Three years ago, I lived in Hell's Kitchen, the only Manhattan neighborhood with a name more storied than its residents. I was on West 40th Street, off 9th Avenue. Right behind the Port Authority bus station. In fact, the in-bound Lincoln Tunnel bus-only ramp flew past my 4th floor bedroom window, a scant fifty feet away. On more than a few occasions, my houseguest-de-l'heure would open my blinds and be startled to find a traffic jam of packed buses blankly staring in at our festivities.
Across from my apartment building was a Baptist Church. On weekends, a long line of budding evangelists camped out front, waiting for that day's Two Minute Hate before they headed into Times Square with their pamphlets and suburban smiles. I'd usually see a handsome bearded man with a clipboard, organizing these kids as they poured off their bus, sleeping bags slung over their shoulder.
A few months after I moved into the neighborhood, he introduced himself to me at The Dugout, a bear bar, down in the Village. After I got to know him, and after I watched those kids hand out sandwiches and soup in both sweltering heat and swirling snow, I decided to spare them my typically snarky comments when I passed them on the sidewalk.
Just up the block from the Baptist Church was the Manhattan office for the State Department of Parole. The hand-lettered sign in the heavily fortified window said, 'No Guns! No Girlfriends! No Kidding!' This place operated to ensure a nonstop traffic flow of felons down my block, office hours only, please.
Sharing the western wall of my apartment building, was the New York County Center For Displaced Women. A catch-all agency that dealt with women with drug problems, legal problems, housing problems, man problems. It was run by nuns. Capital 'N', nuns. Sort of a quasi-governmental agency, the type of which NYC seems to have many. These nuns were HARD looking. As in, they ain't gettin' NUN. And it was strictly a daytime walk-in operation. You had to have your problems solved by 5pm, because that's when they pushed you out of the door with a sandwich in one hand, and a lotta nuttin' in the other.
One of the unhappier clients of the Ain't Gettin' Nunnery took to a bizarre daily ritual. Standing on a piece of cardboard in front of our adjoining doors, she'd loudly recite from her bible, shouting up at the nuns in the windows, in one of the most hilariously thick Queens accents ever heard this side of Edith Bunker.
"So I pray dat Gawd,
Who gives ya hope,
Will keep ya happy."
This would go on all day, on most weekdays. She was devout in her deliverance and I was always curious to know how the nuns had wronged her, but she was dirty and looked like she probably would cut me if I asked, so I never did.
Sharing the eastern wall of my apartment building was the New York County Public Housing administration office. Not the main office, no...this was the place where the destitute and nearly homeless could come view 'Model Apartments' that the city was building here and there. Complete representations of the floorplans were made, because many of these units under construction were to be sold to their tenants, either at the onset, or eventually. Looking at the posted income requirements for these Section 8 units, I finally understood what homeless activists say about being 'too poor for public housing.'
Now being ringed in on all four sides as I was by bus ramps, public housing offices, a drop-in shelter, and a Baptist soup kitchen, you *might* think that my apartment building was pretty crummy. In fact, it was one of the nicest places I've ever lived. Certainly the nicest in NYC. That's the bizarre charm of Hell's Kitchen. I lived in a very nice apartment, in a good building, on an 'OK' block, of a *very* scary neighborhood.
A mere hundred yards from my front door was a nonstop swirling Otherworld. A 24-hour one-stop supply shop for Crack and Crazy. I used to give friends directions to my place by telling them that I was right on the corner of Crack and Ho. Go straight down Crack, until you see the Ho's, and turn right.
I learned very quickly to keep my eyes cast down, when passing by anyone, especially with groceries, because you'd be followed by hungry addicts. Once, I put my bags down in front of my building, as I fished for my keys and became distracted by a phone call. I turned around and there were three men pawing through my groceries, which I abandoned and fled inside to safety.
The dealers tended to huddle under the Verizon phone booth shelter on the corner. Although, I guess since some madman had ripped the guts out of all the phones, it was actually a Verizon Drug Dealer shelter. I saw some crazy things go down over there, as I'd move further and further into Ninth Avenue, desperately waving for a taxi, trusting that the people in the cars would be less likely to hit me, than the people on the sidewalk.
File this under 'It Really Happened':
I'm waiting to cross Ninth Avenue, during a pelting rainstorm. Next to me, at the Verizon Drug Dealer shelter, I see one of the regular dealers making a sale. His customer is a Hassidic Jew, in full Hassidic drag, the long coat, prayer shawl, the curly sideburns, the whole schmear. It was unusual to see one by himself, usually they'd be waiting for their special Hassidic Only buses that stopped over on the far side of the bus station. So this guy is buying crack. AND he's HAGGLING the dealer. Come ON people! I couldn't believe I was witnessing such bizarre, wholesale enactment of stereotypes. It was as hilarious as it was sad. If I hadn't recognized the dealer, I might have thought it was some kind of street theatre. Just as I stepped off the curb, the dealer pushed the Hassidic guy backwards.
'Bitch! I done TOLE you how much!'
Man, if I tried to pitch that scene to a network, they'd cry 'Hate Crime!' That's what they'd all cry, 'Hate Crime!', while pointing at me and my script. And maybe it was.
I tended not to keep the windows open, up there on the 4th floor in Hell's Kitchen. Otherwise I'd hear the hookers all night long.
'Bitch, don't try it!'
After exactly one year, I moved to another 4th floor walk-up apartment, this time in the West Village, on Christopher Street, where I'd hear the tranny hookers all night long.
'Bitch, don't try it!'