I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
Money makes the world go round!
The world go round!
The world go round!
Money makes the world go round—
with such a happy sound!
Money, money, money, money, money, money, money, money …
Get this! This is gonna make your hair stand on end. Everyday of Annabelle’s fucking life, since day one, she has a picture taken of herself. Including today, a Polaroid, before we come over here. Twelve thousand three hundred thirty-three so far. Laid out in front of her. “Look, Zho, this day 1,082. I am 13 days short of trois ans.”
“Gorgeous,” I say. “Yeah.”
Her mama start it. Cold blood. Third kid, but first born alive. Two stillborn in the maquis during the war. Then a long time coming to conceive delicate Annabelle. Now, make sure, record every day of her precious daughter’s life from the day Annabelle hot foots it out of the womb up there in Normandy. Every change, every nuance. Annabelle says it just struck the old lady, came to her out of a dream or hallucination, camera ready:
“Annabelle? Annabelle? Look at me, sweet thing. There, there, Pittou. Say fromage …”
How we can afford to buy a place on the Lower East Side, no matter how cheap?
We got some money from an incident that went down at the Gotham.
Say what, Zho?
Bite my tongue. Ahem.
Rather, Annabelle got some money from an incident that went down at the Gotham dime-a-dance strip joint where she worked.
Stay with me here. There’s a certain mentality today—money-wise. Do you agree or what? Every fat fuck on the make. Not that Annabelle didn’t deserve it. Like I says, we still be living over all them blind people, hearing the squeal of brakes, those horrific screams, scraping the gore out of the gutter with a spatula …
My old man’s newsstand used to be on a stand pipe, dig? Right outside the old bally-who. That’s how I remember when I was a kid. Me, my sister. My father in ear muffs, his nose red.
One night, nothing personal, Leonardo, the Gotham floor manager, who has the same basic shape and size as a mirror armoir, cut Annabelle’s face with a bottle opener. He claimed he lost it. Didn’t know what it was about, didn’t know why he did it. High on something. Cut her a beautiful slice right across the cheek, hooked her lip and tore it pretty good. When I go inside people are backed up, looking. I push some away, step in front of him. Blood running down her face, but no tears. I tell him, “Leonardo, you don’t put it down, sit down, you sticking it, bro,” and he laughs at me, says, “Listen, you little Jew! …”
Later he apologize, repeat he don’t know why he did it, what came over him, mindless violence. He smiles, pays her off 30,000 big ones to keep her mouth shut, no cops, no authorities, keep his business open, keep his liquor license. He arranges to have the cut stitched up by a customer he claims is an “A number one” Park Avenue plastic surgeon. Later, I swear, I see the same guy advertising on TV, looking at me through the void, the voidoid, “A number one,” saying you too can be all you ever dreamed and more, me thinking, looking back at him, seeing him at a table, the spittle running down his chin, pulling his six dollar Beck’s that much closer, my folks calling me in the bedroom, six months after my sister died, saying Jo-Jo, we been talking, you seem depressed, do you want your nose fixed, the guy looking at me out of the screen, his eyes saying, we can do a number on you too, sir, me thinking, man, I could stick my nose right up your business just the way it is.
Annabelle looks at me, nothing there, blank, no comprehension, ask me what kind of doctor advertises on television? What’s that mean? “I’m not an American. I don’t know. In France doctors don’t …”
I say that’s just my point.
Fucking Leonardo. She fingers the scar, says she’ll hold a grudge till the day she dies, longer, she’ll get him back, no matter when it is. Man the size of a deep freeze, with a heart like a pint of Häagen Dazs deep in its cavity.
So, listen, I tell her, my gal, all is not lost, you got me out of this deal, right, remember me, your passionate Pete, your Zho-Zho, your baa-by, your American, girl, remember? I run to your aid when you’re in danger, my own physical welfare be damned, not to mention the long green that comes to bear, 30,000 to the better we’re going to make work for us.
So in the end, I got the dame to boot, so who says justice is not mine? Me just a regular guy, not the star of no novel or motion picture. I got her, a sexy beautiful girl, French like I say, mon mec. That’s America, right? Land of opportunity. What you say? Equal opportunity employer. Cum ça.
Annabelle laughs unimpressed, “Zho, you sick.” I ask myself, has anyone ever said my name better? Yesterday I show her this story I tore out of the paper and brought home, some woman in Harlem wins 65 million bucks because a hospital refused to treat her after she ate—get this—a bad chicken wing and got food poisoning. Then we saw her on the six o’clock news. Black, crying, says she lost her husband because of what had happened, her health was a mess, some kind of terrible infection spread to her spine. Her life was over, she said, now the hospital was gonna pay, she’d teach those people a lesson! Annabelle says, “What lesson?” Nothing’s gonna change. Those people don’t care. They won’t remember. What? They see another poor black woman come in, they gonna run to her, grovel, say, “Yes, ma’am, what can we do for you today?”
