The Neighborhood

“You are a chicken shit, Rick” Tom said. “You would have lasted about ten minutes in Korea before you crapped your pants. How about a gazillion chinks running at you and you got no place to go. What do you do then? You stop one of your own men making a retreat in a jeep. How about if he doesn’t want to stop? Get the picture?”

It was a big relief when he screeched to a halt at a totally anonymous apartment building in the middle of this no man’s land, this Brooklyn. I still have dreams of those neighborhoods- no way out, no escape! Endless concrete, buildings, cars, trains and hardly a living thing. Even the people who wandered aimlessly seemed like zombies. It felt like you couldn’t breathe, get a breath.

This particular old tenement had no buzzer, no security, nothing. Up the stairs we went, five flights. By the time we got to the second floor Mrs. Lopez was already on the landing looking down from above. “God Bless you Tommy” she wailed.” Gino is goin’ crazy. The lousy TV conked out just after the national anthem. It’s a big playoff series and the Yanks are in trouble. Come on,” she encouraged as we plodded up the flights and into a little apartment with a couple of windows looking out on the street through the iron fire escape most of the buildings had or were supposed to have.

“ Youse want a soda?” she offered, wringing her hands. “Sure,” Tom said and she hustled off into the kitchen. Gino was in his comfy chair looking depressed, staring at the blank TV screen and shaking his head. “Didn’t you just fix this god dammed thing just a month ago Tommy?” he said.

“I told you Gino,” Tom replied,” you need to get some money and get yourself an RCA. These Motorolas don’t last. Let me see what I can do.”

“Ok Tommy,” Gino said. “I’ll say a Hail Mary. Maybe that will help.”

“Of course it will help,” Tom said and he got to work. He opened up his tool kit and prepared to operate. He was a doctor or a priest in these situations; he either fixed it, took it away to the hospital, or it died on the spot, in which case he administered last rites, some consoling words.

“Here Tommy” said Mrs. Lopez, bringing out a couple of glasses of Coke with ice and here’s one for your helper. “What’s your name red,” she asked.

“Rick” I said.

“Where did you get that red hair?”

”My grandmother. She was from Sweden.”

“No kiddin?”

“No kiddin.”

Today was a lucky day for the Lopez family. Tom had opened up the back of the set and was making some progress because the picture starting blinking, showing signs of life. Tom was very smart and knew his business. “A tube blew” he said. “I think I got another one.” And the next thing we knew the Yankees were up at bat and were leading by a run.

“God Bless you Tommy,” Mrs. Lopez said

“I owe you Tommy” Gino said. And he wasn’t kidding because it was pretty obvious nobody had any money. Mrs. Lopez scrambled around digging in her purse but Tom just said,” Forget about it. I shoulda fixed it better the first time. Enjoy the game. Come on Rick. We got another call to make.”

Well, the next one was similar but without the happy ending. We had to take the big 28 inch set down many flights of stairs and back to the shop where mostly, it seemed to me, TVs went to die.

“How long do you need to keep it?” they would ask.

“I dunno,” Tom would say.” I might have to order a part.” I understood this to be the kiss of death which is why there were four rows of TV’s on benches of the shop, one against each wall and one larger bench in the middle with TV’s on either side. I think there were tags on the sets and they would fix the ones they could and then call the people to pick them up. The ones requiring more mojo, well, it was not clear about the status of those. People would call and call and call getting more and more irate which, I guess, is why Tom left the shop a lot and turned it over to Set while he went to his apartment around the corner to smoke a joint and play chess.

Set / image copyright Ricker Winsor
Set / image copyright Ricker Winsor
Set did most of the work. He was from Kerala in the south of India, Hindu and vegetarian. I am pretty sure he snuck into the country on a tourist visa or some such thing and his wife and son followed. Like Tom he had gone to the RCA TV School and was learning the trade, probably with the idea of going back to India and starting a business. Set was a gentleman, a decent man who never cursed, honored his family, and kept his nose to the grindstone. He was a poster boy immigrant, the one who keeps things going for us.

I loved the food he brought for lunch. My wife had introduced me to different types of cuisine. She liked every type of cuisine. Truth be told if she could get it in her mouth and swallow it, that was ok with her! Yum! And since she was not much for exercise, well, her derriere was starting to look like a sack of potatoes. But, she broadened my appreciation of different tastes.

Set was amused that I liked the curries and mater mooloo stuff he brought, amused for about the first five times until I kept hounding him, basically eating his lunch! After a while when I would ask what he was eating a dark cloud would visit his face, a storm brewing.

“Mati didn’t make too much today, Rick. Can’t you get something at Angelo’s?” “Ok, Set. Have you been to immigration lately? How’s your status?”

“Rick, that is veddy veddy mean. How can you say like that? You know how hard I work for my family. I need to eat to stay strong.”

“Ok, eat your lunch. I‘ll go see Angelo for some heart attack food.” That would be roast beef on rye with Russian and onions, good but requiring a long digestive nap!

Set lived up in the Bronx in another one of those concrete neighborhoods always being redefined like the Grand Concourse which had been a solid Jewish neighborhood, then became Puerto Rican and then Black. After that it became territory for slow gentrification as the young and courageous saw opportunity in the distinguished old buildings and, with pioneering spirit, committed to fixing them up. I don’t think gentrification had gotten to Set’s neighborhood yet.

Set’s wife, Mati, worked in a market and their son, Rami, was seven years old and in school where he was a top student. That little boy got dropped off to school by his mother but had to get himself home and locked in their apartment under strict orders not to open the door for anybody and wait for his mother to get home. In New York at that time, one lock on the door was a joke. Generally it was 4 locks, three dead bolts on the door and one in the middle — an iron rod going back from the inside of the door at an angle into a steel casing in the floor. The key would allow it to slide sideways so the door could open. The commute for Set each way was an hour. Set was a nice man but always looked like he was about to throw up, just nervous and upset. He ate Tums nonstop. And who could blame him?!

He would say,” Oh Rick, my neighborhood is not safe. The neighbors got robbed the other day. A “tief”came in the window off the fire escape. When they got home they found the house a mess. They lost a lot of things!” I tell Rami to watch out all the time. He won’t open the door for anyone. And they try Rick! They try often to get in because they know he is just a boy and can’t do anything. Sometimes he calls me at the shop when they are banging on the door. It makes me worry so much.”

We all lived in a condition of red alert. I had bought a nice Peugeot bicycle with the money from one of my photo jobs. I thought it would be good to try to stay in shape, to fight back the stresses of the concrete jungle. With that bike I felt like a healthy young guy, riding across the Brooklyn Bridge on the wooden slats to Chinatown. On Sunday mornings I cruised all over lower Manhattan and it felt great.

Back on the block I rigged a pulley to hoist the bike up into the air on the landing of our loft building which had a strong front door with big glass windows. I had the bike for two weeks before someone broke the glass in the door and stole it. The landlady had some big iron grates installed over the new windows so they couldn’t break the glass and get in that way anymore. So much for the bike!

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