn't. The children, some grown, smiled at Elizabeth. Then they smiled at their young, dead mother. Emilia. She was a tenderhearted woman. Often she lived in the building, when Roy and Elizabeth had just moved in, Emilia restrained her kids from stealing their mail. They did it once or twice, but Emilia made them return it to Elizabeth. The kids liked to bust open mailboxes. Emilia stopped them. Elizabeth rented a post office box anyway.
Elizabeth stared at Emilia's body. She didn't want to go up to the coffin. She didn't want to see vivid makeup on a dead face. She was afraid of the hand of death, its long reach. She went forward with Roy. Frankie and two of his sisters—Carmen and Susanna—wanted her there, closer to the coffin.
Frankie took Elizabeth by the hand and escorted her to it.
—Don't worry. She looks nice. Doesn't she look good?
Elizabeth thought, Death's ugly.
Frankie surveyed the mess on the sidewalk. He shook his head. He didn't become insane about the garbage and the damage. Frankie was cool. He didn't approach the morons on the church steps, he checked them out, registered who they were, for the future. He stood there, his arms folded over his chest. Then he went back inside. Frankie kept an eye on the street. He was vigilant.
Elizabeth had been inside the Lopez apartment. It was clean, it was poor, it was livable. Nothing was like Hector's apartment. Except for the apartment that was covered in talcum powder. It was in another building. Elizabeth saw it one night when the man who lived in it, a stingy man with a trust fund who drove a cab at night, wasn't in. The people who rented him the room showed it to Elizabeth. The apartment was covered in talcum powder. The floors, the bed, the dresser, the bathroom—sink, bathtub, not the toilet—were under a thick layer of white powder, piled under a carpet of talcum powder. It was hard to breathe. That apartment was worse than Hector's.
Sometimes she knocked on Hector's door. Mrs. Hector opened it a crack . Elizabeth had to pick up a package that UPS left with them. Or sometimes Elizabeth brought Mrs. Hector a blouse, if it was in good enough shape, if it was something she didn't wear anymore or never had. She'd do that rather than see it land as a reject on Hector's table.
The old dog with a human name behind Mrs. Hector growled. Mrs. Hector positioned her body to block the dog from barging out. Elizabeth could see a sliver of the apartment.
—It makes me sick.
—He's a collector, Roy said.
—Collectors are sick.
Hector collected everything, because he had nothing. People never really had what they wanted, because they wanted everything. People who could afford to buy everything were miserable about something. There's always something missing.
Things were missing in Elizabeth's life. They weren't misplaced. In any time or under any regime, it would be the same. Elizabeth couldn't replace what was lost, and what wasn't lost may never have existed to begin with. Everyone was dissatisfied, even if they didn't have much to complain about. Once deprived, always deprived.
Three men are in a nursing home. One of the men says, How old do you think I am? The two men say, Eighty-five. Everyone thinks I look eighty-five, he says proudly. But actually I'm ninety-five. He walks over to an old woman. How old do you think I am? he asks. Drop your pants, she says. and I'll tell you. He drops his pants and she grasps his penis. She fondles his penis for a while. Well, how old do you think I am? he asks. Ninety-five, she says, her hand still on his penis. How'd you know? he asks. I heard you tell the two men, she says.
When Elizabeth complained to the Big G about the state of the building, she was mindful of Hector. She didn't criticize him directly or use his name unless compelled. She tempered any criticism of Hector. She didn't want him fired, she wanted him helped or assisted. The building could be turned around. By any means possible, Roy said.
For Elizabeth's pains, the landlord and Gloria hated her. They had valid, landlord reasons. Elizabeth was white, mostly employed, though underemployed, and educated. She'd had opportunities. She was the worst kind of tenant. She wasn't as easy to push around and intimidate as people on welfare, or disadvantaged and handicapped people, or people depressed and frightened by a system that employs people to treat them with disdain while assisting them inadequately.
When a 1930s vintage stove stops working, though its oven wasn't ever regulated—if it was on, it was always 500 degrees—Elizabeth's type of tenant doesn't buy a reconditioned one on time through the landlord. With some money in the bank, her kind of tenant buys a stove for four hundred dollars rather than pay four or five dollars extra each month for the remainder of the lease, and all other leases. You pay forever for one stove. The extra money raises the base rent and increases the amount on which the next rent hike will be figured. If you have four hundred dollars, which Elizabeth and Roy did, you didn't do this. As Elizabeth explained to Gloria, It doesn't make sense to increase our rent base. Gloria's mouth fell open.
The Big G hoped to obstruct them. She'd catch Elizabeth on the street. She'd sidle over and say with a sympathetic smile, But you know you can't put that stove on the street, or she'd ask, Who's going to remove that old stove, or she'd insist, more aggressively, You'll have to move it out of your apartment yourself, you know, we can't help you.
They bought a new stove anyway. They had never wanted a stove. They owned one now. This made them different from the Lopez family downstairs. The Lopezes had to pay on time.
What do you get when you cross a Mafioso with a deconstructionist? What? An offer you can't understand.
What do you get when you cross a Puerto Rican with a Jew? What? A super who thinks he owns the building.
Most of the time Elizabeth couldn't look Hector in the eye. She couldn't talk to the Big G. And nothing was accomplished. Nothing was done. Fuzzballs grew fat and fluffy in ancient grease-encrusted corners. Cigarettes and paper bags collected on the floors. It was like living in the Port Authority and paying rent.
On occasion Elizabeth phoned the housing department. Hardly anyone else did. You're not supposed to expect clean halls in the poor part of the city, or if you don't own your apartment.
—I'd like to report a violation by my landlord.
—What is your name, address, the name of the landlord? What is the complaint?
—All the halls?
—Yes. Six floors of halls and a vestibule. Sort of a vestibule. It's not really a vestibule. It's an entrance. You have to enter the building. Six halls and stairways, let's say.
—For how long has it been like this?
—Weeks and weeks. More.
—What kind of dirt? Caked-in, grease, litter?
—Yes. All kinds of dirt.
—How would you describe the dirt?
—Cigarettes, dust, blood, dope bags, loose dirt, garbage, gum, crack vials, needles, matches, paper bags, condoms, gum wrappers, hair, straws, just plain filth from weeks and weeks of people using the halls, city air is very dirty, and dust accumulates fast, you know.
Describe the dirt.
The conversation magnified the futility of having a conversation with the City. Every time she had one, which wasn't often, because she didn't want the City to think she was a lunatic, Elizabeth changed her attitude about civil servants. They were not just incompetent, unhappy, petty bureaucrats, or idiots, they were administrative sadists, sit-down comedians, they were functioning fools.
Invariably, two months later, Elizabeth would receive written notification from the City. An "Acknowledgment of Complaint" was printed on a sheet of hot pink paper.
"This acknowledges receipt of your complaint. The owner has been notified to correct this conition: Unsanitary conition in building, No lock on frnt door bldg."
The complaint had been made to the landlord. The landlord's name on the notice was not the one she'd given the Department of Housing Preservation and Development. This meant either that no complaint could've been served, because no landlord was found by that name, or that legally the landlord had a scam going and had many different names for the many buildings it owned. So who was responsible.
The other tenants were amused, bored, or surprised by her efforts. She wasn't tough or cynical enough, she wasn't hip to the way things were, the way it all worked. She'd grown up in a house in the suburbs. She'd never accept the fact that sometimes landlords don't fix buildings with tenants living in them. Some of the tenants were too numb to notice or respond, though. Some of the tenants had different expectations or no expectations. Some of the tenants thought she was an asshole. One tenant smiled at her and secretly hated the dirty floor she walked on.
Three men—a black, a WASP, and a Jew—were walking along the street. One kicked a can, and a genie appeared. The genie said, I can take all of you back to where you and your people came from. The black man said, You can take me and all my people to Africa? The genie said yes. Do it, the black man said, and he disappeared. The Jewish man asked, You can take me and all the Jews in the world to Israel? Yes, the genie said. Do it, the Jew said, and he disappeared. Then the genie turned to the WASP. The WASP said, I'll have a Diet Coke.
The street was devastated, a war zone, neutralized for the moment, like Elizabeth when she'd had too much to drink at a party and was lying on a couch, her clothes messed up, her lipstick smeared, her mouth parted, her eyes closed. The street looked like a woman who'd seen enough of life and wanted to sleep it off, push the guy away from her, go home, except she couldn't. She was home.
A few people, one at a time, were walking down the street. They dragged themselves along. A lanky guy with a jacket over his shoulder, a lounge lizard, appeared to have just come from a club or a party, maybe the one where the woman was lying on the couch. His tie was loose. Elizabeth waited to see if he scratched his arm. He didn't. sometimes two or three drugsters walked fast down the street, stopped abruptly, huddled together, doing a deal, and one of them shouted, one of them was pissed, and one of them quieted him or her, then they moved on.
Roy woke and grunted.
—Get in bed.
—Get away from the window.
—Have you called the police?
—Come to sleep.
—What's the matter with you?
Sleep was for untroubled people, the guiltless. Elizabeth didn't remember all her crimes. They went somewhere, an orphanage for abandoned crimes. Sleep was for the blameless. The shameless knew shame late at night and didn't sleep soundly. People reassured themselves with their own lies. Lies were inescapable, they were their own awful truth, necessary illusions.
Dreams tell lies that are true. The day's nightly news. Heavy sleepers escape every night. Roy did. He said dreams were the mind shining. Elizabeth couldn't escape, and she couldn't remember what she was escaping. She sat near the fire escape. She watched the amorphous street. It absorbed everything, her attention, her tension. She could run away. She didn't want to go anywhere. Everywhere was wrong. She was a native, she was restless and reckless. She was also fickle and impulsive. And sometimes she was very bad.
Elizabeth yawned. She wasn't sure if she was hungry.
Outside, a bad drug deal was accompanied by outrage and howls of anger.
—You get what? You shittin' me, you better not fuck me, man, this is bad shit, man. Don't take me for no fool. You dissin' me, man, don't dis me, man, I'll kill you.
She expected one of them to pull a gun any second, except another dealer ran all the way down the block from the corner. He grabbed the arm of the screaming one and pulled him away, pulled him down the block, still screaming.
—You dissin' me, I'm gonna cap you.
Junkies and junkie dealers were active, busy. They had something to do, somewhere to go, someone to meet, they were always meeting someone, somewhere, and they had something to take care of every minute of the day. It wasn't the best life, a life stripped of everything but the substance they craved and would become sick without, it was life though. All their needs were contained in one little plastic bag, and they could buy different-colored bags. They didn't have to consider what they'd like to do each day. They knew what they liked and what they had to do. Even rich junkies had to score. It wasn't like buying a pack of cigarettes or a bottle of alcohol. It occupied them, totally, she saw it on their faces.
Some middle-class junkies sold her a rug, and when she handed the guy a twenty, any pretense at civility slid off his expectant, sweaty face, and he grabbed the bill, jacked up the price by five dollars—it was still a deal because they'd probably stolen the carpet from their parents. They said they were poor. They couldn't wait another minute, they'd take any amount of money for something that was worth more. Elizabeth handed him the twenty too easily. He could get another five. The way he grabbed the twenty out of her hand, the way he didn't say thanks, the way he and his friend—a woman as ragged and dragged—looked at each other, they had enough to score, get straight, get well, whatever, it was a dramatic, insular moment, all to itself, extreme.
