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New York Story: The Crackhead Next Door

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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?”
“Your neighbor.”
“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.

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About Elvira Black

  • http://www.elitistpig.com Dave Nalle

    Of course, BG could invest in a gun, but then he’d probably be arrested instead of the crackhead because basic constitutional rights don’t apply in NYC.

    Dave

  • http://ruvysroost.blogspot.com Ruvy in Jerusalem

    Sounds like New York has not changed that much at all – except maybe for the ethnic mix and the prices…

    I enjoyed reading this, Elvira. It sounded a lot like the home I ran away from.

  • http://elvirablack.blogspot.com/ Elvira Black

    Dave:

    BG doesn’t have a gun, but he carries a knife with him (except when he has to go to the VA, because they have metal detectors there). He learned this lesson shortly after arriving in NYC in the late 60s/early 70s, when he took an apartment down in the bowels of the wild and hairy Lower East Side of Manhattan. He was assaulted twice–once by a guy who put a board with nails in it to his face and demanded his money.

    But that area has since become gentrified, and the only thing the residents worry about now is their ever-rising rent and the noise on the street from all the people spilling out of the myriad clubs and restaurants that now line the newly trendy streets there. New York–go figure.

  • http://elvirablack.blogspot.com/ Elvira Black

    Thanks Ruvy–actually NYC has changed quite a bit, especially in Manhattan, which is pretty safe, prosperous, and tourist friendly. It’s almost like Disneyland! But there’s still crime, though not nearly as much as in the “wild west” days of the 70s and 80s. That was a very scary time in the city.

  • http://alienboysworld.blogspot.com Christopher Rose

    Elvira, I spent a fair bit of time in Manhattan in the 70s and 80s. I’d like to apologise for all the trouble I caused.

    ;-)

  • http://elvirablack.blogspot.com/ Elvira Black

    Christopher:

    And now you’re in Spain, no? There goes the neighborhood…
    ;-)

  • http://alienboysworld.blogspot.com Christopher Rose

    They wanted we English in Europe for some reason – the fools!

    *puts finger to mouth like Dr Evil*

    mwuahahahahaha!

    oh yeah, here it’s el barrio.

  • http://elvirablack.blogspot.com/ Elvira Black

    Christopher:

    Un Anglais Andalou, non? Quel Dada! (Pardon my fractured French).

    I just love to spin tales of el barrio….

  • http://alienboysworld.blogspot.com Christopher Rose

    Hola Elvira,

    no hablo francés pero si, soy un inglés andaluz.

    Saludos de Torrox

    Cristóbal

  • http://elvirablack.blogspot.com/ Elvira Black

    Christopher:

    I only know a smattering of French and even less Spanish, but I read you loud and clear. Comment #8 was a lame attempt at a little surrealist humor. Un Chien Andalou (the Andalusian Dog) was a groundbreaking Dadaesque film co-created by one of the most bizarrely fascinating Spaniards of all time, Salvador Dali. (It featured, among other shockers, an eyeball being “cut.”) You probably knew that already, but in any case, it was a lame attempt to be “clever” and “urbane.”–lol. And no, I was not comparing you to a dog–quite the opposite–you are more like a comment god to me.

    I really wish I knew Spanish–it would certainly help in BGs barrio. Maybe I’ll take it up. Love the sound of Cristobal!

  • http://elvirablack.blogspot.com/ Elvira Black

    Cristobal, dios de los comentarios! Has a nice ring to it…

  • Ruvy in Jerusalem

    Elvira, I did study Spanish in school. Unless you can do a jíbaro accent, it won’t help you all that much, except in understanding what is being said (about you).

  • http://elvirablack.blogspot.com/ Elvira Black

    Ruvy:

    I suppose formal Spanish might not be sufficient to translate more colloquial/regional dialects, slang, accents, etc., but I imagine it might help a bit. I don’t get the impression people are talking about me, but actually if they are I think I might rather not know what they’re saying (lol). Funny thing is, that even though BG and I don’t look Latino, sometimes folks will start talking to us in Spanish, which at least makes me feel more at home. But then again, Latinos range in appearance, just as Jews do–some being blond haired and blue eyed, etc.

  • sr

    Elvira, can you and BG say Glock in Spanish? Should I buy you one? Cause I care.

    sr

  • http://elvirablack.blogspot.com/ Elvira Black

    sr:

    Um…Un arma de Glock? Oh wait, that might be French. Actually, that one needs no translation.

    I just try not to wander out too late at night, and not hang out near the windows. But nah, I don’t feel too unsafe in the Bronx. Thanks for caring!

  • sr

    Elvira,

    Pleased to know your still around.

    Stay safe.

    sr

  • http://elvirablack.blogspot.com/ Elvira Black

    sr, my friend, I’m pleased to know you’re still around too. Watch out for the anti-smoking nazis.

  • http://theugliestamerican.blogspot.com Andy Marsh

    The city was such a cool place to visit when I was a kid. My grandparents lived on a street in the Village that had a feast on it every year…nice little italian neighborhood…it’s all gone now…neighborhood doesn’t look anything like it used to back in the day…I’m not even sure if they still do the feast of St. Anthony any more.

  • http://elvirablack.blogspot.com/ Elvira Black

    Andy:

    Yes, as far as I know the Feast is still in full force, but the neighborhood has changed drastically. There’s only a shell of the Little italy that was. A lot of the expansion is from Chinatown, which is moving northward more and more. But the Bronx’s Little Italy is still going strong.

  • Anonymous

    Thats quite unfortunate, I went to 711 this mornig to notice a car full of crackheads. Obviously I park next to them to get a reaction, they all start starring at me and talking sh**.

    These people should know, that straight people can be alot more violent than drugged out people. I wish I had a frag grenade to throw in their car window. These people are like cockroaches, come out at night and scurry away when they know theyre about to be killed.