Last week I went to visit a friend staying in a hotel on 53rd Street between Lexington and 3rd Avenue. She told me the room cost $300 a night, which is now apparently average in price. Afterwards I walked over to 1st Avenue and down past the United Nations. At 42nd Street a huge demolition is going on. A gigantic building, which looks to be a formidable old power station, is being ferociously torn down and a banner on the fence around it announces new luxury residences coming soon.
I looked up into a big wound on the side facing me and I could see what appeared to be a giant iron wheel. I’m sure it was built to last forever. I took some pictures, but the whole thing was much too massive to fit into my camera.
Most of the buildings coming down around town try not to give up too easily. The buildings on 8th Avenue at 29th Street are being slowly chopped down by hand using sledgehammers, and the workmen can be seen carrying heavy wooden beams to the edge of the roof and dropping them over in clouds of brick dust. The old power station was really giving her guys a fight. The entire building is iron and steel and stone and brick. I asked a workman in a hard hat how the hell they were ever going to get that wheel down and he said, “With a big machine, hon.”
My tenement house sits on one of the last crummy old blocks of 7th Avenue while all around it big residences are shooting up. Lots of my neighbors have lived here forever. My neighbor Tito is one of those. Many years ago he worked in the factories over on the West Side which don’t operate any more. Bertha on the first floor remembers Tito then and said what a lovely young man he was, getting dressed up on Saturday night to go out and tango. She remembers when the apartments in my building rented for $16 a week in 1963. There are 16 apartments in the building, and all of them used to pay that $16 rent each week in cash to the super. The total sum for the whole building each week was $256. Well one day, said Bertha, the super absconded with the week’s fortune, never to be seen again. After that, the tenants had to pay with a check directly to the owner.
When spring finally comes to Chelsea, Tito brings out a lawn chair and a folding chair and keeps them down behind the garbage cans under the stairs. Then when he feels like it, he spends the day sitting or lying out on the corner of 7th Avenue and 22nd Street. Summer isn’t officially over until Tito’s folding chairs go back into his closet.
The building has gone through some changes while I’ve lived in it. There was a crack house in 1D for a year, when at all hours cadaverous and scurvy-looking people dragged themselves in and out, visiting the crack boss, a rotund, bearded person who looked like a Caribbean pirate. A few of the apartments were gutted and renovated to attract transient yuppies, but most are lived in by people who have been here a long time. Our super keeps his door open and cooks big dinners every night and anyone who feels like it can go right in. He’s decorated the area around the garbage with original, terrible artwork from various trashcans around the neighborhood, and other supers from other buildings come over in the evenings and watch his big TV.
On certain days the exterminator comes, and goes from floor to floor, banging on everyone’s door, yelling, “Exterminator! Exterminator!” He carries an old-fashioned looking copper can with a hose attached, from which he’ll come in and spray behind the stove and the radiator for roaches and lately, for bedbugs. The bedbugs are the newest fad. The building had a flyer by the garbage explaining that bedbugs, contrary to popular myth, don’t indicate poor hygiene and that they are moving into every kind of building in Manhattan, even the most luxurious hotels, thanks to DDT going out of commerce. They don’t carry diseases, but they bite and make life uncomfortable. They like to travel upwards, almost never down, and rarely but sometimes, across.
The D apartments in my building got bed bugs, and the lady next to me had to get a new mattress. I covered mine in plastic. I haven’t had an infestation, but three times I’ve found a nymph in the bathtub who managed to swim through from next door. Each time, I’ve killed the nymph and told the super and up comes the exterminator to spray around the bathtub. The exterminator told me that the worst cases he’s seen of bed bugs have been in new, rich buildings. The people call him SCREAMING, he said, and we laughed and laughed together while he sprayed in the hallway outside my door. With all the money they’ve paid, rich people expect to not have bugs in their apartments. There’s a theory that all the construction going on has somehow caused a renaissance of bedbugs. I read that once upon a time, only rich people got them, because only rich people had beds and linens and wooden cabinets for bugs to hide in and everyone else slept in straw.
When that big power plant on 42nd and 1st was built, every apartment in the city had bedbugs. And all the while, as bedbugs were being eradicated with DDT and eventually forgotten in New York, that huge iron wheel I saw was ceaselessly turning, around and around and around. Now the wheel has stopped, the workmen will have to get it down piece by piece so it doesn’t roll out onto the FDR Drive, and every second they’re doing that, a little nymph is making a nest in someone’s linen closet, waiting to grow up and bite.
March 26, 2006 Follow me on Facebook