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Along the ragged border separating Manhattan from the Bronx there was a zone called “The Belmont.” It’s Latino now, but in the old days it was Italian––solid Italian, with street festivals, funerals with black horses and brass bands and pushcarts with food just off the boat from the old country.
It looks like a bombed out city now, isolated five-story tenements stand alone in rubble strewn lots like graveyard monuments.
Three five-story tenements stood alone on West 112th Street in the Belmont. Their addresses were 27-29 and 31 and they were pronounced unfit for human habitation six years ago. Time has been tough on the old buildings. They were deteriorating quickly––in the last stages of benign neglect. They were built shortly after the Civil War and in the intervening one hundred and fifty years they were home to more than 300 families, almost all of them Italian.
A man named Klopotnik owned them.
It was Mr. Klopotnik’s ambition to convert the three abandoned tenements into a single twenty story up-scale apartment, or ‘town house’ as he preferred to call it. It was to be known as “Exeter House” and as he walked by the three deserted eyesores he considered how far he’d come––and how far he had yet to go.
The architect’s plans were finished but they languished in the building department downtown in City Hall awaiting approval from the zoning board. Mr. Klopotnick cherished the thought that it might be soon––maybe as soon as a month or two! By summer perhaps––who knew––the ball might swing and the three run down rat traps would collapse into the street.
The windows on the top floor of the center tenement, (number 29) were open, but all the others were boarded up. The fire escapes had been removed to prevent squatters from gaining access. The front doors were gone and replaced with steel shutters. Mr. Klopotnik wanted no trouble from the squatters in the neighborhood. He knew if they took over an abandoned building it would take forever to get rid of them. To keep them out, he permitted a Columbia adjunct professor of comparative philosophical studies to stay on the top floor of number 29, rent free. It was Mr. Klopotnik’s conviction that if anyone could keep people out of a building it would be an adjunct professor from Columbia University.
On this spring afternoon the window in the living room of the top floor of the professor’s apartment was open wide and the ragged curtains were blowing out. On the window sill, stood a pot of Boston Fern and another of Weeping Ivy. Between the two pots appeared the face of Professor Zacharias peering down at Mr. Klopotnik.
“Good morning, Klopotnik. Come to check on your town house?”
Klopotnik wondered if he should go in and have a talk with Zacharias ... he didn’t trust philosophy professors completely. But it wasn’t easy. He had to go down the cellar stairs and ring the bell for the fifth floor––all the other bells to the building had been disconnected. Zacharias would have to come down six flights of stairs and unlock the cellar door to let him in. Then what? He had nothing to say to Zacharias, they had nothing in common. He was just there, living rent free, to keep intruders out of the three buildings until they were torn down. His was the only apartment with electricity and water. Klopotnik thought, he was lucky to find someone who would live in such conditions. Professor Zacharias said he wanted to finish his philosophical treatise––he needed absolute quiet.
“How are you Zacharias––everything quiet up there?”
“Just me and the roaches, Klopotnik.” He picked one off the window sill and tossed it down to him. “Watch him when he hits the sidewalk, Klopotnik. He will pick himself up, dust himself off and run back into the building again. Indestructible. Indomitable. Worthy successors to the human race. So how long I got, Klopotnik?”
Klopotnik watched the roach bounce on the concrete sidewalk. It made a circle or two, then skittered back into the building. “At least two months, maybe more. Things go slow downtown.”
“The slower the better––I’m stuck inside Kierkegaard.”
Things are quiet up there, no? Nobody sneaking in?”
Zacharias hesitated a fraction of a second and the hesitation was not lost on Mr. Klopotnik. “The sounds at night, the voices ... nothing more.”
“Perhaps I shall stop in to see you tomorrow, Zacharias.”
Zacharias did not answer, so Klopotnik shrugged and walked off. Maybe he should have stopped in today. “Old Zacharias,” he muttered. “What does he do with himself? Talk to the roaches? Yes, tomorrow I will stop in and see for myself if he is pulling on my leg.”
Zacharias watched Klopotnik’s figure grow smaller as he walked to the corner. He enjoyed sitting by the window with his manuscript during the day. The sounds of the street made him feel as though he were part of the human race. A member in good standing. Later, when darkness closed in, he would reluctantly close the window and draw the shade. Then the creaks and groans of the tired old tenement would begin, along with the disembodied voices of the people who lived there years ago. Their ups and downs. It was as though they rewound the tapes of their lives and played them for Zacharias again.
Until then he had work to do. His book! Three years in the writing! Much too long he thought. He was at a point where he argued with himself every time he sat down to work. “This was wrong––that was debatable.” He refuted his own arguments and doubted his interpretations. Just about every time he drew an inference and tried to express it, he thought of a counter interpretation that made him sit back and reconsider.
