My burglar, as it turned out, lived on the top floor with his parents and brother. His mother, Susie, was a beauty whose extraordinary resemblance to Billie Holiday was undiminished by decades of drinking. The boys ran wild, and before they went to prison for unrelated matters they had at least attempted to rob everybody in the building.
On the top floor lived Mary, the building’s doyenne, who had been born in the house not long after its construction, when it stood in the middle of a four-block Italian enclave. By the forties, the storefront had become the Sea Breeze Club, a Bonanno-family clubhouse. Mary, who was in her eighties when I met her, enjoyed talking about her father, a bricklayer of unimpeachable character who nevertheless loved to hang out with the wiseguys; when his friends were rounded up by the cops one day and taken off in the Black Maria, he was disconsolate at being left behind and moped around like a kid.
By the time I left the building, the elderly Europeans had long since relinquished their deed to the property. Twelve more landlords had cycled through in half as many years, and the building’s selling price had climbed from $90,000 into the millions. And yet all of us who lived there spent the years wondering when the thing would collapse. Like most tenements, ours had been built on the cheap and was only intended to last a few decades. The plumbing corroded and the electrical circuits sputtered and the heating was extraordinarily unreliable. We were all aware of the time that a car had lost control on Avenue A and slammed into an empty tenement near 3rd Street, reducing the entire structure into a hill of bricks.
The task of holding the house together fell on the super, a man named Zygmunt, whom everyone called George. He lived in the first apartment on the right as you came in, was usually available—except on Sunday mornings, when his hangover took precedence—and was a dab hand with a pipe wrench. He did commendable work under the circumstances, although he never was able to fix the bathtub of Rose and Simon, my neighbors across the hall, with the result that they came over to use mine a few times a week for the entire term of my residence.
By and large, I loved my neighbors, although I worried constantly, owing to the presence of so many loose cannons in a single fragile container. One afternoon I took myself out to the movies. Film Forum was showing the last picture directed by Erich von Stroheim, which he called Walking Down Broadway although it ended up as Hello, Sister! It contained a subplot about a construction worker who, after getting plowed at the saloon across the street from his work site every night, would sneak back in and steal a few sticks of dynamite, which he’d throw under his bed when he got home. In the third act, naturally, nature took its course. I walked home thinking about how such a character would not be out of place in my building. Then when I opened the door I beheld my neighbors, all of them, out in the halls, rushing around with buckets of water. We had very narrowly escaped a conflagration.
It seemed that the art critic on the fourth floor had become immersed in crack to the extent that he had neglected to pay his Con Ed bill. His service cut off, he had been lighting his way with candles, although he was perhaps not as attentive as the situation might warrant. Furthermore, his apartment contained several years’ worth of newspapers, as well as a small fortune in contemporary oil paintings. Nature had taken its course.
It had to have been a miracle that his was the only apartment affected—or, for that matter, that the building still stands today. Nearly everybody smoked back then, and very few were attentive housekeepers. Drugs in particular caused many to lose track of key details. Take, for example, the couple on the third floor with the boa. They loved their boa, loved feeding it mice, loved the sight of its glistening scales wrapping around a table leg—but drugs made them distracted. They neglected their biweekly purchase of mice for long enough that the snake was driven to find his meals elsewhere. One day he just disappeared. Had he been stolen? Had he chosen to join the alligators in the sewers? The question was answered definitively a few months later. On the ground floor, a tenant, going to brush his teeth first thing in the morning, opened his medicine cabinet—and very nearly had a heart attack when the boa rippled over the shelf from a hole in the wall. To my mind, this illustrated an important principle of apartment living: What goes around comes around, although it may very well hit your neighbor instead.