I am working on South Portland with D, one block behind where I lived with Shawn for seven or eight years, in Fort Greene. Then, as now, it is a black neighborhood, but the rents have gone way up as the yuppy class take over. I think I first worked in this building eight years ago, just after I was injured. We started in the kitchen. A couple of years later it was the hall and the staircase then a couple of years ago we did the living room and now we’re working on the main room and bathroom on the second floor.
The couple who own the building – a four story brownstone on a street of elegant brownstones with great overhanging trees that jut out at an angle from the pavement like a row of arches – come from Austria originally. The daughter came while we were setting up the room. I hadn’t seen her since we were working in the kitchen. In her teens then, she was a shy, gawky kid who, after being dropped off from her private school (like so many white kids in this otherwise black neighborhood, she was bussed out to private school) would rush downstairs and watch TV.
In her mid-20’s now, she is an outgoing, even aggressive young woman with bright blue eyes and a firm handshake – one of those bright NY kids who has seen and experienced many things just from having grown up in NYC, a white kid surrounded by what has been, for most her life, a black ghetto. She has moved back home, taking over the top two floors with two of her friends, including the spacious front room and little bathroom we are working on – empty after their tenant of eighteen years moved out.
I don’t remember the tenant though I suppose I would have met her. Apparently she was beautiful, with raven black hair and nice clothes. A professional. She had some high-powered job organizing events at Madison Square Garden. D said she’d parade around for an hour or more when he was working in the hall wearing just a towel and there was always stacks of papers in front of her door and in the little hall in front of the bathroom, but otherwise she was well-spoken and efficient, like the high-powered NY professional she appeared to be.
Yet she kept the door locked and, with one or two exceptions – a broken air-conditioner and some plumbing work – she wouldn’t let anyone in – she wouldn’t even let anyone else have a key – and even when she did, she’d hem and haw about it for weeks. When the owner did make it in, he found papers, magazines and miscellaneous trash – a blanket shot with holes, a broken file-o-fax, binders – stacked to the ceiling, covering the furniture, the floor – everything – with two narrow channels cut through the stacks to her bed and the air-conditioner. The bathroom was black with mould and strands of her raven black hair – even after she’d cleaned for five hours straight, the mould was so bad we couldn’t work without masks. After she’d moved out, the floor of her room was knee deep in papers, and the walls and windows were black with cobwebs and dust.
“Her friends came by,” the daughter said, “an architect, and a physician or something. Professionals. They helped her haul away all this junk. You’d think someone would have noticed something . . .”
We joked about some unlucky guy meeting her, thinking she was this beautiful together woman, then coming back to this nightmare – this filthy room so full of junk that you could barely move. “I don’t think many guys came back here,” the daughter said, “she told me she was bi. But I don’t think she was even that. You know she asked me once if she could bring a woman back and neck with her on the living room sofa. I was like ‘isn’t that what your room’s for?’”
These wine dark windows, hiding the lives of those behind them.