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104 Riverside Drive House
Image Source: Tracy Stoops – peeeple.com

Your stoop was short
three steps from
street to door
shortening the distance
to you

The buzzer always died
third ring
then the door would wheeze open
and my pulse would race

Cooking smells in the foyer
black and white mosaic tiles
junk mail piling up on the floor

Up three flights
to the open door of 3F
where you always stood
waiting to welcome me
home

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Image Source: Ray K. Metzker

She had the most marvelous whistle, an’ it exploded through the courtyard every Monday. Mondays were wash days in our building, see? So every Monday she’d be at the window, dragging her whites out to hang dry an’ whistling to beat the band.

Mostly she whistled tunes from them great old orchestras: Benny Goodman, Glen Miller, Tommy Dorsey with Frank Sinatra, all like that. “Little Brown Jug” an’ “Pennsylvania 6-500” an’ them. Her whistle would bounce against the walls of the courtyard, almost, but not quite, drowning out the squeak of the pulley on her laundry line. Got to be so I could count on it every Monday.

Well, I’ll tell you somethin’, I don’t know nothin’ about music. You put me in a room with Toscanini conducting the orchestra, an’ I wouldn’t know nothin’ about what songs they was playing or how they was all staying together or nothin’ like that. But that crazy whistle? It was like the most beau-tee-ful music you ever did hear. It sounded like the birds chirping an’ the sun shining an’…well, like everything good in life. I don’t know how she done it, but she made every Monday like the greatest day of your life just by whistling.

She was in the building behind ours, an’ I don’t know that I ever saw her on the street. I seen her in her window once, an’ it surprised the hell out of me, ‘cause she looked like an’ old maid! She had her hair pulled back in a tight bun, an’ she had on them iron-frame glasses like old ladies wore. But there she was, whistling like crazy an’ making the day beau-tee-ful. Guess you can’t judge a book by its cover!

So that was what wash days were like in that building. That old maid lookin’ woman an’ her whistle became a part of it all, like the smell of coffee on the percolator an’ the sight of the super hauling the ash cans up to the sidewalk. We moved to another building, an’ I never heard that whistle again. But I still hear it in my head every Monday, an’ because of that, Mondays are still my favorite day of the week.

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Image Source: Fred Herzog

I swear, sometimes I think I’m gonna lose my nut. It’s….it’s all too much sometimes. Always something telling ya where to park, where to not park, what kind soft drink to buy, what kind coffee, where to get jewelry, how to pay for the jewelry on credit installments…I can hardly take it sometimes.

I got a room at the Empire, an’ sometimes if I have to go out I feel like I ain’t gonna make it back in one piece. Like one of them billboards is gonna come to life and shove a Coca Cola down my throat, or a giant neon coffee cup is gonna tip over and spill scalding coffee all over my head.

Car horns honking all day an’ night, people yelling, sirens screaming…

If I do get back to my room, I jump under the covers an’ bury my head under the pillow an’ try to block it all out. But it gets so damn loud in my head that the noise never gets blocked out. An’ what I hear in my head…I, uh…well, I get some bad thoughts in there sometimes.

I just don’t understand this world, is all. I don’t get along so well with so many other people an’ so much noise an’ all the signs an’ the city hitting me over the head…I just…just…like, I wish I could move out an’…

I don’t even know anymore. I just want somewhere quiet, you know? Someplace quiet and sort of pretty, where I can hear myself think and I’m not tripping over piles of rotting garbage and smelling a cesspool every block. An’ someplace where I don’t have to be around too many people.

People hurt. People hurt me. Always laughing behind my back and trying to sell me dress shirts and cigarettes and Chevrolets and saying nasty things under their breath… Too much pain. Too much noise. Too much…too much, ya know?

I’m not made for this place. I just want to get out.

