by Christopher Bacas
We never saw Billy again. There was a new management company. They moved in their super, a tiny Mexican guy. He was always cheerful and had a female companion; daughter, sister or wife, who looked seventeen. He understood few English words and phrases. When possible, the young lady translated. If she wasn’t around (school?), I’d grab a dual-language dictionary for my requests. He always called me “Meester” and grinned sweetly at my poorly constructed and pronounced Spanish. Tenants’ collective languages: Krayol, English, Jamaican Patois, meant little real information passed to the super.
The Pre-War building crumbled around us. The steps to the 5th floor roof held small monuments: a bottle of cheap liquor, stubbed-out blunt, sometimes a slimy condom. On cold days, running the steps for exercise, dog in tow, I dodged the messes. The dog charged right through them, scattering nastiness. Sometimes, high school canoodlers, truants who left the ashen relics, blocked our path completely. Carrying my trash through the back door, I once encountered a teen couple, partially disrobed, going at it under the stairs. Another kid, holding his belt, stood nearby. As I exited with a heavy trash bag, he nodded rhythmically at me. When I returned, no one had moved. The kid in the on-deck-circle didn’t even look around.
During the coldest nights, our radiators hissed for a few minutes, then went silent for icy hours. We boiled water for nighttime baths. Small ceramic heaters crackled and hummed in the dark, blistering our throats and noses. The super looked on when we wildly pantomimed the conditions in our apartment. I’ll never know if his expression meant worry about our comfort or just our sanity.
We began regular calls to the city and our property manager, and stopped paying rent.
In New York City, multi-unit buildings are under the jurisdiction of the department of Housing Preservation and Development. HPD lists three categories of tenant complaints. The most serious, “C”, must be corrected in 24 hours.The department fields inspectors. Tenants choose (or not) to give access to HPD personnel. To confirm compliance, property managers simply remit a form with violations marked corrected. That violation is then closed, though Class C violations require re-inspection. In the Housing Code, penalties are recommended for open violations, though they are assessed as often as solar eclipses.
Missing the ransom we sent monthly, Management called to see if there was a “problem”. The manager rarely made calls himself; a office gal did the dirty work. She drew my name out like a piece of gum off a shoe heel:
“Mistah Bee-hah-kiss, what ah yaw complaints?”
Overhearing the question, my wife grabbed the phone and read her a breathless list.
A day or two after each 311 complaint, HPD appeared. Inspectors came in mismatched pairs: a gruff Russian with Kalashnikov delivery and a quiet brown-skinned man who towered silently over him ; a nebbishy Brooklyn Jew and a wiry Puerto Rican dude who seemed to magnetically repel each other. Once inside, they spread out; checking off violations using forms pre-scored for our specific complaints:
“Missing or broken flooring”
“lack of heat and hot water” (serious inspectors dipped thermometers into running tap water)
Because we lived atop the boiler, they found daytime hot-water temperatures of 180 F. Inspectors cannot report on a condition unless it appears on their complaint sheets. No matter the severity around them, they dutifully adhere to this proscription. No daytime inspector found a lack of heat or hot water. Our violations were never confirmed. We changed our complaint to “scalding water”.
In summer, as folks returned from work, turning on appliances, fuses popped in individual units and often in the basement. The building’s electrical system dated from the early 30’s. Our fuse box, door missing, was filled with desiccated, back-stroking roaches. The insulation inside, woven cloth. Naked wire protruded an inch from the leads. We complained to HPD about outages and exposed wiring. A uniformed duo showed up a few days later. I pointed up to the box.
“Is that up to code?”
I pointed up at the box. The inspector, a Central Casting Brooklyn white guy, tilted his head back and squinted.
“Ehhhh. If dey rehab dis unit, dey’ll put in a new box wit bray-kuz.”
“That means that it’s not up to code now?”
“Ehhhh. Dis buildin’ is old, ya know, pre-wah. Dat box is original.”
“Do they need to put in a new box?”
When I told a West Indian handy man about this exchange, he quipped.
“When dey put de money in de hand, den dey say whatever dey tell dem.”