[A few months after this piece was originally published, Ennis Smith sent us a revision which we have also published here. Look at the two versions side by side and see if you learn anything about how revision figures in the writing process. –Ed.]
They called him the neighborhood watchdog. He was the super of the building on the corner of 158th and Edgecombe Avenue, an immense pre-war slab of gray-yellow brick and mortar. For some reason I remember him forever dressed in a soiled white tee shirt and painter’s pants; through his rimless spectacles poured eyes the color of cool blue water shaded always by a bibbed cap. Built like a prepubescent boy, his pale dry complexion made me think of a whitewashed wall. But his most entertaining feature emerged when he spoke: his voice, a croaking drawl that reeked of age, whiskey and cigarettes, belonged to a character right out of Synge or O’Neill. Such a funny sound—the imp in me longed to belt out a lusty “argh, Matey” whenever he appeared.
He was familiar; he’d engage with anyone who met his long-stared gaze. He annoyed me on mornings when I was late for the train. Whether I was running or merely walking fast, he’d scrunch up his small toy face, and in that bark on its way to a cough I’d hear, “Ennis, slow down, you’ll kill yourself one day.” In winter, if my coat was open or I was without a hat, you could be sure he’d let me have it: “Young man, you’d better put something on your head.” He’d fling the words like someone who’d been deprived of his morning coffee. As part of this routine, I’d toss him a shrug and a stupid grin.
Most mornings my craggy super sat across the street in Highbridge Park. He was always with some massive guy whose head belonged on the face of a nickel; together, the dark Indian and the pale, tiny building super made an odd pair. By evening he’d be standing by the gate in the building’s rear—I assumed the small alley beyond, lined with piles of lumber, rows of garbage cans, led to his apartment. As I approached, he’d always croak some variation on “I see you slowed down.” I’d smile and wish him good night, all the while a touch annoyed that he refused to let me forget my interminable lateness. But on other evenings he’d corner me with neighborhood gossip: who got evicted, who got arrested or who had a fight.
I never really got to know him. He was a fixture on my street, like the woman who minded the stoop of the building across from his, or the man who went in and out of her apartment, the one who smoked and pitched bootleg DVD’s to every passerby. I didn’t know their names either, but I’d say hello. Occasionally the woman on the stoop would tell me how nice I looked as I headed for the train, and, once, the smoking man confided he’d been in prison and asked for money. I begged poverty and walked a little faster.
The presence of the craggy super was as unexpected as all the other shifts in our Harlem Heights landscape. Just a few years before he landed on my radar, his building went co-op. I found out when the then-super—a black man of average height, his tentacled mustache always caked with bits of crust—accosted me like a real estate agent looking to unload some property before the feds arrived. After I demurred, he never spoke to me again which kind of hurt my feelings. In those days, I was in no position to purchase a doorknocker, let alone real estate. I was an actor on a low budget, and no assets. My office gig just covered my rent, food, Con Ed, phone, cable, plus the essential tools of my trade: headshots, acting classes, voice lessons and the maintenance of my one good suit. I’d become an expert in the art of living below my means; besides I was a transplanted Midwesterner mired in the belief that one bought a house, not an apartment.
What a surreal notion—at the beginning of the 21st century, the idea that any building on our stretch of Edgecombe might convert to saleable apartments was absurd. For one thing, it was predominantly black. For another, the mere sight of our streets would give even the most desperate buyer pause. The strip of Highbridge Park overlooking the Harlem River and Yankee Stadium was a functioning dump for anyone looking to abandon cars that’d been stripped of their valuable parts. The smatterings of fenders and transmissions competed with the refuse left by motorists who treated our street as if it were a drive-in restaurant, and the Saturday night drunks who rattled my sleep by hurling empty liquor bottles against the sycamore trees. You could chart the seasons by these glass showers: the warmer it got, the likelihood that such unexpected crashes would shatter my middle-of-the-night peace increased.