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Image Source: NY Times

Yeah, I seen it all. Or if I ain’t seen it all, I seen a lot. You wouldn’t believe it if I tole’ ya half the stuff that I been witness to in my booth. It gets pretty crazy sometimes.

I been on evenings for twelve years now, so there ain’t much I ain’t seen. Guys dressed like dames, I see them a lot. You figure most of them are goin’ to try to get into one’a them hot new nightclubs, an’ most of them are gonna be comin’ back the same way they came in. Some of ‘em are better lookin’ than my own wife! I gotta give ‘em credit for that!

I seen guys come through getting’, shall we say, serviced. An’ I also seen one too many guys come through while servicing themselves. That ain’t exactly the time you wanna be takin’ a dollar bill from a guy, if you know what I’m sayin’!

I see guys come thru wanna be all tough guy an’ put on a show of talkin’ to their wives or kids, or sometimes smackin’ ‘em around. I don’t like that, not at all. I see that, I do my best to get a plate number an’ let some of my buddies in blue know what’s comin’. Figure it can’t hurt, an’ maybe it’ll help.

Craziest thing ever happened? Probably a woman givin’ birth soons’ she cleared my booth. She was in a cab, an’ I guess they was tryin’ to make it over the GW to the Upper West Side, but you could tell she wasn’t gonna make it. I swear, just after they got through my booth, the cab pulled over. Good thing there was a cop there! He blocked traffic, an’ I happened to have a coupla clean blankets in my booth, so I run over and give ‘em to the cop, see? An’ the baby was born on one’a my blankets! How ya like that?

I seen the mayor come through a buncha times. I seen the governor a few times. An’ plenty of celebrities. But mostly it’s just regular folks, like me, see? The guy that goes to work for ConEd all night diggin’ ditches an’ fixin’ lights, an’ the gal that makes our bagels, an’ the bus driver headin’ for the Port Authority an’ all like that. I give directions, I talk about the ballgame that day, or the horses at Ozone, I make change an’ I go home. It’s an honest day for honest pay, ya know? But I have seen a lot up there. Maybe not everything, but you wouldn’t believe half of it anyway.

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050660 09 00I
Image Source: Nick DeWolf

There’s a kind of poem to remember what the weather light on the Berkeley Building means:

Steady blue, clear view
Flashing blue, clouds due
Steady red, rain ahead
Flashing red, snow instead

Now the only exception to this is flashing red in summer, and that means that the Red Sox have been rained out. But that’s what that light on top of the tower is all about. I always think of that poem when I’m on the trolley and the tower comes into view. I don’t speak about this sort of thing too much, but it’s one of those little things that make me happy and proud to be a Bostonian.

I especially love seeing the light of the tower on a good spring night, while walking through the Public Garden and Boston Common, with a light fog to make the new flowers pop. The city is just so damn pretty then: warm and proper, but just a bit mysterious, too. And it works so well because of the scale of the skyline.

I’ve heard talk about putting up a couple of new glass towers. I hope that doesn’t happen. I suppose everything has to change, but I’d hate to see something so cockeyed. The scale of Boston is manageable. That’s what makes it so livable.

Here we are freshly in 1960. Boston is nearly two hundred years old, and the connection to history is still there at every corner. And yet you can go out to the corner store and get a bottle of milk anytime. To me that’s a livable city. It has problems, to be sure. But all those problems seem to be erased on a night like this, with a view of that magnificent tower.

I hope that doesn’t change. I can’t imagine the new poem. Glass and steel, rain real? It just wouldn’t be the same…

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Image Source: Meredith Kleiber

I’m doing okay, you know? I ain’t no millionaire, but I’m working steady, staying out of trouble. I can take care of my daughter, at least, and that’s everything to me.

It’s not a job where you want to look down, that’s for sure! I’m not too scared, but I don’t spend too much time sightseeing, either. Some of the rookies, it really gets to them their first few times up. But you get used to it.

