Were New York City perpetually stuck in the month of February, I am thoroughly convinced there would be a mass exodus. The one redeeming factor, the one beacon of hope February has to offer New York, is the faintly glimmering prospect of spring, more than six weeks away. And without even that, New York would fast become that hapless city in the Ukraine, post Chernobyl; the Prypiat of North America; the cold dampness buckling from between the sidewalk stones til they looked like broken teeth, rusting out the fire hydrants, corroding the signposts and mail drop boxes. The rusty remains of the Empire State Building, the Chrysler Building, the Woolworth Building, Grand Central Terminal: a habitat for snakes, raccoons, feral cats and God knows what else. Bats, in eternal hibernation in the subway. Were New York stuck in February.
Either that or the city would face a major suicide problem. Gas ovens turned on, flames extinguished, people lying prone on the flat tongues of oven doors. People self- suspended from nooses, from doorways, fire escapes, steam pipes, any convenient protrusion for a ligature. Where the George Washington Bridge would appear, to the casual observer, as though a colony of oversized lemmings had just moved in, and were constantly engaging in that instinctual compulsion for which they had attained a dubious fame. The public service announcements: “Suicide is NOT the answer!” given stentorially, ad nauseum, by prominent faces in the media, alive this week, dead the next, having made a Socratic exit courtesy of a Drano martini.
By the grace of science, luckily, that is not the case. February, bleak as it is, does have the faint, tepid anticipatory ember of spring. We, speculating on her early arrival, her warmth, her light, hold her up as some far off Messiah, a deliverance, mercy. But February in New York is, for want of a more eloquent word, awful. The Christmas trees have been down at least a month for all except the most unforgivably indolent, making it that much more depressing. The winter accessories and attire we bought on Black Friday, got for Christmas or Hanukkah; the Ralph Lauren rugby scarf, the Victorinox sweater, the Brooks Brothers pea coat, all have lost their festive luster, and now are dingy accoutrements of mourning, doing nothing but absorbing the spray of slush, the icy slurry of subway grime, and the rank stench emitted by hollow eyed, desperate homeless people, who have multiplied exponentially just for February.
Slush. The onomapoetic sound of it, squashing under our feet, seeping into our shoes through any available orifice, soaking our socks, wrinkling our feet. Slush, the aftermath of the false hope a thaw gives, and then slaps us back down to the reality of another six weeks of winter. Otherwise attractive girls sloshing around in those shapeless, mud colored boots: Uggs: also onomapoetic of the sound one makes in reaction to their unmitigable hideousness.
It is about 7:45 PM on a Tuesday, and luckily, I am not out in that nuclear winter known as February. I am in my apartment on the 4th floor. I can hear the sleet against the window, pinging against the fire escape. Every now and then the sound of the subway rumbles up through the grates from the guts of the earth. Magda is at work, but will be home any minute. I have just downloaded to my iTunes account a recording of La Boheme, with Carlo Bergonzi and Renata Tebaldi. I already have a recording of Boheme, with Pavarotti and Mirella Freni, but I do not care for it. God forgive me, I have never been a fan of Pavarotti.
I am attempting to multitask, something I am not awfully good at, checking my email with a glass of Faustino Rioja (not bad for $9 a bottle). The flawless portamento of Carlo Bergonzi resonates in my living room, through the Technics speakers I got in college, those speakers that owe me nothing, yet still holding strong. My feet are on the coffee table, my buttocks on the couch and my MacBook warm on my lap. The Rioja is in a Riedel glass, far enough away from my foot so that I won’t accidentally kick it onto the floor. Carlo Bergonzi is in the throes of Che Gelida Manina and there is a knock on the door.
It would have annoyed me; Puccini is not to be interrupted, had I not had half a bottle already of Rioja. I paused Carlo, and walked toward the door. Our apartment is such that the living room is at the end of a long, narrow hallway. The hallway is narrow enough that a child could easily put both his hands on either wall. It is about twenty-five feet long.
I shot back the deadbolt and opened the door. There is a young woman in jeans standing there, maybe in her very early twenties, black curly hair, large, dark eyes, maybe about five foot, two. There was a tiny, silver crucifix hanging just an inch before where the boundary of her shirt began.