Never mind the drive-by boom boxes that inspired me to christen our block “Café Edgecombe”: other spooks haunted the night. The crack addicts lurched up and down Edgecombe like demented puppets in those days. They’d buy their dope further west on the cross streets between Broadway and Amsterdam, and from there they made a beeline over the hill to Edgecombe. Who could forget the sight of men and women anyone might peg as homeless, except for their jerky physicality and the impossible speed with which they walked? In those days the papers were full of violent incidents, stabbings that occurred without warning or motive—whenever I’d pass an impossibly frantic soul on the street I imagined he or she could turn killer in an instant, and I’d find myself the victim of some drug-fueled derangement.
Years before my craggy super boldly croaked “good morning” for the first time, more changes occurred. One day I woke to the grinding whirr of trucks and cranes on a mission of auto exhumation, as workers pulled battered car doors, pieces of fenders and trunks, sometimes even whole automobiles, up over the cliffs and out of the thick brush of Highbridge Park. This went on for some time, until the avenue took on the look of a sprawling, addled metal sculpture done in shades of battered reds, scratchy blues and rusty yellows.
And then it all got whisked away. Sternum-high black iron fences went up on the park side; so did aluminum barrier strips along the curb, highway accessories that felt out of place on a tree-lined city block. Green trucks emblazoned with a white oak leaf and the words “NYC Parks Department” became common, followed by foot brigades of trash gatherers, mostly black and Hispanic women in smocks. Most mornings I’d dart by as they worked the avenue, stabbing bits of trash by rote with their long wooden spears.
I remember how all the media outlets covered the field trips made by city officials to the drug-infested blocks near Broadway in the 160s; Giuliani and his minions played politics (and got face time in the press) by showing how easy it was to score whatever inebriants your heart desired. At the time I thought what an ineffectual stunt but maybe it worked; soon after, the legions of crack addicts who’d dodged Edgecombe Avenue’s swerving traffic to access the park began to thin out. Maybe the addicts were literally dying off—or perhaps they feared a Disneyland invasion similar to the one that robbed 42nd Street of whatever character it once possessed.
For years I’d watched those poor fools scurry in and out of the park’s tangle of trees and grass, or aimlessly walk back and forth as if searching for remnants of life before the word “crack” had invaded their consciousness. Their wanderings had etched a narrow path in the thatch of green directly across the street. Someone—the parks department perhaps—carved that haphazard footpath into a formal walkway that set off the jutting gray Manhattan schist in ways that were positively…Olmstedian.
The appearance of the craggy super dovetailed with the arrival of myriad dogs and their owners, idling along that strip as though it were a regular civilized park. More white faces began to pop out of the usual sea of dark complexions along the avenue, at the supermarket and on the subway platform at 155th Street. Many were young strivers armed with strapped-on iPods and a raffish confidence that screamed Williamsburg USA. Gentrification loomed.
The morning I noticed the shrine at the building’s back gate, I was late again. Those totems of lit prayer candles, flowers and notes, so prevalent on evening news reports of innocents slain by a drive-by shooter, are easy to dismiss. That evening I was greeted by a fine rain as I emerged from the subway, and by the time I reached the super’s building I was slick with warm drizzle. The candles had gone out, and the day’s withering heat made the flowers droop pathetically. Someone had anticipated the weather; the death notice was covered in clear plastic. The shrine was for the super—a typewritten placard referred to him as Shag, told of a service being held somewhere in Jersey. It also gave his real name: William.
I wasn’t the only one who paused. A man’s voice tapped my shoulder. “Man, was that Shaggy?”
I hesitated before replying. “Yeah, he was the super here.” We stood in stunned wonderment, two black strangers mourning the startling, albeit vague presence of a dead white guy under a crying sky. The corner streetlight revealed my new friend’s pockmarked caramel skin and deep circles under filmy brown eyes. He was in his 30’s and wiry, only a hair taller than the deceased.
He shook his head. “Man, that’s a shame. He was a damn nice guy…damn shame. That cat got around, he used to be everywhere.” And now Shag was nowhere; nothing left of him here except the memory of his toy face and a disgruntled fatherly rasp. I found out later from a friend who lived in the building that Shag had died of a heart attack. One of the tenants looked out of her window to see him spread flat on the walk behind the gate, as if he’d jumped.