“It’s harder than I thought it would be,” he said to himself as he sat surrounded by his notes and papers. “Who the hell do I think I am anyway ...!”
He grabbed a rolled up newspaper and brought it down as hard as he could on a roach walking across his work table. Because of his poor eyesight it was only a glancing blow. The roach shrugged it off and ran for cover behind the L.C. Smith typewriter. There it sat and wondered what that clap of thunder might have been ... it came from that elderly gentleman in the chair. The roach held no grudge against Professor Zacharias, thousands of generations had taught the roach that these warm blooded giants were very possessive of their kitchens and bath rooms, their water pipes and dripping taps. It was their way of life, and a reasonable person should know by now, as all roaches know, you can’t kill a roach with a rolled-up newspaper.
The life sciences were never a strong point with Zacharias. His only love in life was philosophy. He vaguely remembered he had a brother in Denver and a wife in New Rochelle from whom he was separated. These two people and Mr. Klopotnik were the only living humans he had spoken to in the last three years.
But he spoke constantly with Spinoza and Schopenhauer. At the window overlooking the street in the afternoons he had long arguments with Socrates and Sartre. The world of today had passed him by, it consisted of living people. There were too many of them for one thing, and to be perfectly frank, he couldn’t tell one from the other. Dead philosophers were the only people he talked to, violently disagreed with and slavishly respected.
... but later, when night came, Zacharias would close his books and wander aimlessly through the three empty tenements. He was kept awake by the whispering voices of families who once lived there. He carried a Coleman lamp with him to light his way; holding it high, it revealed ancient scars on wallpaper––ceiling leaks––patched floors and abandoned broken pieces of furniture left behind. In broken English and fluid Italian, the voices could be heard in the still of the night, and from the sound of them there was as much disagreement, argument and tragedy as Professor Zacharias found among his philosophers. He often asked himself, “had there ever been happiness in this place?” He never heard an expression of joy or gladness. “Shouldn’t there be some echo of that joy, some sign that there was once a moment of happiness in this house?” Yes, they were similar in many respects to the voices of the dead philosophers he worked with during the day.
There were remembrances left behind. Old newspapers lining closet shelves––stains on wallpaper where pictures once hung––a sachet bag hanging in a bathroom––the stub of a ticket to a church lottery. Zacharias stared at these things and wondered what part they played in the life of the families who lived here. One of the newspapers, a tabloid, crisp and yellow, still revealed a photo of Amelia Earhart and Fred Noonan with the news of their disappearance in the Pacific. Zacharias tried to remember when that was––he couldn’t, but he was sure it was a long time ago––before the war he thought. The newspaper fell apart as he held it in his hands.
His nocturnal walks were like visiting the ruins of an ancient civilization––trying to discover what life might have been like in a city whose language and customs were strange to him. Like Vesuvius or Macchu Picchu. It was as hard to decipher as the writings of his beloved philosophers.
He might have imagined it, but Zacharias thought the voices had grown louder and more brazen now that the tenement’s days were numbered. Maybe they were having one last fling before they were silenced forever. For the past three nights it seemed all 300 families were talking at the same time; he couldn’t sleep. He was forced to walk the empty rooms until daylight came. Other than the rooms he occupied there was very little difference between night and day in the tenement and the stale air was a perfect sounding board for the voices of the past.
It was in the third floor kitchen of number 27 that Zacharias found what he thought was the hot spot. He thought of it as ‘the omphalos’. The focal point of the sound and presence of the place. As he stood there holding his lamp high, the voices could be heard clearly, one tumbling over the other and he imagined he saw vague images of people in the light of his lantern.
WOMAN’S VOICE: Speak to him. You’re his father, you have to speak to him.
MAN’S VOICE: I drive a cab! Eleven hours a day I drive. He’s never here when I get home. How can I speak to him?
CHILD’S VOICE: When can we go to grandma’s? I like it there.
MAN’S VOICE: Nessun figlio di mine farebbe una tal cosa!
OLD MAN’S VOICE: Twelve years I been here now in this country, and when I dream I still dream of the old country.
OLD WOMAN’S VOICE: You remember papa ... walking into the wine cellar, the smell of the sausage, the salamis, the cheeses and the proscuittos hanging from the ceiling?
WOMAN’S VOICE: Madre del dio–proteggali!
Who were they? He couldn’t see them but their voices were clear and there was the urgency of life in them. There was no doubting the fact that these people once lived here. He looked around the kitchen––it had probably been the kitchen of a dozen families, and now except for him and the roaches, it was abandoned. He was filled with sadness when he thought of this old tenement being demolished––what did Klopotnik say––two months maybe more. Yes maybe less too. Who could tell?
What could he do to stop it?