“Hi,” I greeted her pleasantly (isn’t it funny how our reactions to people vary based on their looks. It’s not nice, not fair, and I am ashamed of it, as I hope many people are. But it is true. Had she been ugly as sin, I think I might have been more crusty at the interruption of Puccini, Carlo and Faustino. I am not proud of that.)
“Hi” she said, ”My electricity just went out, and was wondering if you might have a flashlight or something”
I detected a slight Latin American accent; she was a native Spanish speaker.
“I bet I do,” I said solicitously,” Just hang on. Do you want to come in?”
I walked down the long hall, made a right angle past the living room to where the kitchen was. There was a cabinet that had once been a dumbwaiter shaft; both the top and bottom had been blocked off, and it was where we stored the odds and ends, as well as the two flashlights. We had exactly two flashlights. One was a formidable, burgundy colored steel MagLite. It took three DD batteries and was about fifteen inches long. It felt cold and heavy in your hand; the outside was metal. It was intimidating looking and rightfully so: it made an excellent bludgeoning tool. If you ever brought that thing down on anybody’s head, chances are, they would never get back up. And if they did, chances are they would be taking the remainder of their meals through a tube and shitting it out in Depends. For the rest of their life. I fervently hoped to God that neither Magda nor I would ever have to use it for any other purpose than for illumination.
The other flashlight was a red, plastic flashlight; nothing else. It was the bottom end of any flashlight you would ever see. Plastic, took two DD batteries. Maybe about eight or nine inches long. EVEREADY was stamped in the slide switch. I tested the flashlight, and, since it had been ages since Magda or I had used it, the light was bright.
I emerged from the kitchen with the red plastic flashlight and noticed that the girl was still standing at the far end of the hall, by the door. I brought her the flashlight. “Here you go,” I said
“Thank you,” she said
“ You’re very welcome,” I responded,” I’m Mark. I live here with my girlfriend, Magda,” I extended my hand. Her hand was tiny, and ice cold.
“Lourdes. I live in 4 I. Right here.” She indicated the apartment kittycorner to ours, the entrance at a right angle, ”I’ll bring it back as soon as possible.“
Take your time,” I responded.
I went back into my apartment and started Boheme back up. “Che Gelida Manina” gave way to Renata Tebaldi’s rendition of “Si. Mi Chiamano Mimi.” I like Renata Tebaldi. I do. Not as much as Angela Georgieu, mind you, but I like her. Feel free to disagree. Magda came home, I may or may not have mentioned that I loaned a flashlight to the girl in the kittycorner apartment; it wasn’t important. The next day, outside the apartment door, was the flashlight, standing steadily upright on its lens. There was a yellow post-it note attached. “Thank you so much.” Written in a Sharpie. With a smiley face.
As every year, spring did eventually come to New York in due time, and our miserable February slid into our memories, as before. Everything came out of hibernation; the Mister Softie ice cream truck played, to the joy of some, to the annoyance of others, the familiar tune in 9/8 time. The last of the snow disappeared and the rowing team of Columbia University once again appeared in the river. The crack of bat against ball was heard in the parks, and wool gave way to cotton.
With that spring, among the agreeable weather and the blossoming of the flora and fauna in the vast parks in our neighborhood, a lovely girl had moved into the apartment across the hall: Apt 4H. Her name was Rosalind and she was just a few years younger than Magda or I, maybe twenty-six or seven. She was tall, large boned, had ample curves and hips, thick dark hair and dark eyes. She spoke in a sunny soprano voice and was always seen with a hyper little white poodle about the size of a football on a leash. She brought sunshine into the gloomy, grim hallways and Magda and I befriended her almost immediately.
Of course, very soon we had her over for a few drinks. Magda had put out some crackers: some Triscuits, wheat thins, Kashi crackers, some Manchego cheese and little processed wedges of Laughing Cow cheese. Tribe Hummus, too. Roasted red pepper. I had made Bombay Sapphire martinis, the potion of gin and vermouth sweating anticipatorily in the steel shaker. The iTunes was set to shuffle a playlist of classic rock: Wish You Were Here, Come Sail Away, Home by the Sea, that kind of thing.