Money had a single purpose. Junkies were relentlessly goal-oriented. Misguided achievers were joined by their need, and that need united rich and poor the way nothing else did. One night she walked behind a rich and a poor junkie. The rich one was in a wrinkled Armani suit, the poor one wore greasy black jeans. Their heads were close, they were perspiring and bonded, brothers in addiction.
The street addict stage-whispered to the rich addict:
—Man, he took a look at your threads, and he raised the price a hundred.
They slouched along and consoled each other, the rich guy apologizing, but it didn't matter, because they'd scored, they were just talking until they could shoot up.
Elizabeth didn't want to care about everything.
A Jewish grandmother is walking along Jones Beach with her grandson. A big wave comes along and sweeps her grandson out to sea. The old woman gets down on her knees and prays to God. please, God, give me back my grandson. I'll do anything. please give my boy back to me. She wails and moans and suddenly a big wave crests and at the top of it is her grandson. He lands at her feet. The grandmother looks up at the sky and says, He had a hat.
She suffered fools, landlords, enemies, and junkies. She had to wait around for similar and dissimilar male and female junkies to get up from the vestibule floor, after they'd slumped there, after they'd shot up, she had to wait for them to get off the floor of the dark vestibule almost every night. They left blood on the floor, bright red dots of blood. caught in the act, they lied to her. They weren't shooting up. They were waiting for someone to come home.
—We're waiting for Cathy.
—There's no Cathy. You're going to shoot up.
They'd struggle to stuff their paraphernalia back in a bag and pull themselves up from the floor. They'd agree to leave. They'd walk past Elizabeth.
—We're just being nice, because there is a Cathy.
Some cleaned up after themselves, not because they were neat. If they left no trace of their works and bloody business, they could return. Some attempted permanent invisibility. They were spectral characters. They were young and drained of life, they were alone, desperate, and hollow. Elizabeth didn't want them there, she didn't want to walk over them, and she hated seeing the blood on the floor and on their legs as they furtively rushed to cover the place where they'd just shot up.
One of them was asleep. She was about sixteen, blond, cute. Elizabeth woke her. She was sprawled on the floor. Elizabeth couldn't open the door and get inside her own building. The girl roused herself finally.
—Don't you have a home? Elizabeth asked.
Elizabeth delivered the question like a guidance counselor or social worker. The girl was stunned. Someone didn't think she had a home. The girl didn't know how low she'd sunk in someone else's eyes, how she looked to someone else. You need other people to feel humiliated. I have a home, she said truculently. She slunk away and moved dejectedly down the street like a wounded baby animal.
A friend of Roy's told him a story. The friend was a reformed or recovering addict. One night when he was still getting high, he was waiting on line in a drug store, a hole in the wall farther east. A woman behind him said, Isn't it funny? The more I do, the more I want. Roy's friend repeated the story to Roy. His friend said, she didn't know she was a junkie. Roy wasn't surprised by that. He thought people were stupid.
Junkies in the vestibule every night or every other night and puddles of blood and tiny scraps of tissue with blood on them and round little bright red drops of blood on the stairs were part of her environment. Junkies liked the vestibule. It was cool. The door and vestibule situation was another fight Elizabeth had with the Big G.
Elizabeth phoned at least five times, over any year, suggesting in a pleasant voice into the landlord's answering machine—they never picked up—various ways to keep junkies out.
—Hello, this is Elizabeth Hall. I'd like to discuss the junkies in the vestibule. If you would just give us a lock on the outer door, and place the intercom on the outside, or, and this would be less expensive, a glass door or a heavy plastic door, or even cheaper, as an alternative, cut out panels from the bottom of the existing door. . .
No one phoned her back.
Elizabeth noticed other front doors along her block. All of them were made of thick glass. That way junkies couldn't hide and stick needles into old collapsed veins or new bouncy ones. They couldn't slump on the floor and disappear. They weren't the disappeared. They were visible behind glass. They were as visible as on the street. But sometimes, even on the street, they huddled close together like Russians on the steppes and stuck needles into their arms, sheltering each other under blankets or stained coats.
The crackheads didn't leave blood in the vestibule. They left plastic vials and sometimes plastic cups of water. They were bloody, though, erratic and hostile. One of them said, when Elizabeth insisted they get off the floor and leave the vestibule, so she could open the door and get inside, one of them said, with deep sarcasm:
—You're some human being.
Elizabeth wanted to strangle the peroxided, stringy-haired creature, with her disastrously thin legs and arms, and a face that betrayed every bad night she'd ever had. Elizabeth wanted to knock her senseless, not that she had any. The peroxided creature might one night come to her senses, she might look in a car's mirror, twist it to see her ravaged face. Elizabeth couldn't see what she'd see. People make the best of a bad situation.
Elizabeth preferred heroin users to crackheads. Everyone did. Crackheads were erratic. Her preference was irrelevant. She would've preferred never to work.
The poor scrambled, adapted, and metamorphosed into their poverty. They grew ugly. The rich grew ugly too. Repellent. They were complacent. Elizabeth hated that complacent, unearned well-being. Complacency was the rich glow on their faces. They believed in their right to their wealth. The glow made them ugly. Poor people never glowed. Ugliness is more than skin deep. They ate up their poverty, the way the rich ate up their plenty. The poor digested meagerness and cramped quarters, and even if some of them were Catholic and preached to about God's loving the poor more than the rich, they were living in the U.S.A. People lived the lives they deserved.
Now one of the morons stood up and vomited. He vomited all over the sidewalk. He made gut-wrenching noises to roars of moronic approval. Elizabeth lost her appetite. One of the other morons threw some food at a store window. The drug store windows all displayed Tide and Ajax. which signaled they didn't sell anything but drugs. Idiots or gringos went in and asked for milk.
The morons bellowed again and held some kind of vomit-and-garbage-throwing ceremony. Glass broke. Stones and bottles were tossed. They screamed happily, unimportantly. Her mother would say like banshees. Elizabeth wondered what a banshee sounded like.
The taste of vomit was in her mouth. Vomit was putrid longing backing up.
She wanted to be able to stop the morons. She couldn't do everything she wanted.
He vomited again. He probably liked to vomit.
She'd been able to stop some girls. She persuaded them to stop blasting music from their car. It was parked under her window. They were doing their laundry across the street. It was a dope Jeep. Elizabeth dressed and walked downstairs. Roy told her not to. She knocked on the Jeep's half-open window. The driver didn't hear anything. Elizabeth had to touch her on the shoulder. The driver turned to her.
—Could you please turn down? My baby can't sleep, Elizabeth said.
The girl did instantly, out of a traditional respect for babies and motherhood. Elizabeth walked away, aware of the girls in the Jeep studying her and doubting that she was a mother. They didn't turn up again.
How many New Yorkers does it take to screw in a lightbulb? None of your fucking business.
How many performance artists does it take to screw in a lightbulb? I don't know. I left early.
She could easily pretend to be a mother. She couldn't see herself going into Paragon Sporting Goods, asking to look at crossbows and arrows. Before she did anything, Elizabeth saw herself doing it. If she was going to walk down the stairs, she saw herself walking down the stairs. She saw herself taking the first step. She prepared herself. Her heel might catch in the hem of her pants, and she'd hurtle forward and crash, land on her head. She could decide to jump, lunge, leap, or fly over the stairs. She thought she could fly over a flight of stairs. It looked easy. She didn't want to train for years to be able to do it. That was crazy.
She wouldn't murder the morons in cold blood or in a moment of passion. When she murdered, it would be in self-defense. She'd be attacked. A large man or a small man would come at her. From behind. She'd move quickly, swing around. She'd gouge out his eyes or jab her fingers into his gut. She wanted to be able to sever someone's jugular vein or hit someone over the head with the baseball bat Roy kept near the door. She'd bash the aggressor to death without blinking an eye. Then she'd toss the bloody bat onto the floor and phone the precinct.
I just murdered a man with a bat. Right, a bat. He's bleeding, but he's dead. Don't send an ambulance. Dead. A bat. A baseball bat.
Even her revenge fantasies were silly. They ended without conviction. She clenched her hands into fists. She watched Roy sleeping. He was sleeping the sleep of the just and unjust and the innocent and the guilty.
She followed the band of morons with tired eyes. They sauntered toward the park. They turned over another garbage can in a blase way. Threw one at a car. They'd had a lot of experience throwing and overturning garbage cans. They turned over the last one casually, even gracefully, with a little wrist action. They could be tennis players or garbage collectors. There was garbage everywhere. It wouldn't be picked up.
On her block, the garbage collectors left as much garbage on the streets as they picked up. They threw the garbage cans all over the sidewalks. It was a display of real disgust, gutter hatred of the poor. Elizabeth caught them doing it.
On another night she couldn't sleep, she went downstairs at six A.M., carrying newspapers to be recycled. The garbagemen were throwing garbage and garbage cans. The street was an ordinary disaster, strewn with evidence of rampaging dogs or mad people. She wished she had her camera. But the garbagemen could argue about the photographs. They'd get lawyers, they'd interpret it their way. Her block wasn't covered in garbage, it was her point of view, how she saw things, she had a distorted view of the world, of the block, they'd say. She did.
They'd say the garbage collectors couldn't have done it, because they were on their coffee break. Some hooligans must've done it, they fled before anyone saw them. Elizabeth could spend her life in court defending herself, her story. She'd present her story, and one of the garbagemen would say, That's not the way it was. He'd shake his head adamantly or sadly, as if the thought of his doing something like that was beyond him. I would never do something like that, he'd insist dramatically. Maybe he'd cry. The jury would side with the men in uniform. Elizabeth would be branded a fanatic, an urban malcontent. She remembered the garbagemen down the street in their uniforms. She remembered their faces. She remembered thinking, I pay taxes to the City for them to take away garbage.
It was pathetic. she watched as they flung the last cans onto the sidewalk. She surveyed the devastation and then glared at the men. She memorized their truck's number. She was overwhelmed by despair. she noticed the acerbic super down the other end of the block. His face was inflamed, scarlet. Sometimes his face looked tanned and healthy, sometimes like an old shoe. She walked over to him, he always knew everything, who was in jail, who was about to go to jail and why, when there was going to be a bust. Elizabeth announced that she was going to report the garbage collectors.
—What'd they look like? A tall black guy and a short Italian guy? The regular guys are OK. These aren't the regular guys. The regular guys are good guys. They wouldn't do this.
He gestured to the street. They both looked at it.
—Are they rogue garbage collectors? Elizabeth asked.
The acerbic super and Elizabeth laughed in the morbid morning air. Morning is for mourning, Elizabeth thought. Another garbage truck rolled along and disgorged the regular guys. They were doing the other side of the street. Elizabeth walked over to the short Italian one.
—Take a look at our block. It looks worse than it did last night. Look at the garbage everywhere, look at the cans all over the sidewalk. How can they do this and call themselves garbage collectors?
The regular garbage collector surveyed the sidewalk. He saw the randomness, the mayhem, the sidewalk littered haphazardly with black plastic and aluminum cans. He saw the Chinese food, milk cartons, dog shit, cat food cans, and diapers scattered contemptuously on the ground. The regular guy hurried. He raced to make things right, to turn the cans right side up. He shouted, as he ran, that he'd take care of it. He didn't want her to report them. He didn't want trouble. She didn't report all the wrong things she saw. It was depressing and time-consuming.