Would Klopotnik do such a thing if he knew about the voices? Maybe not... he was a good Polish Catholic. He carried rosary beads in his vest pocket and Zacharias had seen him cross himself more than once while he stood waiting for the light to change on Amsterdam Avenue. Maybe there was still a chance to save the old place. Maybe it could be converted into something else without destroying it––a museum maybe.
Klopotnik said he would stop by tomorrow ...
The next day, about four in the afternoon Zacharias heard him in the street below as he shouted up to the fifth floor window.
“You up in there, Zacharias?
Zacharias, sleepy eyed from wandering about the house all night came to the window and looked down. “Klopotnik! Good to see you. We should talk.”
“Come down and open the cellar door my friend. I would like a word with you, at the same time.”
“Tell you what, Klopotnik. Go up to the deli on the corner and get me a sandwich and a beer. I have yet to eat today. I’ll be waiting at the cellar door.”
“You have a preference, Zacharias?”
“For what kind of sandwich? What kind of beer?”
Zacharias waved his hand. “Anything will do. When you’re hungry anything will do.” Klopotnik turned and walked quickly to the Belmont Deli. Zacharias lighted his lantern and started on the slow descent to the basement of 29 West 112th Street.
He stood there, shifting his weight from foot to foot, wondering how to tell Mr. Klopotnik about the voices and how to convince him to abandon the idea of the Exeter town house. Then there was a knock on the door.
“Klopotnik out here. Are you in there Zacharias?”
Zacharias opened the door and Klopotnik handed him his bag of lunch as he stepped inside. If Zacharias stood erect he would have been a head taller than Klopotnik, but from years of writing and the numbing weight of philosophy on his shoulders, his posture had deteriorated. As a result both men were almost identical in height.
“This is your lunch, Zacharias. My treat. Enjoy.” The two men slowly climbed the stairs to Zacharias’ room Klopotnik a step or two behind. “I promised myself to see you today, Zacharias. I worry about you sometimes. Your book is going well, no?”
“It’s like pulling teeth, Klopotnik. I doubt if I will ever finish.” He hesitated a moment on the landing to catch his breath and turned to look at Klopotnik. “Do you know Kierkegaard, Klopotnik?”
“I have not had the pleasure.”
“He said, ‘If we choose faith we must suspend our reason in order to believe in something higher than reason.’ I used to think that was bullshit. But now I’m not so sure maybe so much anymore.”
“It is bullshit. I am the most reasonable man in the world and yet I would not give up the church. The church and The Exeter House. They are the two most important things in my life.”
“There is your family, no?”
Zacharias sat on the top step of the fifth floor landing and opened the paper bag. “I have much to tell you, Klopotnik ... is this corned beef? I haven’t had corned beef in years.”
“You mentioned voices yesterday,” Klopotnik said. “I want to ask you on the up and up; you are not harboring squatters in here are you? We agreed man to man, remember?”
“Even squatters would not stay here, Klopotnik.”
“They stick like glue once they’re inside, Zacharias. The police will do nothing to evict them, they would rather have them in here than out on the street. You understand, don’t you, that when the plans are approved I want to tear this place down––one swing of the ball––ba-da-bing as they used to say up here in the Bronx.”
“There is something else.”
“Like what else, Zacharias ... don’t scare me?”
“There are people here ... “
“Ha! I thought so! You’re trying to pull something, Zacharias.”
Zacharias took the last bite of his sandwich and finished off the beer. He put the empty can and the sandwich wrapper back in the bag and threw it over the banister. A second later they heard it hit the first floor landing. Then he picked up his lantern and stood up. “Come,” he said “There are more things, Horatio, than are dreamed of in your philosophy.’ Hamlet said that, Klopotnik. He had a head on him, that one.”
“Where are we going?” Klopotnik asked.
“To number twenty seven next door. The third floor, that’s where they are.”
“Who’s there?” Klopotnik asked nervously. “I thought you said no one is here.”
“The voices are there. You will hear them for yourself . You might even recognize some of them.”
They could hear the voices as they passed through the basement door to number 27.
“I can hear someone,” Klopotnik said worriedly.“Come clean, Zacharias. Are you hiding people in here?”
“You’re obsessed, Klopotnik. The past is in here––nothing more.” They reached the stairwell of number 27 and Zacharias paused. “The third floor, especially in the kitchen, Klopotnik; that’s where the big decisions were made, that’s where the families sat around the table to argue and count out the money to pay the landlord ... is that where they paid you, Klopotnik?”
The voices grew louder as the two men climbed to the third floor. They were clearly understandable now as they stood at the door. “There are people in there, Zacharias. What are you trying to pull?”
“They’re in there all right,” Zacharias said. He opened the door to the apartment on the third floor and the voices tumbled over each other. In English and Italian, frightened and angry, young and old, all talking together. The figures were vague––they appeared and faded again passing through each other like puffs of smoke or fog, each of them for a moment assuming prominence and then disappearing.
