before New Year’s I ran into the super of the Times Square tenement where
I’ve been staying lately. The building has an address on W. 40th St., right
across the street from the massive south wall of the Port Authority terminal,
but it’s not really on the street. It’s a relic of a time when Hell’s
Kitchen developers, trying to get as many (I presume Irish) swots and immigrant
families as they could on each block, squeezed an extra row of tall, narrow
tenement houses into the courtyards between street-facing buildings. So I go
in a front door on W. 40th, stepping past the local crackies and alkies and
the guys pissing on our steps, walk straight down a hall and out the back door,
make three steps past the garbage cans in the micro-courtyard and into the door
of my building. Because it’s not actually on a street, sheltered by buildings
on W. 40th and W. 39th, it’s kind of quiet in there, except when the
neighboring Mexican joint hires a live mariachi band, which is sort of pleasant,
or some crackie on 39th has a screaming fit at 4 a.m., which makes you want
to own a rifle.
five stories tall and two rooms wide. The current owner has been renovating
the rooms into nice little furnished bedsits–I call them foreign exchange
student garrets, as that seems to be most of my neighbors–on short-term
leases. Besides me, the only adults in the building appear to be the super,
whom I’ll call Jimmy, and an ancient man who lives down in the basement,
whom I’ll call Nick. There may be a Chinese lady who takes in wash on the
ground floor, but I’m not sure.
Greek, a friendly little wiry guy, usually in a wifebeater, who’ll turn
69 this month and lives alone in a minuscule, unreconstructed room-and-bath
up on the top floor. We bonded when I moved in. I collect mail for a former
tenant, mostly bills addressed variously to Wiang Ju-Weng or Wang Jiu-Wang or
Hwang Tsu-Cheng, and leave them by Jimmy’s door for him to forward. They
chore has convinced Jimmy that I’m an all-right guy. That Saturday I see
him in the hall and he says Look Johnny, I don’t want to bother you, but
I need to ask you a favor. Are you going to be here on New Year’s Eve?
Jimmy, I say, it’s Times Square. I plan to be far, far away on New Year’s
Eve. He looks worried and says But look, can you come knock on my door on New
Year’s Day? I don’t care if it’s 5 in the morning, just come
knock. I say Jimmy I don’t know when I’ll be back that day. What’s
this about? He says I’m superstitious. Last year nobody knocked on New
Year’s Day and I had a very bad year. Please Johnny can you do this for
me? I wouldn’t bother you but I don’t know nobody else I can ask.
could I do. On the afternoon of New Year’s Eve I come back from shopping
and for a minute I think some Islamic atomikazes must have leveled the Port
Authority (or as I like to call it, the Pork Authority), there are so many cops
in the hood. There are men in blue everywhere–very everywhere–lining
the streets, screwing up traffic, setting up sawhorses, making the crackies
and alkies really nervous. At 3 p.m. the area is filling up with holiday-makers.
If I don’t escape soon I’ll be trapped in there with them.
I bolt to
Brooklyn. To a party that goes all night and then into the next day. I drop
dead at 9 or 10 a.m. and am reborn around 3:30 in the afternoon on New Year’s
Day. And my first thought is Fuck, I gotta go knock on Jimmy’s door. Drag
myself into last night’s clothes, stumble in the brutal cold over to the
L stop, L to the A to Port Authority, in the door at W. 40th, down the hall,
out the back, into my building, up five flights. Knock on Jimmy’s door.
It’s 4:30. For a minute I hear nothing inside and think Fuck you, Jimmy,
fuck you, you better be in there. Knock louder. A rustle of locks and chains.
Jimmy opens the door a crack and throws on a huge, very relieved smile. "Hey
Johnny! Happy New Year! Come in come in come in."
place is the same micro-layout as mine–tiny bedroom, miniature kitchen
area and a bathroom about as big as one in a commercial airliner–only not
renovated and lived in by a solitary guy for a long, long time. It’s dark
and smells like an old man. We sit at his little vinyl-tableclothed kitchen
table. He pours us deep shots of Metaxa out of an unlabeled bottle with a piece
of tape across it and METAXA handwritten on it in ballpoint. Cuts us two fat
slabs of feta cheese.
real feta cheese, he says, from Greece. You know Astoria? I get it from an old
friend out there. Not that fuckin’ shit they sell here (he means the "international"
food shops on 9th Ave.). Americans make feta cheese, he says. The French make
feta cheese. Jews make feta cheese. But this is the real Greek stuff.
On the wall
above us, slipping behind glass, a bunch of long-faded and browned snapshots.
Jimmy at 21, standing ramrod short and proud, the day he got out of the Greek
navy. Jimmy and his wife, some kids, some antique weddings.
Greece in the 1960s, after his wife died, and went first to Canada, where he
worked in a Greek restaurant. Came to New York in the 70s and worked the counter
in a Greek diner in Astoria for years. "I bring you a piece of cheesecake
and coffee, $1.75. You leave $2.50. Those were good tips. Now, cheesecake and
coffee $3.75, and you leave a quarter. No good, Johnny." He makes a hand-washing
gesture. "I quit, come here."
been the super for 26 years, since the building was all rent-controlled ratholes
filled with permanent old folks like Nick down in the basement. Nick is tall
and cruelly stooped, with a hooked nose and stringy shoulder-length white hair.
He looks like an old peasant out of Dostoevsky. Sometimes he crawls up out of
his warren and sits smoking a cigarette and hacking phlegm in a folding chair
beside the garbage cans in the courtyard. Jimmy tells me he’s been in that
basement since 1945–since the Chinese takeout nearby was a bar–and
refuses to leave. "He thinks he runs the building," Jimmy says. "He
thinks he’s king."
a Christmas season when the thermostat broke and he spent weeks down there turning
the boiler on and off by hand, never leaving the basement, sleeping on a cot.
He’s devoted to the building that way. A solitary old guy proud of his
dedication. I get the impression it’s all he’s got.
my way out Jimmy’s door, carrying a wedge of some kind of Greek New Year’s
bread. That evening I pass it around among friends, making sure everybody gets
a little piece. I’m going to find out when Jimmy’s birthday is and
invite him down for a drink. I’ve got my superstitions too.