Good News and Revelations

by

04/02/2002

155 Morningside dr, New York, NY 10027

Neighborhood: Morningside Heights

Mara from upstairs, who lives off flute lessons in her dining room and touch-and-go pit orchestra gigs on Broadway, knocked on my door and everyone’s door, begging us to start a tenant’s union. We each had a reason. I was terrified of the dawn in July when half the sixth floor burned and everyone was out on the street in bathrobes. The landlords said the tenant forgot a candle. The tenant said he turned on his computer and a fuse box malfunctioned. The electrical system in the whole building was fucked, he said — a time bomb for future disaster. A few days later, Manny was standing by his SUV, blasting Celia Cruz from the tape deck, steeping the block in mambo. I asked him in Spanish who he believed, since he was the super and should know. Manny took the tenant’s side, partly because he liked me, partly because he didn’t like the landlords, and partly because of something bigger. The sum of his reasons scared me so much that I went to Columbia Hardware and paid too much for a 3-story rope ladder with window prongs.

The building sucks, but who can be picky? The young lawyer in Park Slope who’d offered us a sublet bailed at the last minute without telling us. These days in New York, the rent increase for new tenants is so fat that landlords advise people like the young lawyer, “Why bother subletting? Just break the lease.” We’d already loaded our things and our kids into a van in Texas. Now we were facing homelessness. Then some luck: a friend got a job out of town and bequeathed us his place in Morningside Heights. The landlords were an ultra-Orthodox Jewish family named Kleiner with a realty office on Fifth Avenue in midtown. I learned later that they’re notorious slumlords, which you see in our place. It hasn’t had a paint job in forty years and the old jobs are thirty layers thick. Daily, the dog’s bowl disgorges drowned roaches. The living room parquet is bald with splinters. We arrived in June. In July there was the fire.

The time I asked Manny about it, his wife put her hands on her hips. “No hables con ella!” she muttered. She didn’t want him dissing his employers to a tenant.

But Manny had a conscience. A new one, Mara said. “He used to be a big pothead, and mean,” she told me after our first tenants union meeting.”When he was smoking he was a space case, just useless as a super. Even when he wasn’t high he mostly refused to fix anything unless you left lots of notes in the basement and threatened to withhold rent. Dealing with him was one big snarling match. He changed a couple of years ago. All of a sudden. I heard he had a born-again experience. He got a lot nicer about fixing things. Though he sure hasn’t helped me lately.”

The first time I saw Manny with a Bible was after we’d talked about religion once and he went off about Jews. That was just after we moved in. He was by the SUV. It was a pretty morning in June and already we had problems. A hole had opened in the bathroom floor; you could see the downstairs neighbor peeing. “Old Mr. Kleiner,” Manny said. “He’s dead now but he was very judío always wore that thing on his head and the black coat. Always came around to take care of things himself. He would have had me fix your floor right away. But very greedy, like all judíos. They all get rich from the greed. Mr. Kleiner died and his daughter is also very judío but never comes around here and things are going to the dogs with her new generation of bigger Jewish greed.” I made the obvious points. I’m Jewish and I’m not rich. Lots of Jews aren’t rich. I’ve heard socialism is big in the Dominican Republic, where Manny was from, so I mentioned that socialism was led by Jews, maybe started by Jews, and socialism sure isn’t for the rich and greedy. Furthermore, women in realty offices on Fifth Avenue who wear ugly wigs and ignore holes in tenants’ floors: this is not my brand of judío and mine is just as popular. I tried not to be pissed off.

A people’s lawyer came from the West Harlem Tenants Council — idealistic, not so young anymore, haircut like Carl Sandburg, last year’s clothes. We held the meeting in the vestibule, leaning on the mail boxes. Some people talked about the fire and about how the electrical system hadn’t been worked on since 1907. A guy in frayed cords who went to Manhattan School of Music a long time ago spoke. The guy’s instrument was trumpet: you could tell he never left home because all day you heard his playing through the walls. He mentioned that every time he turned on his living room light switch, his hand got a big jolt. “Shit,” another tenant said, “the same thing happens to me!” We voted Mara president.

