The Super With The Toy Face: Redux

by

12/31/2006

W. 158th St. & Edgecombe Ave., NY, NY 10032

Neighborhood: Harlem

[When the site first published Ennis Smith’s “The Super With The Toy Face,” its impact was felt immediately–not just on the site, but on the literary history of the United States.

Smith has sent us a revised version of the piece, which we are happy to publish below. We’re going to keep the original up, though, in order to see if we can learn something about the role of revision in the writing process. –Ed.]

They called him the neighborhood watchdog. He was the ancient, antic super of the building on the corner of 158th and Edgecombe Avenue, an immense pre-war slab of yellowed bricks and mortar. I remember him forever dressed in a soiled white tee shirt and painter’s pants; his pale complexion, shaded always by a bibbed cap, resembled a whitewashed wall, and through his rimless spectacles poured eyes the color of cool blue water. He was tiny, built as if he might blow away, but his Cagney-esque air assured you he was no pushover. 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 John Millington Synge. The sound was cartoonish, and whenever I heard it the imp in me longed to belt out a lusty “argh, Matey.”

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.” Always, he’d fling the words like someone who’d been deprived of his morning coffee; always I’d toss him a shrug and a stupid grin as I hurried away, piqued at the man’s paternal presumption, as if knowing my name gave him the right. Of course I didn’t know his.

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 back by the gate at his building’s rear—I assumed the small alley beyond, lined with piles of lumber, rows of garbage cans, led to his apartment—ready to croak some variation on “I see you slowed down,” refusing to let me forget my interminable lateness. But there were other evenings when he’d drop his admonishments, cornering me instead with neighborhood gossip: who got evicted, who got arrested, who had a fire or who had a fight.

That was our relationship. 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; once, the smoking man confided he’d been in prison and asked for money, prompting me to beg poverty and walk a little faster.

The arrival of the craggy super dovetailed with an unexpected shift in our Harlem Heights landscape. Just a few years earlier, his building went co-op, something I discovered when the then-super—a decrepit black man whose tentacled mustache dribbled 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, with 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.

At the beginning of the 21st century, the notion that any building on our stretch of Edgecombe might convert to saleable apartments seemed absurd. The mere sight of our streets would have given 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 stripped of their valuable parts; smatterings of fenders and transmissions competed with the refuse left by motorists who treated our street as if it were a drive-in restaurant. The noise was a challenge, fueled by roving SUVs whose sound systems blared, 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 onset of warm weather increased the likelihood those jarring crashes would shatter my middle-of-the-night peace.

Other spooks haunted the night. Crack addicts lurched along the avenue like demented puppets. They’d buy their dope on the cross streets between Broadway and Amsterdam; from there, they’d make a beeline over the hill to Edgecombe. None of the neighborhood’s residents could forget the sight of men and women anyone might peg as homeless, if not for their jerky physicality and the impossible speed with which they walked. They were the stuff of nightmares—back then the papers shrieked the rise of random, drug-induced stabbings; whenever I’d pass some wild-eyed frantic on the street I imagined he or she could turn killer in an instant, and there I’d be, the victim of some crack-addled derangement.

About a year 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; from my window I watched men on a mission of auto exhumation, city workers pulling battered car doors, pieces of fenders, lids of trunks, sometimes even whole automobiles, up over the cliffs through the thick brush of Highbridge Park. This went on all week, 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. Those green trucks emblazoned with a white oak leaf and the words “NYC Parks Department” became fixtures on our streets, followed by foot brigades of trash gatherers, mostly black and Hispanic women in smocks, the “welfare-to-work” crowd created by the Giuliani Administration. No matter the weather they’d be on the avenue when I’d head out for work, stabbing bits of trash by rote with long wooden spears.

Political theater was playing uptown: I remember how all the media outlets covered the field trips made by city officials to those drug-infested blocks near Broadway in the 160s; Giuliani and his minions got their faces on the evening news by showing how easy it was to score whatever inebriants your heart desired. It was a shameless publicity stunt, but maybe it worked, for soon after, the legions of crack addicts who’d dodged Edgecombe’s swerving traffic to reach the park began to thin out. Maybe the addicts were literally dying off—or maybe they relocated, fearing a Disneyland invasion similar to the one that, thanks to the city, robbed 42nd Street of whatever character it once possessed. Even so, they left their mark. From my apartment window I’d watched those poor fools scurry in and out of the park’s tangle of trees and grass, pacing the streets as if searching for remnants of life before the word “crack” invaded their consciousness. Over time their wanderings 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 Manhattan schist in ways that were positively…Olmstedian.

The appearance of the craggy super dovetailed with the arrival of myriad dogs and their owners on a strip that now gave semblances of other, better groomed Manhattan burbs. More white faces gave the game away; they 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 mod confidence that screamed Williamsburg USA. I’d ponder these obvious signposts of gentrification, as I calculated their rents and the odds of whether such changes meant that tastemakers would now perceive my neighborhood as cool and hip.

The summer morning I breezed past the shrine of flowers and prayer candles at the super’s back gate I was late again. That evening as I emerged from the subway a light shower coated me with drizzle, its pleasing coolness slowing my pace as I headed home. ; the day’s heat had withered the bouquets, the candle’s fragile flames extinguished by the rain. I stopped to read a typewritten placard sheathed in plastic. The shrine was for the super—the placard referred to him as Shag, and announced an upcoming service somewhere in Jersey. It also gave his real name: William.

A man’s voice tapped my shoulder. “Man, was that Shaggy?” The corner streetlight revealed pockmarked caramel skin and deep circles under filmy brown eyes. He was in his 30’s, wiry and perhaps a hair taller than the deceased. I paused, annoyed by the stranger’s easy use of a nickname I’d only just learned.

“Yeah, the super.” I couldn’t call him Shag so casually, didn’t feel I had the right to call him anything. I wondered how the stranger knew him—casually? A tenant, or was he like me, another neighborhood resident unwillingly shanghaied by a familiar manner, by cool blue eyes? We stood there, two black men mourning the startling, vague absence of a dead white guy under a crying sky. Behind us the M2 bus rumbled as the evening traffic rolled a wail of sizzling tires on the shiny wet asphalt. My new friend 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; there was nothing left of him here except the memory of his toy face and that 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.

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