Out of the five boroughs of New York City, the Bronx is the one that many folks still consider “beyond the pale.” The area did indeed become very dangerous starting in about the 1960s or ’70s. But from roughly the 1920s through the ’50s, the Northwest Bronx area where my boyfriend BG now lives was a very fancy place to reside. People who had endured cramped Manhattan quarters flocked to the area where spacious Art Deco buildings were readily available. Though many others moved to the ‘burbs as soon as they could afford to leave the city, other folks settled in the north Bronx or the already-tony section of Riverdale or affluent Westchester County, both located slightly further to the north. But as time went on, the Bronx fell on hard times, and those who could afford it soon moved elsewhere. Though today the Bronx is experiencing a mini-Renaissance, the area still can’t quite shake its rep as the city’s baddest, toughest, and poorest borough.
Today, BG’s northern Bronx neighborhood is similar to what the Lower East Side of Manhattan was like when I first lived there – lots of new immigrants and struggling working-class people. Though the neighborhood still has some drug activity, BG’s building had always seemed safe and perfectly hospitable. (The south Bronx, which for decades was a hellish wasteland, is seeing the beginnings of a slow influx of artists, museums, galleries, cafes featuring poetry readings, and other cultural developments.) BG’s neighbors were unflaggingly courteous and friendly, and we experienced virtually no hostility or discomfort of any kind. The cost of living — not just rent but groceries, appliances, and toiletries — is a lot cheaper too, since the local shops didn’t have to pay the horrifyingly high commercial rents that Manhattan stores are forced to. Plus the area encompasses several universities, a major shopping area, the New York Botanical Gardens, and the Bronx Zoo — and is an easy commute into Manhattan (about 40 minutes to midtown by subway).
At the time of the “crackhead incident” described below, BG had been in the Bronx going on seven years. Although he’d occasionally hear a fracas on the street late at night or see some drug paraphernalia in the back hallways, things were mostly mellow. When I visited there, I was quickly lulled into complacency by the apparent safety of it all.
But about a year ago, things suddenly took an alarming turn for the worse.
In order to fully explain the situation, I have to talk a little bit about BG’s next-door neighbor – I’ll call her Shirley. She’s youngish (probably mid-30s), single, and fairly attractive. When BG moved in, she made it a point to introduce herself, and sometimes accepted packages and such for BG when he was out, and vice versa. So far, so good.
Soon, strange and disturbing happenings were in the offing (insert Twilight Zone theme here). One night several years ago we heard a late-night commotion in the hallway, followed by a woman yelling: “Get out of here, you crackhead,” followed by the sound of shattering glass. We found out later that Shirley’s boyfriend had been abusive to her and had broken the hall windows for extra emphasis. But that was basically the end of that. The boyfriend disappeared, and things got quiet and mellow again.
Then a year ago came the deluge. We’d been noticing that, over the last month or two prior, there’d been a lot of strange people and iffy activity on BG’s floor. Lots of sleazy-looking people wandering around in a daze, coming in and out of various apartments, and “exchanging” items with each other. Lots of loud fights out in the hallway in the wee hours; banging, slamming, and screaming. Shirley seemed to have disappeared altogether and left the apartment in the dubious care of two guys who seemed, from their demeanor and behavior, to be running a crack cartel from her apartment. But we had nothing substantial to go on. We did note, however, that whenever BG would leave the apartment and push the elevator button, one of the guys in Shirley’s crib would open the door, peer out suspiciously, and close the door again.
One night, BG went to take out the garbage at around 4 am because we sometimes keep weird hours. I often stay up late when I’m visiting. BG gets up and paints, and I go back to bed and so on.
So BG went to the door to take the trash out and I warned him to be careful because I’d heard a ruckus going on out in the hall a few minutes before. He started to open the door, but closed it again quickly because he saw someone lurking in the hallway.
About half a minute later, there was a loud banging on the door. BG said:
“Who is it?”
“Hey, man. I want to talk to you.”
“Who is it?”
“Come on out here. I want to talk to you face to face.”
“Who is it?”
“Yeah, what do you want?”
“I want you to stay out of my business.”
“But I was just going to take out the garba—”
“Stay out of my BUSINESS. I heard you open and close your door.” (This was, mind you, after the continual opening and closing of this guy’s door and assorted mayhem going on in the hallway all night).
“Just stay out of my damn business. Punk motherf#cker.”
I urged BG to call the cops right away. He thought about it and decided against it because it somehow seemed unwise to tangle with a crazed paranoid crackhead with a bad attitude and a vengeful nature – especially at 4 in the morning.
Two days later, the bell rang. It was the police. They asked BG if he knew anything about the incident “last night” with the guy next door. BG said he hadn’t heard anything last night, but told them about his brief encounter from the night before last.
They then said: “Know anything about her?”
BG said that she was his neighbor; hadn’t seen her in a dog’s age.
Then the cops said (get this): “Well, if you see the guy, tell him we were looking for him.”
Yeah, RIGHT. “Hey guy, the cops are after you. No, I swear, I’m not the dirty rat that told them about you…wait..don’t throw me out the window, you’ll break the glass again…c’mon guy…AARRRRRRRRRHHHHHHH!!!!!!!”
The very next day, BG went to the locksmith and purchased a brand new $50 chain for the door — the kind you use if you have to open your door at 4 am when someone says it’s the police but it’s really a drug lord intending to kick your door in and eviscerate you.
I’d never thought about carrying around anything much for protection except my keys, which I guess I could try to use to poke a perpetrator’s eye out, but I asked the locksmith if they had anything available for self-protection. I didn’t want to go so far as a Saturday Night Special in my garter belt, but I thought maybe a can of mace might be in order.
He told me mace was now illegal, but sold me a whistle on a chain.
A whistle? With my loud mouth, I could probably yell and scream so loud I’d break my attacker’s eardrums. But I tried it out, and it was pretty piercing. So now I’ve got the latest must-have urban fashion accessory to hang around my neck every day.
BG asked his super for the scoop, and he said that his new neighbor was indeed the ex-boyfriend who had previously assaulted Shirley. However, we hadn’t seen hide nor hair of him since the police showed up, though for a while there were still a lot of unsavory people wandering around the floor, apparently headed toward another popular hot spot around the corner.
What was pretty amazing was that I’d been so clueless to the drug activity in the neighborhood at large. I started reading the local community paper and realized how insidious the problem really was. Dealers a block or two away did their business as blatantly as a sausage vendor at a street fair or a bauble hawker at an open-air bazaar. There had been efforts in the past to employ beat cops who would get to know the neighborhood, as well as undercover teams, but dealers would just move down to the next block and threaten and intimidate any residents they thought had ratted on them, just for good measure. The city’s police force had now been diverted in part to anti-terrorism squads on the heels of 9/11 and, from what I’d gathered, they were cutting police funds for new cops in general.
Nowadays, the building is once again mercifully quiet. But if the crackheads ever decide to cozy up in BG’s hallway again, the only thing left to do will be to have eyes in the back of my head, wear my whistle, carry a baseball bat when I take out the garbage, and wait for the cool artists to start moving in and make the neighborhood unaffordable for BG and everyone else who resides here. That’s city living for you.