Elizabeth opened the window wide. She didn't care who saw. The morons were crossing Avenue A. They were dancing. A speeding cop car or an ambulance racing to save someone could hit them. They might be killed or they could all be murdered in the park by a crackhead. Her mother said, Where there's life, there's hope. She didn't want to die, she told Elizabeth, because there's no future in death.
The third-floor man was still in his window across the street. Even with his lights off, his dark shape filled the window. Elizabeth saw something. It could've been his dog. Roy was still sleeping peacefully, and she hated and loved him for it. He was missing the night's frantic errors. Strident, bizarre noises didn't wake him.
The third-floor man's lack of acknowledgment creeped her out. But she didn't want to wave to him. That demanded a leap across a great chasm, her acknowledging his looking at her. She felt little, belittled. She shrank back.
A series of high-pitched yelps or squeals started. They seemed to come from someplace close. It sounded like someone was being tortured. Roy didn't move. He was a smooth stone on the bed. He didn't look alive. Elizabeth couldn't figure out if the torture noises came from human beings, dogs, or cats. People tortured their animals. They tortured their children. children tortured animals. Everyone's a monster, given the opportunity.
She was sure the man was watching her from his window. It was obvious. He was pretending he wasn't. She didn't want to hide. She was covered, decent, whatever. He wasn't hiding. But she wasn't watching him. He could think she was. It was a dilemma. She wanted to watch the street, not him, but she couldn't watch the street without the possibility that he would think she was watching him. Even her freedom or opportunity—her liberty to look out a window—was controlled by others. She didn't want to give in and leave the window.
Acknowledgment could disarm the situation, him, but it could also trigger harm, attack.
He was probably the kind of man who made sucking noises when he ate and slept, when he fucked. He smacked his lips when he chewed and food drool poured from the corners of his thin lips. He opened his mouth wide, and you could see the food inside and the spittle dribbling out of his mouth, and he had a grin on his face like an idiot, but jesus he loved to eat.
She wouldn't acknowledge him.
Maybe he knew he was a creep. Maybe creeps know they're condemned for life. Maybe he was the kind of man who shaves close, nicks his skin and wears cheap, cloying aftershave lotion, who slaps it on and thinks it covers his sins. Maybe he hated himself.
Some people who hate themselves wear perfume. Elizabeth liked certain perfumes and others made her sick. she didn't hate herself all the time. She hated herself less when she liked her own smell. But she didn't want it to be overpowering. It was hard enough to visit people in their apartments or ride in a taxi driven by a maniac who didn't know his way around. Some people burned incense day and night or wore sickeningly sweet perfume. Some taxi drivers hung furry green-and-white odor-eaters from rearview mirrors. Elizabeth often became nauseated.
—You smell good, she told Roy yesterday.
—That'll change, he said.
The morons were gone. The block was a moron-free zone. She was free. Elizabeth liked her block. She felt possessive about it. She liked her apartment.
A horse goes into a bar and sits down. The bartender asks, Why the long face?
When the landlord was about to raise the rent, Elizabeth received a letter. All the tenants did. The landlord stated that because they'd given the tenants new windows, which weren't put in right, they'd measured wrong, because they'd replaced the old mailbox, which had been broken since she'd moved in, and because they'd put in a light in the front hallway, which was required by law, the landlord regretfully was raising the rent a certain amount per room for every tenant. The landlord assessed the number of rooms at two more than Elizabeth thought she had.
Elizabeth shoved the letter under a stack of junk mail. She ignored it for a day. Then she took it out. She did the figuring. She added up her rooms and multiplied to find what it would cost monthly. It wasn't astronomical. She could live with it or die with it. She might do both. She wasn't going to fight it. Fight the increase. The phrase appealed to her—fight the increase. It was what she should do. But she wasn't going to, not after Gloria had insulted her. Six dollars more per room for the rest of her life, even for rooms she didn't have, was better than standing in a poorly ventilated room next to Gloria.
Being reasonable with the Big G was murder.
Roy read the letter. He thought they should do something. He glanced at Elizabeth and shoved the paper over to her side of the table.
—I can't rouse myself to action, she said.
—Rouse yourself to inaction, he said.
—Answer the letter. Do something.
—I can't. You do it. Do something yourself.
—I don't do that kind of thing.
—It's beneath me.
—I don't do floors, either.
Their upstairs neighbor was aroused. Ernest was an actor. He worked in a bookstore. Ernest shoved a letter under their door one night. It was addressed to her. He wanted to discuss the tenant situation, their position. Long sentences covered the unlined paper. He said he wanted Elizabeth's help in fighting the rent increase. He used the compelling phrase. He followed his letter with a telephone message that took up five minutes on her answering machine. They'd never even talked or seen each other in the hallway. She hadn't seen him. She'd heard him above her, she'd heard what she thought were his footsteps. He exercised.
Then Ernest showed up, after the note and call. He was likable. He told her that when he read the landlord's letter, he went berserk. He couldn't sleep, he was infuriated by the injustice, the lies. He wanted to take the landlord on, with her assistance. He'd do the hard work, the field work, go to City Hall, search for the building plans, for the architectural drawings. He just wanted her assistance.
The same letter that swamped her in lethargy was the key to an ignition switch in Ernest. Indignant, he enlisted Elizabeth. She was inert and apathetic. But he knew, somehow, that she of all the tenants would be open to his plea. He may have heard her walking late at night, heard in her gait some telltale sign of anxiety. Maybe he even discerned in it a desire for a better world, for justice. That was impossible, she supposed. It was probably because she was friendlier than most of the other tenants. Maybe he had seen her in the hallway and she'd smiled, unaware of who he was. Yes, OK, I will, she said finally. He was asking next to nothing of her.
She would make a few phone calls, knock on tenant doors, get some names on their petition. She'd help write letters, do some minor evidence gathering, contact various City agencies only by phone if he asked her to. She'd use her proofreader's expertise on the letters. The letters would spell doom, defeat, for the landlord's illegal hopes. Elizabeth told Ernest that she'd make sure there weren't any errors of fact or grammar in the letters, no typos. Elizabeth would see to their correctness. The landlord had applied for MCIs, Major Capital Improvements, Ernest explained. They were requesting more than they deserved. They wouldn't get it, he said.
They spent time together, side by side, strategizing. They had to determine how the landlord should be rebutted and combated and what information they needed. The landlord stated that their building and the one next door were one building. That way any repairs on the one next door counted as money spent on their building. Their building could be charged higher rents for work done on the other building. An evil-twin situation, Elizabeth thought. She'd once wanted to be a twin, but now it repulsed her. The two buildings' separate registrations had to be found. The other building had double the number of tenants too, double the trouble.
Ernest was relentless. He was on fire. He went downtown to a vast City building. He walked through room after room and floor after floor, through hundreds of rooms of file cabinets and computers and documents. He dealt with clerical people who ignored him. He waited on long lines and wasted his life. Elizabeth read that people waited on line at the post office five years of their lives. Waiting added up. Then Ernest would get to the head of the line and as part of a tradition or ritual he would be told he was on the wrong line and he should see another clerical person, somewhere else, on another floor or building, and that person would keep him waiting too, be rude, or tell him to see someone else and finally someone else would tell him he or she couldn't help him, and he had to start all over, in another location, on another line. He did that. Elizabeth was impressed. He took action. He was a hero in a local way.
Ernest even found a free tenant lawyer. He came back from the first meeting with pages of yellow paper; he'd taken detailed notes. He absorbed and learned acronyms for all the City agencies and departments, and he learned legal terms too. Elizabeth didn't know exactly what the acronyms stood for. Since Ernest did, she didn't need to. A PAR, he repeated patiently, was a Petition for Administrative Review.
A man was going away and he asked his brother to look after his cat. Then he phoned home to ask how the cat was. The brother answered, Your cat is dead. The first brother asked, How can you tell me like that? Why didn't you prepare me? You could've said, Your cat ran away. I'll look for it. Call back in a day. Then when I called back, you could've said, The cat's on the roof. And the next time I called, then you could've told me the cat was dead. You should've prepared me. His brother said he was sorry. Some years later, the man went away again. He called his brother. He asked, How's Mom? His brother said, She's on the roof.
Ernest asked Elizabeth to attend one of the legal sessions with him. The office wasn't far, and the meeting wouldn't take much of her time, he said. Elizabeth agreed, shamed by his commitment. The meeting was in a shabby brown room, with fake wood furniture. The lawyer wasn't a lawyer but a paralegal she used the acronyms Ernest used and knew. MCI. PAR. Elizabeth tried to appear involved. She knew if this was a documentary she'd be caught looking uninterested. There were stacks of paper on the harassed woman's desk, thousands of claims against landlords, standing for thousands of tenants in trouble. It was a sorry place for sorry situations. Elizabeth was desperate in desperate places. Hector the super's daughter-in-law walked in to the squalid office. Elizabeth said hello, and everyone nodded. Hector's daughter-in-law was having trouble with her landlord and her husband. Elizabeth knew that. She'd already had two kids and the two kids were miserable. Even before their parents separated, the kids were falling on their faces, having too many awful accidents, and were being rushed, bloody, to too many emergency rooms. The daughter-in-law was tragic at eighteen.
Elizabeth worried that the girl would mention seeing them to Hector the super, seeing them in the free tenant lawyer's office. Hector would tell the Big G. Ernest told Elizabeth they were within their rights, doing what they were doing, they were absolutely within their rights. Nothing would happen to them. He smiled benignly at her.
Elizabeth wasn't sure if being within her rights covered being seen as a conspirator, an agitator, and whether her rights would keep her from being tormented before being thrown out of the building illegally in the middle of the night. It wouldn't happen, Ernest went on reassuringly. They were sitting tenants with leases. She was, she repeated to herself, a sitting tenant with a lease.
One night, when no one was around, except the morons on the street, Ernest and Elizabeth collected evidence for their dossier against the landlord. Pictures had to be included with the letter to the city. They needed photographs of the filthy halls, walls, and broken stairs. It was so late, the building was quiet, like the Tombs, Ernest said grimly. They arranged to meet in front of her door. They moved stealthily through the halls. They skulked. The naked lightbulbs were stark illumination. The light accented the streaks on the walls. Shadows made it harder to know where the dirt was and also made the dark spots darker. It was just the way shadows in gangster and romantic movies obscure and enhance the seamy sides of life.
The joke was that they needed photographs of holes in the floor. Any one of the tenants could have tripped or caught their heel in the ugly recesses, they could have fallen down and broken their nose. They could have fallen down and in a freak accident died because of the way their head hit the floor. If they were drunk, they could have tripped, hit their head, and bled to death on the floor. The tenants could've sued the landlord. Elizabeth thought the landlord would've wanted to repair things, to avoid being sued. But if everyone's too poor to get lawyers, or too intimidated, why should the landlord repair anything, or if people like her—whatever that meant—couldn't even respond when their rent was being raised unfairly, then landlords didn't have to fix anything. She'd heard about someone who broke his arm falling out of bed to answer the phone, though his bed was on the floor. Accidents happen all the time.
