Untitled (from Heads) graphite crayon & ink on paper, 27 x 18-1/2" 5.1.13
My eviction was a diaspora. James returned to his landlord/lover, Denise began sleeping in a hallway on Perry and Otis vanished to parts unspecified. I was free of the family I had invented, loved and cursed. It crossed my mind, like an afterthought, that now I could be free of crack, too. It was not too late to escape my escape. But crack is diabolical; it provokes not withdrawal, but a longing harder to withstand than physical need. Still, for a few days I tried. People, places, things. All three of my stickiest circumstances were changed and I could change, too, I thought.
My more immediate problem was where to sleep. It was my first day of living without keys. I had always had my own address since leaving my parents’ house at fifteen. Hallways, doorways looked different to me, places from which I was now excluded or unwelcome. The people I knew as a smoker were not sleepers, not least because most of them, like me, had no fixed abode. And crackheads are only as kind as the next hit you can buy them. Suddenly I felt acutely the difference between what recovery people called “associates” and friends, and knew that in the Bronx I had nothing but the former. In my old life in Manhattan I had had people to stay with if need be, but those people no longer wanted to be my friends. I had to think of a person outside my infernal circle, and I did.
We called him Gold Card but his name was Apollo. He was a diminutive Ecuadoran who lived with his brother, Prometheo, in a large light apartment on the top floor of a tall, dimly elegant Art Deco building on the dead end of Two-Fourth overlooking French Charlie’s park and the Metro North tracks. Both men were in their sixties. Apollo was a painter suffering from lead poisoning, and a political exile. The brothers lived in penury in the apartment once occupied by their father, also a painter, who had lived into advanced old age. His paintings hung on every wall and they were fascinating--psychedelic allegories of Catholicism and politics—crucifixions, flaming banners, supplicants. The only other art I ever saw in the Bronx was prints of stags in forests or leopards in jungles.
Apollo was the neighborhood innocent. He was five foot two and stout, with dark thinning hair and unruly eyebrows. He was always smiling and sweating. His was a beautiful soul in a troll’s body. He was in New York without a green card or funds, except what little he shared with Prometheo, who was legal and received SSI and food stamps. Prometheo was tall and shambling and suffered from an unspecified psychiatric illness. Their common abode was interesting and dirty and flyblown, with heavy laundry soaking for days in the bathtub, pots of black beans and rice sitting for days on the stove. They installed me on a plastic mattress on the living room floor, where Prometheo occupied a narrow bed in the corner. In addition to the father’s paintings there was a huge gilt-framed still life of a dead pheasant and waxy white grapes. A tall metal and glass floor lamp with three swooping branches shed light over the whole array, which included a glass-fronted bookcase filled with medical texts. The décor spoke of a Hispanic life gentle, cultured and disciplined, a world different from the empty interiors equipped by Rent-A-Center I’d seen throughout the Bronx.
Instead of cherishing these strangers who acted as true friends, I was cavalier, coming and going at all hours and even bringing my cat, Stella, to stay without permission. It did not occur to me to clean up the apartment. I imagined a new, borrowed life as lodger in Apollo’s establishment, surrounded by beautiful paintings and flies. Sober, I added to myself, unconvinced. I could not yet pronounce the word “homeless” to myself. I held fast in my mind to the image, or rather the feeling, of the plastic mattress in the living room and Stella sleeping my arms. I had narrowed down what I need to exist, perhaps even to prosper: a bed, a cat.
I nurtured this vision for five comforting days, then my host told me his landlord, a sour Albanian, had recognized me from the street and said I had to go.
“Can you care for Stella till I find someplace for her and me?” I asked, abashed but not surprised.
“Of course,” smiled Apollo sadly. “I don’t know why nobody trusts you,” he added, embarrassed for us both.
I packed nothing, just left my clothes in an unfolded heap on Prometheo’s sofa.
“I’ll pay you to take care of the cat and I’ll buy cat food and litter,” I said shamefacedly as I left.
It was the second week of September. The sun was still hot, the shade suddenly cold. I walked to the sitting park and sat there on a long green bench considering my circumstances. Less than three blocks away was the apartment building which had been my citadel and now I was shut out by its unlocked wrought iron door, shut out from other refuges, too because of what I’d chosen to do indoors and out. I could think of nowhere to stay except for Denise’s friend Christine, who lived with her unmanageable five year old son and her sister in a one bedroom apartment on Rochambeau, in a huge building managed by a drug program. It was a hive of smokers. Christine would let me stay the night, I reckoned. I hated being around people with kids and knew that there my nerves, which so far had been holding up, would be shattered. I depended on my calm to see me through.
