The fourth summer on my block (an intro to my blog)

This morning I woke up to the booming bark of my downstairs neighbors’ dog Smooches. She was by herself in the dirt patch yard behind our house. Never mind that Smooches has been adjudicated a dangerous dog by the City of Albany’s animal control department for several misunderstandings with other dogs – including mine – and people – including me – and is technically not supposed to be off of a leash or unsupervised anywhere. Out she was in the backyard having a go with her lungs, screaming to be let back into the dirt nasty apartment below us. Her owner, a scrawny woman that looks and talks like a recovering crackhead, punctuated the barking fit occasionally by screaming to the dog off of the back porch.

“Smooches, shut-cho fuckin’ mouth, girl.”

Smooches kept at it. Apparently, they don’t speak the same language. I’m not sure if Smooches’ barking fits are a daily occurrence or not. I just moved to the back of our three-room apartment over the weekend. I decided I needed a change of scenery and although my old room is the same size, I wanted to be somewhere different. For three years I’ve lived in this second floor apartment, located on a brick-paved street in a western section of Albany. Three years in the same tiny room. The walls, which I painted burgundy, made the room feel even smaller than it already is, so I decided I had to relocate fifteen feet away to this new room, which is off of our kitchen kitchen. I now have access to our rear porch, which up until last Friday served as a dump for old electronics that we couldn’t dispose of and an old roommate’s odds and ends.

Dog that could play Smooches in a TV movie

Dog that could play Smooches in a TV movie

Right now I don’t have the money to move to a new apartment. I’d love to but there’s one hindrance that’s even greater than the cash flow and that is Marcus, my eight-year-old Pitbull. Most landlords – at least the responsible ones – bar pitbulls from their property. I say this even though I own one. I understand the misconceptions about the breed and the bad press they get. Nevertheless, after having lived for quite some time in various lower income neighborhoods where pitbulls are the most common animal, I know well the damage these dogs can do.

There’s two types of pitbull owners and I’m not sure where I fit in. I could be among the responsible ones because my dog’s had his shots and is registered with the state’s agriculture and markets agency. I could also be called a bad one because my dog has never been to an obedience class in his life, has poor manners and doesn’t get along with other dogs. That said, I also keep Marcus on the leash and know his limitations and his tendencies. If left to his own devices, the sweet dog I found shivering on a street corner in Brooklyn can do some damage to an unwitting dog. Perhaps I straddle both categories of pitbull owner. The good and the bad together. I pass.

The neighbors downstairs are pretty reckless. For lack of a better term, they’re ghetto. Their dog will end up mauling someone’s dog or possibly a person. They don’t care. The dog is an accessory that has become a nuisance to them, too big a responsibility. Instead, it stays inside all day and is only let outside to do its business. Most of the day, it’s left alone. When they first had Smooches, she was something to behold and I think they tried to breed her, but now she’s a prisoner in a filthy apartment where people come and go to smoke pot or get drunk. You can’t really fault Smooches for her aggression. I’d act that way too if I were shut up all day.

I’m not sure if the barking was something I only notice now because I’m living in the rear of the apartment or this morning was just different. It’s annoying, but I’ve slept through worse. I lived for a year in a room less than 30 feet away from the JMZ line in Brooklyn and hardly ever awoke from it. A dog barking isn’t going to do a dent. It’s more of a sign of clueless neighbors. There’s plenty of noise on our tree-lined street to be had anyway.

Our landlord is a strange character. He owns about four or five houses on the block. He’s spacey and awkward and slightly neglectful of his properties. He’s certainly not a slumlord because our block is too decent for that, but he’s not very stellar either. Jack seems to only rent to shady folks (which, by implication may mean I’m shady). If you want a quite place to live, don’t want to burden your neighbors with noise or make your drama theater for everyone else on the block, most likely Jack’s not going to take your deposit. For some reason, he’d rather have the people who throw parties until 3 a.m., get in loud domestic fights and have friends that leave “community guns” in their basement.

Why just a month ago the U.S. Marshals came looking for the nephew of the crackhead lady downstairs. The cops have come in the past to look for a gun and serve warrants. Animal control has also made its rounds there too. Nevertheless, Jack for some reason or another doesn’t mind renting to sketchy folks.

Early morning domestic disturbance next door, April 2009

The downstairs neighbors aren’t the only ones contributing to the seedy Bottle Alley atmosphere of our block. Next door we have a tragically obese woman in her late-20’s who only ever seems to be upbraiding her two little girls or sometimes slapping them. I’d rather listen to my own tortured screams than her this woman’s loud, shrill voice. Her vocabulary seems limited to “fuck” “bullshit” and “c’mon!”. Her boyfriend has been hauled out of the apartment in cuffs a few times. The girls are sweet but their parents really make the whole block feel like a trailer court. The family in the second-floor apartment next door like to scream, and I’m pretty sure I’ve heard the young mother there administer corporal punishment to one of the kids. Still, I suppose they’re better in the sense that the cops don’t get called and unlike my downstairs neighbors and their downstairs neighbors, they put their trash in the bins.