And it’s really interesting. Working this high up, you get to see all the big-wigs at work, ya know? Some of them, they got offices like you wouldn’t believe. All gold and crazy paintings and signed baseballs and jerseys and everything. I can’t imagine working in an office like that!

I see lots of people playing computer games and stuff at work. And once I saw a guy and his secretary…well, let’s just say they were really enjoying their lunch.

I like my office, though. It’s a little cooler on the hot days this high up, and I get a little spray from the water blowing in the breeze. Sucks when you get a breeze full of soapy water, but it’s still better than being cooped inside an office.

I’m not much for bragging, but since you asked, I’m pulling in around $100 a day, depending on the building. That’s middle of the road pay. I’d like to stay on ‘till I can pull in around $250 a day, just so I can put a little more aside for my daughter. I only get to see her every other weekend, but she’s why I’m up here, you know?

When I first started out, I used to use a bosun’s chair, but I gave it up. Those things are scary! It’s like riding a swing set 400 feet up! I like being on the scaffolding crew. We all go up together, get on together, lower ourselves together. And it’s a lot more secure. You gotta watch out for soapy spots, but I’ll take that over the feeling of swinging by myself that high up.

So like I said, I’m definitely not going to be retiring anytime soon. But I’m doing okay. Covering my rent, taking care of my baby, got a little left over to grab a few rounds after work…it’s not bad. I’m definitely in the 99%. But I’m doing okay.

"Man's Best Friend"
Image Source: Meredith Kleiber

It’s a racket, ya know? Like any other job, really. Lots of people get in here, they expect Travis Bickle an’ gun fights an’ crazy stuff, but it ain’t like that. Nine out of ten fares, nothin’ happens. I pick people up, take ‘em where they wanna go, they pay me, an’ that’s it. Nine out of ten fares.

Most of my fares are real nice. Sure, I get plenty of obnoxious drunks, an’ rich old ladies that come in with a superior attitude. But for the most part it’s all uneventful. Sometimes my fares an’ I have great conversation the whole trip, an’ sometimes it’s silent the whole way. That don’t bother me. I gauge it out dependin’ on the vibe I get from the fare. They don’t want to talk, they don’t want to talk, an’ what am I gonna do? That’s fine with me, an’ I can’t take it personal-like. But it ain’t like some people think, like how people think I must spend the whole ride tryin’ to talk about every little thing an’ muttering about cheapskate fares an’ how I’m gonna drive off a bridge with a fare one of these days.

Not to say that things never get interesting, of course. I’ve been hacking nights for twelve years now, an’ just when you think you’ve seen it all, well…I ran out of gas on bridge-an’-tunnel jobs on two consecutive nights once, if you can believe that. I’ve had more near-miss bathroom experiences than I can count. An’ I once had a lady JUST missed havin’ her first-born in my back seat! Got her to the ER just in time.

An’ sometimes things can get scary. Had a guy once, got in, an’ I could tell he was tweaking. I was about to pull over an’ kick him out when he pulled a blade an’ stuck in into the back of my neck. Naturally this one night I got a cab without a partition. My insides was turning to goo, but I kept calm as I could an’ kept driving. Tough to do with a shank in your neck. I kept scanning the street, lookin’ for a spot where I could pull over an’ jump out, but all the meters was full up. An’ this guy was getting real agitated. Finally I saw a spot an’ pulled over, an’ the guy tried to make his move an’ jump me across the back seat. Let’s just say that I was glad that night that I was packing an’ knew what to do with my piece.

But like I say, that’s the exception. Nine out of ten fares, nothin’ happens. I pick up people up, take ‘em where they wanna go, they pay me, an’ that’s it. I go home in the mornin’, an’ I’m a husband and father, puttin’ my kids through school. One fare out of ten is a doozy, but for the most part it’s just a racket, like any other job, really.


