As a child, the city was full of menace for me. The Congregational minister who took care of me the first six years of my life, in a Victorian house overlooking the Hudson River in Balmville, would now and then take me to my Spanish grandmother’s house in Kew Gardens for visits of a week or a few days.
Sometimes my grandmother would leave me for an afternoon at a railroad apartment on 155th Street and Broadway in New York City with my Uncle Fermin, who had three daughters of his own. He also had a horrid small yellow dog, named Mota, who used to sit at his feet, looking like a red scouring implement. Fermin built enormous radios covering the two front windows of the narrow living room of a series of apartments he moved in and out of, his children and wife trailing behind him, carrying boxes of dishes and bed linen, along the streets of Harlem. He was a bad-tempered man and used to regularly whip his children with his razor strop. He didn’t work; he didn’t drink; he didn’t read—only played music and talked on his various radios, Mota sitting menacingly at his feet, growling at me especially, I thought. Sometimes he beat his daughters, especially the older one, Natalie, if she had shown the least reluctance to do a task he had set for her—or spoken to him with a certain tone in her voice. Then he would rush to the bathroom, and rush back along the tenement hall to where Natalie stood, knowing what was in store for her, hoping it would last only a moment and would not hurt too much.
One afternoon, when I was visiting, I asked him why he played his radio so loudly. He sent my cousin, Isabel, to get his razor strop, and demanded I take off my blouse when she returned, her expression scared and sympathetic. He hit my back four times with the strop. I was 10 years old. It hurt in a flat, brutal way.
But no matter how pinched and scared you could feel as a child dropped or discarded around a city built rough, for adults, there was always, also, an escape. The only pleasure I can recall from those days are the afternoons when Natalie and Isabel and I went to the movie house on 155th and Broadway.
The Bluebird always showed a feature film along with a cartoon or, sometimes, news. But it was the feature film that affected me in a way that, after those days, never again filled me with the same emotions—interest, curiosity, relief at being away from the railroad-train apartment, long hallway, doors at intervals, and at the very end, a living room that my Uncle Fermin always managed to darken with his complicated radio parts stretching across the windows. (Next to it was the narrow kitchen, looking somehow squeezed from a larger room, over whose sink Femin’s wife, Elpidia, a peasant woman from a Cuban village, would sometimes weep hopelessly, quietly, not hiding her tears from me or from her daughters.)
The movie house, as I entered it, seemed to embrace me in the dark. The screen lit up. My heart eased. It didn’t look like paradise from the outside, on Broadway, surrounded by little tawdry shops, all squeezed together on the broad street above the Hudson River. But for me, it was.