The ugliest hole was in the deepest shadow. It was too dark in the vestibule to take pictures. The light overhead was the dangling naked bulb that the landlord had recently put in, the one they wanted the tenants to pay extra rent for every month. It was weak. If anyone wanted to mug you in the small vestibule, you'd never see him well enough to identify him. The weak light wasn't a deterrent in any way. Just the opposite. Ernest and Elizabeth were standing very close to each other in the small entryway. She could feel his anxiety. She liked it and hated it.
—I need more light, Elizabeth said.
—You don't have a good enough view? Ernest asked.
—I can see the hole with my eyes, but it won't come out on the photograph.
—Let me open the door, he said.
He opened the front door as wide as it would go. Then he studied her with a worried expression.
—Is that better?
Is that better? she thought. The way he said, Let me open the door, his perplexity about photographing the hole, the way he said, Is that better? was priceless and ridiculous at the same time. She fell in love with him. For a minute. He changed in her eyes in the dark, ugly vestibule.
She could fall in love with anyone.
He was still holding the front door open so she could get a better shot of the hole. She knew the picture wouldn't come out. It was close to hopeless, futile. The City might still be impressed by the documentation. They also had to get photographs of loose tiles and grease in the corners. There was a stair that slid out by itself, and anyone could slip off and kill themselves, it just came out, but it was hard to take a picture of that. They moved the stair to show that it was loose, to show it in its improper, dangerous position. Photographing dust on the walls was implausible. She did it anyway and looked at Ernest. He was smiling, reassuringly. He knew it was absurd. He wasn't deluded, he was optimistic. Ernest was a mystery.
She looked at his mouth. She had never noticed the thin scar on his chin. Maybe he'd been in a duel. He was a swashbuckler for tenants' rights. she could fall in love with anyone if the timing was right and the place was right, or wrong. If she was in a room long enough with someone, with no other people around, or if she was trapped in a place, she could fall in love with anyone. Like an animal. She liked animals. They were adaptable.
Anyone could fall in love with anyone, under the right circumstances. Maybe it was the survival instinct. Elizabeth wasn't sure she had one. People wanted to continue themselves, protect themselves, get pleasure. People wanted pleasure all the time, anytime, anyplace, they'd do anything to get it. Everyone was capable of the most hideous behavior and crimes to get it. The pursuit of pleasure wasn't pretty. It made people cruel during tender moments. If they weren't really getting what they wanted, they could kill as easily as kiss.
Ernest was driven. Driven was sex to her, sexy. Someone active and alive with desire for anything was sexy. Maybe not driven for a car, or ice cream, or heroin, because it excluded you, the possibility of you. she could kind of tell what somebody was like sexually, what their body might act like if stimulated, from the way they wanted supposedly nonsexual things. Nothing wasn't sexual.
Ernest and Elizabeth finished for the night. They had done the job. The Polaroids were flat and weird, but they were evidence. They showed something. Maybe the City would appreciate that.
Hillary and Bill Clinton are driving around. They stop at a gas station. Hillary gets out and talks a long time to the gas station attendant. Finally she gets back into the car. Bill says, Who was that? Hillary says, He's an old boyfriend of mine. Bill says, A gas station attendant? Hillary says, If I'd married him, he would've been president.
Now Elizabeth wasn't exactly seeing as she stared out the window. Things were moving, even imperceptibly. She couldn't live without windows. She got bored easily. She needed outside stimulation. She even wanted the outside inside her.
The street looked like desolation alley.
A man walks into a bar. He sits down and places a gunnysack on the barstool next to him. It starts to move. The bartender says, What's that? What's in there? I don't want any animals in here. Get it out of here. The guy says, It's not an animal. Listen, I'll show it to you if you give me a drink. It's really amazing. OK, says the bartender, but it better not be an animal. The guy opens the gunnysack and a little man about twelve inches high jumps out. He looks around and sees the piano. He runs to it and begins to play. He plays beautifully. The bartender is astounded. He's great, says the bartender, I've never seen anything like that. The guy says, Well, one day I met a gypsy woman, and she gave me a ring. She said, Rub the ring and make a wish, and I'll give you whatever you ask for. But you have to be very careful about your pronunciation, because I didn't ask for a twelve-inch pianist.
The moon was fading. The sun was starting to rise. It showed the top of its fierce face. It rose resolutely. Daily Elizabeth negotiated with nature. Anything natural was a problem.
Elizabeth did contact other tenants, she did what Ernest asked her to do. One of the tenants was hard of hearing. Before she knew he was deaf, she tried phoning him. She raised her voice higher and higher and then she shouted into the phone and then hung up. She met him briefly on the street. She realized he couldn't hear a word she was saying unless she stood in front of him so he could see her mouth move, and in addition she shouted. He was stone deaf. She didn't know why he had a phone. Then she sent him a letter.
I would like to talk to you about our protest against the rent hike the landlord is proposing.
We are filing our objections to the Major Capital Improvements and would like to know your objections. We know that a former tenant in your apartment did file a PAR, Petition for Administrative Review, a while ago, but we do not know what the specific protest was—windows? a hallway problem? Do you know? Did you file anything? Do you have any evidence or documents about the building's condition?
Others in your building have also filed. If you could be of any help contacting them and finding out their objections, please let us know as soon as you can.
You and I say hello on the street. Because you are hard of hearing, the phone is not the best way to communicate. Let's meet in front of the building when it's convenient. Please contact me or Ernest—he's in in the mornings. We both have answering machines or actually you could drop a line, just send me a letter. Please contact us any way you wish. If you can't reach people in your building, Ernest and I will write letters. But are the people who filed still living there? I couldn't find any of them listed in the phone book.
Sincerely, Elizabeth Hall
Elizabeth worried that mentioning his deafness would offend him. She wasn't going to pretend that screaming into the phone was easy or adequate. They had to communicate. Herbert responded. Maybe he wasn't sensitive or maybe she hadn't offended him. He was accustomed to being deaf. He was used to the stupidities of the nondeaf. He was happy to help, he said, when they met, face to face, in front of the building. She thought he said that, or that's what she heard, because he didn't pronounce words clearly. She had to interpret. She may have confused his complaints for others he didn't have. She shouted her thanks, and they shook hands. He helped Ernest and her contact some other tenants in his building.
Ernest and Elizabeth went to see one of them. He lived in the alleged same building as theirs. Architecturally it had been the same—Roy said she was going to see how the other half lived. The other half had been a mirror image, but the landlord recently halved all the apartments. Then reconditioned them. The ceilings were lower and made of a porous material. The apartments smelled bad. They lacked proportion. They were hopeless, shapeless.
His apartment had no outside or available light. It was probably illegal to have just one window looking out on a wall. Elizabeth could hardly breathe. The place was a hole, in a desperate condition. The guy was cute, even handsome. Elizabeth knew that no one would expect the condition he lived in from the way he looked. It was like the super Hector's apartment, though she'd never had the chance to enter Hector's. It was smaller than Hector's and the cute guy was the only person in it. AII the shit was his.
To him, it meant nothing. She could see that. His surroundings meant nothing to him. There could have been decades of vomit caked on the walls and floors, he wouldn't have noticed. He didn't see it or smell it. He must have also been like Hector in that way, except he was a rock musician, not a super. The decals on his guitar case announced his seat in the theater of life. Lobster of Hate was the decal she liked best. She'd heard them play.
People live in very strange conditions. People live in situations no one talks about. People live in ways no one sees. People live in ways that aren't described and have to be forgotten if they are. People live in ways that no one wants to hear about or can accept, so no one hears about them, no one's told, no one listens. No one would believe the descriptions. TV sitcoms were descriptions of a very few situations. All situations might ultimately be comedies, but all comedies and situations weren't on television. So few of them surfaced, so few situations ever lit up the screen, everything was predictable.
The cute guy's place wasn't predictable, not from the way he looked. It wasn't that unusual either, except no one talked about it. People live like this voluntarily. People are free to live like this.
Ernest took notes on the yellow pad while the cute guy talked. Ernest was stable and winning. Elizabeth wandered mentally while Ernest talked to the guy. He was collecting information for their dossier to the City. That was their agenda.
She was collecting other information. She was taking her own notes. She was looking around. She was taking in the guy and his place. It was hard. But she found a way not to be there. She wasn't fucking the cute musician in her head, she couldn't bring herself to do it, with him and Ernest in the room. Instead she saw the girl he'd brought back from a club, it was very late, and they were both high, drunk, stoned, and he opens his door, and the girl gasps, she has an asthma attack because of the years of dust, so they never fuck. Or, maybe they do fuck, she's really turned on by the shit they're fucking in, she's from a strict family in the Midwest, or from an upstate New York farm, and she's never seen anything like this, and she thinks it's romantic. Elizabeth couldn't remember if she found this scene romantic when she was twenty. Fucking on dirty clothes. She was too old to be young, couldn't revive her adolescence like a comeback career. She didn't think she'd be rejuvenated by fucking him. She could imagine it. The smells would be the same, the actions would be the same, nothing would be changed. But she was older. She was going to grow even older, old, and she was going to become less flexible and drier and more indifferent and she'd eventually become decrepit no matter who or what she fucked, and then she would breathe her last breath and expire. It was inevitable.
The cute guy had filed a complaint with the City once, he told them. Ernest and Elizabeth had him sign his name to their petition. It felt like success. Then they started to leave. The cute guy said to Elizabeth, How's about getting together again and talking about the situation? Ernest shot Elizabeth a look. Elizabeth said, Whatever, I mean, whatever Ernest wants. . . . She pretended she didn't realize what kind of situation he had in mind. She wondered if Ernest was jealous. Ernest never referred to it. Ernest had deep reserves.
The other tenants never materialized, they never answered Elizabeth's carefully crafted letters. They could have been eliminated, through intimidation for one thing. It was not out of the question—Elizabeth could imagine it—that the renovations started and the tenants, the complaining ones, were not told when the walls were going to be torn down, because the Big G hated them, the way she hated Elizabeth, a little less, and some were lying in bed and the walls fell on them, so their legs were broken, or they were buried under the debris or in a wall. A cryptic end in a tenement crypt. Improbable.
They were eliminated because the noise of construction, the daily crash and boom, drove them out, drove them screaming into the night, or, when the walls came down, and the vermin came out and bit them, the tenants' legs became swollen and inflamed and covered in red itchy wounds, and, marked by disease, they fled, yelling about bugs and rats, about hardy roaches. They were driven out, and the landlord could raise the rent. Or the drilling and banging every day ended their relationships, decimated their tenuous loves, and they broke up, broke their leases, or they developed respiratory illnesses, living in dust for months, and they fled their homes, and the landlord had its way, forced them out. The landlord could raise the rent the way it planned, and the landlord did raise the rent on the smaller, blighted apartments, on the newly fixed-up, reconditioned hovels.
That was a while ago.
Two women are at a hotel in the Catskills. One says, The food is terrible here. Yes, the other says, and there's so little of it.
Now a few people were leaving their floor-throughs or one-bedrooms, or studio apartments, to go to work. The blue collars. The housekeepers. The train conductors. The nurses. Some people were coming home. The prostitutes, the bartenders, the club managers, the clubgoers, the musicians, the alcoholics, the night people. There weren't as many of them as those going to day jobs. There were several taxi drivers.