Image Source: New York Times

1:17 AM: The percolator finished bubbling and Kevin Walton pulled himself away from the window to pour a cup. He had the cushiest day-job ever, working a four-hour shift schlepping credit cards, so he was free to keep whatever hours he wanted. And he was fortunate enough to have found an apartment in the back of a building, offering quiet and seclusion. It wouldn’t last, but it was perfect for the time. He often stayed up all night, listening to jazz, playing his piano and staring out the window at the action, or lack thereof, across the air shaft.

Hot night, windows open, Ellington on the stereo. “Harlem Air Shaft.” Kevin remembered a quote from The Duke that he read for an assignment in Jazz History class at U Maine Augusta. He still had it in a notebook. He found the notebook in a steamer trunk and flipped through to the page:

“Take ‘Harlem Air Shaft,’” Duke said. “So much goes on in a Harlem airshaft. You get the full essence of Harlem in an air shaft. You hear fights, you smell dinner, you hear people making love. You hear intimate gossip floating down. You hear the radio. An air shaft is one great big loudspeaker. You see your neighbor’s laundry. You hear the janitor’s dogs. The man upstairs’ aerial falls down and breaks your window. You smell coffee. A wonderful thing is that smell. An air shaft has got every contrast. One guy is cooking dried fish with rice and another guy’s got a great big turkey. Guy-with-fish’s wife is a terrific cooker but the guy’s wife with the turkey is doing a sad job.” Duke laughed. “You hear people praying, fighting, snoring. Jitterbugs are jumping up and down always over you, never below you. That’s a funny thing about jitterbugs. They’re always over you. I tried to put all that in ‘Harlem Air Shaft.’”
The New Yorker, July 01, 1944, Pg. 26

Kevin read that quote several times, staring out the window at his own air shaft, listening to the song that inspired it all, amazed to be living that dream. He thought of all those times walking across the campus at UMA, with the wind tossing up cyclones of crystalline snow, heading for another warm classroom filled with music. He thought of reading that Ellington quote and how much it resonated back then, and the feeling of sitting in class and thinking of maybe having an apartment that faced an air shaft one day. And here I am…

He looked out the window at the warm summer air shaft. He heard the guy in 6B yelling at family in San Juan. He got a whiff of curry – maybe a bowl of Mulligatawny from the Indian joint down the block. Somebody was playing salsa music somewhere. The night was alive in the air shaft, as alive as the Duke had made it. And here I am…

He thought of the amazing and unknown that is serendipity, and how some things just present themselves at precisely the right time. No known reason, other than perfection. And he thought of all the moments of serendipity in his life, from far past to near, that had aligned so perfectly. And here I am…

It was one of those moments when everything solidifies, when every thought and notion and dream and plan that had come and gone before suddenly is realized and makes sense. Nothing revolutionary, but still monumental. The lonely night wore on and Kevin kept the moment close, savoring the feeling of being the most content son-of-a-bitch in the building.

Read the article that inspired this post here:

And listen to the Duke:


Photo Source: Saul Leiter

It was about four o’clock a few days before Christmas, an’ snowing like a bitch, if I may say so. I was getting slammed, on account of people sneakin’ out of their offices early to beat the snow, an’ my paper kiosk being set up right next to a bus stop. Of course, because of the snow the busses were all running late, but everybody was leaving the office early anyway, an’ they all wanted an evening edition for the commute. It was a lousy day any way you looked at it.

I had a fire going an’ I was moving around selling papers, so the cold wasn’t too bad. But with the wind and the wet of the snow, it was lousy, an’ not at all Christmas-like. I was feeling like a prize heel, to be honest with you. An’ then Robert the Sneak come running over.

Robert the Sneak is a regular at Mulroney’s. They call him Robert the Sneak ‘cause he always seemed to have some inside dope that none of the rest of us at the bar had, whether it was a tip on the horses or who was having a birthday or if someone was falling a bit behind an’ needed a little extra. He just knew these things somehow. So that’s why we called him Robert the Sneak.

