Photo by Dave Morris
As a teenager, I lived with my dysfunctional family in a modest but comfortable apartment in Beechurst, Queens. One Saturday morning, too fried to suffer any longer the slings and arrows of my sorry-assed teenage life, I decided to run away from home.
I told my mother I was going into Manhattan to spend the day at the New York Public Library on 42nd street. This came as no surprise to her. I loved that place. She knew it and delighted in the knowledge her son should find such a retreat. While she cleaned the bathroom or made the beds—she always busied herself around the apartment–I sneaked from the apartment with a small valise filled with the essentials: a toothbrush, socks, razor (for the twice a week I shaved), nail clippers, a few pair of underwear, three undershirts, an extra pair of jeans, and some shirts, including my folk period, blue work shirt and one white dress shirt—it occurred to me I might apply for a waiter’s job.
At 165th street, I hopped on the rattling old Q15 bus and rode through the lovely tree lined streets of Whitestone into Flushing. There I boarded the steamy, screeching F train. The moment I passed through those subway doors, I felt exhilarated. I headed into Manhattan with a pocket full of cash (money squirreled away from babysitting and dog-walking jobs), a packed valise, and a head filled with spectacular, if half-formed, dreams. I was really doing it. At sixteen, I was “lightin’ out for the territory,” going “on the road”; I was running away from home. Huck and Jack had nothing on me; I was about to be free, too.
Howard Mumbleby, my twenty-your-old City College friend, had agreed to put me up. He told me to meet him at his apartment on West 80th street between Broadway and Amsterdam at 11 A.M. Once there, I trudged up the stairs to the fifth floor of his five-floor walkup. I arrived at 5C and knocked. And knocked and knocked. No Howard. I walked down the stairs and examined the hallways on each floor in search of my friend. Howard was nowhere to be found. I thought he had walked down to the market on the corner at Broadway to load up on vegetables for lunch. (In the mid-60s with fast-food palaces on the rise, Howard was among a small but growing number to swear off meat.) Or, maybe he had wandered down to Amsterdam at the other end of West 80th to find one of the hookers who, as he delicately stated, “helped me out.” I walked down to the foyer, took a seat on my small but sturdy valise (a relic from the ‘40s my parents still used) and proceeded to wait for Howard.
As I sat there, I became aware of a sickeningly sweet aroma. The smell had a distinct odor I couldn’t quite place. It approximated the vapors in the Hershey chocolate factory my family and I visited years before. But this odor smelled different. It lacked the overwhelming sugary sweetness that suffused the Hershey plant. It smelled more tart or pungent, maybe vinegary, and carried a faintly nauseating sensation. The more the odor seeped into my nostrils, the more I dug into my olfactory memory to identify it. I couldn’t, and this bothered me. Finally, I stopped a guy exiting the building and asked him about the odd smell. He barely stopped to remark, “Mrs. Graham, the white ghost.” I had no idea what the guy meant. Perhaps, I thought, his answer alluded to a malodorous concoction Mrs. Graham had brewing.
I remembered Mrs. Graham, aka the white ghost. Late one afternoon as Howard and I descended the stairs from his fifth floor apartment, we passed a tall, ancient woman with skin so pale it seemed translucent. Her eyes shone the faintest waxen blue. She wore a long, black, crinoline gown. Her thinning hair appeared an astonishing white. With her ghostly pale skin and wrinkled gown, she made a striking figure standing there on the stairs. As we passed, Howard said hello to her. In answer, she just stared back at us. Howard told me her name was Mrs. Graham, she was about 90 years old, and lived alone in 4C directly below him. He said she didn’t get out much. The stairs were too difficult for her to negotiate easily. I asked who brought her food and supplies. Howard had no idea. He saw her rarely, he said, and only when he passed her on the stairs. On occasion, he told me, he heard other tenants refer to her as “the white ghost.”
At sixteen, still young and naïve, I couldn’t rightly connect the guy’s answer about Mrs. Graham to my question about the smell. I continued to wait. An hour passed and still, no Howard. The smell had filtered into my gut and made me queasy, so I got up to leave. As I stood up, an eye-poppingly attractive young woman entered the foyer. Almost too intimidated by her looks to speak, I stopped her anyway.
“What’s that smell?’ I asked.
She gave me one of those “don’t you know” looks and steamed on past. But she had second thoughts. She stopped, turned to me, and asked, “didn’t you hear about Mrs. Graham?”
“No,” I said, “I don’t live here. I’m visiting Howard.”
She flashed another peculiar look; this one as if to suggest, “oh brother, you’re kidding.” Clearly, this beauty had issues with Howard. She started to leave again, then again stopped. “Didn’t Howard tell you– about Mrs. Graham?”
“No,” I countered.
“She died about two weeks ago. The hallway began to smell terribly, worse than this. No one knew what it was. Someone figured it out though and called the fire department. The firemen had to cut through the burglar bars on the forth floor to break into her apartment. They found her in bed, dead and rotting. How awful. That’s the smell you smell. Poor old Mrs. Graham.”
A vivid picture of the natural brutality of Mrs. Graham’s sad and lonely death immediately painted itself onto a wall in my memory. Little did I know that picture would remain there my entire life. With that indelible image settling into the deepest recesses of my brain, I picked up the sturdy little valise and marched my runaway ass through the foyer and out the door. With Howard AWOL and the insistent and unnerving odor of Mrs. Graham attacking my senses, it didn’t take me long to dash my plans to run away from home– that day.
Carl Schinasi, a native New Yorker, teaches at the historically black college, Miles College, in Birmingham, AL. Recent essays have appeared in Baseball/Literature/Culture and Ducts.