By Raanan Geberer
It was an ordinary day at the office of the Section 8 Leased Housing Bronx Team No. 2 at the New York Housing Authority’s Central Office. Today was one of the two days a week Rob Bergman went out on apartment inspections. First he’d have to wait for his partner, Manuel Enriquez. He opened his copy of the Daily News and started reading. More on the Iran hostage crisis, another demonstration against Mayor Koch, speculation about who President-elect Reagan would appoint to his cabinet—nothing new.
“Hey, Rob,” said Mike Gerson, a pudgy, balding fellow management assistant from Queens Team No. 1. “You know this one, babe? `My own true love..’” he began singing a horribly out-of-tune version of the Duprees’ 1962 hit. Since he’d learned that Rob was into oldies, Mike kept quizzing Rob with his renditions of ‘50s and early ‘60s songs.
“Hey, you wanna go to the next Ralph Nader show at the Garden?” “Maybe,” Rob answered. “I’ll let you know.” Mike was the problem child of the Section 8 office. While all the assistants were expected to do eight reports a day, Mike could barely manage three. At age 40, Mike still lived with his parents, and his only real interests were oldies, betting on sports and betting at the racetrack. He was now on probation—Rob hoped he made it.
Behind Rob, Rick, the unit’s token hippie, was taking to Lou, who had walked over from the Manhattan unit. “This summer, I’m going to be going back to The Farm for a few weeks. I try to get there every year.”
“No, THE Farm. It’s a giant commune in Tennessee, man. You live on the land. It’s nice to get back to the land, man…..” And across from Rick, Jolene, a middle-aged black woman, was talking to someone on the phone about her latest cruise-ship vacation.
From across the room, Rob saw Mr. O’Leary, the team manager, walk in his direction. “Ah, Rob!” he said. “The man who can do everything! Annual reports, apartment inspections, transfer requests, move-ins, move-outs, you name them, he can do them. Listen, Rob, can I ask you for a favor?”
“I know it’s not your day to do interviews, but one of the housing assistants at Bronx Team No 1 isn’t here, and there’s this tenant waiting. I’ll give you her folder. I heard from Manuel—he’ll be a little late—so there’ll be plenty of time, provided it’s a short interview. Here’s the folder.”
Rob sighed. “OK!” After a few seconds, a buxom, heavy-set woman in her late 20s or early 30s wearing a white blouse and dark skirt came to his desk and sat down. Rob looked at the folder. Irina? Hmm. A Russian. The notes in the folder told him that she was a substitute teacher but also a masseuse.
The conversation went fairly quickly. She felt her studio apartment was too cramped, and she wanted a voucher for a two-bedroom apartment, where she could use the other room as an office. The case was fairly cut-and-dried: Since she was only one person, she was only entitled to a studio or one-bedroom.
“You sure?” she said. “If you give me a transfer, I can give you a special massage.”
Rob got the point, but shook his head and said no. As she left, he reflected that this would be a great story to tell the guys at home.
Mr. O’Leary approached Rob’s desk. “Manuel’s here. He’s waiting for you in the garage. Better go downstairs so you can get a jump on those apartment inspections.” * *
Rob and Manuel were speeding up the Sheridan Expressway with Manuel at the wheel. Manuel was a short, stocky Puerto Rican guy who wore an Army jacket. At 34, he was six years older than Rob. The two of them had seven inspections today. The Section 8 program’s inspections, Rob reflected, were the easiest ones known to mankind. The assistants didn’t have to inspect the condition of the apartments or anything—they just had to verify that the apartment had the same number of rooms as the record stated and that the person whose name was on the lease was still living there. There was another funny thing about Section 8, Rob reflected. You would think that as a government subsidy program, the main people it helped would be the very poor, but instead, the clients included a lot of immigrants, retirees, single parents who had jobs, people who worked part-time….
“So, I was telling you about my son?” Manuel asked, interrupting Rob’s thoughts. “I was changing his diaper, and he pissed in my face! Yeah, I knew it would happen sooner or later. I got christened!” Manuel smiled.
“You get angry?” Rob asked.