One night a taxi—a checker—was parked across the street. Elizabeth noticed some movement in the front seat. She couldn't tell what it was. She watched. The driver was getting a blow job. The prostitute's head went up and down, up and down, up and down. Then it stopped, the movement stopped, and, like an animal stuck in the mud, the taxi driver, who was large, rolled over and lay on top of the poor prostitute.
The taxi driver had a huge ass. The moon was out, a full moon, and the moon lit his ass, spotlighted it. If it was done in the movies, no one would believe it.
He starts to fuck her and his big white ass, all lit up, goes up and down, up and down, up and down.
Three people come out of the front door of a building. Two men, one woman, maybe coming from a party, maybe they'd had a menage a trois. They looked preppy. Maybe they'd had coffee. one of the men immediately spots the taxi driver's big ass humping up and down, up and down, the moon shining on it, but he doesn't want the woman to see. He positions himself between her and the taxi. But finally they all see it. The three stand there, spellbound on the sidewalk, watching until the taxi driver comes. Then the driver sits up, the prostitute sits up, and he starts the car and drives away.
The hooker was probably from the next corner. It was before AIDS hit big-time. There were a lot more hookers on the next block. They all had habits and most of them were gone now, dead. The serial murderer Joel Rilkin killed at least one of them. The mother of one of the murdered hookers said in theTimes, "Think of her as a girl, my daughter, not just as a whore." There were always ripe, new working girls. They faded fast.
It was pretty late the night Elizabeth and Ernest left the cute guy's hideous hole. But that night, and it was the only one, Ernest and Elizabeth went for a serious cup of coffee in a nearby cafe. Elizabeth's regular, the Pick Me Up.
Even though it was late and cold, the crusties—that's what Roy called them—weren't far away. They were never far away. They were lying on the street near the Pick Me up with their dogs and their dogs' puppies. Elizabeth liked the puppies. They would be raised to be vicious. The crusties were probably already training them to go for people's throats when they didn't give them money. The crusties thought of themselves as road warriors, except they never moved, they sat or lay on the sidewalk, and then in a group they'd move off, they never walked alone, they were terrified kids who talked shit to everyone in the neighborhood, they looked miserable, they smelled terrible, they didn't shower even in the summer, so their piercings became infected. Except for a few of the females who retained surprisingly old-fashioned feminine wiles, all the others smelled of things no one wanted to get near.
The crusties spit at people who walked on the sidewalk near them. You went out to get a newspaper in the morning, and even if you didn't look at them, which Elizabeth didn't, she never looked at them if she could help it, they made nasty comments and spit. She was walking behind a guy in shorts. He passed the crusties, and one said to the other, Let's kill him. The guy stumbled, completely weirded out. The crusties weren't liked on the block or in the neighborhood, not even by other so-called outlaws. They spit at people in the morning before they were barely awake. They said things like, Let's kill him, for no reason. They pretended to be squatters. They were nothing, and there was nothing to them. If you open your eyes, get dressed, walk outside to get a cup of coffee, and someone spits at you for no reason, first thing, the spitter is nothing, doesn't deserve to live. Not everyone does. Elizabeth wouldn't even talk about it.
Elizabeth never gave the crusties money. She gave other people money. Tyrone who hung around the building, a nameless woman with a nameless dog, Earl who was up from the south, permanently jobless, and the Hispanic guy with a patch over his eye, those two alternated duty at the post office, manned the door with cups in hand. But she never gave the crusties money. Even though they had dogs. It was a gimmick, an affront. She considered carrying a machete the way Ricardo did on Halloween. She would wave it in the air when any of them spit at her.
Ricardo lived below her, with Frankie and his grandmother, who was Ricardo's mother, and the other kids, in the crowded Lopez apartment. There were many children. The children had children. Elizabeth came to appreciate the continuity. She saw life going on, stunted and obstructed as it usually was, but she could understand generations because of the Lopezes. They were people who would survive almost anything.
Ricardo had been away a long time, since before Elizabeth and Roy's time, that's what Frankie told her, Ricardo was away, until Frankie told her that Ricardo had been in jail, for drugs. Now he was back, on the block. He carried a machete on Halloween. He stood in front of the laundromat, across the street, holding the machete down the side of his leg. His mother stood next to him, and inside the laundromat Frankie was helping people with their wash. Ricardo was a Puerto Rican nationalist. The Puerto Rican flag hung from their fire escape all year long.
Elizabeth saw the machete. Ricardo held it tight against the side of his body. It shimmered along the leg of his black sweatpants. He had sweat on his forehead. Ricardo explained that gangs were going up and down the streets, with razors, slashing people. For no reason. He was going to get them if they tried anything here. He glared and looked up the block. She knew he wouldn't kill her, he'd protect her. She lived in his building, she was in his territory, and he liked her. She'd let him patronize her, be macho for her as much as he wanted. She'd like to see him slice off one of the crusties' heads.
There are three people—a priest, a rabbi, and a lawyer—standing outside a school. It's on fire, burning down. children at the window screaming, crying. The Rabbi goes, Oh my God, oh my god. . . . The children, the poor children The lawyer says, Oh, fuck the children. The priest says, You think we can?
That night when Ernest and Elizabeth walked to the Pick Me Up the crusties were lying on the sidewalk. One of them spit. His spit didn't hit her. That was lucky. Elizabeth was ready to hit him. She wanted to ask the most disgusting crustie, Do you have sex together? How? But she and Ernest had to talk about the tenant situation and their letter.
Ernest hadn't gotten any roles lately. He read a lot of the books in the bookstore where he worked. They discussed, with an intensity that astonished Elizabeth, the letter to the landlord. Elizabeth didn't want the letter to be too meek or too hawkish. She wanted the right tone. When you demand to be treated fairly, you must appear to be just, right but not righteous, and, especially, Elizabeth knew, you must appear to be above suspicion mentally. The last thing she wanted the City to think was that she and Ernest were irrational, that they didn't have a reasonable leg to stand on.
The very next night Ernest came over. He sat next to her on a chair. She sat at her desk, at her laptop. Roy sat in the kitchen, reading. She typed the letter. They considered everything in it, every detail.
To the City,
xxx and xxy are TWO SEPARATE buildings. . . .[they both wanted capital letters]. No hallway renovation was done in our building; in fact there is NO downstairs hallway at all [a surprising turn; good to be entertaining]. . . . Tenants of our building do not benefit from the hallway work done on the building next door—they are ENTIRELY separate buildings [making the point another way]. . . . Landlord has been belligerent with tenant, who complained of inadequate hall maintenance. [The tenant was Elizabeth. Ernest urged, Go on, put that in. Elizabeth happily typed it in.]. . . . Entry to xxx can be made without key, merely by pushing door open. (Tenant complains of strange man sleeping in hallway 4/93.) [Ernest was on the top floor. Homeless people slept and shit at his door.]. . . . Tenants feel it is unfair for building to have been neglected for so long and then landlord receives increase for fixing it. [Absolutely, they said in unison.]
Elizabeth was especially content with the summary.
The landlord has misrepresented its claims on both xxx and xxy . . . hallway repairs ACTUALLY done were feeble. [Feeble? Elizabeth asked Ernest. That's good, he said. His brow furrowed. He repeated the word. FEEBLE. Perfect, be said.] Number of rooms in xxx and xxy is exaggerated. [The use of exaggerated was a convincing understatement.] Cleanliness of xxx in particular is poor. The building is not SAFE. Landlord has received MANY complaints.
Late at night, beyond sleep, she read over and corrected the words she'd typed. She grew more outraged at the landlord's bold-faced lies. Her aggravated blood made her face and body blush. Indignation charged through her. The letter was a romance novel to her. Roy told her not to believe everything she read. He reminded her that she wasn't going to do anything about the landlord's letter until Ernest came along. Elizabeth hung her head in shame. Then she laughed until she cried.
Ernest mailed the fourteen-page, thoroughly documented letter to the appropriate City agency. With the Polaroids, with maps, with drawings of windows, with measurements, with tenant letters and testimonies, with the valuable petition. Ernest had done his work, Elizabeth had done hers too. Ernest and Elizabeth nailed the landlord in a scandal of lies. They also mailed a letter to the landlord, telling the landlord they had filed with the City. The landlord was on notice.
Then Elizabeth and Ernest rested their case. They waited. They waited for months.
A man went to his psychiatrist and said, Doctor, I don't know what's wrong with me. I'm a tepee, I'm a wigwam, I'm a tepee, I'm a wigwam, I'm a tepee, I'm a wigwam. The psychiatrist said, Relax, you're two tents.
The landlord backed down. The landlord was forced to back down. Each tenant received a letter saying that the increase wouldn't go into effect. The landlord didn't say why, the landlord didn't admit to having been challenged by the tenants. The landlord in fact pretended it was out of concern, some human tenderness on its part, that it had decided to rescind the rent hike. For the time being.
It was an empty victory. No one but her, Ernest, Roy, and Herbert, the deaf guy, noticed. No one mentioned it or seemed to care. Everyone went on living their own little lives. The rent for the apartments they lived in, however miserably, hadn't been raised. She didn't know why it mattered, why she and Ernest had even bothered.
After their blank victory, Ernest and Elizabeth rarely saw each other. Sometimes she heard him upstairs, walking around or exercising.
Now Elizabeth thought she saw Jeanine go into a doorway several buildings down the block. Elizabeth had to turn her head severely to the right to see that far down the block.
It was Jeanine.
Jeanine prostituted for drugs sometimes, for rent other times. She was a runner for a dealer on the corner. She and Elizabeth had known each other a while. Jeanine came over to her, on the corner, when it was cool, when the corner wasn't busy, and they'd talk. The dealers and runners were a stable crew, and though they were busted in sweeps once in a while they always came back, and were part of the neighborhood. They knew Elizabeth and she knew them, and they didn't hassle each other. When a fight erupted over turf, she made sure not to be there.
It was Jeanine.
Jeanine had been the girlfriend of one of the Lopezes, Jorge. She was the mother of their three children. Elizabeth bought the first baby a present. Jeanine said it was the only one the baby received.
Jorge and Jeanine sat on the stoop in front of the building holding the infant, and then they didn't because it was taken away by the City. Jeanine explained that they had to go to the agency to see it. The agency controlled chunks of Jeanine's and Jorge's lives, because they'd had a child and they themselves were legally children and on drugs. Jeanine said she was trying to stay straight.
Jeanine became pregnant again. Then this child was taken away from her, and Jorge and she started getting high again. Then Jorge got deeper into shit, and into more trouble, and they both went down, down the well together, and the third baby was taken away. All the kids were placed in foster care. Then Jeanine went to prison. The Lopezes said Jorge was in Puerto Rico. Jorge was in jail. He and Jeanine were over.
If Jeanine wasn't on the street, dealing, if she wasn't in jail upstate, she lived at her mother's.
Looking out the window, Elizabeth remembered the afternoon Jeanine came over and slept on her bed. She remembered it as if it were yesterday. Roy was at work. Jeanine'd been up all night. Her mother wouldn't let her into their apartment.
—Until I was about five, we all lived together. It was, like, happy. My mother had four girls and four boys. My mother separated from my father, she became a drunk, started using drugs, heroin, and when they got back together, he molested me, and he ended up molesting my little brother and sister. I think he molested my other brother too, but I'm not sure. They don't speak on it. It caused problems between my mother and me. She blamed me for it. She was in denial for a long time. It happened to my little brother and sister when I went to jail the first rime. My father was a really messed-up guy. He used to be a numbers man. He took money and disappeared. Then she had another boyfriend, but she's always insecure about me and her men, like maybe they want me, or I want them. I'm like, please, these old men, get out of my face.
