Van Courtland Park

© 2003

By Don Kellin



The Painted Lady

The faux-deco lamps on their fluted posts were no competition for the bright moon spilling its luminescence across the calm sea, silvering the splintered boardwalk, making its miles of pitted railings look new again.

’Moon, how I wish you could make me new again,’ thought the painted lady, her back to the boardwalk, ankle deep in the Atlantic, gazing through her false lashes, due east toward the land of her ancestors and unpainted past.

Only budget-conscious regulars, male and female, had spent any time with her, under the boardwalk, in dark doorways, across towel-covered back seats of cars, or for an extra twenty bucks, on the sliver of mattress that never had time to relax and flatten out completely once pulled from the bowels of the cheap tweed-covered sofa convertible opposite her sacrosanct bed, both furnishings provided by Rockaway’s only apartment hotel, The Palace, a five-story brick cube surrounded by clapboard bungalows.

Facing a massive moon balanced on the rim of the black horizon, the painted lady scrubbed away her painted face, the last four hours, the last three years. Her lips were pink again, the face was her face. She looked down at the lashes spinning on the liquid silver eroding her foot prints and spoke to them:
“You’ll be gone in a few minutes -- and so will I. I’ve had enough of you -- and this world -- and me. ”

The painted lady pulled her dress up above her knees, took a deep breath and started toward the slivers of iridescent whitecaps and the unknown.


Chapter One

The Specter

          A hundred yards behind second base, past the clumps of alchemy in centerfield that turned grounders into pop ups, in a small clearing buried in a thicket of bushes, saplings and their ancestors, the pasty old man failed his second attempt to fall asleep. The first attempt had been made where it always was, a few blocks away on the clean sheet on the striped button mattress on the folding cot in the eight by ten windowless cinder-block cube the old man called his home. The ‘cube’ was a corner build-out in the basement of the five-story tenement that Mr. Nowicki, the Polish building superintendent, had leased to him for $75 a month, cash under the table, for the last fifteen years. Priscilla Cates, the owner of the building, willed to her by Murray Cates, nee Katz, her deceased, almost- Jewish slum-lord father, was born, raised and spoiled-rotten on Long Island in the Bridgehampton mansion she still lived in. The other buildings her father had owned had long since crumbled to their lots now covered with mortar, brick dust, unpaid property taxes -- and a history no one in the neighborhood knew or cared about -- and neither did Priscilla Cates. And so the slum-lord’s daughter, her Haitian servant, Cecilia, and the Bridgehampton mansion were totally dependent on the rents from the tenement and on Mr. Nowicki, the ‘über-super,’ who made sure they were paid on time and the building was maintained like no other in the neighborhood. The queue for an apartment could have wrapped around the block. There was never a vacancy for more time than it took for the paramedics to leave the building.

Priscilla Cates knew about the old man and the $75. She also knew Nowicki was skimming from the basement’s six coin-operated washing machines and dryers, in constant use by the building’s fifty tenants -- but confronting him wasn’t an option. She was repulsed by the idea of interviewing prospective building superintendants at a tenement three or four hours away in the alien world of the North Bronx. At least Nowicki’s ‘tenant’ was Jewish. Her father had taught her that Jewish tenants never make trouble, are always clean and always pay their rent on time. In fact, lying there in the Montefiore Medical Center, the last few words Murray Cates gasped while squeezing his daughter’s aching knuckles were, “Rent to Jews even though it might take a few extra days.”

As long as Nowicki was embezzling the seventy-five and skimming coins as needed, Priscilla Cates was pretty certain he and his wife, Izolda would be there forever and never ask for anything. Asking for anything never crossed his mind. Thus, his employer made believe she didn’t know, and Nowicki made believe he didn’t know she was making believe she didn’t know.

In the early years, a few tenants offered the old man food, clothes and conversation, but he signaled no with a head shake and then his back. The few children in the building were cautioned to disregard the specter in the basement. Rumors flied, fled and then disappeared, trumped, by Nowicki’s decision to rent to the Ruiz family, Umberto Ruiz, his wife, Motita and their 15 year-old daughter, Rita, the first Puerto Rican family in the neighborhood. To Mr. Ruiz, the neighborhood and building were Shangri-La, the reward for decades of struggle to make sure he and his family would escape Bayamon, East Harlem and join ‘uptown’s’ middle class.