I was just about to shut down when Robert the Sneak come running up to my kiosk, slipping in the snow an’ about to bust with excitement. He come over an’ yells at me, “The Grunt is in the hospital!”

The Grunt is another regular at Mulroney’s. We call him The Grunt because he does odd jobs around the bar for his drinks. Grunt work, you could say. The Grunt is old an’ frail, an’ prone to “fainting” spells, if you catch my drift. So occasionally he gets picked up an’ taken to Bellevue to dry out a bit.

So Robert the Sneak tells me that a few of the regulars are gonna go o’er to visit The Grunt at Bellevue an’ sing some Christmas songs to him. He figures if The Grunt can’t be at Mulroney’s for Christmas, we’ll bring Mulroney’s to The Grunt. Of course, I thought this was a grand idea, an’ I shut down my kiosk and headed downtown.

Five of us from the bar showed up an’ headed to The Grunt’s room. He was in his own room, lying in the dark an’ just staring out at the snow. He looked so sad an’ lonesome, it kind of tore at your heart seeing him in that condition. So I snapped on the light, an’ there we were.

You shoulda seen The Grunt light up when he saw us standin’ there! He was like a kid with a new toy. We barged into his room an’ spent probably a good hour there singin’ Christmas songs an’ making like we was all just sitting around the bar like always. An’ The Grunt, he’s the strong, silent type, but if I didn’t know any better, I’d say he was about to cry the whole time. What a scene that was!

Funny, just two hours earlier I was feeling lousy and not at all Christmas-like. An’ after we all left Bellevue an’ headed back to Mulroney’s, all we were feeling was Christmas. It didn’t take much an’ it didn’t cost a thing, an’ we made The Grunt’s night. Just goes to show you that Christmas ain’t about the getting, it’s about the giving. An’ after that night I ain’t had a day where I didn’t have that Christmas feeling.

Originally Published 10/16/2011

Photo Source: William Gedney

…damn…damn, Damn, DAMN! GodDAMNit, why didn’t I do it sooner?

Harold paced up and down the block, through the shadows of the el, smoking like a fiend, replaying the evening and lamenting the fact that it took so long to play out. It was so easy! It was just like any night with Doris at her place.

Just like any night with Doris when she wasn’t out whoring around, making a fool out of me…

Easiest thing in the world, 1-2-3, like falling off a log. What was all that worry about? Harold kept thinking about how silly all his fretting seemed in retrospect. In comparison to the worry, it was like…like taking candy from a baby.

Or a kid in a candy store…

A train screamed overhead: express. Where the hell was a local when you needed one? Anyway, yeah…it was so easy. Just like any night with that cheap whore…up to her apartment, play some records, smoke a little reefer…only Doris wasn’t entertaining Harold. No, not this night.

Harold thought of all those evenings he waited, lurking behind the stanchions of the el, watching, observing, waiting. He would call Doris on the telephone to make a date, but she had a headache or was going out with her girl friends. Yeah, that’s how it was.

It’s so easy for a girl like her to lie. Easiest thing in the world, 1-2-3, like falling off a log, RIGHT?

So finally his night had arrived. Just like any night with Doris at her place, only she’s got company she ain’t supposed to have. So Harold walks in, and for the last time he walks out. Just…BAM!…walks out.

No more Doris, no more third wheel…sorry, what was your name again? Oh never mind, it don’t matter, HAH!…no MORE! Harold felt great. Better than he had in weeks. It was all over, and the relief washed over him like the shadows of the tracks above. What a great feeling! And all that worry over nothing!

Easiest thing in the world…

An IND train pulled in, pushing the sound of approaching sirens into the background. Harold stood for a second, feeling the piece in his pocket. Cold steel never felt so warm. It felt like…happiness. He ran up the stairs, jumped the turnstile and got on the train just as the doors were closing.

The train pulled out and Harold headed away, replaying the evening and looking forward to doing it all over again…