Archive | September 2011

The city that never slept

I grew up surrounded by yammering neighbors who spilled their business into the streets. Roach motels in our tenement apartment always had waiting lists. The municipal mania of New York City was a blast that all started in 1954 when I was born.

Cheap entertainment venues in my Astoria neighborhood were spread thin. Scouting was for theLong Islandand upstate kids, not us city brats. Spend the night outdoors and sing around the campfire? Not on your life. All the action was on the front stoop outside aging brick apartment buildings. Girls played hopscotch. Boys flipped baseball cards. Neighborhood women relaxed on folding chairs under the only tree on the block, smoked cigarettes, and gossiped about everyone within a 10 block radius. Men were more elusive. If they shuffled outside in their house slippers, the old guys shared war stories. Almost all were WW II veterans except my dad. He didn’t heed the call to go ‘over there’ because his parents died young. Dad raised his younger brother Nicky.

We were a rowdy bunch but violence was as foreign to us as fine French cuisine. Reading books, spending an afternoon at an art museum, or taking in the ballet stretched beyond our working class values. The term ‘at-risk’ hadn’t yet been coined. With little else to do, we kicked cans around the back alleys connecting our row of dilapidated buildings and played stickball in the courtyards. The first time Franny belted a home run through Chickie Lady’s living room window the frantic old woman, whose real name was Alice Huckermeyer, shooed us away with a broom. Repairs cost Franny’s parents a bundle. By the next morning, our rag-tag team returned with stern warnings to bunt the ball instead of swinging away.

Monster, red light/green light, tag and hide-n-seek were popular games for us too. Climbing the brick walls separating the court yards amused us unless someone cracked a tooth or broke an arm. After a minor mishap, mothers urged us to stay off the walls. We never did. Our simple escapades were too much fun. I scaled the wall in just two tries.

No doubt a dozen big-mouthed children irked some neighbors, especially during the summer when the chattering ran day and night. With few public parks around and no access to summer camp we claimed the alleys and courtyards as our own. We never saw ourselves as pesky, particularly to people without children.

Fun and frolicking was disrupted when the drainage pipes clogged, spilling raw sewage into the courtyards. While the repairmen pumped out the stinky mess and mopped up the human waste, we kids had nowhere to play.

Instead of pouting, we hopped on our bikes for merry mischief. Crime was rare so no one owned locks. Not a single bike was ever ripped off. We pedaled up and down the block, probably knocking pedestrians off course. We didn’t think about others but no one was mowed down either. Now and then we shrugged off our parents and wandered away from the neighborhood not to use drugs or rough up old people, but to watch rats swim in the murky waters of the East River, about twenty minutes away. We were easy to please.

Women were housewives then. Tidying up tiny apartments only took up so much time so to prevent boredom the ladies became addicted to soap operas and game shows. After lunch they snacked on coffee and cake and blabbered about the latest melodrama or game show hunk on the tube. Life seemed simple back then.

Owning a washing machine was a sign of upward mobility. Cramped kitchens however just wouldn’t allow a dryer. Clotheslines were strung between the buildings to hang out the clothes. Mother Nature took care of the rest. Unless neighbors had an attitude, sharing the lines was common. Not everyone had phones so women gabbed while hanging out wash. Everyone knew intimate details about each other’s lives because of the laundry.

Winter time posed unique problems for the laundry ladies. Clothes froze on the line. I remember blue jeans turning into rock-like material and standing straight up. Heat from the radiator collapsed them into resembling real pants once again.

No mother dared hang out wash when the sewers backed up. Clothes might pick up the rancid smell of poop. If someone’s hand slipped when bringing in the clothes, a clean white shirt could sail into crappy water. Clogged pipes were a problem for more than just us kids.

A family of slobs once lived on the second floor. Mrs. M hung out the wash in the spring and by the time they moved out, a year later, the wash, including Mr. M’s boxer shorts and white socks, lay in tatters on the line. The family also left behind a house full of cockroaches that had reproduced exponentially.

Men worked in factories that crisscrossed New York City. Blue collar jobs were plentiful. My father worked in a printing plant. Only Frank Sr., Franny’s father, didn’t have a job. A disabled WW II vet, Frank was mostly deaf. As long as the weather cooperated, he sat on a lawn chair in front of his apartment building reading sports magazine and smoking cigarettes. Everyone loved Frank.

Families struggled on one income. Welfare was considered shameful. If a family qualified for benefits, no one dared pay for groceries with food stamps. What would the neighbors think? Even the churches rarely had food pantries. The neighbors would’ve been too embarrassed to ask for help. The worn down community had stubborn pride.

Our landlord, Mr. Dickstein, drove in from Long Island on the first of the month to collect rent from tenants in his shabby buildings, none of which had elevators to reach the top floors. Otherwise, we never saw him. If a tenant was late, he squeezed them until they paid or he threatened immediate eviction. At the time, tenant protection laws were feeble. My mother always paid on time and in cash. We ate Vienna Sausages or Spam but she kept Mr. Dickstein off our backs.