“So, how do you like your new place?” Magda, always the icebreaker, asked.
I was genuinely interested in this answer because our property management had been remiss, no, downright negligent in maintenance and basic repairs.
“I like it,” Rosalind responded in her usual positive fashion,” But do you know about Apartment 4 I?”
I knew apartment 4 I, because I had been in Apartment 3 I. Apartments, in this building anyway, are generally laid out the same on each floor. To wit, Apartment 3 I has an identical layout to 4 I. For a lot of people, myself included, seeing how other apartments in the building are laid out is an interest. Some people call it “apartment envy”. I would prefer call it “apartment curiosity” because there are some apartments I have seen to which the filthiest, darkest, dankest boarding house room anywhere this side of hell would be preferable.
I had been in apartment 3 I during that brief window of time the apartment sat empty and management were pulling their hair out trying to get a tenant in there that would not destroy the place or do something that would trigger a lengthy and expensive battle in housing court. I had walked around the empty apartment, seeing how the kitchen compared to ours, surveying the placement of the bedrooms, bathroom, whether they still had the French doors, or if somewhere in the past ninety-five years they had been destroyed. The I line, (That is, 3 I, 4 I) were some of the larger apartments in the building. They all had three bedrooms. Plus a dining room. But to answer Rosalind’s question, I knew apartment 4 I
“Yeah. I know 4 I,” I said, straining the martini into her glass. “One or three olives?”
“It’s a three bedroom.” I explained, “Plus it has a dining room, which I guess you could use as a bedroom, assuming the French doors are still there. It’s a nice size apartment. Doesn’t get much of a view, though. I think every window looks out onto an air shaft. Kinda gloomy.”
“Well, you know it’s a brothel?” Rosalind answered in indignant disgust, ”An illegal brothel!”
“Really?” I laughed at this obvious redundancy; an illegal brothel, as though there were brothels somewhere in the City of New York that were perfectly legal, perhaps even sanctioned by the Catholic Church and maybe even endorsed by the Daughters of the American Revolution. That thought made me laugh harder, but I quickly checked myself because I surmised that Rosalind did not believe this to be a laughing matter. The fish-eye Magda was giving me confirmed that. “I did not know,” I said finally
Magda had taken an interest,” Does the super know?” She asked
“Yes,” Rosalind sighed in dismay,”But he really can’t do anything.”
“Does management know?” I asked
“They’re useless,” she snorted.
“Oh, so you’ve noticed,” I alluded to property management’s abject lack of interest in their own building, short of collecting rent and trying to increase it through every act of trickery imaginable.
“Do the police know?” Magda asked, all three of us knowing full well that the NYPD had better things to do than to raid a two-bit whorehouse.
“My bedroom shares a wall, and I can hear them. It’s disgusting,” Rosalind continued, myself thankful that our bedroom had two outside walls; the remaining two abutting other rooms in our apartment and thereby containing any sounds we might make in the most intimate of activities.
“And all those awful men, showing up at all hours. Ugh! They look so perverted!”
Magda and I nodded sympathetically. Honestly, we had never noticed.
However, it was as though Rosalind’s words had set into motion some bastard form of divine retribution. The next day, we noticed. Oh, you bet we did! It was as though the earth had vomited up every reject of the male gender and had deposited them on our doorstep, our lobby, indeed in the hallways of our building. Men, of all defect and iniquitiy, leering through eyes that gave a perfect, fiber-optic window to their cold, black, hard consciences. Men with rotten teeth, tattoos on their neck, their face, even, that would preclude respectable employment anywhere, raising the question how they could honestly generate the funds to visit a whorehouse.
Men, whose moral compass forbade them from engaging in the most fundamental acts of personal hygiene, and yet, through some mysterious loophole, allowed them to consort with prostitutes. Men with strips of rubbers hanging out of their pockets, men pleasuring themselves through the front pockets of their pants in anticipation. All dumped right outside our door, for the attractive nuisance otherwise known as the 4 I Brothel.