I was struck, for what felt like the first time in my life, by the difference--and the distance—between inside and out. I was a completely urban woman, unimpressed by nature except as a garnish for streets, and my love of cities had as a condition my uninterrupted access to apartments, almost always my own. I was identified with rooms, regardless of their view. The important events of my life were the ones that took place behind closed. doors. Now my own door had closed on me, stamped shut with the marshal’s red notice of eviction The glare of the sun in the sitting park reminded me how I’d loved the sun shadowed by my bedroom curtains. The unmediated elements, even ones I was used to and loved—sunlight, streets— needed the screen of a home, and now I had none but my own thin skin.
It was almost April. I had paid half of March's rent with the money Wayne gave me and had been living, or rather smoking off the prorated payment I'd received for Shawn's two weeks in March. I also owed Andy a hundred and thirty dollars for sandwiches and cigarettes he'd bought me over the past few months. I decided to repay him by pawning the computer, a crazy move since this machine was my last link to working or writing. But I had tacitly given up on both and now it seemed more pressing just to clear up my credit with Andy and to have a few dollars to maintain myself. Andy and I set out with the iMac on the D train. It was a sleek object, easy to carry. We took it to a pawn shop on 149th Street near Lincoln Hospital, where I received two hundred fifty dollars and a ticket. The iMac had cost almost two thousand a year ago but I didn't mourn. I figured I had four months to redeem the ticket; surely I could come up with such a small sum of money by then. It was a relief to pay off Andy, which left me with a balance of a hundred twenty dollars. Andy and I transferred from the 4 train to the D at Yankee Stadium. As we rode uptown, a plan was forming in my head. James worked on Fordham! I knew I shouldn't spend this precious money on crack but the call of the drug--and of James, I had to admit--was irresistible. Because I'd sacrificed the computer I felt I deserved a reward, so as the train passed Burnside, then 183rd Street, I told Andy I had an errand to run and got off at Fordham Road. I figured James dealt cards on the busier east side of Fordham but I had no idea which block. I had to thread my way twice through the crowds on the main street until, turning on Valentine, I ran straight into James, wearing his maroon Du-rag and black winter jacket. We stared at each other for a minute in surprise.
"I got money!" I whispered, not wanting the men he worked with to overhear.
"Word?" he exclaimed. "Let's go."
We found a taxi which sped us up Webster and dropped us at 205th Street, where we called Bicycle from the pay phone outside Frank's store. Then we went upstairs to wait.
We had seven dimes each. James sat in the leather chair where he'd slept since Shawn's arrival; I sat on the sofa. We each lit our stem and commenced smoking.
"You know, the other night I be thinking you got a nice shape, G," he began.
"Thank you," I said softly.
He went on, "When you found me on Fordham it was like love."
I knew what he meant--not that we were in love or even that we loved each other as friends, although probably we did, but that the moment had been perfect in its element of luck and surprise. We continued to smoke and it was a long time before we slowly embraced.
They say once you go black you never go back and this moment with James signaled my total crossover. But more fitting than this cliche was a song called "Lions and Tigers and Bears", playing on the radio we had in the living room:
"Just cause I love you
and you love me
That doesn't mean
that we're meant to be
Swim 'cross the ocean,
sing for the Queen,
But what scares me
is you and me…"
It was a song of longing and impossibility which captured me more than any promise of duration. I wanted nothing from James except what I had at this moment. We lay on the floor after we finished making love. I thought we'd finished smoking, too, but he brought out one last dime he'd stashed and filled our stems.
"Cheers and chandeliers!" he said, clinking his glass against mine.
"Where'd that toast come from?"
"A lady who died, my brother wife."