Building services like extermination were scarce. We had creepy crawlers because of the dumbwaiter, our trash disposal method. The dumbwaiter was a shaky, three-tiered wooden pulley in the hallway where tenants placed their trash. We were supposed to roll it down to the basement where presumably the superintendent, bleary-eyed Mr. Cavanaugh, when he wasn’t drunk, removed it daily and stuffed it into garbage cans in the alley. When stinky bags of open garbage sat on the dumbwaiter for days, naturally it attracted roaches and vermin. The little creatures found their way into our apartments and Mr. Cavanaugh usually found his way to the Red Door Inn, the tavern around the corner, for a brew.

During the winter, heat barely hissed out of the radiators. We bundled up at night. For relief from the oven like heat in summer, tenants sat on their fire escapes. The old buildings were not wired for air-conditioning. Fans merely circulated hot stuffy air.

We couldn’t always afford a trip to Rockaway Beach so we slathered our bodies with sun tan lotion and hiked up the four flights to tar beach, a city term for sunning on the roof. It wasn’t as much fun as a day at the shore with cool breezes skimming off the ocean or eating hot dogs on the boardwalk but it was just as effective in getting a tan.

Despite hardships families slapped on fresh coats of paint in their apartments every year. They covered their floors with new Linoleum. Every month they washed the windows. For an added touch, they shopped for new curtains and bedspreads in the discount stores. Those dinky buildings with rattling pipes were all they could afford.

Some families had it hard. Charlie W was the only kid in his family, a rarity in our community. Almost everybody had at least one sibling, usually more. Charlie was raised by his dad Oscar. His mother Georgette died when he was just a boy. She smoked herself to death.

Brian K, also an only child, might’ve been taken into foster care in today’s world. His father died when he was young. So shaken by her husband’s loss his mother sank into a deep, prolonged depression. She rarely left the house. I’m not sure how they got by. Brian basically raised himself. No one in those days sought mental health care, including his mother. That would’ve invited community scorn.

In spite of leaky plumbing, crooked ceilings and flecks of paint hanging off the walls, nothing stopped the neighbors from their devotion to church and kicking in money to the collection plate. Every Sunday hordes of families flocked to St. Joseph’s for one of about a dozen Masses. Overflow crowds sat in the balcony.

I dreaded Sunday. My mother dressed me like a doll in frilly dresses with crinoline slips that made my butt itch. I would rather have played stickball or tag in the alleys. Sitting through a service said in Latin bored me, especially during the summer. The church lacked air-conditioning. On hot and humid days I was miserable.

I almost stashed enough away for a pack of baseball cards, which came with a generous serving of bubble gum. I only needed another dime so I kept the quarter my Mother gave me that was intended for the collection basket. When we got home, she noticed the shiny coin slip out of my pocket.

“That was for God,” she said.

“I didn’t think he’d mind,” I said. “I was good this week. I needed money for a pack of baseball cards.”

“Girls shouldn’t play with baseball cards.”

“What’s the big deal? I’m only having fun.”

After whacking my hand, she took back the quarter. I waited until next week’s allowance to buy my next pack of baseball cards.

Catholic women and girls were supposed to wear a hat or veil upon entering a church. Why, I was never sure. Men didn’t have to abide by the same rule. My brother would’ve looked dorky in a veil. I was out with my Dad one afternoon and he said, “Let’s go to church. I want to pray for Uncle Nicky.” Dad’s only brother had lung cancer.

He glanced at my bare head and said, “What’ll I do about you?”

“I’ll wait outside. I don’t want God to be mad at us.”

Dad whipped out his handkerchief.

I frowned. “I don’t want that on my head. It’s got boogers on it.”

“Be quiet and let’s go inside.
I sat squirming next to Dad, with his dirty handkerchief on my head, wondering my disease I might catch.

Lots of families used our neighborhood as a stepping stone to better days. When their parents socked away enough money, they bought nice houses on Long Island, with picket fences and two-car garages. Sometimes they adopted pets. Kids had yards to play in, pools to swim in. Families always said they’d come back to visit. They never did. My parents couldn’t afford the suburbs and I sometimes felt let down. I resented sleeping on the living room couch and eating canned food.

I hung out with freckle-faced John, Franny’s younger brother. All seven kids were squished into a hell hole of an apartment that always smelled like bad egg salad. John and his three brothers shared one room. Once, I caught lice from his older sister Sally Ann. She had her own room and invited me to play. I always avoided Sally Ann. John could’ve spread lice too since he lived in the same apartment but I liked John better. His sister Sally wanted to share her dolls and I hated dolls. I scaled walls and threw strikes in ball games. What did I need dolls for?

Harriet, John’s mother, had one killer set of pipes. I swear you could hear her bellowing blocks away at Mueller’s Deli. I asked John if she smacked them around. No, he said, but she never shut up either. Maybe raising five kids on Frank’s disability was a problem. Years later, Harriet took a job in Radio City, which women rarely did in those days. I guess she had no other choice.