Two houses down, Jack rents some folks that seem to have a barbecue every night until the early hours of the next day. They play loud rap music and scream and occasionally there’s a shouting match or actual fisticuffs. A very conscientious and respectful family across the street from the party house as approached them about turning it down a notch only to be told to mind their own business.

Overall, our block is a strange mixture of working folks, unemployed folks, responsible homeowners and one particular clan that has piqued my curiosity since I moved in back in 2006.

The old man on the corner can actually be seen on Google Maps streetview.

They live on one of the corners in a two-story green and white house with peeling paint. Unlike any other property on the block, their backyard has a tall fence surrounding it. The grass on their property between the sidewalk and the curb is tall and is only mowed when a young family across the street decides to do it themselves. Three generations live in this household. At least I think it could be three generations. Maybe it’s four. I’m not sure. I’ve never gotten to ask. Firstly, there’s the grandfather (I think he’s the grandfather. Certainly he’s the patriarch). He reminds me a little bit of Harry Dean Stanton. I can’t put my finger on it, but I think it’s the sunken quality of his face and a pretty soft voice he has that makes every word he speaks seem as if it’s his last and he’s set to expire. Nine months out of the year this man wears a white v-neck t-shirt. He’s a scrapper, foraging the neighborhood for cans, discarded appliances and anything else with metal in it or on it. His wife (or daughter) appears to be in her fifties. She’s a nurse or an orderly, though I know I saw her wearing a security guard’s uniform. She’s not obese, but certainly on the fat side and always seems to have a cigarette in her mouth. Her daughter is in her late twenties, the classic white homey girl with sprayed hair. She’s built like a Panzer tank and happens to wear tanks about nine months of the years. Like her mother, she always smokes. She has a very pudgy multi-racial sun who looks a bit like Manny Ramirez. He seems to always be eating something or drinking Top Pop or other low-market soft drinks. I’d put him at about nine-years-old. Despite being the fat kid on the block (the other fat kids moved last year, leaving him alone), he is pretty social with the children on our street and the cavalcade of Jerry Springer Show guests that show up to hang out on the stoop. His uncle also lives there. He too is built like a tank. I don’t know his name, but he always smiles and nods when I say hello. He also is always smoking and often tugging on a bottle of malt liquor. Their crew is comprised of all ages and most races. The common denominator is that everyone – without question – who sits on their wooden stoop is rough around the edges. Everyone.

The family on the corner is strange. They’re social, but on their own terms. They invite riffraff, but don’t seem potentially malignant like the people who live below me. There is an occasional alcohol-fueled blow up on the corner that usually involves someone talking about money owed, a girlfriend or baby’s mama whose being screwed or just chest beating. So far, nobody’s been curb stomped and I admire how the family – all three generations of them – can sit out together on the stoop until late hours enjoying each other’s company. At least I think they’re enjoying it.

The strangest feature about this family is that I’ve never seen a light on in their house. I’m not exaggerating, by the way. I mean, I actually have never seen a light on in their house. It’s always dark in the house on the corner. Perhaps they’re Amish. That’s probably not likely, as the Amish forbid smoking and drinking and probably wearing FUBU. The most likely scenario is that this family one day had a shut off notice from National Grid and just has never decided to pay it off. I’m pretty sure they’re on a limited income and that’s cool.

Saving money on electricity probably helped them quite a bit this last weekend during the Fourth of July celebrations. Anyone who lives in a city, be it Albany, Boston, New York or Bakersfield knows that in the week preceding and following the Fourth, people start shooting off fireworks. If you live in New York, like me, you have to travel out of state to New Hampshire or Pennsylvania to get the contraband. For a good two-week period everyone seems to be shooting off bottle rockets, lady fingers, roman candles and even the heavier mortar stuff.

The house on the corner, weekday Fall 2007

On Saturday, as the city celebrated independence and the major fireworks show at the Empire State Plaza wrapped up, the family on the corner decided that they would not let our block slip into slumber but would instead keep the party going. Sometime after midnight the explosions started. The firepower they unleashed provided enough light to keep their house illuminated for at least a year. The red cobblestones turned green and orange, or blue and yellow within seconds as they fired mortar after mortar in the air. The fireworks bonanza was rude and ostentatious but also fun. It attracted nearly everyone on the block, from my downstairs neighbors, to a straight laced couple to the young folks who live across their street and polish their Kawasaki Ninjas all spring and summer. The sound was deafening and funny and proof that loud and shiny things bring people together.

The display shook houses and set off a car alarm. For a moment I wondered if an errant missile might not come down on someone or something, but then I remembered that the sketchier the person handling the fireworks, the less likely there is to be an accident. Fireworks were made for shady people and shady people for fireworks.

It was an interesting night on our street, which is named after a famous figure in American history. A night where I felt everyone was connected, if onlyy because of a bootleg fireworks display.

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