The Whistler

by

03/16/2005

Henry St & Montgomery St, New York, NY 10002

Neighborhood: Lower East Side

Living on the first floor of a tenement can have its advantages—no multiple flights to walk up at the end of a tiring day, or to stumble up after a long night. During the summer, the first floor always remains the coolest, so I don’t feel like I will die a broiling, stuffy death unless I install and run an air conditioner.

Whenever I order food to be delivered, I can hear the bike chain of the delivery guy clanking against the front gate of my building, so I have the prior notification, even if only by seconds, to be ready for him. This, however, sometimes has a Pavlovian effect on me, as I inevitably only order food when I am already half-crazed with hunger, and if it takes more than say, thirty minutes, I begin to leap up every time I hear a bike, any bike. By the time the real, true, food-carrying bike arrives, I’m like an eager dog whose owner has been gone for days, overwhelmed with joy at seeing The Man with the Food.

My living quarters have their drawbacks as well. First of all, I’m directly across the street from a junior high school, which means that nine months out of the year, I am serenaded by the charmless yelling, screaming, and carrying on of adolescents, twice a day. Every once in a while, a number of girls will be inspired by one of the crappy pop hits currently in heavy rotation on MTV, and join their ragged voices in unison to pay it tribute. This, unfortunately, is what I wake up to, nopw and then.

Every afternoon, especially when the warm weather has begun to replace the icy drabness of winter, these kids go nuts. Up until the last week of school, their hormone fueled lunacy continues to build, culminating in the last mad day of classes, when they litter the block with unneeded school papers and books and howl, “No more school! No more school!” with unfettered abandon. “No more school, son!” “Maybe for me, bitch- you probably got summer school!” And these are generally loud kids, calling out to each other and screaming crude insults with obvious glee. Right around the time I leave home to go to one of my jobs, they’re flooding the sidewalk, knotted together into either small, exclusive groups, or large, meandering mobs.

Being on the first floor makes me privy to the comings and goings of everyone in my building. The late-nighters, probably bartenders or barflies, rolling in at 4:30 AM. The slightly thuggish, but polite kid across the hall from me, and his friends who hang out on the stoop or at the curb in their tinted-windowed, bass-thumping cars waiting for him to come outside. Rosa, who’s lived upstairs for thirty years, her daughters, and granddaughter, and even great-granddaughter, a curly-haired moppet with big eyes, who looks to be about five this year. The night chatterers are a group of interchangeable hipsters that always seem to be moving in and out of the building every couple of months. They clack up and down the stairs with a cacophony of high heels and the too-loud, pained drone of cool straining their voices.

Being on the first floor also gives me less privacy, especially because my bedroom faces the street, and the window is at eye level with anyone who is standing on the stoop at the front door. My bed is placed the only way it can fit into the room- right underneath the window. Especially during the summer, when my windows are always open, I try to find a compromise to how far down the shade should be pulled at night. If it’s all the way down, no air can come in, and in the morning, no sunlight. But if it’s too far up, I feel weird and exposed, lying there reading, illuminated by a lamp and visible to all.

One recent morning, I was sleeping when a voice outside my window woke me up. “Psst,” It said, not too loud, but obviously directed at me.

“What?” I sat up in bed, and peered through the bars and screen outside. I thought it might be my boyfriend, who lives two blocks away and sometimes wakes me up this way. Even without my glasses, though, I could tell it wasn’t him. It was some fatheaded guy with messy hair. What the fuck did he want?

I immediately felt annoyed. Who would wake someone up that they don’t know? I also felt queasy that this guy had seen me sleeping.

“Can you buzz me in?” he asked.

“What? No! I don’t know you. And I’m sleeping!” I said, and pulled the shade all the way down. “Asshole,” I muttered to myself, before falling back asleep.

The most regular and reliable sound I hear out on the street, though, has got to be from The Whistler. The Whistler is a neighborhood guy of indeterminate sanity and unstable means. He looks to be in his late thirties or early forties, but he also looks to be either a current or ex-junkie, so for all I know he’s much younger.

He’s really skinny, and has reddish, close-cropped hair, which is sometimes shaved off completely. From the handful of times I’ve heard The Whistler speak, I think he’s Scottish or Irish. Those times have been few and far between, however, so I can’t say where he’s from with certainty. But I know his signature sound: a lilting, repetitive whistle that he is almost always doing every time I see him, whether he’s hauling a huge sack of aluminum cans on Allen Street, or picking through the residential trash cans on Henry Street, or somewhat juantily, if jerkily, making his way down Essex Street.

It’s almost like a quick-stepping marching whistle, high up in the scale and optimistic-sounding, a tune to accompany his scavenging and redemption. I’d heard the whistle and seen The Whistler separately for some time before I was able to match them up as belonging to each other. I’d hear the peculiar sound from far down the street, or passing by my window and fading, and recognize it, but not know who was producing it.

One night last fall, however, as I was leaving my building, I heard it right across the street, outside the junior high. I immediately slowed and looked over to see The Whistler, who I had seen so many times before, only never while he was whistling.

He was standing at the curb and repeatedly shaking out a pair of jeans, which he had most likely found on the street. He continued to flap them in the cool autumn breeze, as if shaking dust or dirt from them, whistling all the while. A block away, I could still hear the flapping and whistling.

Sometimes, though, I see The Whistler involved in a stranger practice; he has a habit of getting on all fours on the sidewalk and picking at the cracks between the pavement. He gets very close to the ground, his face inches away from it, and whistling, he sorts through the small bits of soil and trash that accumulate there. It’s almost as if he’s got a hold on reality most of the time, even if he lives on the fringes of society, but every now and then he resorts to this bizarre behavior without being able to help it.

The Whistler seems like a generally happy guy, though, and I actually enjoy the whistle. Maybe it’s because it’s the only genuinely reliable approach. I mean, when I hear the whistle, there’s no two guesses about who’s coming down the street.

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