Elizabeth was thinking about how she'd do in jail.
—It's all how the mind handles it, if they break your spirit. I guess it's tough because people tell you when to eat, when to sleep, when to shit. And they do any little thing to provoke you to get into trouble to lock you in solitary, make it hard for you to get out. 'Cause if you're in the city, you can do up to a year, and you have a day to go home; but if you're upstate, they can keep you from going home, they can hold you there. You're dead. You hear from the outside world, but their life goes on without you, so it's like you don't exist. I didn't have a hard time. That's probably why I don't fear going back. But I don't want to go back. Some people go in with this attitude, they try to be too tough, and people beat them up. A lot of people from this neighborhood go. A lot of people have been in jail before—the more times you go, the more people you know. It's like you're a fixture. It would be very hard for middle-class people, people like you. My mother'd been incarcerated before I was ever born.
Jeanine slept for a while. Then she woke up and they had coffee at the rectangular table in the kitchen.
—Do you hate your mother?
—No, I love the old goat. She's a pain in the ass. I want to hurt her sometimes. We've had fights.
—If you don't buy her drugs.
—She has a fit. You pay to stay home, you pay to stay somewhere else. I gotta give her drugs, because I know she has a fit. She's had a hard time. My mother's father raised them. Her mother abused them from when she was little. My mother was in the hospital for three years because she was getting beaten very badly. Then they grew up in homes, because they took them away from her father because back then it was a man with little girls. Then my mother came back home, and she was with my father since she was thirteen years old. My father was older, twenty-six, she was like thirteen or something. Hello. She should have realized then the man had a problem.
Elizabeth nodded sympathetically.
—Jorge used to beat me. First of all, he had an inferiority complex. I had to teach him how to read. The home setting was not happy. Very disturbed. He had the heroin habit. His sister died from AIDS, from shooting up.
Emilia's funeral. Jeanine couldn't handle it, too heavy.
—Jorge killed somebody during a robbery. They're not too kind with you taking somebody's life to deprive them of their property. If you kill somebody in a crime of passion or self-defense, it's one thing; but if you kill someone to take their property from them, it's worse. Jorge's crazy. The heroin, man. When he was so sick he didn't want to hear nothing, and he had attitude, and he wanted to beat everybody up, and blamed the world cause he was sick. When he was straight he didn't want to be bothered; he wanted to enjoy his high. There was no in between. He became crazy shooting up towards the end. He didn't cry for anything. He cried when my kids were taken. But this guy didn't cry for nothing, except one day his fucking set of works got clogged, and he cried like a baby. That's when I really started staying away from the house. It gets to the point where I'm like numb, I really am.
Elizabeth wondered how Jeanine protected herself on the corner.
—The customers are more dangerous, because you don't know them. Though I got my leg broken out there, when the boss guy came out with a bat because somebody said someone was selling something besides his merchandise. We don't harm customers, in fact, people in the neighborhood say they feel safer coming home because they know we're standing there. I'll walk down a drug block before I'll walk down a deserted block. People are not likely to try and drop someone on a block where there's drug dealers, because they're afraid. I'm not afraid of my colleagues, I'm more afraid of my customers, because I've been raped by customers. One girl was chopped up in pieces, we don't know who did it. You get some weird customers, they come out and like they're mixing. These are people who don't get high on a daily basis. Some do—they're real cool. Some people that don't, they're mixing alcohol or coke, heroin and pills and everything all at one time. They're not stable. plus whatever problems drove them to get high. They want to take you somewhere. It's bad to get in a car, I used to, but I had an incident. Sometimes I have customers, when I see them really messed up I don't want to sell to them. They're more dangerous to us than anyone. Most of the regular cops don't bother you. Sometimes they have nights when they want you off the corner, they come by, slow down and say, Take a walk. There's this older black guy we call Batman. He beats up the guys. He just gets out of the car and beats them up. He won't even take them to jail. Just beats the shit out of them.
Batman the cartoon or because he uses a bat?
—He's a black man. I'm black myself, but this guy's blacker than my shit. He's even got this gold ring that has this Batman picture. His partner is six foot seven—they call him Robin. He's terrible. They're terrible. But they won't beat up the girls, There aren't that many girls out there, but they won't really beat us up. Which makes them angry, they get more angry at us because they can't really search us. But there are more female cops now, before you never saw them. This younger guy, he used to always want to talk to you, offer you help. If he arrested you, it would be because he felt like you needed a break. There used to be two sisters down the block. They were saving their money to go to school, so the cops wouldn't arrest them.
Jeanine ate a sandwich . Elizabeth told her about wanting to murder someone, anyone, when she couldn't sleep. Jeanine laughed at her.
—Some nights are really messed up. It gets bad out there. A lot of people are high. A lot of people learn to get for themselves. We're middlemen, we're going to purchase it from a certain place. They don't want to commit a felony themselves. They might get beaten or they might get hurt, so they're willing to pay us double the price to get it for them. But a lot of customers are getting bold and they're going themselves. Some people got cleaned up. Once you could make a thousand dollars just out there a night; these days if it's a hundred bucks you're lucky. Coke's played out.
Jeanine drank some more coffee. She had a shower. She came out wrapped in a towel.
—All the guys I have used to be cops. Isn't that weird? All the cops come over to me. It's weird. They like me, they're trying to get me off the block, but they end up giving me money to buy drugs. Cops come and buy drugs, not from here, from elsewhere. From other precincts, whatever. The guy I've been seeing for a while, he's married, and he wanted me to stay stuck in the house, and it was just not a healthy situation. If she's here, I wouldn't see him for three or four days in a row, then I won't see him for two weeks. A really uncomfortable situation, and I become very obsessed with him, and I didn't think that was cool. Somebody else's man. He's alright, he used to be a cop. He's a very nice guy. Some no-good man—that's my worst addiction. I'm addicted to no-good men. Or being addicted to anything, you know what I'm saying? Your body has to keep up with your mind. I'll run to avoid sitting and thinking and facing reality. A lot of people in the neighborhood speak to me, want to help me, say I'm nice. I don't belong out there. I tell them, I don't know. It's my lifestyle now.
Elizabeth said it was a job, she saw her working on the corner almost every day.
—My job? Yeah, it's my job. True. And before, there used to be a lot of money. The flow was nonstop. A lot of people got clean. A lot of customers went bankrupt. Lost their jobs. A lot of customers had to stop to maintain their lives. A lot of men, their wives don't know what they're doing, and they screw up and their wives find out. There's women too, but it's usually couples if there's a woman involved, or like a lot of teenagers. I won't serve to teenagers, but there's college kids buying weed and stuff, then you see a lot of girls. A lot of people are smart enough to give it up instead of giving up their lives. Or it's too expensive. Sign of the times.
Jeanine looked at the clock on the kitchen wall. She had to make her group therapy session. She dressed, brushed her hair and put on orange lipstick.
—The last two months with my leg broken I couldn't report, and I couldn't get any outpatient therapy. It wasn't my fault. You go there, a group meeting, which is so stupid. I can't understand why parole and probation want to send you somewhere where you sit around and hear stories about drugs. Even in jail. I go to jail and sit in these little encounter groups, and every time I come out the drug I try is different from the one I used before. Because I heard about it in some meeting. They make you go and by the time you're finished with these meetings you want to get high. It's like really ridiculous. I don't want to go back. I won't sell to someone unless I know them. So many undercovers, you can't even tell who they are. I'm still on parole. They can lie on you, just 'cause you have a record, you can go to jail forever, you know? You gotta be real careful out there.
It was Jeanine in the doorway. She was gobbling some guy's dick for the price of a rock.
—You gotta be real careful out there.
Elizabeth wondered if Ernest was awake, lying in bed, or at the window above hers. Maybe he was naked, at his window. Maybe he was watching Jeanine. Maybe he was summer hot or excited. Jeanine in the doorway. Elizabeth liked sex, she liked watching sex.
Maybe Ernest could sleep through noise. Sleep through anything. Like Roy. Lights on in two more apartments. Babies crying. Dogs barking. One horrific scream. Then silence.
Now a door opened across the street.
The young super from the building on the other side of the street walked out his front door. Onto the street. He glanced from east to west. He played the role of an important man expecting someone or something. He couldn't have expected to catch the morons. They were gone. He shuffled in an aggravated way to the overturned garbage cans. He saw the damage. He cursed loudly. His arms flapped up and down, jerking out from his body. He checked his car. It was OK. The one next to his was dented. He didn't react. The garbage-can throwers weren't on the church steps. The young super took his time. He was a creep.
There's a restaurant on the moon. Yeah? Great food, no atmosphere.
Why don't cannibals eat clowns? They taste funny.
When the young super first took over the building across the street, he worked on his car every day. sometimes he worked on it early, five A.M., six A.M. He'd rev it up and turn the engine over. Over and over. Elizabeth became aware of him. He woke her up. she'd run to the window, stare out, and see him at dawn looking at his coughing car. Maybe his hands would be tinkering with the car's insides. Dawn was just another ruined night. Sometimes she'd open the window and shout, Stop it, stop it. Please. He never heard. He couldn't hear over his engine. The noise went on and on. Furious like churlish garbagetrucks, incessant like boisterous oil trucks fueling boilers in basements.
The young super was revving his engine again. No one else was alive to him. Elizabeth lay there with her eyes open. The noise grew louder. It always did. She started to inch out of bed. To slide to the end of the bed. Her toenails were hard. She gouged Roy on his calf.
—What are you doing? Roy asked.
—I'm not telling you, Elizabeth said.
—Where are you going?
—I'm going for a walk.
—In the middle of the night.
—Get back in bed.
-I can't sleep.
—Get back here, Lizard. Go to sleep.
—I can't. He's revving his engine again.
—He's got a right to work on his car.
—This is a residential area.
—What are you going to do?
—Tell him to stop.
—You're going to get killed.
—Don't do anything, don't be a jerk.
She might have to die to sleep. She laughed out loud. It sounded hollow in the apartment. She put on her robe and Japanese canvas shoes. Roy pulled the blanket over his head. His back was to her. He'd already accepted her death. Maybe she was as good as dead.
Roy didn't want Elizabeth at an open window in the middle of the night, or at dawn, he didn't want her getting involved, staring down or checking out a commotion on the street, especially a fight between drugged-out, warring guys or between a man and a woman, over sex, money, or drugs. He didn't want her sticking her head out the window. He told her about a couple of newlyweds who were on a train, on their honeymoon. They were going to the country. The bridegroom stuck his head out of the window of the train. A pole or something jutting out decapitated him, sliced his head right off. Then he fell back into the compartment, headless. And his bride went mad.
Elizabeth didn't think that would happen to her. An illegal windowbox could drop from the windowsill above and crush her head, but even then there wouldn't be enough speed or thrust for her head to be chopped off. Her skull could be flattened to a bloody pulp, but her head wouldn't be sliced off like a chunk of fat white meat.
Roy returned to Roy's world.