Compounding the matter was that the entrance to our building was mere feet from the subway entrance, once a convenience, now a curse. I marveled that people would actually travel to our building for this fourth floor brothel. Often I would emerge from the subway, coming back from work, from dinner, from a night out with Magda, to find a pu pu platter of degenerate looking wastrels camped out in front of the building.
Property management’s lax attitude towards the security of the building also played a role: Half the time the self-locking front door of the building wouldn’t self lock, or lock at all, for that matter, allowing the johns to wander freely through the building and come and go as they saw fit. Once, when the self-locking mechanism of the door actually worked, a particularly unsavory looking character asked me to let him in the building.
“Do you live here?” I asked sourly, knowing full well that he did not.
“I own the building,” he answered with a surly smirk
“Well, you would have a key, then, wouldn’t you?” I responded, pulling the door shut behind me. He inserted his foot into the door just before it closed and I kicked it out and slammed it. He hammered on the glass and shouted abuse. Boy, was I glad that door locked!
Initially, I regarded the whole situation with some degree of humor. I remember, one night, I had my buddy Maurice over. We were just hanging out, drinking Hoegaarden Belgian Ale. We were listening through every album Pink Floyd had made since Dark Side of the Moon. Magda is not a huge Pink Floyd fan, but she was out at a baby shower. I had bought a 12 pack and at the rate we were going, we might need to supplement that, either with more Hoegaarden, or with another type of brew. He looked at the bottle of the beer and said,”Hey….. it’s called Hoegaarden!”
“Yes, Moe, yes it is!” I responded, sensing where this was going.
“If you were to grow flowers in a flower garden, and veggies in a veggie garden, what would you grow in a hoe-garden?” he asked
“What?” I asked, knowing full well the punchline, but feeling the need to play the straight man.
“Hoes!” he shouted, as though it was the funniest thing all day, laughing until tears spurted out of his eyes.
“Like the whorehouse kittycorner to us!” I added. I had told him about the kittycorner brothel earlier, and he regarded it as the most hilarious situation ever to grace the planet. Ever after that, we referred to the 4 I brothel as the Hoe-Garden.
If I saw a limited amount of humor in it, Magda and Rosalind did not. The presence of the johns in our building was tiresome for me, but menacing for them. Often the johns would forget the apartment number and wander aimlessly through the corridors and up and down the stairs, as though an epiphany would come through the worn fire hose or out the creaky and questionably rigged elevator. When asked, I, complacent and resigned, would sigh and give them the apartment number. Magda would give them an icy stare and either give them a curt, monosyllabic answer or an opprobrious gesture in the general direction. Rosalind, however, would give them a look that would strip the paint off a car, and either stalk angrily away, or, if she were in a proximity to her apartment, stalk off to her apartment and slam her door, the report of it echoing like a gunshot throughout the corridors.
It got old, very old. Very fast. The johns would sometimes knock on our door, and I, visibly annoyed, would point them to the kittycorner door. It got to the point to where Magda wouldn’t answer the door without the MagLite firmly in her grip, nor did I want her to. Rosalind was beside herself.
Interestingly, for all the strange men coming and going, the only female I ever saw entering or leaving the apartment was a scowling, dirigiblesque gorgon, whom I assumed was the madam. I could not conceive of anyone so desperate that they would pay her for the services she could render in the context of a brothel. I would sometimes see her, opening the door just wide enough to admit her to the apartment, only to slam it shut, shooting home the deadbolt in the process.
One evening there were was a rapping at the door, always, ad nauseum, and I, having become fed up, stormed towards the door. At this point in time the ratio of wayward johns knocking on our door was depressingly disproportionate to legitimate guests. I opened the door and the gorgon was standing there.
“Yes?” I answered curtly, sizing her up in distaste.
“Yeah. Our power went out. You got a flashlight or something?” She had a unibrow that snaked across her forehead like some mutant caterpillar that had found ample feeding soil and was there to stay.
“Hold on, let me check” I walked into the apartment without inviting her in, half-inclined to deny her the flashlight, even though I knew damn fine we had a spare.
