First a subway train, we are now cruising the top of the city. That sounds real nice, but Manhattan is out of sight. Nowhere to be seen. Down below there’s a strange and wild repeating pattern. All-American fifties red brick houses with little lawns, dark tall social housing apartment units and seventies crap repeat in patches, filling out the grid as far as the eye stretches, on both sides of the bridge. Terrifying. I have never seen anything this scale. The train halts between a wasteland of used tracks and a social housing complex. As I walk down the shaky stairs, cars spontaneously stop to let me cross. It is only thirty meters to the stairs to the next station. The street is crowded. It is silent and tense.
A little boy with a schoolbag gets hit on the head by his older brother and sister. He cries, hard. Between the tall buildings there’s little trailer wagons with huge headlights on stakes, some aimed at apartments, others guarding the vicinity.
When a black mother comes walking down the stairs, carrying her stroller, a white couple on the other side of the fence reaches a state of hysteria. “Over there”, the man, pale with a black eye and torn lips beckons an obese white woman, scars, bruises, torn skin on her face. “Oh baby, baby, baby!”, she screams hysterically “What a beautiful baby, what a beautiful baby!”, the obese woman reaches for the stroller from behind the fence. The young mother reacts with a most generous smile.
I walk on, up the stairs. “He’s cute!”, the last of four tall black transvestite passers-by shouts. The breeze makes this platform shake back and forth. You can imagine the state I am in by now. And it only gets better. I arrive at the station of destination. Two men with mean grins guard the exit of the subway station on Eastern Parkway. They don’t stir as I pass. I reach ground. In a grand street that was designed for pleasureful horse-and-carriage riding, gardens of proud apartment buildings are now filled with old and broken furniture. Television screens and stereos. Toys in the snow. For some strange reason, I heave a sigh of relief when a white mother and child pass by. I take their presence as a marker for safety. I would soon stop suffering from this white pathology. But this is my first time in the ghetto.
“Hello?”, the voice on the other side of the line says.
“Hi Harry, this is Daan. I’m here to see the apartment. I already rang the bell three times but I’m afraid it’s not working.”
“Just a second, I’ll call the janitor.”
That’s strange. Sharon – the woman working for the real estate office – asked me to call Harry upon arrival. Now Harry needs to call a third person to open the door. I see a tall, crooked, weathered old black man crawling down the stairs. We shake hands and I notice something about his accent.
“Sir, are you Jamaican?”, I always get personal in moments of discomfort.
“No-no-no, I am Guya-nan.”
“But you don’t speak French. You speak English with a Jamaican accent.”
“Now let me tell-yah…”
While slowly crawling back up the stairs, out of breath, the man explains that as a child, from his small hometown in the tropical hills, he could see the city lights burning in French Guyana. But only at night. Spectacular.
“But now you live in New York?”
“Fifty yeeahs, my young friend.”
He opens the door. A young white man, leaning in a sofa, jumps up – scared to death. “What’s up, man?”, he freezes back into his cool. Deep black blemishes around the eyes and a pale complexion. He sneezes and coughs. The room smells of pee and bleach.
“And here is your room”, the old janitor smiles.
“How much was the price again?”
The bed is old and decrepit but can be replaced. The closet is barely standing. But that can be fixed with some nails and splints. The room measures three meters by four. Small, but hey, this is New York City. There’s not a lot of light. Maybe it gets better on bright days. I walk closer to the window and move the curtain. In the middle of the window there’s six small holes, forming a straight line, left to right.
“I’m really sorry, but I won’t take it. It’s nice though!”, I lie.
“Wait a minute, I may have something you like more upstairs”, he reacts with a wide smile, “only one thousand two hundred.”
I go with the man because he is endearing. The room upstairs is – save the holes in the windows – worse. Even more worn-out and smelly. I feign interest and walk around a bit, for about two minutes. I retrieve the old man in the kitchen, eating his plate of pasta, in between his vacuum cleaner, brushes, buckets and products. He doesn’t look at me.
“I will not take this one either.”
“Mm, mm”, he nods without looking up. He doesn’t accompany me back to the door. Downstairs, just before opening the front door, Harry calls. Before I can say anything, he fires, “Are you taking the room?”
Did I mention this is a cold and rainy day?