Ranting and raving ran in Harriet’s family. Her sister Anna and family lived upstairs. Harriet and Anna hissed at each other like feral cats. Anna’s son, Jerry, however, played with us. I think he was embarrassed by the tiffs between his mother and aunt. Anna’s husband Dick stayed away from everyone. War could erupt between the two sisters at any time. When it did, they often dragged their battle into the street for all the neighbors to hear. A soap opera played out in front of my window. My mother tried closing the blinds but I wanted to catch the action. This was better than General Hospital.

Not to be undone by Harriet and Anna, Sadie, their older sister who lived in the same building, also threw herself into the family fray. She bickered with Harriet but sided with Anna. That pissed off Harriet. The producers of the show, Family Feud, should’ve come to my neighborhood.

One day, Anna and Harriet would grin and smile like they cared. The next day they’d be ready to poke each other’s eyes out. Sadie egged them on. I’m surprised no one ever called the police. Those women were on fire.

The final blow came one day when I was about ten. I don’t remember what punctured Harriet’s tire but she blew up. Harriet and Anna yelled, hollered and screamed for over an hour. Fortunately, Sadie wasn’t home. A new tenant threw water on the sizzling sisters. Finally, there was calm. Two days later, Anna, her husband, and son moved toSheepsheadBayinBrooklyn. The families never spoke again.

John and I remained friends for years. We rarely talked about his tempestuous mother Harriet or the rest of his extended family. Their wild ways embarrassed him. Mostly we took walks, played cards and talked about our dreams to throw off the suffocating blanket of small minds that buried us.

For all its hysteria, the neighborhood had its own beat. Tony’s, a narrow, dimly lit candy store with a cheap vinyl counter, stools, and three telephone booths in the rear, was my favorite hangout. Among Tony’s offerings were a flimsy magazine rack with the daily papers, gobs of candy, the latest baseball cards, ice cream that Tony scooped on crunchy cones or filled in sundae dishes, chintzy plastic toys, rubber balls, and of course cigarettes. Whenever I had an extra nickel, I filled my face with sweet treats. Among my top picks were 2 cent pretzels, chocolate egg creams, and bubble gum. I chewed so much gum my parents must’ve forked over a lot of money to keep my teeth intact. I was high on sugar for years.

Healthy diets were unheard of back then. My closest connection to fruit was cherry Kool-Aid and watermelon flavored Life Savers. If it wasn’t soda, pizza, White Castle burgers, hot dogs, cheese doodles, cookies, candy, donuts, Twinkies, Ring Dings, ice cream and a long line of other cavity causing nauseating sweets, why bother? I rarely missed the Mister Softee truck when it cruised down our block. Only the lack of the modern technology kept us slender. We spent hours outside at play, despite frigid winters and steamy summers.

I attended Catholic schools because of my mother. She thought my brother and I would grow up to be prim and proper if we added religion to our education. At that age, we didn’t argue. We obeyed. If I led a decent life God would reward me when I died. I didn’t need to join the convent or whip out the rosary every day.

In high school, however, I became a slacker. My mother said college was only for boys. I’d only get married so paying for my education would be a waste. Why should I succeed in high school? In fact, I flunked religion during junior year. That didn’t go over well. As tears rolled down my mothers face, she said, “What am I paying for a Catholic education when you failed religion?”

I said, “I wanted to attend Bryant High School, but you said no.” Besides, what’s the worry? I’m not going to college. Who cares if I failed religion?

She did and so did the principal. I couldn’t graduate unless I passed. I stopped horsing around and eventually scraped by religion with a D.

As a teen my mother said I was old enough to meet my Catholic commitment to attend Sunday Mass with my friends. So each Sunday morning I dressed up but detoured to the Modern Age Diner. There, my friend Pat and I ate bacon and eggs while chatting and reading the New York Daily News. I kept up my ritual until a neighbor and her sister visiting fromMichiganhad breakfast at the Modern Age one Sunday. She mentioned to my mother that she saw me and Pat. My mother was furious so I fibbed. I told her we had gone to the earlier service and had breakfast afterwards. Did she believe me? I’m not sure. I didn’t go back to church but I stopped having breakfast at the Modern Age after that. Nosy neighbor ruined my Sunday specialty.

Reality crashed through my insular world and brought me face to face with a few searing truths. Maybe it was time to grow up. My mother sent me to a nearby grocer for milk and bread. Always, it seemed, we needed milk and white bread.

Waiting on line, I noticed the cashier, a balding man named Ziggy, had a string of faded numbers etched on his arm. Polite and soft-spoken, Ziggy had the saddest eyes. Maybe he had no children or pets at home? That’s why he seemed lost.

I asked Ziggy about the numbers on his arm. What did they mean?

“I got them in a concentration camp during the war,” Ziggy said, ringing up my container of milk.

“What’s that?” I asked. I was probably 9 years old. I don’t really remember.