Or even give them decent health care.
Annabelle shakes her head. No way. She says this country, my country, our country (you and me), our country’s fucked! Racially, classically, economically, politically. Fucked.
We’re sitting on the stoop.
I wouldn’t mind having 65 million dollars. Even half that, sis.
“What are these people asking for the apartment?” I ask her.
“I don’t know.”
“We talk ’em down, no matter what …”
“Let’s see it first, okay, Zho?”
Sure, sure, okay, understood.
“Don’t fuck it up.”
She look at me. Beseechingly. Neighborhood makes her nervous, scare her to death. Rightfully so. The pushers barking, C & D, Coke and dope, coke and dope, coke and dope. The addicts is about. Shifty, skinny, gaunt, cruising the street in their low riding Chevys, slouching soft hats down over their eyes, lining up for the buy.
Behind us the door opens.
Building, I’d say, built 1880, 1890. Old law tenement. Soiled badly on the outside, facade crumbling, cornice falling down, look up, jagged edge of torn tin, a sword dangling over our heads, but hey, dude, I’m willing to be open-minded. That’s cool! Live dangerously. Annabelle swears the lady on the phone said wait’ll you see the apartment, you won’t believe it.
The block I know. Did I tell you my family’s from this block? The same block I sit stoop-wise, my grandmother came to in 1903 when she come to America from Hungary. The block my mother born on. Always a good block. A good block, Joe. I remember it from when I was a kid, when we come to the temple, come to the doctor, come to the nurse, come to see the lady with the alligator purse, visit my mama’s friend, still there, ensconced, long after my mama and her family got out. And I see the little skinny soldiers of chaos and anarchy are here, creeping about in those low riders and beat autos, you see them in the street, they look you right in the eye, sitting on the stoop, and their gaze is cold, b, their gaze is fucking freezing.
I go inside, follow a white broad, says her name is Betty, but just call her Beneficia. Got a gut on her. She looking at me like I’m from a different planet, but I’m not, I’m from the Earth. Just like you. It’s only my eyes, they’re from Mars.
“Are you all right?”
“He’s always like that,” Annabelle says pleasantly, and they go inside, chatting like they’ve known each other for the last 150 years.
In the hall I trail, little boy lost, look about me, oh how nice, see the building crying, crying, save me, save me, Joe, ragged around the edges, but coming back, no question. Annabelle looks back down the long hallway at me, her eyes asking what do I want, please behave.
Hey, bro, I’m cool. Ragged-ass building don’t bother me. I’m used to it. I lived worse than this. The world’s ragged around the edges. I don’t condemn for decrepitude. I notice the stairwell is marble, still square. Run this by you, carpenter lingo: The stairs is plumb. See? None of them is at an angle or falling down. None of the kickers gone. They’s all there, no treads missing, though worn smooth, concave like a bowl, a million feet having trudged up and down these stairs, hiking to some promised land, high in the heavens. Probably 500,000 of those feet belong to junkies, pushing and prodding jabbing needles between their toes, taking that long hike, all within the last ten or 15 years. And I see all the old plasters knocked off the walls, and the bricks is clean and the glass is all neat and trim in the hall windows, not a shard showing, nothing knocked out or busted. No graffiti. No filth. Surprising for this neighborhood. Pretty nice deal. People do a job like this, people like this Betty, this white Betty, this Beneficia, they should be proud of themselves, the shitholes I’ve seen down here, in this neighborhood. Deserves a medal!
She into her rap, somewhere above, saying, “What you see is the sweat of collective labor. What you’re buying into here, why it’s so cheap, is the sweat of your brow, the sweat of all our brows who live here. A decent place to live. We done it all ourselves,” she crows proudly. “Bought this building, and the one next door, from the landlord three years ago for 2,000 dollars, some back oil bills, and 14,000 in scofflawed parking tickets. Since then we’re putting it back together ourselves. Independent of all bureaucracy, all city agencies. No contractors, no city inspectors, no codes, no intervention. Only hard work, just build our houses, just build our homes.” She’s finished. Nothing to do but follow her up, on high, me huffing and puffing, look up, see her skirt billowing, her underwears, white cotton, big woman, underwears the size of a giant balloon.
I trail, take a break. Annabelle and Beneficia above me.
Directly below me, on the first floor a door opens. I see an eyeball in the crack. It don’t open no further, just an inch, eyeball peering up at me. I peer back. Beneficia don’t seem to notice. She’s climbing the stairs like a mountain goat.
“Hey, how far up?” I call.