I opened the dumbwaiter in the kitchen and got out the red plastic flashlight, with the post-it note still on it there. I peeled it off and deposited it in the trash.
As I walked towards the door with the flashlight, I noticed she had let herself in, and was leaning against the wall as if she owned the place. I ignored the presumption, and minded my manners.
“Here you go,” I said, handing her the red flashlight, ”You should check the fusebox in your apartment. You know, this whole place is half-wired. I think, back around 1918 or 1920, around that time, when they wired this place with electricity, they ran the wires through the old gas mains. Worked back then, but……”
“It’s not that.” She spat, cutting me off and snatching the flashlight, ”It’s that asshole super. He keeps shutting off our power”
I was about to say that was impossible, that the super had no control over the electricity outside the apartment, but she had already gone into the darkness of Apt 4 I, slamming the door and securing the deadbolt. I never saw the flashlight again.
Summer has passed, and we are hurtling away from the sun. It is mid November and the tears of summer past are saturating the asphalt, the concrete, soaking through the umbrellas of those unlucky enough to be outside. Luckily, I am awaiting dinner in my apartment. The rotini boils on the stove, the pesto simmers, and the chicken sizzles in the pan. The glass of Smoking Loon Chardonnay is sitting on the counter as Magda and I scoot around each other in our preprandial preparation. The salad, complete with palm and artichoke hearts sits out on the coffee table in the living room.
The final act of Faust is wafting into the kitchen, Marguerite is in her prison cell, awaiting a death sentence for killing her infant at the behest of Mephistopheles. Mephistopheles and Faust planning her escape as she stalls, firm in the knowledge that her deliverance is imminent, even at the expense of Faust. Marguerite, anthem like: her soprano overriding the desperate pleas of both Faust and Mephistopheles. There is a knock on our door.
Something is different about the tenor, the rhythm, the tessitura of this knock. It is not the aimless knock of the disorientated john; it is precise and authoritative. Unfamiliar. I choke Marguerite off mid note and walk towards the door.
“Yes?” I open the door.
There are two men in suits, neatly dressed, one about forty, the other about fifty. The forty year old, a good head taller that the fifty year old, has a neat military moustache. They are clearly here in an official capacity.
“Good evening, sorry to bother you,” the older of the two says ”We’re detectives from the NYPD” He flashes a badge.
“We just wanted to ask a few questions,” he continued, “We’re doing an investigation, and we wanted to know if you knew a Lourdes Romero”
Lourdes, Lourdes… The name rung a bell, but from where, I can’t say, specifically. I’ve never been good with names.
“The name Lourdes rings a bell,” I say, ”But I don’t know anyone called Lourdes. What does she look like? Maybe I saw her around”
“Dark hair, twenty-two. Five feet one. One hundred and seven pounds”
“Do you have a picture or anything?” I ask
“Well…” The younger officer shifts uncomfortably, looking at the older officer, ”It’s not the type of picture you’d want to see…..”
The older officer nods, and the younger officer gets out his notebook and flips up the cover.
There she is, the girl who had borrowed the flashlight back in February, both eyes shut, one eye swollen shut in an obvious assault. There she is, a sheet covering her to the neck and I see the outline of the steel slab on which she is lying, the coroner’s office number along the bottom border.
“Oh my God,” I say, ”When did this happen?”
“Just a couple of days ago,” the younger officer says, ”We just wanted to know if she looked familiar, and if you remembered when the last time you might have seen her was”
“Yeah…yeah. I remember her. She lived right there, in 4 I.” I say, “haven’t seen her in ages, though. Like February. She borrowed a flashlight from us, once”
“Sorry to bother you, thank you for your time” the older officer says, moving on to knock on the door of Rosalind’s apartment.
I take a moment before returning into the apartment, shutting the door noiselessly, securing the deadbolt silently. I am depressed. I walk back up the hall, feeling unwell; the chicken might as well be a rock, the pesto: battery acid. We are devoid, forsaken, abandoned, bereft of anything that remotely smacks of humanity. We are a miserable damned species, unfit, unworthy to occupy this earth. There is no mercy, none whatsoever, in this God-forsaken hunk of cold, hard rock, otherwise known as Earth, nor, do we as a people, deserve it. We are only fit for the wasteland that lies ahead for the next six months. We deserve longer; we are horrible.