“Naah,” said Manuel, “He don’t know what he’s doing!” Rob was sometimes jealous of Manuel because he had a wife and a family. ”Hey—what’s the first address.”
“The one on Webster Avenue near 181st—Mrs. Sanchez.”
“Oh, no! Not again!”
They had been to Mrs. Sanchez’s place two or three times before, and she was never home. Her apartment, in a decrepit two-family wooden house, had two buzzers jerry-rigged next to the outside door. They always rang the one closest to the door—the other one was just too high up to be functional.
Manuel got onto Webster Avenue and proceeded up through the South Bronx. “Hey,” he asked Rob. “You ever wanna be a cop?”
“Well, in the eyes of a lot of the people around here, you are one! We got the official car with the New York City license plates—as far as they’re concerned, we’re cops…Hey, I see a space near 180th Street, coming up. That’s as close as we’re gonna get.” They got out of the car and walked up to the house.
“Mrs. Sanchez isn’t home again!”
“Okay, we’re going to have to tell Mr. O’Leary. Who’s next?”
“Mrs. Fierro. Fordham Road. Right near Fordham University, across from Arthur Avenue.”
Mrs. Fierro lived on the third floor of a five-story walkup. She had long, flowing black hair and Native American-type features. As soon as she saw Manuel, she started talking to him in Castilian. They had a brief conversation, then Rob and Manuel looked at the apartment to make sure it had the right number of rooms. Rob gave her the annual inspection form, she signed it and we headed back to the car.
“You know what?” Manuel asked as he started up the car. “She’s Ecuadorian. I can tell by the way she looks and the way she speaks Castilian.”
“So a lot of Ecuadorians don’t like Latins! The minute she saw who I was and that I had, you know, a fairly high position in the Housing Authority, she started to make with that Castilian, to get me on her good side. But I know….”
Rob didn’t know what to say. As far as he knew, Ecuadorians WERE Latins. But why get involved in something he didn’t know about? They headed under the tunnel, then past the zoo, heading for the Pelham Parkway area, where the next inspection was scheduled.
The first stop was an apartment occupied by an elderly Russian-Jewish couple, recent immigrants. Their income was SSI and a subsidy from an immigrant-aid group. Rob talked to them in the rudimentary Yiddish he learned in college. They both got a kick out of the fact that they had a Jewish, Yiddish-speaking management assistant. “In Russia,” the man said, “you no see any Jewish person in any important job, government job!” This inspection, too, went basically without incident.
“Wanna eat lunch?” Harold asked after they left.
“Sure,” Rob said. This was his territory—his grandparents used to live around here. He directed Harold to a pizza place on Lydig Avenue. Rob had an eggplant parmesan; Harold had a Philadelphia cheesesteak sandwich. In the background, the radio played WABC.
“You know,” Harold said in between bites, “I remember when pizza first started coming out of the Italian neighborhoods and spreading all over the city, maybe about 1962. Sitting in a pizzeria and eating a slice while listening to the jukebox play the Four Seasons, something like, `Walk Like a Man,’ that was something else! That was the mood!”
Rob just nodded his head. As an oldies and doo-wop fan. he regretted that he was too young to really remember the pre-Beatles era in depth. He remembered a song here, a song there, but those six years in age between him and Harold really made a difference.
After about a half hour, Rob and Harold got on the road again. The first stop was an older Italian-American woman who lived in a two-family house near Allerton Avenue. The whole time they were in her apartment, Rob kept staring at an elaborate, small doll, depicting a very young child, inside a plastic bubble. Finally, he just had to ask.
“What’s that doll you have there?”
The woman shuddered, as if he had committed a terrible faux pas. “That’s the baby Jesus!” she exclaimed.
“Man, I should have told you,” Harold said, laughing, as they got into the car. “We celebrate the big holidays, but I stopped believing in the church when I was with the motorcycle gang, and we asked the priest to bless our colors. He did it, no questions asked. Later, I got to thinking. We were doing a lot of bad shit, and maybe the priest should have asked us what we were doing and tried to straighten us out. But no, he just blessed our colors….”
“Wait a minute,” Rob interjected. “I knew you were in a gang, but not a motorcycle gang. Were they the same?”