“I know these people, Zacharias, they used to live here! But they all moved away a long time ago! Why are they here? Why did they come back!?” Klopotnik held his rosary beads high and groped in his side pocket for his crucifix. Zacharias had only his Coleman lamp for protection; his philosopher heroes were back on the fifth floor of number 29 next door. They would not have been much help in this unusual situation in any case.
The spirits of the tenants had a lot to say. Most of their wrath was directed at Mr. Klopotnik and his indifference to the supply of heat and hot water and his merciless insistence on being paid in full on the first day of every month.
Zacharias did not escape their anger either. “Kierkegaard indeed! What good is your Kierkegaard? He can’t put food on the table! Socrates can’t pay the rent––and Spinoza can’t find a wealthy man for the oldest daughter either.” They told Zacharias to stop sneaking around at night. “Go back next door and play with your philosophers,” they told him.
With great haste, Klopotnik and Zacharias hurried down the three flights of stairs and crossed into the friendly confines of number 29. Zacharias unlocked the cellar door and the two men burst through into the street. They stood looking up at the seedy edifice of the old tenement in fear and wonder.
“What do you think now, Klopotnik?”
“Once a tenant always a tenant. They will always be tenants.” Klopotnik put his crucifix back in his vest pocket. “I could tell you things, Zacharias ... the shoe fits my foot too, you know. I would rent a flat to a family of four ... I come back next month and there are twenty people living inside. Heat, light and the electric for twenty people instead of four. It was no bed of roses, Zacharias.” He pulled back his sleeve and looked at his watch. “I shall go home now I think––maybe have a cup of tea. What about you, Zacharias?”
“They were right about Kierkegaard and the rest of them you know. Life goes on better without philosophy.”
“But it’s all you know how to do, Zacharias. If you are not a philosopher you are nothing.” He straightened his shoulders a bit and stood as tall as he could. “Are we to fold up like cheap suitcases? Look at us Zacharias––we are men, are we not? Are we to turn around our tails and run for shelter when a ghost says ‘boo’ to us?”
“You are brave now, Klopotnik.”
“Yes, I am brave now. I frighten easily, Zacharias, but after the fear I am brave again.” He threw an arm about Zacharias’ narrow shoulders. “Come, let us both be brave again. Go back in there and talk this over with your philosophers.”
“Are you going to talk to your wife about abandoning the Town House, Klopotnik.”
“We need the money, Zacharias,” he said defensively. “Two kids in Harvard and the oldest girl is engaged. It’s not a good time to run from voices.” He withdrew his arm and sighed deeply. “I am in hock up to my ass, Zacharias. The architect, the engineer, the bank––you wouldn’t believe.” He stared at Zacharias with burning eyes. “Put this down in your philosophy book, Zacharias––nothing stiffens a man’s pecker more than the threat of financial disaster.”
Klopotnik turned and walked away. In the growing twilight, Zacharias considered the wisdom of what he just heard. It was true––he never read that in Sartre or Socrates. Why hadn’t they thought of that? It was true!Klopotnik had bigger pair of balls than any of them.
Zacharias squared his shoulders and walked into the cellar entrance of number 29, held his Coleman lamp high and climbed the stairs. He shouted, “Get ready up there, you phonies––I’m coming. We’re going to have it out, you and me––I’m not afraid of you any more either!”
He was talking to his beloved teachers who argued quietly, dispassionately and bloodlessly among themselves. The old philosophers in their out of print volumes that sat beside his L.C. Smith typewriter. But Zacharias was also fully aware his words were heard by the tenants who seemed to feel the place was still theirs, and the roaches! Yes. Bless their hearts, the roaches who in many ways had always been the real tenants and the true inheritors of 27, 29 and 30, West 112th Street.
It was quiet on the 5th floor. Zacharias had grown used to the whispering undercurrent of voices and he was shocked at the silence. Only the muted city noises outside the parlor window. Where were the voices? His bravado slowly dissipated and he wished Klopotnik was with him to give him a little moral support.
The door was slightly ajar, just as he left it. He never bothered to shut doors any more, there was no one in the building but him and he grew used to leaving all his doors open––he considered it the philosophical thing to do. It creaked as he slowly swung it open, slowly revealing his writing table with his books piled high on one side and his dog-eared manuscript, sitting beside the old L.C. Smith typewriter. He asked himself again, as he had a thousand times before. “Who cares, who gives a shit? These old tenements, the voices and the tired words of philosophy––who cares? The only living things are the roaches.”
Zacharias took the fasteners out of his manuscript and scattered the pages on his bed. He broke the backs of his Schopenhauers, Kierkegaards and Nietzsches and scattered their pages on the floor. Then he walked into the kitchen and reached for the box of wooden matches hanging on the wall.
The art of art, the glory of expression and the sunshine of the light of letters, is simplicity.