Tony Versus the Lemons
When I first arrive in Brooklyn in the 80s, my friend Rick and I are waiting at the subway. A subway train pulls up, startling me when I see the explosion of bright colors, symbols and pictures painted all over the cars. “How beautiful!” I say. Rick laughs at me, saying in his delightfully exotic Brooklyn accent, “Whadyakiddin’ me?” Seeing my confusion, he adds, “You know. It’s the famous New York graffitti?”
Young and living from paycheck to paycheck, Rick and I move to a rent-controlled apartment in Windsor Terrace between Greenwood Cemetery and Prospect Expressway. Fortunately, furnishing the apartment is practically effortless since people frequently put their unwanted furniture out on the street, free of bedbugs--every last one gone in the 70s via a satisfying torturous death by DDT, as payment for all the untold misery they had inflicted.
Wearing the official uniform of 20-somethings in the late 80s—blue jeans with tee shirt in black or other innocuous color--we scout around Saturday mornings, scarfing up a frayed but comfortable tufted yellow ochre sofa, two matching faded greenish lounge chairs, a gouged and chipped coffee table, and a small dinette table with two wobbly chairs. We thumbtack a few posters onto the wall, and our new home is ready.
The sagging brown townhouse where we live, second floor, is located on the only block that’s safe from the surrounding neighborhoods of drug users and dealers. There’s a rumor (or urban legend?) about a nearby neighborhood where Dominicans invented crack as a marketing convenience, unaware of just how popular it would eventually become. As we’re grooving on our fabulously lowish rent, neither of us thinks to ask: why is our block spared?
During every night of our first week, we’re blasted out of sound sleep by a clock radio going off at peak volume in the apartment below us. Exhausted by lack of REM sleep, we keep stuffing frantic notes under their door, and tell the ancient landlord, who merely shrugs his shoulders. We envision drug addict neighbors who are either oblivious or incredibly stupid. Fortunately, they (actually normal people) return from vacation and apologize for how they had left their clock radio set so cringingly early in order to arrive at the airport on time; they give us a thoughtful bottle of white wine. Henceforth, they’re known as the clock-radio people.
Once the circles under our eyes disappear, we get to know the neighborhood better.
We drink vast quantities of milk--cautiously since the milk always goes bad precisely on the “sell-by" date, courtesy of the (alleged) mafia-controlled dairy industry. The nearest grocer is way on the other side of no-man’s land, a scary inconvenience whenever we discover the empty milk carton at 10 pm. It’s never wise to move the car, lose our parking spot and have to park 15 blocks away, so I can’t believe my luck in discovering a low-key deli store without a sign right in the middle of our block.
As I enter, I’m assaulted by the hostile stare from a brusque, suspicious, chunky older woman with unsmiling face and strawberry blonde hair. I glance around for mere seconds, and see three candy bars on the counter and all the shelves and dairy case, completely empty and dark with grime. Averting my eyes, I still feel the hostile glare burn ever so bright and strong while I hastily back my way out of the (non) store, profusely apologizing, afraid to turn my back on her.
I later find out that, if you stay off her turf (her name is Sue), she’s mostly benign, even endearing whenever she gets drunk in the middle of the night and stands in the middle of the street singing her heart out: “Lean on me, when you're not strong, and I'll be your friend ….”
I don’t see much action as I walk daily to and from the subway on the way to work. The neighborhoods are quiet and empty during the day, although sometimes I feel a fleeting premonition, not unlike how someone might feel if they’re standing on a beach after all animals have fled just before the tidal wave hits. Nevertheless, my walks are largely uneventful, except one time when a gang of Latina girls dump buckets of ice on me as I surface from the subway. Or when a gigantic balding man jumps in front of me demanding “give me a dollar."
The F train is equally forlorn, forcing me to wait for over an hour sometimes for the next train. I usually entertain myself analyzing the huge advertisements plastered on the walls. One advertisement is a public service announcement about taking drugs during pregnancy; it shows a wailing newborn child with the ominous caption “imagine becoming addicted before you’re born”; underneath, a budding comedian(?) has scrawled “imagine waiting for the F train until you die.”
The bus service is also unreliable and uncaring. Under the proud sign “BUS STOP”, someone has written underneath, in careful beautiful script, “and sometimes it don’t”.
One night, the clock-radio people drop in with a bottle of better wine. Slightly older, she’s a tallish drop-dead beautiful, poised, dark woman, he, a hyperactive, towering Italian. They look more grownup than us--well-pressed pants, a nice blouse, button-down shirt, nicely coiffed hair. They also look a little out of place while sitting on our furniture that was so generously provided by the street. Among other tales, they tell us about Tony, who purportedly runs our neighborhood, with insinuations of criminal or drug ties. They offer no specifics, however. After that, we visit each other about once a month.
We begin to find out how our neighborhood really works on the night a car is set on fire at the end of the block. Rick (Mr. Civic Duty) calls the police, who never come. So, like most Brooklynites, we “fuggeddaboudit”.
A week or so later, one night about 11 pm, someone knocks on our door. I look out the peephole and see none other than the chief of the neighborhood, Tony, an older Italian, skinny-as-a-rail, with black wavy hair to his shoulders, and intelligent black eyes.
Breathless, I open the door with all the respect I think I’m supposed to give him. He steps right in, as if he’s an old friend, telling me, “Cheryl, you gotta secure your car. A couple of Puerto Ricans are trying to break into your car and steal the boom box you left in the back. I chased them off with a knife, but they'll be back.”
Then he points to our art poster on the wall, “Saturn Devouring His Son”, laughs and shakes his head, intoning, “oh, Goya, gloom and doom, spreading it all across Europe.” He turns to me, “makes you want to run screaming for something more upbeat like, uh, Boticelli, don't you think? Or how about that Bellini, with all the jokes, right?”
He makes me laugh with his antics and his obvious plug for Italian artists. I stop expecting something untoward, and relax.
When Rick’s curious face peers from around the corner, Tony beams at him, “yo, Ricky”. It seems Tony knows everyone's name in the neighborhood. Just like a neighborhood chief would, I’m thinking.
We ask Tony to please sit down and have a beer, which he graciously accepts, while Ricky runs to get the boom box out of the car.
For the next few hours, we learn about Tony’s former days as a longshoreman, how he has been addicted to heroin since he was 14, and currently lives with and takes care of his disabled dad. He tells us wistfully about the long-ago innocent days when you could get drunk on 25 cent beers, pass out on the sidewalk, and still have your wallet on you the next morning. He talks like he cares about people; there’s no sign of ruthlessness.
But he’s also a very shrewd businessman.
Back in the 80s, there’s no car lemon law. If you unsuspectingly buy a lemon, you’re stuck with it. Unless you’re put in touch with Tony, that is. He’ll steal your lemon (with your permission), strip it for parts, set it on fire, and pay off the police. This makes everyone very happy (except maybe the insurance companies).
Rick and I are delighted (and a little relieved) at how Tony is actually a hard-working social activist, who lives on our very block and saves the little people from getting screwed.
From then on, we always say hi to Tony and his work crew.
A few years and many car bonfires later, we move away.But I still always smile when I remember cheerful, funny, thoughtful Tony,neighborhood chief, activist, and art aficionado, who is always looking out for his people. He was a bright star in my life.