But Mara did not want to talk about fire. “My shower,” she said, “is covered with creeping black mildew. Mildew with red stripes, and the stripes appear to be eating into the tile. The tile has become more and more virulent in the past month, and I ‘m convinced the mildew is making me sick. Last week after I took a shower, I felt anxious. All day afterward I had trouble breathing. The doctor said yes, it’s possible I have a problem with mildew. Shana Kleiner won’t let Manny do anything. She says mildew is harmless and I should just get Ajax. I want to know if everyone else has mildew in their apartment! And if you’re getting sick! We need to organize around this!”

People looked blank. Mara turned and saw Manny standing at the front doors. “Out, Manny!” she said. “You’re just spying for the Kleiners!”

“I am not espying,” said Manny. “I am preocupado.”

“Out!” said Mara. “You got born again and you got nicer. But what did you do for my mildew?”

“Manny, how come you were at the meeting?” I asked next day. “Were you spying for the Kleiners?”

“No way,” he said. “I am worried for the tenant, very worried. This is mildew we’re talking about! I’ve been reading the Bible. Mildew is an abomination. A curse according to the most fundamental Laws, along with the commandments against sodomy and pork. And so, even though the Kleiners are greedy, as judíos I cannot understand why they won’t let me make the repairs. Why do they ignore this sacrilege?”

“What are you talking about?” I asked. That’s when I saw his Bible for the first time. It was a Spanish version of the “Good News” edition, leatherbound, fat, with satin ribbons streaming like frou-frou from a baby girl’s hair. Good News was published in the 1970s. Its vocabulary is modern, and effortless to understand. “I shall not want” in King James’ 23rd Psalm becomes “I have everything I need” in Good News. “Why do the heathen rage?” turns into “Why do the nations plan rebellion?”

Good News Leviticus, Chapter 14 does have much to say about mildew. If the Lord sends mildew into a house, you are obligated to immediately tell a priest. The priest is ordered to scrape the interior walls, then leave the city to dispose of the contaminated plaster. All who have been in the house must wash their clothes. Everything is to be ritually purified. And so on and so forth for twenty verses or more.

When I checked my King James, the word mildew was missing. In its place was “plague.” I couldn’t imagine what kind of plague would destroy plaster. Could this be merely symbolic? I asked Manny if Leviticus Chapter 14 might really be about, say, leprosy. Or just plain evil.

“Who ever heard of leprosy eating bathroom walls?” Manny said curtly. “Or evil, for that matter? The Bible is talking about mildew. I’m a super. I know. I’d like to pull the old tile out, treat the subsurface with a good fungicide, then calk everything over. But the Kleiners say no.”

“Why get worked up over mildew?” I said. “If you want drama, go all the way to the end of the Bible and try the Book of Revelations. Fire mixed with blood. A third of the earth burning. Stars falling to earth, endless smoke from an abyss, sulphur. “

He wasn’t interested. “I spent my life hearing the Bible from priests. One of these days I’ll do the New Testament. But now that I’ve found life in The Lamb, I must start from scratch. No more priests, no more Catholics. My wife hates that I’ve left the Church. Hates it! But the Templo Evangélico has it right. First I will do the Old Testament. On my own. I’ll read with my eyes and think with my own mind. After that maybe I’ll get to Revelations.”

By September Manny had made it to Deuteronomy and the tenants union had fallen apart because Mara was only interested in her shower, whereas everyone else wanted to focus on electrical. I saw Manny on the stoop on the 12th, with the Good News open to Revelations. He was weeping and you could smell the air from Lower Manhattan. “I’m not ready for this,” he said. “I wanted to finish the judío Bible first.”

A few days later he had a stroke. The wake was at Funeraria Ortiz on 190th. The little plastic cards with his name and born and died dates also had saints, which I think he would have disliked, but that was the family’s choice. The Kleiners did not show up — it was Friday night, they couldn’t drive on shabbos, and they certainly didn’t live close enough to walk. Their absence felt like a stain; after all, this was the death of their super, who tended their building for twenty-five years. Mara came, and shifted from foot to foot like she wanted to say say something redeeming but felt too embarrassed. Her silence also left a taint.

Only his wife seemed to come clean as she clung to the bier. “Manolo! Manolo!” she wailed, speaking his name in the old way, scrubbing the air with her grief.

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