“No. The first gang was back in high school – it was a neighborhood thing. The motorcycle gang, that was after I got home from the ‘Nam. A few guys I knew got me into it. I thought it was just a motorcycle club, but by the time I realized it was a gang, I had gotten deep into it already. The only way I could get out of it was that I started taking classes at City College. Once they knew I was back in school, they left me alone…”
Next stop was Deborah Horowitz. Rob remembered her from last year. Deborah was a single woman in her twenties who lived in a studio apartment and was on psychiatric disability. She was attractive, had a pleasant smile and acted friendly, although she seemed somewhat spaced out. The last time he’d visited her apartment, they had a brief conversation, and Rob was sure she liked him.
Rob felt a commonality with Deborah--she, like him, she was an introvert and an underdog. The fact that she was Jewish was another plus. Until recently, Rob had few friends. He was rarely invited to parties, he had trouble finding a roommate in college and he had fairly bad luck with young women. Deborah, as he saw it, was the ultimate underdog. He wanted to start a relationship with her and guide her to happiness.
When they got to the apartment, he found his scheme foiled. Her mother was there, sitting at the kitchen table. Had Deborah sensed that Rob had tried to get too familiar with her during the last inspection and called her mother in for protection? Probably. Rob and Harold looked around, gave Deborah the papers to sign and left.
“You know,” Manuel said as they rode the elevator down, “I saw you looking at her. I think she would be a nice girl for you.” Rob, who had never told Manuel about his infatuation with her, said nothing. He felt hurt.
The next three inspections, and the last of the day, were in the predominantly black area north of Gun Hill Road. They were all within walking distance of each other, so Rob and Manuel could park the car and take care of them all in one shot.
First up was Saundra Washington, a middle-aged woman who lived in an elaborately furnished apartment in a co-op. Her write-up said she had three kids, but they were all in school today. “You know, I work for the Housing Authority, too,” she said.
“Is that right?” Manuel asked.
“Yes, I work over at Baychester Houses. I started as a teller and I worked my way up to supervisor. You see everything here? Working for Housing helped me buy all of it. I could never have dreamed of it when I was growing up in Harlem. I’m so happy I work for the Authority!”
“Congratulations,” I said. She signed the papers and we wished her good luck.
As they walked to the next place, five blocks away, Rob asked Manuel, “What are you doing tonight?”
“I’m gonna have dinner with my family, then go to the karate dojo to work out,” Manuel said proudly.
“I’m taking a t’ai chi class over at Lehman College,” Rob offered meekly. He assumed that a tough guy like Manuel would look askance at t’ai chi, which took a more gentle approach to self-defense than karate. He was wrong.
“Hey! I’m really glad for you, man. I’m impressed.” Manuel said. “I hope you become a martial artist. I really do!”
The next visit was to an old guy, around 85 years old. Rob remembered reading his folder in the office—he was a retired railroad employee. The apartment was sparely furnished. The guy, Mr. Wilson, answered “Yes, sir” and “No, sir” to all their questions.
When it came time to leave, Mr. Wilson insisted on not only giving them their coats, but helping them put them on by holding their coats over their shoulders. Rob felt embarrassed. The guy probably had been taught to act subservient to whites on the job way back when, over and over until it became part of his personality. Rob resented being put in the role that Mr. Wilson was forcing him into, but Manuel just took it in his stride.
The last inspection, in the same building, was Jim Barnes, a tall, bearded guy who reminded Rob a little of Marvin Gaye. As Rob and Manuel stepped into his apartment, both were overwhelmed. On every wall were whimsical, colorful abstract paintings, punctuated here and there by black-and-white photos of street scenes. Although he tried not to, Rob couldn’t stop looking at a photo of a two half-naked, provocatively posed male dancers. Jazz was playing in the background—Rob was able to identify it as Sonny Rollins.
“Come, sit down,” said Mr. Barnes. “Hey, I’m glad to see you’re admiring my work. When I actually worked at a job, I did architectural drafting. Then, I had the bad luck to go to ’Nam.”
“Hey, I was in the ‘Nam too!” Manuel exclaimed. “Where were you?”
