Bucket Boy

by

03/09/2004

1201 University Ave bronx ny 10452

Neighborhood: Bronx

1201 University Ave in the Bronx is no place to live. The front door, lockless and crooked on its hinges, wouldn’t bar entry to dogs, rapists or the media. Austin Fenner, a reporter and a friend of mine, arrived there before me. We began patrolling the building together, staying away from the bucket boy’s apartment on the ground floor for now. Austin, businesslike and sympathetic, always went to the source first, but what he’d encountered in there earlier I could only guess at from the low, subdued pitch of his voice as he told me, “They’re not ready.” I wouldn’t want to go in there without him.

Intrigued neighbors milled around the lobby. They wanted to talk; they wanted to show us the terrible condition in their apartments. One rasping woman with asthma and diabetes told us she had lost her baby-sitting license because her apartment was considered a health risk by the city. She eagerly led us inside. The place smelled fungal and sweet. Her floors buckled. Light fixtures hung on wires from the ceiling as though they’d been pulled and twisted in a fit of rage. Jagged holes in the ceiling had never been patched over. Plaster bulged where leaking water pipes lay behind the walls. A chubby boy played quietly by himself on an ancient carpet in the former baby-sitter’s living room. He was dreaming with a toy helicopter. Last night’s bright snowfall covered an empty park in a window behind him. You had to squint to see him.

The stout, Spanish superintendent arrived. He looked like he’d been spackling. He claimed to speak very little English. One of the neighbors, a hanger on, translated for Austin. The super had been hired by the management company three weeks ago. He knew little about plumbing, and had spent his short time there trying, unenviably, to patch over the major difficulties with the building.

He ended the interview by separating from us and knocking on the dreaded door. It cracked open and a woman we would later learn was the grandmother spoke to him in Spanish. Stacked metal bowls were passed out to him. He took them and the door closed for a second, then opened again, and a dark-skinned man in a dirty blue parka coat stepped quickly out. We didn’t know he was the father. I didn’t get a good look at him as he and the super moved purposefully together toward the service exit.

We watched them from a grated window as they hugged the building and walked with the bowls down a basement staircase and disappeared.

Outside of the family’s apartment a small shrine of candles, toys and flowers had been set up by the door. Large pieces of paper had been taped to the wall. On them people left short messages to the dead boy.

Ten minutes later, the father, Juan, shuffled quickly back through the lobby. Austin intercepted him. There was a brief conversation and then Austin asked simply, “Can we come inside?” Juan capitulated. Two enormous holes gaped in the ceiling at opposite ends of the kitchen. Through the holes piping hung wrapped in black plumbers’ tape. The pipes were wet and, after all that had happened, continued to leak. Someone upstairs must have turned the water on. The velocity of the leak increased as we stood there.

Juan was soft-spoken and had a pronounced overbite which caused him to slur his speech slightly. I guessed he was 25. He told us in slow, broken English: “The super sat me down, and he said, ‘Look, I’m telling you this because you’re my friend. The landlord came to the building on Sunday night and he wouldn’t come in to inspect the repairs [of the pipes]. He was here to collect the rent from an apartment upstairs and didn’t want to come in.’”

The landlord had been variously described by neighbors as “a jew”, “a rich guy from Brooklyn,” and “the guy in the hat.” His name was A. Gross. His management company only offered a PO Box in Brooklyn as an address. One neighbor swore he drove an SUV with tinted windows.

In the hallway, camera crews from the TV stations, both English and Spanish, were arriving with their anchors. You can always tell the anchor by their make-up and their myopia. One young Spanish anchor had that crazed look about him. He seemed to be feeling an unwholesome pressure in his forehead. He needed a story.

Rhodesia, the overweight mother, made her way out and sat by the shrine beside her door. She spoke occasionally on her cell phone. An aunt and a grandmother came by, left, returned. I overheard the grandmother, who was 48, speaking Spanish in the kitchen. I knew what she was saying by the vitriol in her voice. Someone was to blame.

No one but the grandmother was outraged. No one was crying. It was all slow and sad and soft. I wondered how had the child been allowed to wander off into that watery kitchen? Hadn’t someone been watching him? These questions were never asked. How could you ask them? The family was in dire circumstances and already had two other children.

Juan curled up in a fetal position on a bed in another room with a false wall. He spoke softly on a phone. His mother, the angry grandmother, sat on the bed next to him. Reporters and cameramen had the run of the place now. They were everywhere, even looking in drawers. Then one of the family members, I think an aunt with blue colored contacts, announced: “Juan wants you all to leave now.” She meant it, if Juan didn’t. We left. Bags, cameras, notepads and all. One man stayed behind. He was short, Spanish and unimposing. He was wearing a sharp gray suit, an undertaker.

Outside, Austin wanted to show me something. On a trash heap in front of the building there was a five gallon grouting bucket exactly like the one the boy had supposedly ended up at the bottom of. On the side of the bucket, in Spanish and English, there was a printed warning over an image of a child climbing into the bucket.

The boy who drowned was named Malik.

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