I put my hands on the window frame and look out at the sodden asphalt below, the miserably glimmering lights, and the rain, in secula et in seculorum, those tears of the worthy, weeping for Lourdes, poor Lourdes.
“Is everything okay?” Magda asks in concern,”You look upset”
“Yeah,” I croak
In the distance there is the caterwaul of a siren, perhaps it’s to Columbia Presbyterian, perhaps to Riker’s Island, perhaps to quench the handiwork of someone who chose to immolate the progress of humanity, and all of a sudden it stops, as though someone had choked the life out of it.
Much to Rosalind’s, Magda’s, and yes, of course, even my relief, the brothel folded. There was no showdown, no raid, no stakeout; it just was here one day, gone the next. Apartment 4 I sat empty and dark. Every now and then, a confused john would be seen wandering the halls, but after being told that the brothel was no more, he looked bewildered, as though he had no idea what to do with the remainder of those years ahead which could be dubiously referred to as a life. Ultimately, he walked out the door, crestfallen. I did not feel sorry for him.
It is 2:15 AM and I am awake, not through any conscious choice or reason. Magda, peacefully at slumber next to me in the queen size bed is breathing rhythmically, her chest rising and falling to the pulse of dreams which I hope sing to her idylls of rejuvination, of warmth, of light:
Lazy girl, who is still sleeping, The golden day is breaking. The birds are singing, and dawn smiles on the fields. All of nature awakens to love!
February has once again descended on us, and there will be no warmth or light or rejuvination or anything else. This will be in effect for weeks to come. The radiator, which even property management’s lamentable neglect has not yet destroyed, hisses in chorus with the peaceless dirge, the ambient Lacrymosa of a city never truly at rest.
It is 2:30 AM and I have been hearing the report of steady pounding in groups of four. Bam Bam Bam Bam! Bam Bam Bam Bam! It is not our door, but one close by. I get up, and something tells me to detour by the dumbwaiter and grab the MagLite. In my boxers and a T shirt I pad towards the door, where the quadriformatted knocking increases in volume and force: BAM BAM BAM BAM! BAM BAM BAM BAM! I open the door.
There is a man, a large, flabby man in a grimy lime green suit hammering on the door of Apt 4 I. I had a friend in college with an old, rusty car the color of this man’s suit: a 1974 Dodge Dart. The car was in better condition than the suit. He continues hammering, oblivious to me until I protest,” Jesus, it’s 2:30 in the damn morning! You’ve been hammering that door for the past fifteen minutes. Who the hell does that?”
He finally turns around, regarding me. He has a hairpiece, or perhaps a combover in a style; something between a bowl cut and a mullet. He is about fifty, and the years have not been kind, largely due, I would assume, to habitual and excessive libation, as evidenced by his large nose, red with ruptured capillaries. He looks at me in an intellectually bereft gaze.
“Yeah,” He says,”I’m looking for Lourdes. Lourdes. Do you know if she’s home?”
He must have picked up on my sour expression, because he reaches in his pocket. “It’s ok,” he says,” I’m a cop”
He produces a laughably cheap replica of a police badge, something you might get by sending away box tops of Fruity Pebbles (do they even still make Fruity Pebbles?)
“ No,” I say caustically, contemptuously,” She doesn’t live here anymore. So get the hell out of here before I call the police”
He is still standing there looking at me stupidly, holding out the fake badge, and suddenly I take the MagLite and bring it down, in perfect aim on the plastic badge. My aim has never been great, and I am not wearing my glasses, so it’s amazing I didn’t break his hand.
The badge breaks on impact and hits the floor with so much velocity it shatters into many pieces. “The real police,” I add.
He is still standing there with that bovesque expression on his face, the drunkard’s nose, that stupid wig and I am very tempted to take the MagLite and damage more than just that idiotic badge! Instead, I return to my apartment and close the door.
Curious, I look out the peephole and watch as he stoops down and sweeps the shattered pieces of his charade into his hand, stands up, and walks slowly down the stairs.