The Plaza was in El Barrio but not really of it. Tenements had been demolished to make way for the high rise coop development drawing mostly middle income families looking for modest charges and modern amenities. A Head Start program and nursery school along with modern supermarket, bank and stores were important. Crisscrossing walkways bordered by trees, shrubs and grass suggested suburban living. The fact that Central Park was a short walk away was a bonus. Names like Quinn, Washington, Chen, Shapiro, Brennan, Jackson, Glassman and Horan appeared on lobby mailboxes. It was a New Age. It was the Sixties.
Warm summer nights brought tenants out to sit on benches or under the arbor. Older kids hung out; boys played basketball. Children rode bikes nearby or played in the mushroom shaped sprinkler under lights. There was no need to trek up to Orchard Beach in the Bronx or out to Coney Island. Mothers enjoyed casual conversation with gin and lemonade. It had the atmosphere of a small town plunked down in the city. And like a small town, there were memorable personalities including several in my building.
There was blue –eyed Bernie, as I came to think of him, who lived with his mother. Our apartment doors were very close at a right angle. He was not unfriendly and would speak if spoken to first. I saw him going to or coming from work, neatly dressed, wearing a tie, balding probably in his fifties. I seldom glimpsed his mother. Then one night something happened. Usually no sounds except classical music. This time I heard cursing and yelling. His mother was crying and pleading “no, no, please!” as he ejected her from the apartment. She stood under the lights in her pale thin nightgown, barefoot and weeping. A patrolling security guard took her arm and guided her to the office.
Over the next several weeks, Bernie’s behavior became increasingly erratic. He stopped going to work, came in and out frequently slamming his door and muttering. His blue eyes reflected anger. Into the elevator and down, only to return several minutes later, repeated many times. And he smelled. His apartment smelled out into the hall. Imagine the worst public lavatory you have encountered, then double it. Complaints to the management office from me and other tenants were ignored. Did he threaten you they wanted to know? Well, no he hadn’t at least not directly. He left a large glass jug filled with kerosene in the elevator not once but twice.
Fed up and worried, I contacted the Mayor’s office. My third call yielded a lot of cops and a battering ram. He refused to open the door and verbally threatened them. I guess that was probable cause for they bashed in his door. Blue-eyed Bernie was put in a strait jacket and taken away. According to the hazmat cleanup crew, he had defecated then smeared the walls as well as placing feces in neat piles throughout the apartment. He had also marked the walls with urine in addition to assaulting the upholstery.
I could not believe it when about a month later he returned and behaved as if nothing odd had occurred. The tie was put on and he went back to work. We kept on with our minimal exchange of “hello” or “good morning.”
The aroma of cooking emanating from down the hall at mealtime was wonderful. An African family of seven, from Nigeria, I believe, lived in a three bedroom apartment, the only one on the floor. The woman, very dark with a petite build, was self-conscious about her English. We communicated enough that one evening she gave me a bowl of the most delicious curried chicken stew. The oldest daughter, eight or nine years of age and spare of frame even for a child, was placed in charge of her brothers and sisters whenever they went out. It was not uncommon to see her wrestling a grocery cart piled with clothes across the quad to the laundry room and back. It was rare to see her playing with the other kids.
The parents had loud protracted arguments at two or three in the morning – loud enough to penetrate my steel door. Next day, the wife would be downcast with an apologetic look on her face. Soon it became apparent she was expecting again.
There was a woman some called the troll – not that she had the distorted features of a folklore troll but because she trolled men. A little plump and tanned, she favored a Pocahontas-like blue headband minus the feather. Around her neck, she wore strands of pastel pop pearls. A man walking by was treated to a smile that communicated much. The other women did not shun her but they did not befriend her either.
The Plaza gossip held that the troll was not enticing men for money She just liked men and sex. I think some of the wives worried that one of their husbands might succumb to her charms but I never heard it actually voiced. There was speculation about whether her husband knew or cared about her hobby.
The one-legged man did not live in the Plaza. He became a fixture sitting on a small tattered square of carpet propped up against the wall of the supermarket every Saturday. Ruddy and brown haired, he sat there from morning until evening beside his blue coffee can and hand lettered Help Me sign, one leg outstretched, the stump of the other exposed to view. Many people put coin and paper in his can. I did so, too.
What a shock I received one afternoon when I pulled into a midtown garage and the one-legged man came out to take my car, moving quite nimbly on two functional legs. I was so dumbfounded, I couldn’t speak. Today, I would have cussed him out for preying on the kindness of the people in El Barrio.
My El Barrio period. It was the Sixties.