Read Bitter Bronx Online

Authors: Jerome Charyn

Bitter Bronx

BOOK: Bitter Bronx
2.49Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

This book is for Marie-Pierre Bay

















For a long time I couldn't go back to the Bronx. It felt like a shriek inside my skull, or a wound that had been stitched over by some insane surgeon, and I didn't dare undo any of the stitches. It was the land of deprivation, a world without books or libraries and museums, where fathers trundled home from some cheese counter or shoe factory where they worked, with a monumental sadness sitting on their shoulders, where mothers counted every nickel at the butcher shop, bargaining with such deep scorn on their faces that their mouths were like ribbons of raw blood, while their children, girls and boys, were instruments of disorder, stealing, biting, bullying whoever they could and whimpering when they had the least little scratch.

I was the only one who had a library card—not that I was any more of a reader than they were, but the library, a good mile from my tenement near Southern Boulevard, was sacred ground. It was one of those limestone palaces Andrew Carnegie had built in the Lower Depths of the Bronx so that the poor could have their own bundle of books to borrow. But I never used my borrower's card, not once. I sat at an enormous oak table, near the library's radiators, and sniffed the curious perfume of books on the shelves with their leather jackets and crumbling, yellow paper—it was, I imagined, the sweet smell of a morgue. Still, I hadn't walked a mile just to breathe in that aroma.

The librarians at this particular Carnegie branch were young and lively and vivacious in the wool sweaters they wore summer and winter. They might have been trainees, performing a kind of “military service” in the outlands. But for some reason I had become their pet—the little silent gypsy in ragged clothes. They fed me from their own lunch boxes on Saturday afternoons, sandwiches with chopped olives and pieces of exotic fruit that were as bulbous and succulent as they were; they all came from a college called Smith, in Massachusetts somewhere, and they yakked about their sweethearts, who weren't doctors and lawyers or even librarians, but plumbers and carpenters in their college town of Northampton. They confided in me as if I were some neutral ghost and not a boy of flesh and blood, just because I ate their olives. They told me about their “love nest,” as they called it, at the Hotel Northampton on King Street, since the plumbers and carpenters were married men, you see, with wives and mothers-in-law and a brace of children. They couldn't meet at one of the college cafés on Main Street, and so they practically lived on room service with their beaux. And that's why they were librarians, I learned. It wasn't out of some grand motive to succor the poor. The college had hired some sort of detective, an assistant to an assistant dean who discovered their love nest at the Northampton. And as a kind of penance they enrolled in a makeshift library program; that's how they arrived in the Lower Depths—it was like a year abroad in the Bronx.

I cherished their company, drank Earl Grey with them in the staff closet at the library. They talked about Hermann Hesse and Anaïs Nin, and a novel by Virginia Woolf in which a woman changes into a man. I loved to listen, but wild as I was, I never dreamt of looking for Anaïs Nin on the library shelves. And then I lost my chance. These Circes from Smith disappeared one afternoon and didn't even have the grace to leave a forwarding address. Perhaps their year of penance was over and they'd gone back to Smith. But the librarians who replaced them were from some forlorn school in the sticks; I could see my own sense of the void in their eyes.

My one solace was to hike halfway across the borough, from Crotona Park to Tremont Avenue, and up Burnside to the Grand Concourse, that mecca of middle-class Jews, and then back to Belmont, where John Garfield, the Bronx's own Clark Gable, had once lived. Meantime, I stopped at one of the mafioso restaurants along Arthur Avenue's restaurant row. I was always welcome there. The owner must have thought I was some bastard child who belonged to one of their own lost princes. He took pity on me, and I sat at a communal table with merchants and underbosses and their blond mistresses, who ate linguine with paper gloves that protected their nail polish.

These were serious eaters; there was very little banter at the table. We all stabbed at the lettuce with our forks from the same gigantic salad bowl. We all dabbed our bread in a dish of olive oil. I couldn't have been more than eleven when this ritual began. But I sipped red wine from a shot glass like everyone else, and my heart began to palpitate after the fifth cup of espresso. That's how I walked home to my tenement near the elevated tracks, with my father caught in his chronic depression, while my mother dipped chocolate on hazelnut paste at the confectioner's factory on Boston Road, my older brother learned the jeweler's art at a vocational high school, and my baby brother barely out of the crib.

I sought escape routes, applied for a special program at the University of Chicago that whisked you out of junior high and put you in a college dorm; I always lamented that I didn't get in. But at least I had my walks up Tremont Avenue. And then all of that changed. Robert Moses, our master builder, believed he could rescue the borough by building a highway right through it. He destroyed entire neighborhoods and dynamited a path right along the Bronx's spine, so that it would be forever divided into north and south, with a no-man's-land on either side of the Cross Bronx Expressway, his monument to himself, and whatever was south of this monument would slowly slip into ruin.

Robert Caro wrote an elegy to East Tremont in
The Power Broker
(1974). By 1965, he said, “apartment buildings that had been so precious to people who had lived in them were ravaged hulks. Windows, glassless except for the jagged edges around their frames, stared out on the street like sightless eyes.”

Soon the southern half of the borough would begin to burn, as landlords torched their own buildings to collect whatever insurance they could. And young gang lords performed their own pyrotechnics, as they battled over this desolate turf. But it wasn't these turf wars that kept me out of the Bronx. It was the memory of a prior desolation, a void that clung to my bones. By this time I'd graduated from college and was sort of a hired gun, going from university to university, with the impossible task of teaching students how to write. I lived in Barcelona for a while, wrote a suite of crime novels based on my older brother, who had given up the jeweler's art to become a homicide detective and expert on the Mafia. What held me in his thrall was the crazy wisdom he had, that sense of lawlessness within the law. I could imagine how brutal he had become, like some bitter angel slapping with his left hand.

And then, one day, I went back to the Bronx. I was fifty years old. The BBC was doing a documentary on the Bronx—it must have seemed like an exotic place to the British, with mile upon mile of rubble that reminded them of the London Blitz. We roamed the badlands in a big van, and I felt a kind of exhilaration, as if I inhabited all the empty spaces, and I realized that I had been shaped as a writer not with the words I didn't have, not with lavish pencil cases, not with library books I had never borrowed, but with some ghost's vocabulary. I'd filled that amorphous void of the South Bronx with my own imagination. And as I stood on a hill near the Grand Concourse with the BBC and its camera crew, peering at the carcasses of burnt apartment houses below, I sensed a willful design in all that ruin, could almost hear a chant, a war cry, or perhaps it was a ringing in my ears. Whatever music I have had risen from that bedlam of the Bronx, all the staccato sounds, the syncopation of sadness and loss. I'd been like an amnesiac during my self-banishment from the Bronx, never realizing that each sentence I wrote had come from these Lower Depths.

The Bronx is still “burning”—it has some of the poorest barrios in the whole United States. The Art Deco palaces along the Grand Concourse have been refurbished, but the blight will never really go away. That's not why I wrote these thirteen stories. I'd been riding along the Concourse several years ago when I saw a hand-painted signboard above the entrance of one particular palace:


I could have ended my journey in the middle of the block and moved right in.

And those three words hanging from a bit of string inspired the first story in this collection, “Lorelei.” But
Bitter Bronx
is no sentimental journey through my own traces as a child. Diane Arbus' photo
A Jewish giant at home with his parents in the Bronx, N.YC., 1970
, disturbed me from the moment I discovered it in a book of her photographs; I could have been that giant, with his curly hair and his cane, hovering over his tiny, bewildered parents, like some monster of the New World. I wasn't eight feet tall, but I must have bewildered my own parents, who couldn't understand my long silences and wolflike wanderings. And so I decided to write my own Bronx tale about Diane Arbus and her giant.

I was a substitute teacher in the city's public schools for a while, hoping to earn my keep as a writer by teaching once or twice a week while living in a closet in Washington Heights, which was really an outpost of the Bronx. But my plans always went awry. While teaching a few days at the High School of Performing Arts, I learned that the teacher whose classes I had taken over suddenly got very sick, and I was asked to stay on the for the rest of the semester. I got along with the students because I felt like the same sort of neophyte; they were student actors and dancers, and I was a writer who had never published a word. I could have stayed at Performing Arts for the rest of life, “Mr. C.,” the sub in baggy pants. But how could I write
attend to these students? And so my stories abound with teachers on their own odd journeys—and petty criminals who never left the Bronx, and a wealthy lawyer from Central Park West who lost her little sister somewhere close to the Bronx Botanical Garden. There's also a cat lady—a Latina cashier on Arthur Avenue—who finds herself in love with an Albanian prince. But Robert Moses' highway serves as a not so silent character in these stories, a phantom that crawls between the lines. I couldn't have written this book without that strange man, who never enriched himself, who walked around with holes in his shoes and caused such heartbreak to people in the Bronx, impoverished them and their borough in so many ways.


owell was still on the lam. He'd been a grifter most of his life, a guy without a permanent address. He had six Social Security cards, seven driver's licenses, a potpourri of voter registration cards, bankbooks under a dozen names. He was Mark Crawford in Florida, Mel Eisenstein in Tennessee. He'd never declared any income, never paid any tax, never been caught. His grift was quite simple. He'd settle into a small town, deposit ten thousand dollars into the local bank, walk around in a very conservative suit, register at the best hotel, and wait: the women would always come to him. He never poked around, never asked questions, never made a list of wealthy widows.

Howell had beautiful hands; that's what the widows noticed first when they stepped onto the porch of the hotel and discovered Howell reading the
Wall Street Journal
. Sometimes they hinted at marriage after a ten-minute talk. Howell avoided spinsters and old maids, who were nervous about money no matter how much they had in the bank. He would have had to have been a bird of prey, a handsome hawk, to pry a bankbook from their fingers. But the widows fell right into his grift. The secret was very simple: they didn't like to live alone. The widows were the real birds of prey. They grasped at Howell with their forceful talons. He could have wreaked havoc on the town had he been some kind of Don Juan. But he always settled on a single widow and shut his eyes to the rest of the field. And it usually wasn't the richest one. The grift depended on how authentic he was. He would only chisel from a widow he might have married. He had to be attracted to the woman, imagine spending his life with her. He couldn't have lasted five minutes with a chatterbox. And when he took her to bed, he wasn't dreaming of his score. The chiseler fell in love, even if only for five minutes. And the widow could feel the tug of his passion.

BOOK: Bitter Bronx
2.49Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

Other books

A Most Uncommon Degree of Popularity by Kathleen Gilles Seidel
The Portrait by Judith B. Glad
Ecstasy by Louis Couperus
Shadowed Heart by Laura Florand
The Book of Fires by Borodale, Jane
The Butterfly by James M. Cain
Comanche Moon by Virginia Brown