425 East 116th was truly a world unto itself. During my years as a child, and on through middle teens, I knew everyone in every apartment. Some were most friendly; others kept to themselves. None the less, even without a building crier, all were privy to the sometimes intimate details of people’s lives. Often, more than any casual acquaintance had a right to know. Sexual details were kept from the really young children, only uttered in whispers. Not an easy task in the old pre-war building with barely plastered over dumb-waiter.
Like any society, the occupants of this world in microcosm, boasted its Royalty, its predominant middle class, and the sad poor. The stories that came out of 425 were sometimes ones of success, or too often heartbreakingly tragic. News moved from floor to floor with the accuracy and speed of an open intercom linking each apartment to a central information depot. The Feds and the CIA had nothing on this efficient grapevine. In fact, from the oldest resident to the youngest child, we always were alerted when authorities were lurking about the building or on the roof. I imagine they were looking for information on gangsters, number runners and drug dealers.
One common disguise of undercover law enforcement was to dress as television antenna installers. At that time, to get any kind of decent reception on your television, you needed an antenna on the roof. This would be connected by wires which hung down the building, entered the house through a window, and hooked up to the back of your set. You would contact a company that sold tvs and antennas, and they would send someone to install it for you. For a fee, as was expected. An early version of “The Cable Guy“. Since this was not someone who came often one would think that anyone could impersonate being the antenna repair man. Not so. The bulls (plainclothes policeman) always had new tools, unscuffed work shoes, pressed flannel shirts, and clean, unmarked hands. When one of these apparitions was spotted, the word soared soundless through the building.
My grandmother was friendly enough with three different occupants of the building to be invited, or to invite into the home for a cup of coffee. Only when the man of the house was at work. This was a big deal. People did not invite one another to their inner sanctum. It’s not the European way. Privacy at all costs.
One of these trusted individuals was Josie who lived with her family on the fifth floor. Josie was beautiful with smooth very pale skin and a soft disposition. If I was at home when grandma went for one of these rare visits she would take me with her. I know it is hard to believe but I was a good child.
Josie and her husband had four children, all older than I by a lot. Her only girl was Mary. She was well into her teens when I was six or seven. Mary had big blue eyes, unusual in the neighborhood, and the sweetest smile. I didn’t know it at the time but Mary was slow. She didn’t hang around with other girls her age or have the “normal” interests, but she did love comic books as did I. I would bring mine with me and we would trade and talk about what Little Lulu and Tubby were up to this month. Little Lulu was my favorite, Mary liked the horror comics (an oxymoron). I eventually got into them. They would scare the hell out of me.
Next door to Josie lived her mother, Nanine. I don’t think that was her real name but rather an affectionate nickname for Harlem’s version of the Queen Mother. Nanine was very fat and could barely get around. I guess she was really sick. Her most distinguishing feature was that she was as bald as a bean. This fascinated me. I always had to go visit Nanine when we went upstairs to Josie’s. Having a little girl around was a novelty, and the old woman loved when I came. She didn’t speak a word of English. Her dialect was different from grandma‘s and I really didn’t understand her, but Josie would translate for me.
Nanine looked like a giant genie to me. On this perfectly round, bald head she wore a black beret with diamond studs glittering in her prominent ear lobes. She would draw me close and hug me, which I endured as best I could. I didn’t want to hurt her feelings. One day I asked her why she was bald. Where had all her hair gone? Nanine smiled very wisely, and nodded before she told me something she knew that no one else knew. I’ll share what she told me with all who read this account.
“You must always eat the skin of the apples. If you don’t you will lose all your hair.”
Rest in Peace Nanine.
There are so many stories to be told about those who lived at 425. I love reliving them. Perhaps it serves to immortalize those who peopled my childhood.