House prices have soared. Condos have risen Stores have changed identities in blurring succession. Down go the butchers, the barbers, the old-school bars. The corner bodegas, the small-time hair salons. Up come the wine bars, the retro-hat shops, the self-conscious bicyclist stores, the fro-yo cafes. More burgers in more varieties than you ever deemed possible, with carefully curated selections of beer to accompany them. Change barrels along. Take your pick of places to miss.
What I miss most, though, are the people that used to be here. My neighbours, Jack, a gruff ex-cop, and Manny (Manny Manyana), a gym teacher, both of whom would bring me fish after boat trips from Sheepshead Bay. Sal, a Korean war vet, who grew up on the block, and John, hanging out by their stoops, ready to talk. Handy guys, both, who could fix things for themselves. My next door neighbor, loud as a stevedore, but a real sweetheart, and her husband, retired from the Navy Yard, who, half-blind and in his nineties, still tottered down to Fifth with a shopping cart to get the day's groceries. And the people I barely knew. The tiny old Central American lady with long white hair and wide, brocaded skirts, who looked like a malevolent spirit in a folk tale. Walter, who lived across in a house across the street & never emerged from the third floor, relying on Whitey (follow the link)to bring him supplies, which were placed in a plastic bag attached to a rope & hauled up to his window. Lilian, a spry older woman in dusty jeans & plaid shirt, who came in from Harlem to work on the house she owned. She told me of the bullets lodged in her body, & warned me that the CIA was controlling the weather. The blind man who worked at a job assembling cardboard boxes, who was relentlessly cheerful & made me ashamed of my own minor gripes in life. Even that woman, late one night, who shouted hoarsely through an open window for a needle & thread, "because I've split my pants, honey, & I need to fix 'em, quick."
These are just a few of the people I miss from my block. There are all sorts of others, many of whom who it would be impolite, tactless, or even unwise to mention. And none of them (apart from Whitey, who actually lived elsewhere) ever went up to Seventh Avenue. Their world extended from Sixth downwards. All over the Slope, though, twenty plus years ago, life had more vigor, though especially on its western & southern edges. Life was less bland. Many of the people I met on the street I talked to, & but some I just noticed and wondered about. Today I regret my English reticence over the years, my inability to write things down, to take photographs, to ask questions. I've missed or forgotten a lot this way.
I've seen Connie around ever since I've lived here, but we hadn't exchanged more than a few words until quite recently. Today we talked some more. Connie has been panhandling in the Slope since the 80's, first on Seventh, but in recent years on Fifth, usually outside either Rite Aid or the bank on Tenth St. The move from Seventh to Fifth was all because of Snake Man, a nasty slob of a guy who wore a snake around his neck, & grubby sweat pants that apparently showed only too well his sadly limited assets. Connie still sneers at his loutish, homophobic ways. Snake Man was always calling the cops on Connie, who finally gave up the Seventh patch. It was too much trouble. Connie was born in Brownsville, but came to live in the Slope as a teenager, in the 60's, remembering Eighth Street (5th & 6th) as largely Haitian back then. Connie worked for 21 years for the Parks Department, at the tennis courts in Central Park, where there were any number of celebrities swinging racquets, including a cute soap star or two.
We discussed a bunch of stuff today, some of which I won't disclose here, as Connie is inclined to be somewhat private. We did talk about the miseries of aging, and the bad stuff that narrow shoes will do to your feet. We discussed the woman that agressively works the other side of Fifth from the bank. The woman whose raucous, rough-edged rendering of "sweetie", as she approaches you, removes every possible drop of nectar from the word, and inspires instead a sickening terror. Connie said she has a hole in her head. I should look out for it. We talked about the yuppytown that even this part of Fifth is turning into, and the pain of making money. After a while, in the kindest possible way, I was made aware that time in which money could be made was being wasted right then and there. It was time to leave Connie be, after a quick photograph or two. The photographs did not turn out as well as I hoped, because my model fooled around a lot, partly out of vanity, partly as a joke, and partly (probably) to piss me off a little. Connie is friendly, but also slightly fierce, in every sense of the word. I felt pretty squat & ungainly in her presence, and also sadly soft in spirit. She's toughed out a lot of difficult times, & continues to do so in style. She's pretty damn wonderful.