This is Part Three of a true story that took place on 109th Street around ten years ago when I was living in Manhattan. I posted 109th Street (Part One) a couple of days ago and yesterday I posted Part Two. I am realizing that the story is way too long to continue posting in separate parts on this blog; it won’t read well if it’s all chopped up in pieces. So I decided to cut out some parts and edit it down to the end, and this is where I left off yesterday.
By the way, my sister was funny – she was teasing me the other day, asking me what this crazy story has to do with praying the Rosary. Technically? Nothing. But it’s the path in life I took that brought me to where I am now. This story, along with many others, was just another stepping stone on my journey of faith. Sometimes we have to look in the least obvious places and spend time with the unlikeliest of people in order to find occasions of virtue.
I opened the door and hesitantly peeked into the hallway. Carol and Siete were standing over a pile of clothing, murmuring about something.
“Hi,” I timidly said. “My name is Margo and I um, just wanted to say hi.”
“Yo,” said Siete, “we met your man a little while ago.”
“I know, he told me,” I replied. “I um, just wanted to introduce myself.”
Carol had been quiet, just standing back and watching me.
“I got to go get me some cigarettes,” said Siete, and he started up the stairs. He turned around to give me a last look before disappearing around the corner. “Hey,” he said, “you got the Basement Apartment. Nice! See ya.” And he walked away, leaving Carol and me standing there in awkward silence.
“Are you a size 6?” Carol suddenly asked.
“Uh, ya, how did you know?”
“Cause I worked in the Garment District and I know these things.”
I couldn’t believe what I heard. Carol was once employed? Then I was ashamed of myself for having this thought. I looked down on the floor and observed the pile of clothes and two pillows, crumpled up against the wall. There were some shoes and a couple of pairs of socks that looked as if they’d drowned in a mud puddle.
Carol must’ve followed my eyes to the socks, because suddenly she blurted out, “Hey, do you think we could each borrow a pair of socks? We got soaked in that rain yesterday and we don’t got any more socks!”
I was taken aback at the question, but I politely answered Carol and told her that I may have some socks that I could give them. I went back into the apartment to get my duffel bag which held my two pairs of brand new white cotton tube socks that I’d received as a Christmas gift a week earlier. They were still attached to their labels and were a stark contrast to the dinginess of the surroundings. They almost glowed with their newness and I hesitated, holding the two pairs of white cotton socks as if I was holding onto two golden nuggets. There were other socks in my duffel bag, all washed and ready to wear. But for some reason it hadn’t even occurred to me to pick out two of the older pairs. For some reason I just felt that I needed to give Carol and Siete the best of what I had and it bothered me that I didn’t know why I felt this way.
“Here,” I said, timidly, as I reached out to Carol, handing her the two pairs of socks.
“Ooh! Thanks a lot!” Carol rejoiced, practically beaming.
I noticed that the two dirty wet pairs of socks which had been on the floor minutes earlier were now hanging on a makeshift clothes line that Carol had managed to hook up from one wall to the other, fastened by two rusty nails. Then my eyes caught sight of what appeared to be a washer and dryer, sitting in the corner of the hallway, off in a small alcove. I discovered that this was where the tenants of the building washed and dried their clothes, and couldn’t help but wonder what any one of them might say if they came down to do their laundry and found Carol and Siete asleep under the clothes line. I made a mental note to check with Frankie about that.
Hours later, Frankie and I awoke to sounds of screaming outside the window. He sleepily asked me what time it was.
“3:00 am,” I answered, trying to figure out where the noise was coming from.
“It sounds like Carol,” Frankie said, going to the window.
“Get off of me! Go!” screamed the voice, alternating between sobbing and yelling. And then there was the muffled sound of straight crying which wasn’t showing any signs of stopping.
“Are you sure it’s Carol?” I asked. Frankie just looked at me and with a disturbed expression on his face told me what was going on.
“Marg, she’s sittin’ out there in the alley with the rats. She’s yelling at the rats. It’s not Siete.”
“How do you know?” I asked, horrified.
“Because,” Frankie said, with that I’ve-already-been-there-and-done-that-many-times over look on his face, “I know. Besides, I can hear the rats squealing.”
“Well then we need to get her back inside!” I announced, grabbing my coat.
“Where’re you goin’?” Frankie tried to stop me. “Don’t go out there, Marg, it’s 3:00 in the morning and it’s not safe out there.”
“Well then come with me!”
I opened the apartment door, and sure enough, no signs of Carol or Siete. I headed up the stairway, leaving Frankie inside, and made my way down the long hallway that led to the front door of the building. Opening the door, I felt a sharp slap of the winter wind hitting me in the face, as I shuddered under my coat with nothing but a pair of flip flops on my feet. There was no one in sight except a man walking alone down the sidewalk, seemingly unaware of the obvious sounds of a woman in distress. His head was burrowed in the hood of a coat, and he walked on by, hands in pockets. The light buzz of early morning traffic over on Broadway filled the cold night air, but on 109th Street there were no signs of Rap, Hip Hop or Salsa music. It was totally silent, except for Carol’s wailing.
“Carol, is that you?” I called out into the night. But the only answer I received was more wailing.
“Carol, are you alright?” I tried again. But again, only the sounds of wailing.
“Carol, do you want to come inside now?”