“It’s a long story,” he said, avoiding my stare. “The 1940s wasn’t a good time in Europe for Jews. Many people were killed.”

“Why?”

Ziggy glanced at the customers behind me.

“Come back some other time and I’ll tell you.”

My fourth grade teacher, a stone-faced nun who looked like she ate roaches, was mum about concentration camps. She offered no credible explanation when I asked what they were. So I went back to Ziggy and he told me as much as a nine-year old could understand about human extermination camps. I wondered why my church let this mass killing happen. The nuns and priests taught me that God was all loving. Why didn’t he save the Jews?

A married couple, Andy and Betty, moved into the crumbling apartment building on the corner. Unlike the rest of us, they were older and had no children. Everyone had children. Andy stayed home because of a severely malformed right hand and a debilitating heart condition. His wife worked in an office.

Andy perked up around us kids. If we played in the alleys, he stared at us behind dark glasses. If we had an impromptu game of stickball, he was right there, watching every move. Without a job maybe he was bored. Why meddle with us kids? None of the other adults did. He seemed harmless so I shrugged off my concerns.

One day, we were chasing each other through the alleys in a furious game of tag. Inside a small dark tunnel connecting two courtyards, a hand grabbed me. My heart pounded. I looked up and it was Andy. He started groping me. I felt yucky. Ready to scream Andy cupped his good hand over my mouth. He pressed his sweaty body against me. Only the sound of Franny’s voice made him let go. I kicked him in the shin and ran away. Franny must’ve seen my ashen face and asked if I was OK. I was still shaking. Why didn’t I say anything? No one would believe me. Andy was a respected member of the Catholic Church. What would I sound like if I accused a heart patient of molestation?

Andy’s disgusting lewd stares continued for the next few years. Whenever I saw him, I ran the other way. Once, when no one was around, I spit at him. I picked up dog poop and left it on his windshield. He never caught me alone in the alleys again. I always looked over my shoulder for the dirty old man named Andy.

No one in my community used disparaging ethnic names, including the ‘n’ word. At home, at church, and in school, we learned respect. Yet that didn’t mean we welcomed minorities either. If someone with dark skin walked around looking for an apartment that sent the neighbors sailing off their chairs. Integration was fine, just not inAstoria.

A Cuban couple slipped into our building in the mid 1960s. That caused a major uproar. No one talked to the Cubans. I don’t remember much about them except they played cards late at night and cooked fried bananas that smelled sweet. The Cubans had a big lab mix named Blackie. I loved animals and the Cubans always let me play with Blackie when we met on the street. The Cubans invited me into their apartment to eat beans and rice and to play with Blackie but my mother refused.

The religion thing came back to me yet again. I thought God loved all his children. Why not the Cubans? When the Cubans said they were leaving, no one wished them farewell except me. I missed them and their goofy dog Blackie.

Growing up inNew York City made me paranoid and suspicious. I never fell for a scam and I still won’t. You want me to give you money? For what? Go to hell.

After high school, I branched out and immersed myself inNew York’s ethnically diverse, rich culture. I took advantage of the city’s museums, parks, libraries, and other enriching activities. I pounded the pavement inCentral Parkand used jogging as a way to quit smoking. I met dozens of friends through the New York Road Runners Club, some of whom I still see today. I stayed slender while having fun.

New Yorkmade me brash, outrageous, and bold. I loved growing up in the city that never slept. In 1989 I moved away but New York City will always be home. I love you New York.

 

 

The Strickland animal hoarding case

A high profile case of animal hoarding hit the Denver press in July 1991. Ted Strickland, Republican president of the Colorado Senate and his 59 year-old wife LuAnne owned a 26-acre farm in Adams County outside of Denver that was overloaded with nearly 600 dogs and cats, most of which were unaltered. Authorities from the state agriculture department and the county sheriff raided the farm after a large mixed-breed dog escaped and menaced a neighbor. Once on the property, agents described a messy scene where hundreds of dogs and cats lived in poorly ventilated Quonset huts. Many were emaciated or sick. Feces were piled all over. The odor was described as putrid and disgusting. An assistant state veterinarian found dead cats in the main house and dead dogs near the dumpster. Shallow graves held the bodies of decaying animals. Health officials considered it a major health hazard.

Over the next 24 hours, authorities removed nearly all the animals and spread them among the local shelters, including the Denver Dumb Friends League and the Boulder County Humane Society where I volunteered. Some dogs and cats were missing eyes, had dental disease, were underweight or had other serious health or behavioral issues. At least 50 of the animals were euthanized right away. Others were humanely destroyed over the next few days.

How did LuAnne Strickland and her husband, a powerful Colorado politician, acquire so many animals? Over an 18-month period (January 1990 and April 1991), the Adams County animal shelter, at the behest of the county administrator, flung open the door and allowed LuAnne to take any dog or cat that was slated for euthanasia. That amounted to at least 2,100 animals, according to Jack Clancy, director of the Adams County animal control center. Sometimes she paid as little as $3 for cats, $6 for dogs or nothing at all. Not surprisingly, the press grilled the Adams County shelter about their carte blanche policy, which applied only to LuAnne. Officials were mum about the policy but it was widely presumed her marriage to the Senate president paved the way for her unfettered access.

