Tuesday, August 16, 2005


the crack in the chimney

Our landlord is broke. We know this because halfway through our tenancy, he was served with legal papers. The attorneys from a local bank informed us that there were already several liens on the house we were inhabiting. We were named in the suit. Generally our landlord prefers to stay out of sight, but that day, he found his nerve and rapped on our door. He wanted us to know what was coming, and that we didn't need to be alarmed.

I wasn't. I've been named in suits before.

New construction projects in Paulus Hook commence without ceasing. Every time a truck rolls by, the floor shakes violently enough to rattle all of the glasses in the cupboard. Semis filled with building supplies rumble down Grand all morning, headed for the waterfront excavations. New residential complexes, plastic and airtight, are rising on Greene Street, overlooking the scenic Merrill Lynch parking lots. These developments strain to blend in with the rest of the nineteenth-century rowhouses that dominate the neighborhood. They fail, of course. There is no chance we will be able to afford any of these units. Yet I am still curious enough about their dark corporate interiors, their track lighting, provocative smells of fresh lacquer and sawdust.

The leak in the ceiling cannot be fixed with mortar and spackling. It's a fissure in an old chimney that needs to be taken to pieces to save. Our mold colony and our ant colony are manifestations of a foundational problem with the house. This structure has bounced and shivered on Grand Street for one hundred and fifty years, and has been designated historic by a city government that is often profligate with its historic designations. From the outside, there is no chance that a passerby would find the building remarkable. It is, easily, the ugliest house on our block.

I believe our landlord would change this if he could. When the front steps break, as they often do, he is out there the following morning with his trowel, bleary-eyed, dutifully and deliberately reconstituting the crumbling brickface. His children charge up and down the steps and bounce their bicycle wheels against the lip of the stoop. Everything busts faster than he can make repairs. While all the other homeowners on Grand Street keep magazine gardens in their backyards, our landlord has let his little plot grow wild. The kids don't miss it. They prefer to play on the street. This makes perfect sense to me: as a child I had no patience for greenery either. I had all of my fun in the road.

Our landlord appears to view the crack in the chimney as an intractable problem, an act of a cruel god, existing on a plane beyond the scope of his comprehension. Every month, Hilary includes a note in the rent envelope discussing the leak in a friendly way: reminding him of the insidiousness of water damage, gently cajoling him toward positive action. When confronted by inaction bordering on negligence, patience is not always Hilary's chosen method. But it is no use getting mad at our landlord. He gives the impression of a man so burdened by the demands of family life that he can barely raise his hand to say hello. It is unspoken: he is in no financial condition to begin reconstruction of his house.

The landlord's wife is an enormous woman with a huge voice. On weekend mornings, she bellows at the children. Her invective is audible from the second floor and across the street as well. The kids are, without exception, well-behaved and well-groomed. They party when they can. When we first arrived in the neighborhood, there were other schoolkids on the block, riding their bikes on the sidewalk with the landlord's kids. In the twenty months since, those other children have disappeared. The U-Hauls that I see from our second floor window each weekend bring only young childless couples, their home electronics, and their new furniture. We never see the children moving out. But they do.

The landlord's kids play American R&B and reggaeton: "Gasolina" by Daddy Yankee, over and over. They bring their radio out to the stoop. A few doors down, a storefront briefly inhabited by the mayoral candidate most favored by the anti-abatement crowd has been converted into a cafe with upmarket aspirations. Sometimes the people in the outdoor seating give me a funny vibe. I walk out of the crappy house with the busted brown door, often with a musical instrument under my arm. Unlike my landlord, I am not Latino, and I am not a banker or an attorney. I look like one of the notorious JC artists, all of whom were supposed to be gone by now.

When Hilary and I lived in Union City, the kids played in the street. Scores of them did, emptying out of the tenements on Eleventh Street, filling the block from Palisade to New York, pelting each other with balls and making life hell for motorists. Unofficial councilors emerged -- slightly older boys who would write on the pavement with chalk and attempt to impose order on the games. We were the only Anglos on the block, a tiny droplet of gentrification in a sealed neighborhood that wasn't looking toward New York City for its cues. We could have been the vanguard of an unwelcome change. Instead, Union City barely changed at all.

As Grand Street renovates, the relative disrepair of our house becomes more distinct: to the neighbors, to the landlord, to us. Rainwater sluices down the front of the house in a thick black cascade, crashing on the windowpanes and spattering droplets into the bedroom. There is a crack in the chimney that won't be fixed, and water is violating our living room wall. It is sloshing us clear of the neighborhood, as it soaks the crossbeams and wood floors and the black mold piles up in the bedrooms of my landlord's children. He is washing away in a flood of unpaid bills. The bank will flush this family from their property sooner or later: our exhausted landlord, his hollering wife and his four children, riding their bicycles, breathing in mold spores. They will float elsewhere, taken by the current to points unknown. The same tide will carry us, too.

" we'll move to paterson or passaic first. or bushwick or something."

I hear you on the suburbs. Kat would never have any of that. Our landlord is raising the rent by 20% and we have to say goodbye to Inwood. Bushwick is interesting. That's where Kat and I are moving...east/east, Jefferson Avenue almost where it borders Ridgewood. There is an interesting street we almost took an apartment on...Grove. Straight out of Washington Heights, and an active community organization is based on the street. Lots of kids, and the adults in the office seem to keep them in check. I thought about you when I saw it. Alas, the apartment just wasn't right...
When I was flushed out of New York almost twenty years ago I came ashore on Jewett Avenue down beyond St. Peters. Nice place to live, I thought, but I got held up at gunpoint twice and acquired my wife and we moved downtown to Wayne Street. We had a very sweet deal but real estate went crazy five years ago or so and we were priced out like a cannon.

We bought a house in the Heights before the madness moved here. The price is doubled in the four years we've lived here, but of course, so has everything else.

It's hard not to feel like you're getting pushed back and back and all your struggle is just a holding action until you get put on the reservation. Whether its the bank or speculators or a hapless landlord, the pressure is relentless.

It's better to look at it like you do. It's just a river. Enjoy the sights and keep your eye out for a good landing.
I blame indie rock and Miramax. No, I really do, actually.
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