The old man’s rent included a folding cot and a striped button mattress he couldn’t look at even when he was putting his sheet back on. Over the years, he had seen a plain cot mattress or two, but they were leaning against walls in dirty alleys or half sunk in garbage much like he could have ended up if it weren’t for cowardice, courage or something else he couldn’t put his finger on. A few summer mornings in the park, gazing up at the canopy of leaves and the wrens going about their business, he thought he understood -- but not for long. On some clear summer nights he would lie there gazing at stars, not certain they still existed. He felt the same way about his image reflected in the rusted mirror over the shoe box metal sink in the cellar’s mini-bathroom. The sort-of- a-bathroom had a stained toilet, an overhead tank and chain and a sort- of- shower that was slapped together to placate the last in the line of supers who almost melted while feeding the building’s antique coal furnace during the winter. Nowicki and his wife, Izolda, moved into their first floor apartment just after the new electronic heater was installed. Murray Cates’s accountant had finally provided incontrovertible proof that a modern building heater would save his frugal client money in the long run. Turns out he was right -- but Murray Cates had had a short run. He was probably pissed off wherever he had landed.

During the winter, the deposed coal furnace had provided some ambient heat in the basement. The new furnace only provided some strange clicking noises. For the first five years of its reign, on most winter days and the early hours of winter nights, the old man relied on heat radiating from the busy washers and dryers. When they were resting in the middle of night, layers of blankets, a ratty fur hat and a few scarves helped some, but when they failed, he would spend the night sitting next to one of the dryers he roused from slumber.

In year six of his tenancy, Izolda Nowicki, stunned by a PBS special on the Krakow ghetto, less than a mile from her oblivious pre-teen life, plowed through her husband’s “Leave well enough alones,” and cajoled him into teaching the Jew the string-coin- box- hack that rendered the coin boxes helpless and the use of the washers and dryers gratis. Cheating the machines wasn’t an ethical issue with consequences to their tenant. Even if there was a God, the old man felt his fate had been decided decades ago.

It was an invaluable perk. The old man used the machines constantly. He owned only one sheet, one pillow case, two tank undershirts, a New York Yankee tee-shirt, two pairs of jockey shorts, two pair of lisle hose and two white never- press Dacron shirts. The rest of his wardrobe was two pairs of shiny black gabardine pants, one belt, two pairs of white Keds high tops and a jacket and over coat as worn and frayed as the man who wore them. Two neatly folded blue plastic drop cloths that doubled as a rain poncho and a ground cover rested on a discarded night table he had found in the alley.

In year eight, Izolda, not heeding the advice of her husband, asked the old man what his name was. He asked why she wanted to know. She shrugged. He shrugged back. She was prepared in year eleven.

“Because we’ll put your name on our mail box so you won’t have to go to pick up your social security check.”
That $690 social security check, the return for the deduction taken from his weekly minimum-wage paycheck, earned for almost thirty years of combing out staples from stretched, dried fur pelts, was more than he felt he deserved. From it, he took only what he needed to survive. The balance was wrapped in saran wrap in a one-quart cottage cheese container in a locker in the basement, not because he ever intended to use it, but because throughout his childhood, while the Krakow sun shone down on his family, his mama and papa had taught him to save his Zlotys for a rainy day. And then it rained, rain hard -- and money was useless. Even after they were smoke and ashes, he remained a good son who had learned well. The combination on the locker lock were the last three numbers of the twelve tattooed on the underside of his left arm four inches above his wrist.

Izolda Nowicki persisted. “If your name is on the mailbox you won’t have to take the buses to Arthur Avenue every month.”
“Get a piece of paper,” he said.
She did.
“Aaron with two ‘A’s.” he said, finger touching the paper where he wanted her to start writing.
She smiled, wrote, and then looked up.
“Lukasiewicz,” he continued.
She put pencil to paper, hesitated, shrugged, smiled, handed him the pencil and paper. He wrote as if he were painting his name, then extended his hand toward her. She looked down at the graceful flow of ornate letters, the faint scars on his fingertips and the two rows of faded numbers tattooed on his left arm, She looked up, studied his face, said nothing. Izolda Nowicki wanted desperately to know more about him and the dark times, but she was fearful that going down that path might lead to a minefield, or even worse, to quicksand. She nodded a thankyou, turned and headed away. He watched from his doorway as she crossed the basement. She hesitated, turned to face him. She gazed into his eyes for a moment and left.

During year twelve, she made her husband cut down the top of the old man’s door and add a transom so he could get some air without leaving his door open. The ratio of the transom opening to the opening of the cellar’s door to the alley outside had some effect, but on very hot nights he slept in the park.


