When I first moved to New York, in the early eighties, I lived for a while in a renovated Old Law (dumbbell) tenement in Chelsea. My next-door neighbor was a late middle-aged woman who had been living, for years, in the un-renovated tub-in-kitchen version of my apartment. She was usually very nice, but was sometimes given to loud one-sided aggressive declaratory conversations with Jesus in the wee hours of the morning. I later learned that she suffered from schizophrenia, and was always one disability check away from being out on the street. At the time, rapacious New York landlords were emptying SRO buildings through any means that they could find, fair and foul, and were often "warehousing" the empty buildings until the market turned in their favor.
One day, I read in the News the sad story of a little girl on the Lower East Side who had been playing beneath the stoop of her building and was killed when the stoop collapsed on top of her. She was a very well-loved child and the neighborhood was very tight. It was one of those moments in a neighborhood, a much smaller version of the General Slocum disaster from eighty years before, when you could practically hear a collective keening arise from scores of kitchens where mothers were cooking dinner, empty lots where kids were playing stoop-ball and in Tompkins Square Park where she was memorialized by sad-eyed men.
This was the first thing that I ever wrote for an actor, and it was given wonderful voice by the late Rosanna Carter of the Negro Ensemble Company.
Scene: The doorway of a former SRO tenement building on the Lower East Side of New York. CASSANDRA, a black homeless woman of indeterminate age, stands at the foot of the stoop with two large paper bags at her side packed with all of her earthly possessions blocking the steps. She addresses PAUL [an actor who has taken a job as the super of an empty tenement building in the process of being renovated].
You think I don’t know you? You live here now, in this building, don’t you? You like it? You think it’s built solid, do you? I’m here to tell you. You best be saying your prayers ‘fore you go to sleep at night, ‘cause this building’s liable to fall down any moment.
[beat] You moving away. You think I’m out my mind, don’t you? You sure as hell don’t know me. But I know you.
You read in the paper, sometimes, see on the TV, about some old building fallin' down somewheres. Always seems to be in East New York, South Bronx, Lower East Side... one of them poorer neighborhoods, don't it? Why you spose that be?
Just cause they old? No, chile. I'll tell you why. Old buildings be a lot like old people. They be storing up memories and souls since the day they be built. Souls of everyone who ever lived there. Every gal who give birth over some tub inna kitchen 'cause she be too poor to afford a doctor. Every old man who pass on in his sleep with a bottle in his hands 'cause he don't got no good reason to get up no more. And every little thing that happen in between.
After a while, see, the weight of all them souls starts to press down on the walls, press down on the floors, until something just give way.
No suh. Old buildings don't fall down for no reason at all. Not in these neighborhoods. They collapse from the weight of all the souls they got in 'em, all the life they've seen.
Oh, I know you well enough. You the one they hire to watch this old building they "warehousing" like you say. You the one holdin' the keys. It be getting cold for November. Now, will you let me in my home?
- from Going Home ©1989 Peter Basta Brightbill