“Mostly in Saigon, but I was all over. I was in the Air Force—an aircraft mechanic. I worked on Huey helicopters, Boeings, Douglasses, Grummans….”
“Yeah, I was just regular Army. A grunt here,” Manuel answered.
“Anyway, I got injured, I really didn’t have the stamina to work full-time anymore. I’ve been using my time to take classes at the Art Students League. I had a few exhibitions—the Bronx Council on the Arts, the Studio Museum in Harlem. Doctor says my rehabilitation is going real good and I can go back to work next year. Then, you guys won’t see me no more.”
Rob and Manuel took a perfunctory look around the apartment, then gave Mr. Barnes that paper to sign. Mr. Barnes looked at them.
“Are you real guys?”
Rob and Manuel looked at each other. “Real guys?”
“Real guys. Do you do herb, drink wine?”
“Oh!” Manuel smiled. “He does herb,” he said, pointing to Rob. “I drink.”
“Well, OK. Just a minute.” Mr. Barnes disappeared into the kitchen, then returned with a glass of red wine in one hand, a hash pipe in the other. He handed the glass to Manuel and the pipe to Rob.
“Thanks very much,” said Manuel. “I’ll drink the solution, and he’ll do the pollution!” Everybody laughed. Manuel finished the glass. Rob took a few deep puffs, then left it alone.
On the way back to the car, Rob commented, “Now, that was interesting! By the way, did you catch the photos of those two male dancers?”
“Absolutely! In fact, when he said, are you two real guys, I thought he meant gay guys. But, to each his own, I say.”
As they got to the car, Manuel asked whether Rob whether he’d do the drive back. Rob agreed. After Rob had been driving west for a while, Manuel asked, “How far are we from the parkway?”
“We’ll be there in two or three minutes. There’s the sign for it over there.”
“You can see that far? It doesn’t look clear to me at all.”
After they came closer to the sign, Manuel acknowledged, “Hey, you were right! You know, we could have used someone with your eyesight in the gang. We could call you `Eagle Eyes!’” Rob smiled.
Once Rob had turned onto the parkway, Manuel turned on the radio. He fiddled with the dial until he found Christopher Cross’ “Sailing.” He started to sing along with it: “ Sailing, takes me away, wo wo wo wo….’ Hey, Rob, I love this song. It’s so peaceful, so mellow.”
Rob couldn’t believe that Manuel liked this song, which he considered to be overly slow and sentimental. He thought that a macho guy like Manuel would like either heavy funk like Parliament-Funkadelic or the Ohio Players, or loud, driving rock like the Stones or Deep Purple. Clearly, Manuel was a complicated guy. Rob remembered Manuel telling him that when he was a kid, he had been a model student and an altar boy. But after his parents moved to a new neighborhood, they had to take him out of Catholic school because of a technicality and put him into a public school. The other kids picked mercilessly on Manuel, who soon realized he had to get tough in a hurry. Maybe, Rob theorized, Manuel’s softer side went underground, but came out in his music.
After Rob and Manuel got back to the Housing Authority building, parked the car and went up to the office, Mr. O’ Leary told them they had a guest—Mrs. Sanchez! The one whom they had visited several times, but was seemingly never home.
“Why you no come to see me?” she asked. “I stay home three, four times, but you no come.”
“We rang the bell,” Rob answered. “The bottom bell. It looked like the right one.”
“Bottom bell no work,” Mrs. Sanchez said. “You gotta ring the top bell.”
Rob, Manuel and Mr. O’Leary all had the same idea simultaneously. “Um, Mrs. Sanchez,” Mr. O’Leary asked, “would you mind coming with us to the conference room?” Mr. O’Leary picked up a form, and the four of them walked down the hall and into an unused room with a round table and chairs.
“Now Mrs. Sanchez,” he said, “why don’t you look this form over and sign it? And if anyone asks, tell them that Mr. Bergman and Mr. Enriquez came to your apartment.” She signed the form as Rob and Manuel smiled.
As they left the conference room to go into the hallway, Mrs. Sanchez turned to the three of them.
“Happy Thanksgee’vee, everybody!”