Elizabeth opened her door and walked down the stairs. The halls were even bleaker in the middle of the night. Dawn. Farmers woke like this every morning, at the break of day, milked cows, sloshed around in the heat or cold, fed pigs who were more intelligent than they were, grew wrinkled and weather-beaten, and their wives cooked heartbreaking breakfasts, shriveled under the sun, nursed belligerent youngsters or died in childbirth. Everyone's a hero. Elizabeth giggled then stifled herself. There were cigarette butts on the stairs and floors, tissues, candy wrappers, an empty paper bag. Nothing big. No vomit or blood or needles. Only some Phillies Blunt tobacco the kids mixed with marijuana. Grass. Weed. Tree.
Elizabeth marched stiffly across the street to the super at his car. She was in her robe, outside, on the street. She knew she looked ridiculous. People do when they act on principle. Like clowns in the circus. She'd only been to one circus. It was a crazy theater, the rings, the animals, the red-lipped clowns hanging from ropes. The audience fears the worst and waits for it. She counted herself a silent, anonymous member of Clowns for Progress. The group plastered its posters around the neighborhood.
Elizabeth stood beside the super until he decided to notice her. She was closer than she'd ever been to him. It was a grotesque intimacy. When he noticed her, she spoke as calmly as she could.
—You may not realize it, but some people are still trying to sleep. Maybe even until eight or nine this morning. Do you realize how loud your engine is? And do you know that it's against the law? It's noise pollution. Disturbing the peace. I could call the cops. I won't, but I could. I can't sleep. I can't stand it anymore. Don't you ever think about anyone else?
She stood there. She had finished her speech. She waited beside him, in her robe. He stared at her. His answer was silent revulsion. His disgust should have been reserved for battle, when a soldier calls up the desire to destroy from a vat of villainous mixed emotions. Pleasure, revulsion, and fear animate the killing machine. Soldiers are allowed legal murder.
The young super, smartly dressed but his nose streaked with grease, had no understanding of quiet in the morning. No respect for other people who needed their sleep. Elizabeth could see that. She enlivened his killing machine. He and she stood their ground. Her ground felt puny and groundless. They were locked in a barbaric embrace. It was public. They could be watched by anyone. Someone might be videotaping them for a stupid TV show. She was candid and conspicuous. The young super despised her. His rage shaped and reshaped his face. She would've slapped him if she thought he wouldn't murder her. She wanted to wipe the expression off his face. Murder was too good for him. That's what her mother would say. He didn't raise a hand, and the law held Elizabeth's hand. They were both held in check. An abyss yawned, wide and filthy, like a domestic Persian Gulf. She hated her own voice which repeated:
—Don't you understand that there are other people on the block? Don't you understand? People need to sleep. There are other people on the block.
The young super's face had hardened into furious incomprehension. Then he turned away from her, turned his back to her, returned to his car's engine, ignored her existence, and she walked back across the street to her building, walked back up the filthy stairs, went back to her position at the window. Elizabeth wondered who, if anyone, had witnessed the event. A friend or an enemy. Roy slept through it.
Now one of the dogwalkers marched out. He was usually the first on the block. He carried a single paper towel. He had a little dog. Most carried newspapers or plastic bags. Roy picked up newspaper from the street and used it for Fatboy, their dog. His dog. Dogwalkers walked their dogs and waited until the dog took a shit and then they scooped it up. They threw it into garbage cans. Most of them did this flawlessly. Gracefully. They'd had practice. There were a variety of methods. Newspaper under their dogs' asses. The dogs were trained to do it on the paper. Plastic bag on the hand like a glove. Owner grabs the shit and like a surgeon removes the glove with the shit and drops it into the garbage can. Each one had a technique, different for different dogs. The pooper scooper law was enacted under Mayor Koch. It was his legacy to the city, what he'd be remembered for, New Yorkers picking up dog shit. Along with an impartial judicial review board and handing over the city, opening it up like a high-class brothel, to the real estate clowns. That was years ago.
Now she wouldn't confront the young super, or anyone, alone on the street. Crime was down, but on what basis do they figure those stats, and even if there were fewer murders, she still wouldn't take the chance. People were more apathetic, exhausted, they were back on heroin, off crack, it didn't matter, it could change, and statistics lie any way you want them to, and if you're lying in the street, blood flowing from a wound in your head or stomach, because one of the fewer murders has been attempted, or achieved, it's you lying on the street, it's your bloody body, lifeless or hurt, and it doesn't matter what the stats are.
Elizabeth didn't have that many chances. No one did.
Now she considered the enduring consequences of announcing her grievances to her neighbors. Elizabeth had been ignorant of the fact that Hector the super had befriended the young super. His name was Ahmed, she didn't know which Middle Eastern country he was from, and Hector was Ahmed's block mentor. She hadn't known that. After Hector heard about what she did, he was barely civil to her.
Roy told Elizabeth she had to learn to accept the unacceptable.
She tried and slipped and told the woman on the first floor, Diane, that the woman on the top floor bothered her. The top floor woman screamed at her boyfriend's child from early morning on, and when she was high on coke, ran out in the night, forgot her keys and screamed for her mate to throw her a key, to let her in. He'd punish her, want to teach her a lesson. He'd be disgusted. He'd want out. He'd pretend not to hear the wailing, subhuman shrieks everyone else heard. Finally he'd give in, let her in. She'd whimper all the way up the stairs. Past Elizabeth's door. Then they'd fuck probably. Elizabeth complained to the woman on the first floor about how the craziness was driving her crazy. The first-floor woman said she was friends with the top-floor woman.
—Do you want me to talk with her? she asked.
—No, no, please, I'll handle it, Elizabeth said.
Elizabeth retreated. She had to be more careful. Roy thought she was a jerk. She had to let people know what she felt or thought. He told her she was chronicling her life. He'd watched a TV news special about women talking on the telephone. It said they were chronicling their lives.
The young super never looked at her on the street. He wouldn't help her if someone was trying to cut her, cap her, molest her. He was an enemy on the block. He wouldn't lift a finger to save her life. In the city, you can have enemies and never see them. It's urbane, humane. But if you have enemies on your block, you can't count on them. Not even in a lethal situation. They might applaud the bad guys or be apathetic bystanders, even grandstanders. Yeah, they could say later grinning, yeah, I saw him take that bitch and grab her head and slam it against the wall . . .
Elizabeth daydreamed that the young super Ahmed would come to her aid. Even though he hated her, he'd help her. He'd overcome his hatred and save her life. They'd forget their enmity, they'd forget the past. They'd become friends, and there would be one less problem in her little world. It was a fairy tale. It was like a dream when an ex-friend appeared and said, I love you. Or something. Elizabeth cried over spilt milk, the irreconcilable.
But Ahmed, wherever he came from, hated her. He still hated her. He would always hate her. He still lived on her block. He would always live on her block. He had a family now. The young super had a wife. They had one or two babies. Some nasty people are loved by apparently nice people. The young super's wife usually had a benign expression on her face. Elizabeth watched her get into and out of the young super's new car. Elizabeth decided he slapped her around. The wife's placid expression masked fear. Her abjection was as great as the enmity between Elizabeth and the young super. But Elizabeth couldn't ask him, Have you stopped beating your wife? He wouldn't get the joke.
They found a woman on Fourteenth Street in a bathtub full of milk. They did? With a banana jammed up her ass. You're kidding. The cops are looking for a cereal killer.
Why are there so few black serial killers? Why? No ambition.
Elizabeth hated the country. Small-town life was jail. Country people huddled together like sheep near one-movie towns, without bookstores or restaurants. They drove to abysmal malls for action. They planted huge antennae and satellite dishes on their lawns to hook themselves up to the world, which they didn't want any part of. They lived in nature, didn't see it, didn't care about it. They knew everything about each other. They saw each other every day and passed the time: Looks like Sally isn't getting out much anymore.
It was on TV. Elizabeth watched TV. She liked windows. TV's cranky hermits and serial killers were at the dark heart of the country's dark side. They were the children taught to distrust anyone not like them, children of incest, thin-blooded, with dead, flat eyes, they were genetic threats. They fucked harnessed animals who kicked them in the head. Hermits passed bleak nights knitting shrouds, cleaning their shotguns, or fuming about grievances long past. Hermits plotted. Serial killers thrived and grew bloodthirsty for company in isolated outposts. The city's a cold place, the story goes, But in the country, your barn burns down, they raise a new one with you, you get a smile and a howdy in the country.
There was no anonymity for hate, love, or lust in the country. Elizabeth could've fucked the super as easily as killed him.
The young super hadn't revved his engine that early in the morning for a long time. Elizabeth didn't know if it was because of her. She'd spelled it out to him that she could call the cops and have him arrested for disturbing the peace, which she didn't, but it may have made an impression on him. It may have made no impression on him. If he hadn't cared about waking other people, hadn't thought it was wrong, he wouldn't have cared about disturbing the peace.
Everybody understood, I'll call the cops. Everyone on the block understood that.
Maybe he was an illegal immigrant, hiding, living in fear. If she threatened him now after his years in New York—maybe back then he'd just arrived and was adjusting to America, was still peaceful, even content to be here, if he was, maybe he'd escaped a worse situation. Now he'd probably hit her with a car wrench or throw her under his car, grab the jack and let the car drop on her, killing her, not instantly, slowly. Painfully. It could be made to seem like an accident unless people were around to witness it or people knew they'd had an incident in the past. That's why it's necessary to tell people about fights you have with crazy people. Later the crazy person might come after you, and if no one knew there was a motive, your life could be ended and the cops would never find your killer. Never bring him to justice. Elizabeth couldn't convince Roy about the necessity of communicating to other people the malevolent acts of crazy people. Roy didn't make small talk.
The young super might grab his wrench and strike violently at her skull, knocking out enough brain cells to alter her functioning. She'd be mentally disabled. Or, if the car landed on her legs, maybe she wouldn't die, she'd only be crippled for life. That would be worse than death. She'd have to move out of her rent-stabilized apartment on the fifth floor. It was a walk-up.
Elizabeth held her vulnerable head in her hands. She rocked.
She knew about several people's failed suicide attempts. They were in wheelchairs or using canes. Everyone hated them for what they'd done to themselves. There's no sympathy for failure and no sympathy for failed suicides who end up crippled. Failure doesn't negate failure. Elizabeth ended a friendship with someone who tried to kill himself. It was cruel, it was inexplicable. Cruelty and kindness are. Elizabeth had the sense that the guy would hurt someone else, her, because you hurt the ones you love, who are within reach, because he failed at killing himself.
Another light went on. A first-floor window. Then a fourth-floor window. Maybe other supers were waking up, readying themselves to meet and greet the day. There'd be garbage on the streets. They knew that. They were prepared for that.
A woman super, Polish or Ukrainian, created a racket every other day, fixing her garbage cans. She was pretty old, so she couldn't lift them. She'd drag them from one part of the sidewalk to another, drag drag drag, clank clank clank. Elizabeth never called the cops or yelled out the window even though the woman woke her. The old Polish woman did her job, she kept her part of the sidewalk clean. She placed the covers on the garbage cans. She wasn't Hector.
It was too early for the old Polish super in her weather-beaten brown coat, flannel nightgown, funny plastic shoes, and babushka. Summer or winter. A jogger trotted by. Elizabeth ignored joggers. Especially when they spun their heels at red lights and jogged in place beside her, waiting for the light to change. They panted and sweated and gulped water from plastic bottles. She expected them to drop dead next to her.