James got up from the floor and got dressed while I retreated to my sofa. That night he slept in the chair as usual but something important had passed between us, an initiation which changed subtly the character of our family. What had happened was secret. I had not become James's lover but a sort of shadow wife, ready to do his bidding when he asked. Nor was I Denise's rival. I was James's handmaiden, and Denise's sister, a servant in our private crack cult. What I did I did for all our shared pleasure. This was different from the thankless servitude I'd experienced with Tone. James was my type, a man that in a former life I would have fallen in love with and wanted for myself. But now there was Denise to cover the work I was bad at, the work of permanence. I didn't know it yet, but through tricking I was unlearning the lifelong dream of perfect love, which had never come true but only damaged my real accomplishments and talents. Now the multitude and availability of men in my life freed me from the need to become fixated on one. This was power. My earnings were slender but every day I remembered how in Manhattan I had paid to get laid, not to my lovers directly, but to all the therapists, hairdressers, yoga teachers, and yes, plastic surgeons I'd hired to fix me, to make me barely acceptable to a male population which fetishized both models and moms, or rather, an impossible hybrid of the two. I was a different species altogether, an intellectual, a difficult identity for a woman which fortunately did not even register with the men of the Bronx. To them I was just a pretty, plump, older white lady, probably from a good family, who lived in the hood for reasons of her own. My femininity was never questioned nor did my education threaten men who barely knew what it was. Now, and here, I could fuck whom I chose and think what I pleased.
HAPPINESS IS THE ROOF were the words I thought I heard of a song playing on 145th and Amsterdam from a grainy boom box at a small African store, little more than a stall. The song sounded catchy and old, like late Motown or seventies soul, yet I hadn't heard it before; I thought I had missed something from my childhood. By the time I heard it again, the next day at the Goodwill on West 25th between Sixth and Seventh Avenues while trying on a white cardigan, there coursed through me a happiness I'd had no hint of in thirteen ill-starred years, a happiness I more habitually associated with being in love. Decades of smashed mirrors tracked me. I had, the day before, found a new home, a room in a long apartment on Riverside Drive in Harlem, its building a grey-painted bastion, a warship with two entrances, the smell of frying chicken and the sound of sports penetrating its thick walls. Happiness is indeed a roof, even though the words of the song go differently. In the sixties and early seventies there were two songs about the roof, by Laura Nyro and Diana Ross, respectively, "Up on the Roof" and "Up the Ladder to the Roof". Those roofs were euphoric places of escape, the crown of buildings, not symbolic of domiciles themselves, which it was assumed, however humble, we had. To measure the distance we have come as a city--all three songs would seem to be about New York--is to recognize that, where once we could climb to our own roof, now, our very relationship to such a roof is in question. The words measure also the path I have traveled, from householder to homeless and, with fragile foothold, back again.
The city I migrated to from Los Angeles as a Barnard student in 1976 is not the one I inhabit now, and the rules and definitions of "bag lady" have changed, encompassing a far wider demographic, one that intermittently includes me, although I am far too lazy to carry bags. It is interesting to note that the German word for "homeless" is "obdachlos" or "dachlos"—roofless— recorded even in cemetery records.
New York City, against gentrification, against unconscionable rents, against all the odds, is still a place where it is possible to jump from one estate to another, from dispossession to what the I Ching, The Book of Changes, calls “possession in great measure,” remembering always that the essence of the I Ching, and of life, is change. I inhabit New York City just as I inhabit the English language. In what other city—and I have lived in six—would I live; in what other language would I write? I know the city’s tenses, its moods, its caesuras—which is to say its commas--its silent cases, and, of course, its periods.
In between home and homelessness were episodes of such heartbreak and shame I cannot stand to think of them without a thick veil of alcohol and Newports. Minus these consolations I dream of them again and again, in different guises, different scenes of guilt and horror, most of all a sadness in which there is no unbearable lightness, only the sightless, hollow void called by Bible Belters 'The Rapture'. It is a term in Christian eschatology which refers to “being caught up” in two opposite senses. In the first, those who are blessed, who have repented and are alive in Christ will be “caught up in the clouds” to meet “the Lord in the air.” Thessalonians 4:17. In the negative sense, the so-called pre-tribulation view, a group of people will be left behind on earth to experience a period of sightless trial, the phenomenon depicted so graphically in the movie The Rapture which introduced me to the term. When I think on the things I have done and left undone, I know I am slated for the Rapture in the second sense.
"Look back but don't stare" is one of my favorite sayings, garnered from Alcoholics Anonymous, where I have made many meetings without, for long, meeting the task of being sober. But it is a great saying, five words of lightness that comfort us over what A.A. also calls "the wreckage of the past." The day I found my room, and the day after, were days of rapture, in the first sense: a resurrection. The real words of the song, by rapper Pharrell Williams, are: “Happiness is the truth.” Amen.