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David and His 26 Roommates

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Photo Caption: Francisca at her shrine in the cluttered common room. (Photo Credit: Brenda Ann Kenneally)

One Sunday afternoon, David stumbles from his bunk and heads to the bathroom to prepare for his four-to-midnight shift at the restaurant. Most of the other housemates are savoring their day off. A new month is nearing, and people are getting their rents together for when El Gato comes by to collect.

Gato’s live-in girlfriend—a large woman who works as a cleaning lady in several midtown high-rises—drops by from across the courtyard to chat. The ultimate recipient of the basement rent, she says, is “the little old judío”—the Jew—who owns the building. She knows his religion because “he’s got the hat and big beard and the long black coat.” The judío’s son usually comes to pick up the money. His name is something like Barry, but when Mexicans pronounce it with their trilling r, it comes out like Body.

Everyone loves Body because he lets them keep animals. “I thought he’d kick us out when he saw my dog and her two puppies,” says Gato’s girlfriend. “Instead, he said, ‘Oh, they’re so cute!’ ” Nor does he seem perturbed by Francisca’s caged doves, which live by the boiler. Or her rabbit.

Once when Body, who lives in New Jersey, drove over for the rent, he brought along his family’s cocker spaniel. The dog ran out into traffic and died instantly. Body went to pieces. “He cried and cried,” remembers Gato’s girlfriend. “Just like a child. A baby!” The Mexicans chipped in and bought him a new purebred spaniel. Sure, it was expensive. Sure, they couldn’t afford it. But what can you do when your landlord “has such a big heart?”

Big heart? If the city’s Health and Housing departments knew about this place, they’d call it a firetrap, an incubator of asthma and tuberculosis. But the tenants have nothing against their landlord—or others who profit from their lives in New York. “Dominicans will tell you to get out of their restaurants,” says David with a shrug. “Blacks will call you ‘fucking this, fucking that’ for no reason. Anglos? You work for them, you wait on them, you pass them in the street. They’re not mean. But it’s because they don’t even notice you.”

Besides, this apartment is cheap and more livable than many of the spots the housemates have holed up in. David’s roommate José moved here from a room a few blocks away that he was sharing with four other adults. “Some guys worked days and had to get up early. Others came back at 3 A.M. and would turn on the lights,” he says. “The reason we had five people in two bunk beds was that one mattress was shared by a married couple, both of them 16 years old.” The newlyweds kept everyone awake, but not with teenage erotics. “They fought nonstop. They’d go on till five in the morning. It was impossible!”

“At first I paid her for dances,” David says of Diana, “especially after I noticed she would ignore other men to seek me out. Then I paid her just to talk. After a while, I asked her out.”

The manners of the tenants in the basement are much better. They listen to their music with headphones, wait patiently to use the bathroom, and no one fights. The apartment is peaceful, even conducive to study. Since free ESL classes at workingman’s hours are virtually impossible to find, David and José use their bilingual dictionaries to pore over old copies of Vogue retrieved from the trash. They also watch a Channel 13 show in which a schoolmarm explains the difference between cut and cute while the e bounces up and down. José doesn’t need too many words; he has a wife and five children back home and plans to leave in a couple of years. But David wants a larger vocabulary. “I’ve got to learn what my legal rights are, how to open a bank account, how to put away some savings,” he says. He’s thinking he might stick around for a while.

When they’re not studying, they lie in bed and listen to music. (David’s favorite songs: “Great Balls of Fire,” by Jerry Lee Lewis, and “Who’ll Stop the Rain” by Creedence Clearwater Revival.) “Or watch telenovelas,” he adds sheepishly, to José’s guffaws. These are the Spanish-language soap operas so popular among women in Latin America and so don’t-watch-or-you’ll-be-a-maricón for men.

“Okay, there’s this one I really like,” confesses Mateo, popping over from across the hall. “Rubí. It’s about a ruthless girl who’s poor but wants to have everything that her rich friend, Maribel, does. Rubí dumps her poor boyfriend and steals Maribel’s rich boyfriend, the architect. She marries him strictly for his money, so of course she’s not happy. Meanwhile, the poor ex has all the luck and gets rich.” He pauses and then jokes about the possible repercussions of talking to a reporter about such things. “I’m not worried about Immigration, but I don’t want my family in Mexico to know about me and the telenovelas.”

There’s not much to do in New York when you’re pinching pennies. “For us, it’s mainly work, come home, work, come home. That’s all,” says David. After sending half their wages to Mexico and paying rent, they’re each left with about $80 a week in pocket money. Much of it goes for takeout and restaurant food. For Mexican, there’s the Victoria, a little place on 160th and Broadway that makes passable enchiladas but superb tamales. Overwhelmingly, the Victoria’s customers are single men from the neighborhood who keep their heads in their plates except when they’re trying—usually fruitlessly—to chat up the waitresses. The menu’s not cheap for these guys—a burrito plate runs to $8, excluding beer.

More economical are Broadway’s grungy Chinese joints. “Beef with broccoli. It’s $4.50. And when I can’t afford that, I get the chicken wings with French fries for $3,” says José. “You have to respect the chinos,” he notes. “They’re different from americanos because they learn Spanish. They say ‘Papas fritas?’ ”

José is at the mercy of chino meals because he works construction. The Fairway, Citarella, and restaurant employees get to eat their bosses’ goods. “Chocolate-chunk cookies and dried cherries!” says Giovanny, who works at Citarella. “We don’t have that stuff in Mexico.”


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