“I’m ok, I’m ok,” Carol answered back, a mix of words and muffled sounds of sobbing.
“Are you sure you don’t want to come in?” I called out again.
“I’m ok, it’s ok,” Carol again called back, making it clear that she wasn’t going anywhere.
I reluctantly headed back inside the building, closing the door behind me and made my way back down the hallway and to the apartment, where Frankie was sitting on the couch, smoking a cigarette. I took off my coat and sat down next to him, sighing and looking down at the floor.
“What happened?” Frankie asked me.
“Nothing, she wouldn’t come in. It was definitely her, too. And I couldn’t get her to come inside.”
“Marg, I told ya it was her. Just leave it alone now. There ain’t nothin’ you can do about it.”
“But where the heck is Siete? Why isn’t he around?”
“Maybe they got in a fight, who knows. It ain’t your concern no more. You did the best you could do. Just leave her alone and she’ll be alright. Maybe she’s drunk.”
“But the rats are crawling all over her! You said you could hear them!”
“Marg, what do you want me to do? I can’t force her out of that alley! Come on, it’s late and we gotta work in a few hours.”
And with that, we turned off the light, falling asleep to the sound of Carol arguing with rats.
The following morning I got ready to head off to my job at Lord & Taylor. Frankie had already left for work. I had been fortunate two months earlier to secure a temporary seasonal job which lasted through mid-January. The money that I made spraying perfume and making women feel pretty was a much needed diversion from the circumstances I was living under.
As I locked the apartment door behind me, I heard a voice which startled me and I jumped.
“Hey!” said Carol, emerging from behind a sheet which was fastened where the clothesline had been. “Good morning, where’re you goin’?”
I couldn’t believe that Carol was standing in front of me talking all normal and nice after what had just gone on the night before. I wondered how she could go from Alley Rat Lady back to this woman who stood in my midst wishing me a good morning and striking up conversation the way any normal woman would do. Then my eyes caught sight of a familiar pair of socks which Carol had on her feet. They were still white from their newness and I determined that she couldn’t possibly have had them on in the alley last night because there was no way they’d have been able to maintain their freshness and keep their white color.
“I’m off to work,” I answered, not really sure of what else to say.
“Where you work?” Carol asked.
“Lord & Taylor.”
“You wear a size 6, heh? Nice suit!”
“Thank you. Ya, I’m a size 6. It’s weird that you know that.”
“I worked in the Garment Industry.”
“Ya, I know, you told me.”
“So, how do you and your man like the Basement Apartment?”
“Um, it’s, um ok I guess. But I’m from upstate and I’m used to a different kind of, uh, space.”
“Oh! upstate? I have a daughter in Staten Island.”
“Really? Where in Staten Island?
“Who knows, she don’t talk to me no more.”
“Oh, I’m sorry to hear that.” And then there was silence, as I tried to think of what to say and wondered whether or not to inquire about the bizarre events of only a few hours earlier. I decided to leave the topic alone. “My family is upstate. Sometimes I wonder what I’m doing here. I mean, I’m here with Frankie and everything but he has a really bad temper and he can be very mean and sometimes he’s hard to be around. I feel like I have to tip toe around him sometimes.”
“Ya, I know what you mean, dear. My man Siete gets me goin’ sometimes. Sometimes he’s real nasty to me and we fight! He can be such a jerk. Men, such jerks sometimes, heh?”
“Ya, you’re right,” I said. “It’s true. I get so frustrated. I feel sad a lot of the time.”
“You know what I do when I feel that way?” said Carol. “I go for a nice long walk down Fifth Avenue. I get myself lost in the crowd. Because you know what? On Fifth Avenue nobody cares about you and you can be whoever you want to be and you can be free! No more hurt, yelling, sadness, nothin’. It’s just you and the crowd of people who don’t know you and don’t want to know you. That’s freedom. That’s what I do when I’m sad and scared. I get myself free again.”
I looked at Carol and realized that I was hearing my own thoughts echoing back at me through another voice. I could even picture various times of my life in the city when I would go to Fifth Avenue for the sole purpose of losing myself in a crowd so that I could find myself again. I started somewhere around Tiffany’s and just walked aimlessly down the street until I felt like changing direction or turning back.
“You know what I read when I’m sad and scared?”
“What?” I asked.
“It’s a book called How to Be Your Own Best Friend. Read that book and you’ll get it all figured out.”
I promised her that I would buy the book and read it. Suddenly, it occurred to me that the person I was conversing with this morning – the same person who slept under a clothes line and fought with the alley rats – was the person who had just given me the kind of gift that people spend a whole lifetime in search of. The gift had no name. It didn’t even have a tangible presence. But here, in a lonely Harlem basement – a new wisdom was born.
I started up the dirty stairway and as I reached the top step I heard Carol call out to me, “I love you!”
“I love you too!” I called back, feeling my footsteps hitting the hard hallway tile as I made my way to the front door. I headed out the door and descended the steps to the sidewalk, inhaling a deep breath of the cold city air. Only in a New York morning can you experience the aroma of car exhaust, diner cooking and garbage, all at the same time. A rat suddenly scurried across my path and ran for cover in a nearby alley. And I thought, Good Morning, New York. You’re never quite what you seem.
Top Photo by: Ed Yourdon
Middle Photo by: Ed Yourdon
Bottom Photo by: Ed Yourdon