“I’m on the lonesome trail, I’m on the lonesome trail …” singing to myself. Huff, huff and climb, huff, huff and climb. My shape ain’t so good, bro. Stand around at the job all day. La grande Mademoiselle and Annabelle leaving me far below in their wake.
“Door’s open,” big bad Betty calls down. “Just come on up when you’re ready. Take your time.”
Above me I hear Annabelle say, “Oh, eet’s beautiful,” the accent, grating me. Oh, eet’s beautiful Huff, huff, doo-wop, catch my breath, sit down, light a cigarette. Below me I see the guy who was peeking out his door step into the hall. He cranes his neck and looks up into the stairwell.
“Hey, here I am! Hey you, monkey-face! What do you want? Mind your own business!”
Pleasant guy—me. But I don’t say it. What you think I am? One got to know how to live in the big city, but you shouldn’t believe everything you read. Things are changing in this country. Used to be, you know, you could trust everybody, everybody’s normal, everybody’s like us, you and me, your neighbor and your pal. Nowadays who’s gonna argue about convention, it’s all up for debate, ain’t that right? This guy looking up into my puss. Me breathing hard trying to catch a second wind. None of his business. “Yo, bro, you live here?”
He says nothing, pallor of white face, slinks away, real rat-like, disappears under the stairs, and I hear a door slam.
Above me a man’s waiting, dark skin, dark hair, look like an American Indian. How, Cochise—To Wakonda, the one great spirit … takes my hand, says, I’m Jo-Jo-Peltz, or I do.
“Proud to make your acquaintance,” he says. Says “Beneficio Gomez.” No accent.
Annabelle’s sitting on a couch in the living room. She says, “Eet’s fine, Zho. Eet’s beautiful, no?”
Sure, sure, the place is a veritable palace. What can I say? Beneficia gushes, jumps right in, tells me how once, before the flood; it was six apartments, made into one stately majestic phenomenal space. She tells me how their group of people took the building over from the landlord. There’d been a fire, it was on the verge of being abandoned. The place was being over-run by junksters. A group of people from other buildings on the block got together try to rescue the building. In a way these two buildings, situated in the exact middle anchor the entire block. “Stability was essential.” The only legitimate tenant here was a guy, Ike, living in the basement, still there.
“I think I seen him,” I says. “Man looks like a rat, only worse?”
“He’s harmless,” Beneficio quickly ventures, sitting up straight.
“I wouldn’t say that,” interjects his wife, her voice acidic and I look up, hmmm.
Beneficio gives me the cook’s tour of the premises, shows me how they opened up the apartments. Originally, there were three apartments on each floor. Two square four rooms in the front and rear connected by a small three room railroad in the center. At one point when plumbing came indoors, there was a shared bathroom at the center rear on each floor. He shows me where the hall was and the side by side front doors that opened into either kitchen.
The apartment’s not quite finished yet, he apologizes, but all the heavy demolition is complete, and if there’s no sink in the bathroom and the sheetrock’s up, but not taped, so be it. There’s a monstrous wooden scaffolding over the stairwell leading upstairs, no railing on the rudimentary staircase, the dirty splintery floors, covered by a hideous mustard colored rug, but there’s no describing the charm, the space, the expanse, the pink brick walls, the warm light. This is the Lower East Side. This is the neighborhood 20 million immigrants first flopped when they come to America. Nothing has changed. On the streets outside the open window we hear the jabbering, and a car siren going off, the waves of electronic noise sounding to me like: CAR-TOY CAR-TOY CAR-TOY CAR-TOY CAR-TOY CAR-TOY CAR-TOY CAR-TOY CAR-TOY CAR-TOY CAR-TOY.
Somebody turn that off!
Beneficio leans out the window. “It’s that damn Dagmar’s car again.”
He says the guy’s got one of these cheap alarms goes off every time the garbage truck goes by or somebody breathes too hard.
Annabelle is sitting quietly, breathing deeply, trying to suss the place out, gather her impression. Conversation dies, siren finally goes off, Beneficia sighs, “Thank God.” Annabelle forces a smile, says she loves it, but, frankly, she has her doubts. Not the apartment, the apartment’s a stunner, incroyable, but the neighborhood, the neighborhood’s scary says if it were just her …
The two of them look at me, Beneficio and Beneficia, like it’s me holding her back, my fault, I got to explain, hey, I’m a street-smart dude, born and raised, my family’s from this neighborhood, I can take care of myself, tough guy, can’t be me she’s worried about, bro, no way. I walk the streets any neighborhood in this city. I tell them, oh no, it’s the kid she’s worried about, walking the highways and byways of urban America with our little helpless off-spring. Their faces light up.