If Elizabeth became crippled and ugly, no one would feel sorry for her, even though it wasn't her fault, and she wasn't trying to commit suicide, although some people would say, Living in that neighborhood is suicide, what'd she expect? Crippled, she'd have to move. She wouldn't be able to walk up or down four flights of stairs, and no one would be able to carry her. Not even Roy. He'd probably leave her. She wouldn't be able to exercise. She'd become enormously fat. She'd wallow in her weight, her rolls of fat. It would be her only reward. Maybe she'd need an oversized wheelchair. She wondered if they were available or if you had to have them custom made. That would cost a fortune. She had no place to keep it.
She didn't want to move. She didn't want to be crippled. The man next door was crippled. He had a ground-floor apartment. He'd never move. He couldn't roll into Kim's Video Store because it wasn't wheelchair friendly. The wheelchair man told her that. She thought of speaking to the owner. He'd begun as a dry cleaner and branched into video stores. He probably never thought about wheelchair access.
She dreaded apartment hunting, standing in the center of an empty apartment with a rent she couldn't afford, even though she'd rather die than live in it. It was grotesque, being enclosed by four shabby walls, and not being able to afford it, or even finding yourself considering renting it. It was tenement despair. What you really wanted was inaccessible. With or without a wheelchair. Pathetic. It made her want a house that wasn't for rent, that couldn't be taken from her, anywhere, a house anywhere except in the country. She knew some people who liked to apartment hunt. It was inconceivable. It's what makes horse racing. No one she knew followed the races.
—Even a journey of a thousand miles begins with the following cancellations, Roy said once.
Elizabeth's murderous impulses were ordinary, that's what made them dangerous. She'd never do time, like Jeanine, who expected it, like middle-class kids expect to go to college. Elizabeth wouldn't do time, unless life became more unpredictable than it had been. It could happen in time. Time could do it to her, do her, anything could happen.
The super who hated her walked back into his apartment building.
She even hated the way he walked. It was an insolent, arrogant swagger, almost indecent. He disappeared into his pitiful, creepy world, hidden in his apartment building. His building was next to the laundromat.
The laundromat was one of the centers on the block. She could watch the dryers from her window. She and Roy knew when to do the laundry. From their windows they could see how many dryers were empty. They could also check when their dryer had stopped spinning.
It's impossible to be on both sides of the window simultaneously. Windows were paradoxical. She was vulnerable with them, vulnerable without them. She had to be wary of attack, but she had to be open. She was not an eyeless mollusk in a cave, she needed air and light. At the window, she made an effort to think about how she was seen and if she was being seen. She was like a window, she thought, sometimes transparent, usually paradoxical, and always open to tragicomic views of life.
She liked watching people do their laundry, but she didn't like doing it. Roy did the laundry more than she did. It didn't bother him. Occasionally she found herself enjoying it. She recognized that the pleasure might be the onset of a disease, wholesomeness. Clothes just became dirty again, dirtier, so the activity was endless and unimportant. People washed and dried their clothes in moments of great, incommensurable despair. For many, it was their finest hour.
It depended on your point of view. views were always a problem. Elizabeth didn't own her view. A builder could buy air rights to the building across the street and destroy what she saw, steal her light.
Finally Jeanine finished the guy off. They left the doorway. Maybe he was a cop.
—All the guys I have used to be cops. Isn't that weird? Some no-good man-that's my worst addiction. I'm addicted to no-good men.
The sun was orange and furious. It was engorged, insensible. There was nothing Elizabeth could do about Jeanine, the elusiveness of sleep, or the stagnant effects of memory. sleep wouldn't absolve her anyway. It wasn't her friend. Who was a friend. Friends and enemies come and go. They're turncoats, reversible. She hated reversible coats. She didn't see the point.
Elizabeth turned herself inside out and threw herself into reverse, into regret, remorse, and the puny unspeakable.
You wonder why as you sit and nurse old wounds and new sores you wonder why I vanished that night, you were inside yourself, rotting like dead meat, your paranoid stories poisoned me, it's my fault I listened, I'm tired of doing that, even so I love our past, isn't that funny, but I can't be next to it, you don't hear yourself, you have no idea.
She wouldn't have friends or enemies for long because life was mercilessly and mercifully short. Her days were numbered. Her nights didn't count. She had to put up with noise. Noise was the voice of the people. Raucous laughter erupted from somewhere. Then a bloodcurdling scream and more bloodstopping laughter.
Hector was the super of her building. He couldn't take care of it. He spoiled it, he dirtied it. His very existence negated what he was paid to do. She had to accept that. The problem isn't always plain incompetence and poor administration. It must have to do with why people take the jobs they do, even if they think they don't want to do them. They take them because they can't do them. Maybe they hate what they're doing. Not being able to do it, constitutionally, is another thing. Working a job that attacks your worst habit occurs all the time. It's not an accident. People who don't understand mental illness and who are punitive, people with a little money, moderately well-off people, think neuroses are a luxury. They blather on about poor people, how the poor don't have time to be neurotic. It only demonstrates the narrow-mindedness of the nonpoor. If they're out of work, which makes them poor and crazy, the poor have all the time in the world to be neurotic.
Rich people were blocked. Poor people were blocked. They blocked other people. She saw them. They set up obstacles for themselves, for her and everyone else. It was amazing she could walk down the block.
Elizabeth pictured a listing in the employment section of theTimes:
Someone who would never have considered it, because it's menial work, someone who finds pleasure in fixing and washing things, think about this: You might consider becoming a super. If anxious about maintenance, you'd do the job well, if worried about spots and grime, you might be the one. You could achieve success in an underestimated field. Any tenant can attest to how important a super is.
It's a small world, someone said to Jackie Curtis. Not if you have to clean it, Jackie Curtis answered.
Her day was about to eclipse her night.
Some will never be clean enough, some can't clean, some don't want to, some are doomed, some want others to do it for them, some hate putting their hands in hot water. Some love filth and shit and dirt, some roll in it. Not that many, but some. Hector is one. But some people love cleaning so much, they can hardly admit it. Their hands become raw and dry and they keep their hands in steaming water and they soak off life's filth, and they make themselves smell good and they let nothing collect on their tables or on the floor. They're happy. They're clean. They think they're safe. They've kept life's grime off them. It's a constant battle. They're private sanitation workers. Cleanliness is next to anything. It's just itself. It becomes its opposite, a viler identical twin.
Maybe Hector understood this and didn't even try. He collected instead. If it can't be cleaned, it can be collected.
Anyone can collect anything, any dumb trinket is collectible. Put enough of them together and you'll get money for the collection. Some other moron will give you money because you collected hotel matchbooks, coasters, or autographs from movie stars who'd spit on you if they could. Empty feelings were temporarily negated by being smothered and surrounded by thousands of the same kind of thing, mounting and mounted. People start collecting on a whim. It just happened, they say. They just started. They started with one baseball card, porcelain cupid, button, postcard, and then it took over their lives, consumed them. They never know why. They say, I thought I'd get another one, then I wanted another one, and suddenly, I wanted this one, and then I wanted all of them. I had to have the whole set, all of them. The stuff's all around them, in boxes or cartons, or displayed on shelves. It fills their houses and their lives, the irresistible, the harmless. Their impulses are everywhere. The stuff that isn't collectible collects inside them, silently, cunningly.
What she collected kept her from sleeping. Elizabeth shook herself. She didn't want to go under.
Why do WASPs like taking planes? For the food.
Two men strolled along the street, talking casually. To them everything was cool. They were in love, they were inviolable. On the next corner they could be murdered by a moron. She'd probably be murdered. Her life would come to its pathetic statistical end, and she wouldn't have murdered anyone, wouldn't know the thrill.
Mindless, heartless, she was on the edge. She was close to the bliss of being unconscious, bodiless. She rubbed her eyes.
Frankie came out on the street again. It was time to open the laundromat. Frankie stretched floridly. His long tan arms flew out from his body and reached to the torrid sky. He stretched his legs. He was a dancer, limbering up. He glanced both ways. He wasn't afraid of cars. He took in the street. It was his as much as anybody's. It was his more than anybody's. He took out the key to the laundromat. He unlocked the padlock. He lifted the heavy iron gate on the plate-glass window. He pushed it up and grunted. The heavy gate made a dramatic, yawning sound.
Frankie's presence was a comfort. Frankie was doing what he was supposed to do. Elizabeth's eyes shut. Her head dropped. Her troublesome body relaxed. She slid onto the couch. She slid below the window and disappeared from sight. Frankie entered the laundromat.
The man in the third-floor window closed his blinds. He turned on the light. He dressed. He cursed.
Jeanine was on another couch, at home, coming down. Her mother was screaming at her, Jeanine ignored her.
—You pay to stay home, you pay to stay somewhere else. I gotta give her drugs, because I know she has a fit. She's had a hard time. My mother's father raised them. Her mother abused them from when she was little. My mother was in the hospital for three years because she was getting beaten very badly. Then they grew up in homes, because they took them away from her father because back then it was a man with little girls. Then my mother came back home, and she was with my father since she was thirteen years old. My father was older, twenty-six, she was like thirteen or something. Hello. She should have realized then the man had a problem.
Elizabeth couldn't help herself. She tucked the street, the endless night, away, into her, she couldn't keep her eyes open, and when she couldn't see what was going on, all the details, the sidewalk antics, when everything was crushed, broken up, and shoveled into the unruliness called her, exceeding her, all more and less than her, then sleep found her, against her will.
Now Elizabeth didn't exist to herself. She wasn't anywhere.
A circus tent fell down, they were trapped, rabid dogs were roaming, cars overturned, bridges down, wolves with blood on their mouths grimaced, some people escaped, they carried everything on their backs, there were cresting waves and falling screams, a vast territory with decrepit buildings, and something was moving very fast, she was in slow motion.
Her feet were stuck, the boss was not in his office, and her mother was sad, she was unable to walk, and small people, dwarfs, made high-pitched yowling noises, they were bedraggled, they were children, and no one had shoes on, her mother was wasting away, dying, she didn't think anyone loved her, she couldn't remember who loved her, she wouldn't ever again know where she was, and Elizabeth, who was old, then young, a teenager, walked unevenly into the movie theater, with her mother, who was frail, she had to be carried to her seat, but she didn't have her ticket, and handed in her shoes which didn't have heels on them, and a black ten-year-old boy with a golden boombox told her a glass bottle had exploded, white hyenas had thrown bottles at him, and the young boy dropped his pants, and there were shards of glass stuck in his ass, he was bleeding, Jeanine was in a doorway, a woman's face appeared in a mirror, she was putting on make-up, her face was a nightmare, she was almost dead, and popcorn was overflowing, and greasy, and her shoes were wrong, and they wouldn't let her in, she pulled a long hair from her coat, and her mother was lost, it would be her turn next, where's the ticket to leave, and there was jostling for a place, ladders collapsing, and noise, but somehow she entered the hall, nothing on the screen, a rope around her waist, she was tugged along, she saw some friends, she was naked suddenly, they asked, what are you doing here, you weren't supposed to be here, you don't live here. . . .
YOU DON'T LIVE HERE. THIS IS A BLOCK PARTY.