Animal cruelty charges were leveled against LuAnne. Her husband Ted, who claimed he only lived at the ranch on weekends, was not implicated. Still, the case thrust him into a media frenzy. Naturally, he defended his wife and claimed she was only trying to save the doomed pets.

In the meantime, Boulder County Humane Society received 11 filthy, badly matted dogs from the Strickland ranch, which later increased to 18 because one gave birth to 7 puppies. Almost all the dogs had behavioral and medical issues but we nursed them back to health. I bathed all the dogs myself, except for one who snarled and growled at me. I was afraid of her. All others were sweet, lovable dogs who needed forever homes with responsible owners.

At a hearing in mid August Judge Harlan Bockman heard testimony from Dr. Robert Hilsenroth, who ran the Lakeside Veterinarian Hospital, and served as a witness for the Colorado Department of Agriculture.

The doctor said, “I don’t think that LuAnne Strickland is fit to own one animal.” Graphic footage was shown of feces splattered all across the walls and urine-soaked carpets. A maintenance worker, who attempted to remove the carpet, said he threw up from the rancid smell and couldn’t go back inside. Other experts from the shelter community rallied against LuAnne and urged the judge not to return the animals to her custody. Judge Bockman issued a stunning ruling and awarded custody of the seized animals to LuAnne. The entire shelter community, including me, was shocked and angered by the news. Judge Bockman attached several key conditions to his ruling. Besides cleaning up the sprawling ranch and finding sufficient help to care for so many animals, LuAnne had to reimburse the shelters an estimated $64,000 for the cost of caring for her animals while they were in custody. If she failed to meet those demands by early September, ownership of the animals would go to the shelters. LuAnne failed to pay, despite winning a last minute injunction, and almost all the dogs and cats were eventually placed for adoption.

Every shelter that cared for Strickland dogs and cats, as they became known, hosted a special adoption event. In Boulder, we found homes for all our dogs, except for the one with severe behavioral issues. A Husky-mix that was adopted displayed out of control behavior problems and was returned. She too was euthanized but every other dog went to good homes, including a sweet King Charles Spaniel mix that was adopted by my neighbor, Romie Lundquist. Romie read a letter to the editor I wrote about the Strickland case and knocked on my door one afternoon. The Boulder Camera printed addresses of letter writers. I always watched what I wrote! Romie had lost her beloved Schnauzer recently and longed for another companion. She adopted the little dog and renamed her Peaches. Romie treated Peaches like royalty.

The Strickland dogs and cats deserved special care after living through hell. I got attached to all the dogs and missed them once they were gone. I always hoped LuAnne never took in more animals. Often judges in animal hoarding cases order that the defendant not own any more animals. Sometimes they insisted that hoarders enter into psychological treatment because their behavior was usually a sign of mental illness. That did not happen with LuAnne.

I trusted the officials who managed the Adams Countyanimal shelter never held jobs in the shelter community. They were incompetent, inept, and had no regard for the welfare of animals. The Adams Countyshelter altered their adoption policy so that no one could adopt more than two pets per year to prevent a Strickland case from happening again. That would deprive honest, devoted animal caregivers from providing homes to say three or four pets per year, provided of course they had adequate space and resources. The Strickland case seemed motivated entirely by political connections. But the most disturbing aspect was the fate of hundreds of animals that LuAnne took from the shelter that remained unaccounted for. What happened to them? The Stricklands refused to say and authorities had no way of finding out.

I moved away from the area in mid 1992. I never followed up on the Strickland’s but keep in touch with a friend who remains in the area. She never heard about the Strickland’s again.

This entry was posted on September 18, 2011. 2 Comments

Another chapter from a Crystal Stair

Now that Harriet was off the streets and living indoors again, the cat was re-introduced to a familiar yet in some ways alien world.  She had clean litter, but it wasn’t the no-clump kind with the pine scent she favored.  Her litter box was a mere dishpan and not the enclosed deluxe model she had in Wyoming.  And yes, she ate cat food.  Oh well, so much for the days of grilled snapper.  But the great Harriet was not the same cat anymore.  After tagging along for so many months with homeless people and pets who lived in crushing poverty, Harriet decided it was time for a change.  She stopped being so fussy.  Was relieving herself on unscented store-brand cat litter really such a hardship?

While Harriet tended to feline matters, the cat overheard her new owner Keisha mumbling to herself.  Her friend didn’t sound chipper.  I better see what’s going on, Harriet said to herself.  She hopped out of the litter box and skittered inside the bedroom.

“Good thing we wear almost the same size,” Keisha said as she struggled to rummage through clothes, shoes, books, suitcases, albums, records, tennis rackets, and other items rammed inside the phone booth-sized closet.  “Girl, what’re you saving this junk for?  Open your own thrift shop?”

