Looking out at a Brooklyn night can be like listening to an old blues tune: endlessly sad in a detached kind of way. That might be why I prefer classical music, especially when I'm on my perch.
I feel I ought to make one thing very clear, right at the beginning: I'm no Spartan crusader. My three-room apartment on the fourth floor has a waterbed, recliner, couch, two overstuffed chairs, complete kitchen set, complete and modern entertainment center, and hot-and-cold running water.
But my favorite place to sit, when I need to think or sulk, or just for those deep kind of times at night, is on my perch, a.k.a. windowsill. Sometimes I go all the way onto the fire escape landing for a more panoramic view of the street.
That's where I was one night in early October, as I took slow sips of hot coffee and looked down at the night's dark, quiet and furtive activities.
Next door was an empty lot that had once held a building like the one I lived in. But when the taxes got higher than the rents, the owner chose to pretend it didn't exist and it eventually had to be demolished.
An old, rusted, abandoned car with no tires or windows or engine sat where someone had left it in the weeds. For neighbors it had two broken refrigerators, about a dozen ruined tires, and lots of other interesting artifacts of that sort scattered throughout the lot. Toward the back, three ramshackle huts made of fruit-crates and scrap wood leaned into each other. Around the corner a lot more of them clustered in the basement of an abandoned building that we called "Cardboard City", but here we just had the three of them.
Diagonally across the street was another abandoned building...according to official documents it was abandoned, anyway. Someone had dug a hole in the bricks over the doorway and three "shooting galleries" operated inside of it now. That's not a police target-range kind of thing; it's where the addicts find a room and sit on the floor in a circle around the cooker, sharing needles, drugs and AIDS.
It was an unusually quiet night. No boom-boxes were blaring rap or salsa music at decibel level, no one was sitting on the sidewalks or stoops, no one was yelling at anyone.
I was, however, beginning to notice a pattern in the sparse pedestrian traffic. I'd seen the same two guys pass by three times already. They were dressed alike in sweatshirts, jeans, sneakers and ski caps, so I couldn't tell much about them from the fourth floor.
Other than that piece of business, South Williamsburgh, Brooklyn, seemed to be taking a break.
The quiet was disturbed by a faint scraping sound from the building across the street.
There were other buildings, on both sides of the street, and other lots. But my attention often focused on that one old shell of a building. It reminded me of a huge, dying beast, being eaten up from within.
I watched someone sliding out through the hole in the bricks over the front door. A white guy, about 5'6". Long brown hair, so he was either into playing rock music or at least thirty-five years old.
When he was finally outside, he reached back in and pulled out an old, wooden crutch.
That's when I recognized him. It was Alfred, known on the street as "Pegleg", a military veteran who'd lost a leg and gained a habit in the service of his country.
There were several stories about how it had happened, and nobody seemed to know which one was real. I tended to reject the "heroic action" stories and lean a little more sympathetically toward the "unnecessary tragic accident" stories. I'm not saying that Alfred couldn't have been capable of heroic action at one time. I'm just cynical, I guess.
He started hobbling across the street, then looked up and saw me."Yo, Eric!" he called.
I waved back, not wanting to shout.
"Eric...I need to talk to you!" he yelled.
Well, up until now I'd been enjoying the fact that nobody was blasting any radios, but now I wasn't quite so happy about that. Now every hooker, junkie and struggling family on the block knew that Alfred needed to talk to me.
Don't get me wrong, now. I didn't mind being seen with him, but Alfred's needs were really nobody else's business.
I hated to do it, but I was going to have to yell back. He was getting ready to give me True Confessions at the top of his lungs if I didn't stop him.
"Wait there, Alfred," I called, "I'm coming down, okay?"
"Okay," he yelled back, "I'm waitin', Eric, just like you said to."
I was starting to climb into my apartment when the blast of a gunshot shattered the quiet and sent blood pounding in my ears.
Alfred jerked, his back arching, his crutch falling away.Another gunshot ripped the night and he jerked again, crumbling in a heap.