Chapter Two

The Black Kid

          It was already hot and humid at 5:45 a.m. in the cramped tenement apartment on the Grand Concourse; the Bronx’s decaying imitation of the Champs-Èlysèes. Jefferson Bailey, black, fourteen, too bright to believe that basketball was the way out, started this Saturday’s odyssey navigating around the glistening brown bodies of his sleeping sisters and brother. He tip toed through the hallway, passed his mom, still wearing her uniform, snoring from two-job fatigue, on the bed in the bedroom she once shared with the man he used to think was his father. He tiptoed into the living room to the cot his mother’s ancient father slept on. Jefferson bent over to see if he was breathing. He was on his side, cover over his head. I*t was impossible to tell. He darted to the kitchen cupboard for the Twinkie, grabbed his mitt, bat and ball from the kitchen table, then hurried to the front door, unchained, unlocked and opened it. His shoulder pressed against it as it closed behind him, Jefferson made sure it docked silently against the jamb. A week ago to the minute, he had tugged the metal-clad door open against the relentless hot breeze rushing in through their windows, and when the door slammed shut behind him the bang had echoed through the building causing sleeping eyes to pop open, then squint, ‘what now?’

He was on his own again running sneaker-silent through the graffiti-adorned hallway of the art deco building, pristine and elegant when it was new seventy-five years ago in 1920. He flew past the elevator that groaned too much, glided down the eight flights of marble stairs, their worn edges cascading landing to landing to the first floor, then bolted out into the thick pre-dawn air.

He raced by a junkie, question mark-posed, propped against a lamp post; sailed passed a street bum sprawled on pavement, his back against brick, worn soles splayed, palms up, an empty pint of escape resting across one. Then Jefferson slowed to a walk approaching a black and white patrol car, certain that the black and white officers inside would think a Black who was running was a Black ‘on the run.’ He disappeared from his world down the steps of the Independent Subway ‘D’ train, hopped the turnstile in front of the attendant who was dreaming away the last hour of her shift, then boarded an empty north-bound train.


Chapter Three

The White Kid

          Six subway stops plus four bus stops north of Jefferson’s neighborhood, where the streets were friendlier; where officers debated whether or not running Blacks were athletes, Terry Simms, white, fourteen, struggling to hang on to a kinder universe he created to survive, stood in his front doorway, wondering what he and his sweet mom, Mary, could have done to deserve his father, the truck-monster.

Terry’s mind had tried, but failed its first attempt to escape across the street into the park while the truck-monster berated his mother for making his bacon and eggs too dry again. The smell of frying bacon nauseated Terry. It wasn’t the bacon. The house was permeated with its cloying stench each morning for the entire duration of the truck-monster’s visits.

“For Christ’s sakes woman, I want to eat the fucking bacon not use it to barbecue with!” his father had screamed as his calloused fingers crumbled the crisp bacon onto the flecked-Formica table. Terry grimaced, remembering that those same hands had pushed his mother toward the stove to do it again and cuffed him the customary warning, “Don’t open your big mouth.”

He turned from the park and gazed down the 15 yards of hallway straight into the kitchen to the still back of his mom at the stove knowing she was heaving inside while she tried her luck again. He also knew that a few minutes after Chuck Simms took off in his truck, Mary Simms would sit him down and fail to convince her son that the man she married still existed somewhere inside the alien he had become.

‘Is he always this angry on the road?’ Terry asked himself. ‘Does he have another family somewhere that pleases him? Does he have a son that thinks he’s the best dad the world, a wife who he prepares breakfast for? When he returns to her from his trips back east does he say, ‘Good morning, sweetheart God, I missed you’? Please don’t comb your hair today, you look gorgeous. Come, son, let’s get some of that oil on our fingers and put that Erector Set together.’

Terry closed his eyes. He imagined the sixteen-wheeler pulling away from Yonkers depot crammed with office desks and chairs -- and tension and fear. He could see the truck driving away for the monthly three-week haul out west and back, leaving ‘temporary relief’ in its wake like in the aspirin commercials; leaving the driver’s wife slumped in peace and her son’s heart rate back where it belonged -- at least until the “I’ll be home tomorrow,” call from the road. It was only a few hours till the truck- monster drove off and Terry and Mary could rejoice without sharing their joy. To do so would confirm that they both knew they were living in a hopeless hell.
          “Things will change. You’ll see,” said Mary Simms from time to time -- but they both knew better.

Terry turned toward the glistening park. The smell of bacon surrendered to the sweet, pungent aroma of dew-saturated mulch. He breathed it in. Chuck Simms’s voice faded. The sun’s rays, horizontal at sun up, skipped off the damp asphalt paths that crisscrossed the park’s dew-covered grass; silver ribbons over shiny green gift-wrap embracing a baseball diamond. His heart rate lessened, his bruised temple stopped aching. He was calm now.
           Okay, he thought, so tomorrow won’t be the first day of the rest of my life, but it will be the first day of the next twenty-one. He crossed the street, sat on the back of a bench, his feet on the seat, his back to the diamond, staring at the house of pain.

A few blocks away, on tenement side of the park, Rita Ruiz glided across the street, onto an asphalt path, onto the grass, pounding the pocket of her mitt with her fist, breathing in the difference between East Harlem and Van Courtland Park.