For a few more minutes Keisha griped about the disorder.  Charlene’s closet was like the Lexington Avenue subway at rush hour.  Neither had room to move around.  She finally gave up complaining.  If Charlene had a messy apartment it stood to reason her closets would be cluttered as well.

“For a bus driver you own more clothes than a model.  Hope you have something that’s nice and cool I can borrow.  Supposed to be another scorcher today.”

Pressing her body further inside the boxy closet, Keisha continued talking out loud.  “Where do you keep your shoes?  And your handbags?  My outfit has to match.  You remember how fussy I am.”

From the corner of her eye, she caught a glimpse of Harriet perched by the doorjamb.

“Well look who’s here, my very own queen Latifah.  I’ll be out soon as I find me something to wear.  As you can see, it might take me a few minutes.”

Harriet watched as several boxes of new brand shoes tumbled off a shelf, landing atop Keisha’s head.  Her human friend laughed as she tried to straighten out the mess.

“I love you, Charlene,” Keisha said with a smile.

Once Keisha picked out a matching outfit that satisfied her, she emerged from the closet.  Drenched in sweat, she jumped into the shower to cool off.  She came out looking sharp, like she was ready to work on Wall Street in an investment banking firm.

“Soon as I pick my hair and put on a touch of red lipstick I’ll be ready to go,” Keisha said as she glanced at herself in a mirror.  “I look good, don’t I, Latifah?  I hope employers think I look good enough for a job.”

When she finished dressing, Keisha took the subway tokens Charlene had left on the dresser.  She grabbed her house keys and said, “Be a good cat.”  On the way out, she winked at Harriet.  “Wish me luck.  I’ll need it.”

And then the door slammed and Harriet was alone.  With no one to keep her company, she ventured through the empty apartment for a closer look.  Charlene didn’t have neatly ironed curtains, shelves full of knickknacks, or framed posters from her travels abroad the way Candace adorned her home, but Harriet thought the apartment was homey nonetheless.  Dumpy but homey.  Except for spirited gospel music playing on a neighbor’s radio, the apartment was quiet.  The cat set her sights on Charlene’s bed and hopped aboard.  The soft mattress felt like it wrapped around her body.  It had been ages since the great Harriet was treated to such comfort.  She curled her body into a ball and slipped into a deep relaxing sleep.  Hours later a yappy dog had the audacity to disturb her nap.  Harriet woke in a gruff mood.  She flew off the bed and leaped onto the window ledge to check out the disturbance.

“Hey, keep it down out there,” she said, staring at a fluffy brown and white dog barking in front of the building.  “Cats are trying to sleep.”

“Oh yeah, and I’m trying to survive.  Who cares about your sleep,” the dog said.

“The great Harriet doesn’t like loud mouthed dogs.  Don’t make me come down there and chase you away.”

“Once the lady upstairs comes down with my food, I’m out of here.  Oh, did I tell you I like chasing cats?”

“Just try and see what happens,” Harriet said with a giant hiss.  “I’m no ordinary cat.”

A white-haired woman lugging a shopping bag slowly opened the front door and stepped into the muggy air.  She saw the scraggly mutt sitting by the steps.  Smiling, she walked over and patted the dog on the head.  She said, “Woke up late from my nap today.  Bet you thought I forgot about you.”  She emptied food scraps onto a paper plate and placed it on the ground.  While the dog gobbled up the food, she poured water into a plastic bowl.  She waited for him to finish.

“I best be going back upstairs,” the grandmotherly woman said.  “Awfully warm out here.  If it wasn’t so hard on me going up and down two flights of stairs, I’d take you with me.  I keep asking around for someone to look after you.  Maybe I’ll find you a nice owner soon.”

From where she sat on the windowsill, Harriet listened to the entire exchange that took place below.  When the old woman went inside and the dog was about to leave, she called out, “What’s your name?”

“Why, I thought you didn’t like big mouth dogs?”

“I don’t, but I asked your name,” Harriet said.

“Lucky.”

“You don’t look so lucky to me.”

“Do you have to rub it in?”

The dog scampered down the block, turned the corner, and was gone.

 

Riding the crowded D train, Keisha suddenly remembered she had to get off at the Fordham Road exit.  Charlene’s friend Denise Jenson worked at a plumbing supply store in the area.  Since Charlene didn’t own a home computer, Denise offered to let Keisha use her office to type her resume.  As an added bonus, Denise would run off a bunch of copies to aid Keisha’s job search.

Although it was just after 9:00 a.m. the store was already busy.  At the front desk, Keisha was told Denise had called in sick.  When manager David Stevens saw Keisha’s teary eyes, he asked what was wrong.  Keisha told him about Denise’s offer.  He mulled it over for a few seconds then made space for Keisha in the order department.  An hour later she had an up-to-date resume along with 50 copies.  Keisha thanked the manager for his generosity.  She was irked that Denise made such an important promise that she failed to keep.