The neighborhood? Is it a danger? Did they ever have any problems? Annabelle pleading. They jump on it. “Oh, no. This isn’t such a bad neighborhood. It looks so much worse than it really is.” They got two kids. This is a family neighborhood. The drugs is on the street, that’s true, but nobody likes drugs, most of all the people who live here, the Puerto Ricans are just as worried about their kids as any of us, drugs proliferating … but the drugs, the violence that’s between the junkies. Beneficia says she comes home late at night, never had an incident. They call upstairs and their son comes down, prove a point.
He’s about 15, 16 years old, face like a tomahawk, wearing army fatigues. “This is Benny,” the father says.
“Charmed, I’m sure,” I says! We shake hands. The kid’s got one of these vice grips, crunch up your bones. I says, “Hey, watch that! I’m a concert violinist.”
The mother says, “Are you really?”
Then the sister comes down. Her name’s Gloria. She’s maybe 14, with a little baby fat, but she’s gonna be a beauty when she grows up, almond eyes, dark skin. Slinking down the stairs, watching us.
I ask Beneficia what an apartment like this one costs, what they asking?
They say to tell the truth, they already had it sold. Beneficio he works for IBM who’s transferring him down to Boca Raton, Florida—do I know it?—growth capital of the world, gateway to the Southern Kingdom. “Lovely,” she say. “We bought a house down there and sold this one, to an Italian fashion designer. But she went home to get some details straightened out in her factory, left power of attorney with her lawyer, and he came down here, took one look, and said, “sorry, in good conscience I can’t.”
Say what? Good what? Can’t what, I ask.
“He’s doing his job. Frankly, we’re not entirely legal. But slowly we’re working on it.”
“You’re taking a gamble. The building’s not exactly legal. This can be your home, but it’s not just sitting here ready for the plucking, you’re going to have to work for it. Hard. The building has a vacate order. The city claims it’s unsafe. There’s been a fire here. No one was living here except for Ike downstairs. There were no windows, no doors, no systems, no water, no gas, no electricity. No roof. Slowly we’ve restored what was here, but officially the building’s still classified unsafe, UB, and there’s no C of O, no certificate of occupancy, no one can legally live here, even though we do,of course, that’s because after the first fire …
She says a lot of buildings on the block are done the same way. Almost all of them. Some have had a dispensation from the Attorney General’s office, but that’s because Louie Lefkowitz was from this block and made a special case.
She says when people started the Corporation, that’s what she called it, the Corporation, EAT CO. E Avenue Tenants’ Corp, it was 500 a unit to buy in, a unit being one original apartment. “We have six,” cost 3,000 dollars. But the building’s not what it was when they started. “It’s come a long way. It’s a little rough in the winter time, but by and large …”
“And we put in 17 in materials, not to mention our own labor, and we contracted an electrician and a plumber …”
Somebody appears at the top of the stairs. “Oh, Mewie,” Beneficia exclaims, like it’s her long lost cousin, back from the Amazon after a hundred years living with the Yanamama.
Meanwhile, Benny’s lost interest and split. Went upstairs, came down with a plastic machine gun and left. Now this skinny bird’s standing up there, bearded, Manson-eyes, gleaming down on us.
“Our next door neighbor, Mewie Cotton.”
“How’d he get there?” Beneficio gave me the tour of the house, didn’t see him up there. Spooky. Unless he been hiding in the closet.
“That’s one thing we haven’t gotten round to,” Beneficio says sheepishly. “Closets.”
Beneficia says this Mewie character climbs over from his apartment in the adjacent building. She shows us the well window, overlooking the air shaft, five stories up, between buildings. “Climb over?” I say. “You could fall.”
“Nah, it’s easy. No problem.” He sits down, smiles. “Don’t mind me!”
Suddenly Beneficia jumps up like she just had a brilliant idea. Maybe Annabelle would feel better if she talked to another woman who lives here, someone more her age and inclination. She throws open the window and knocks on the fourth floor window glass across the well. “Don’t let her appearance distract you. She’s very nice, a very smart girl.”
A girl comes to the window, red mohawk, black tips. Beneficia takes Annabelle’s arm, steers her over. Makes the introductions: Scarlet B, Annabelle P.
But Annabelle says, “No, I use my own name, not Zho-Zho’s.”
They lean towards each other. Annabelle and Scarlet. This is the old neighborhood. I see it now. Strong. It freezes me. Annabelle pregnant, holding her belly, standing by an open window in a tenement on Avenue E, the block my mother was born, chatting with a punkette named Scarlet.
The skinny bird, this Mewie, leans close, says something to me.
“What’s that?” I says, turn to him, look into those red eyes.
He’s grinning at me, pats my knee, says, “I hear you’re with child. Pregnant. Congratulations!!!”
Kill the Poor will be published by Atlantic Monthly Press in 1988.
Joel Rose is the recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship in fiction writing for 1986–87. He is co-editor with Catherine Texier of the literary magazine Between C&D.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee