Morris the Pit Bull, Couples Therapist
It was six forty-ﬁve a.m., and I was heading back to my apartment with my three dogs, Wisteria, Fiorello, and Beatrice. The street lamps still glowed, but the neighbor-hood was not awake. The emptiness made it that much easier to spot the nine men in navy jackets, walking around the front of my building, looking up at the windows and talking to each other, with guns hanging out of their pockets. They saw me and smiled uneasily and followed me up the stairs. I noticed that all of these men—tall or short—were huge, built like either safes or refrigerators, but they looked at me a little warily. I’m smallish and I was walking three sub-twenty-pound dogs with adorably patterned harnesses and leashes.
“Good morning,” said the guy who appeared to be the captain.
“Do you want to come in?” I asked.
“Yes.” He looked down at my dogs. “Do they bite?”
“No,” I replied, and they all relaxed. Over their sweaters, they sported giant bulletproof vests, and their pants were tucked into thick black leather boots. What exactly were they afraid my terriers would do to them? Fray their shoelaces?
As I unlocked the door, the captain remarked, “Good thing you came along, the super isn’t answering his bell.” This is the minor problem with the security in my building. The criminals live here, and the cops can’t seem to gain entrance.
“He’s probably asleep,” I said, opening the lock and holding the door, my three dogs behind me.
“Have you lived here awhile?”
“A little over a year.”
“Are you social? Do you know a lot of people in the building?”
“Not a lot,” I answered.
He showed me a picture of a young Latino male, which was blurry since it had been taken by a closed-circuit camera. I had no idea who he was, but apparently this was his last known residence.
“Sorry,” I said, really wishing I could help, like in an old movie: “Hey, sure, I know dat guy, Ralphie Beans, from da tent ﬂaw!” But alas, I did not. The elevator opened and half the cops got in. The others looked at my dogs and said they’d take the stairs . . . to the tenth ﬂoor. I had to laugh a little. I went into my apartment and double-bolted the doors and woke up my daughter, Violet, for school.
In the summer of 2009, I was living with my husband, daughter, and then four dogs on 106th Street and Broad-way. It was a lovely two-bedroom, one-bathroom apartment in a prewar doorman building with a Duane Reade pharmacy within skipping distance and numerous other conveniences (hardware stores, restaurants, bagel shops) abounding nearby. We were going on ﬁve relatively happy years there. The problem was that the rent kept going up despite our income’s refusal to do the same. We decided to look for a cheaper place. Since our daughter was ﬁrmly planted in one of the area’s better public schools, we needed to move somewhere along the same subway line. First, we did a brief look at places in our area; for less money than we were already paying, we could move to a place that made the mole’s hole in Thumbelina look like Trump Palace. In one, I stuck my head out the window and if I strained I could see our current apartment. It made me feel like I would be moving from the manor house to the groundskeeper’s cottage.
Since we didn’t have the cash to send her to camp, Violet, who was turning six, and I spent the summer looking at apartments in areas along our subway line. I told myself that it was a kind of Real Estate Camp and that if Violet decided to become a broker when she grew up, I would know I’d have myself to thank. On the train, we rehearsed “Always be closing.”
We found a bunch of places in the lower part of Washington Heights, but every one of them had something good and something wrong (nice space, view of a wall; great view, not cheap enough for just one bathroom). Paul and I felt determined that if we were going to move from the neighborhood we loved, we’d want to feel like we were getting something better, not just cheaper. More space, two bathrooms, some sort of improvement. And at last we found it. A gigantic apartment about to be gut-renovated, with two bathrooms and giant windows offering full views of the Hudson River and the George Washington Bridge; it was also $1,000 a month cheaper than our current place. As I walked into the apartment and my gaze fell on the windows, I dialed Paul on my cell phone, my hands shaking, to say I’d found it. We were shown the apartment by the super, a lovely Ecuadorian man who, I soon learned, kept an enormous ﬂoor-to-ceiling birdcage in the basement and anywhere from ﬁve to seven stray cats -— this was a pet-friendly building! We were really excited as the time to move got closer. The only question, and one we kind of ignored, was what the neighborhood was like. Twenty blocks up was Washington Heights proper, which was very nice and home to lots of friends. But what was this? Five years back we had seen a listing for the neighborhood, and when I told a friend, a Manhattan assistant DA in narcotics, she said she’d prosecuted a case involving every street in the area. Things had gotten better, though, because the economy had gotten so much worse, and other Upper West Siders had been forced to move there. Another friend had moved up east of there and was quite happy, and we’d heard west was better. We’d be ﬁne. We signed the lease, bought the paints, and waited for our move-in date. On one afternoon when we went up to see how things were going, we walked out of the building to a young thug screaming into his cell phone, “I’m the one out here with the dope in my hands and you wanna give me sixty/forty?” (though he said it much more colorfully). We had already committed, and I decided to just block it out. It bothered Paul much more. But we were both a little nervous.
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