On the way out, Keisha asked Mr. Stevens about a job.  “Do you have any openings?”

“Not right now, but as long as you have a current resume, may I have one?  We have an employee who’s going on maternity leave in a few months.  And I never know when an opening will arise.”

Keisha could not hide her disappointment.  “I need a job now.  You were a big help, Mr. Stevens.  Thank you.”

“Good luck Keisha.  I promise to call you if something changes.  Hey, I know an employment agency.  They’re great people.”  Mr. Stevens rifled through his desk and pulled out a business card.  “Here, tell them I sent you.  The office is on West 125th Street.”

“Thanks Mr. Stevens.”

Armed with an envelope full of resume and a scrap of hope, Keisha boarded the subway and rode to central Harlem.  She got off and walked down West 125th Street, the lifeblood of the community.  A long time had passed since Keisha had been in the area but she was pleased to see that Harlem had transformed itself from a downtrodden dump into a vibrant community.  Charlene told her that tour busses stopped at places like the Apollo Theater and the Abyssinian Baptist Church.  The Boys Choir of Harlem entertained heads of state at the White House.  Scores of eager patrons visited the formerly fledgling but now culturally proud Studio Museum.  Empty storefronts, once burned out shells, were occupied by vital community services such as the Duane-Reade pharmacy and Starbucks coffee.  Nearby, there was also a branch of the hugely popular Westside grocery store, the Fairway Market.  Banks now provided ATM’s, a rare commodity in earlier years.  Even white people came to Harlem and not just to buy drugs or because they took a wrong turn on Central Park West.

All the walking made her feet ache.  Charlene’s white pumps squeezed Keisha’s toes but that was no reason to stop.  Losing custody of her sons Kenny and Brandon six months ago nearly broke her heart.  She had to find a job.  Not only did she have sore tootsies but also she felt like taking a dip in the nearest public pool.  It was still morning but the blazing hot sun made it feel like late afternoon.

Soon, Keisha reached the address she was looking for.  The tiny brick office building was sandwiched in between a sneaker store and a fast food outlet.  She went inside and rode the rickety elevator to the second floor.  Entering the Scott-Teeman Employment Agency, she noticed the waiting area was full.  She approached the receptionist, who was reading the latest issue of Ebony and said, “Good morning.  I’d like to apply for a job.”

“Yeah, you and half of New York,” the gum-chewing receptionist said.  “Fill this form out.  Then somebody will see you.  Write neat.  They don’t like no sloppy handwriting.”

“I have a resume.”

She smacked a bubble.  “Don’t give it to me, honey.  Save it for the counselor.”

“Is there a long wait?” Keisha asked.

The receptionist glanced at the lobby.  “Yeah, an hour, I guess.”  She stuffed another wad of gum in her mouth and returned to her magazine.

At least the office was air-conditioned.  Keisha took a cold drink from the water cooler then looked through the magazine rack.  She picked out a few month old news magazines and took a seat among the grim faced crowd.  Somehow, she doubted the president’s claim that job creation was on the rise.  Where?  It certainly didn’t seem that way in Harlem.  For a brief moment, she beat up on herself for letting drugs take over her life.  If only this, if only that.

Keisha’s own childhood had been a shambles.  Her father died in a freak accident shortly after she was born.  Her alcoholic mother barely scraped by working odd jobs.  Now and then, she worked as a cocktail waitress in a local bar.  Other times, she took in wash.  When times were particularly rough, she sold her body.  Much of the money was squandered on alcohol.  Keisha often fended for herself, eating stale crackers and peanut butter.  It was only the good fortune of neighbors that kept her well fed and clothed because her mother spent days away from home.  Calls from Keisha’s teachers to child protective services finally brought the 10-year old into the foster care system.  Her mother promised Keisha she’d come back for her as quickly as she could.  Keisha hasn’t seen or heard from her mother since.  She spent a lifetime wondering how her life would have been different had her father not died that night when he stepped on a life wire at the packaging plant where he worked.  The past was over.  Self-pity wouldn’t get Kenny and Brandon out of foster care.  Only a job and an apartment would.

After a tiring wait on a chair that made her butt sore, a corrosive voice called out Keisha’s name.  She gulped, wondering where the great people were that Mr. Stevens from the plumbing store had bragged about.  Standing up, Keisha forced herself to be upbeat, and said, “Yes, that’s me.”

The unsmiling woman, who looked like she ate lunch on a toilet bowl, said, “This way.”

She followed the employment counselor into her cramped office.  “What are you here for?” The atmosphere felt more like a police interrogation than an employment interview.

Keisha was caught off guard. “A job, of course.”

“What kind?  Part-time?  Full-time?  Permanent?  Temporary?”

“Full-time, permanent,” Keisha said.  With sweaty hands, she pulled out a resume and handed it to the counselor.  “I need a job with benefits, I have two sons.”

The counselor quickly glanced at Keisha’s resume.  “Why did you leave your last position at the bank?  It looks like it was a good job.”

Keisha held her head down.  “I was laid off.”

“Reduction in force?  Branch closure?  Merger?”

In a whisper, Keisha said, “Nothing like that.”

“Speak up Miss, I can’t hear you.” The woman tapped her fingers against her desk.  “I’ve also got a room full of people waiting.”

“I did something stupid.  I stole money.”

“You’re darn right that was stupid.  Now you’ve got a criminal record, right?”

Keisha nodded.

“That’ll make finding a decent job very hard.  I’m sorry, Mrs. Spellman, but I can’t help you.”

“Mr. Stevens said you could.”

“I know Mr. Stevens well, he’s a valuable client.  He probably didn’t know you have a felony record.” The woman with the steely eyes stood up and nudged Keisha out of the office. “You’ve wasted my time and yours.  Who’s next?”

A thud dulled her heart. Reality set in as she rode the elevator to the lobby. Upon leaving the building, she meandered down St. Nicholas Avenue with no particular goal in mind. Cars, taxis and city buses rumbled up and down the busy street.  In spite of shoes crimping her feet and heat from the blistering sun, she covered nearly a mile.  By the time she reached Central Park West she was weary.  How would she overcome this hurdle?  Only her love for Kenny and Brandon pushed her forward.  Would she be slowed down?  Yes, of course.  Would she be stopped?   Absolutely no way.

On a bench she rested, staring at the entrance to New York City’s most popular park and tourist attraction.  Sliding out of her shoes, she wiggled her toes and immediately felt relief.  A teenaged girl with dyed red hair and a face full of freckles strolled by, reminding her of a Raggedy Ann doll.  Keisha grinned when she saw an old man shuffling along with his equally old dog in a child’s wagon.  The scrappy white-muzzled dog looked content.  So did the wrinkled old man.  Realizing the odds of finding a decent job in New York City were stacked against her, Keisha considered moving out of state. She quickly scrapped that idea, figuring there’d be no way she’d ever get her kids back if she did.  Besides, Keisha loved the sights and sounds of New York.  She always did.  She never really considered living anywhere else, even though living in New York City was far beyond her budget.

After a while, she boarded the nearest subway and headed back to the Bronx.  It was mid-afternoon so she was lucky enough to squeeze her narrow body into a seat.  Tomorrow, she’d go back at it again. This time, however, she realized she’d probably have to settle for work as a janitor or a cleaning lady.  Food service jobs were also available.  Her last foster mother, a woman of extreme indifference, told Keisha she’d never amount to anything.  Over and over she needled that Keisha would probably end up hauling trash, restocking shelves, or scouring toilets for a living.  To prove this bull-headed woman wrong, Keisha graduated from high school then went to Bronx Community College and finished with honors.  When she landed a job at First Federal Bank, Keisha was thrilled.  Losing it nearly did her in.

Harriet’s ears pricked up when she heard keys jangling outside the front door.  She yawned, rolled over and sailed off the couch.  As soon as Keisha walked in, she meowed softly.

“Come here my queen, I need some loving,” Keisha said.  “My world is crumbling apart.”

She put down her purse, kicked off the too tight shoes and crashed on the sofa.  She glanced at the red light flickering on the answering machine.  “I wonder if my caseworker Miss Mangino called.  Hope she arranged a visit with Kenny and Brandon like she promised.”  Keisha motioned for Harriet to join her on the couch.  “And how was your day?  Better than mine, I’m sure.”

Gently rubbing her body back and forth against Keisha’s legs, Harriet worked her feline charm.  She purred just enough to lighten Keisha’s load.

“Buster liked being a lap cat, but I ignored him.”  As she stroked Harriet, Keisha said, “Drugs became more important than our cat.  In fact, drugs became more important than my kids.  That’s pathetic I let myself get like that.” Ever so casually, she smacked herself in the head.  “What was wrong with me?”

By then, Harriet knew what happened to Kenny and Brandon, but she still had no idea what became of Buster.  Where did he end up?  No doubt Keisha led a hard life.  Still, Harriet saw that as no excuse to abandon the family cat on the street, if in fact that’s what Keisha did.  But how would she dig up the truth?  Only time would tell.

While Keisha stared at the crushed velvet portrait of the Last Supper hanging on the living room wall, her eyelids grew heavy.  Her head bobbed up and down.  In no time, she nodded off.

Harriet cuddled next to her friend’s side.  She felt sorry that Keisha seemed so much emotionally tender.  Having a stranger take care of her children must really hurt.  In some ways, Keisha reminded the great Harriet of herself.  Keisha, like Harriet, was clever, persistent, determined, and sometimes downright stubborn. True, the cat had an ego the size of a hot air balloon but when confronted with adversity, Harriet’s puffed-up personality always helped her persevere.  Keisha wasn’t nearly as egotistical but she had the same endearing qualities that helped the cat tolerate her grueling life as a stray.  Did Keisha have enough inner strength to carry herself through to the next level?