In ’90s New York, an eager young volunteer from Montana is thrust into a world of flying bullets, crack addicts and giant rats—and loves every minute.
In 1931, Ogden Nash published this famous couplet in The New Yorker:
On August 24, 1993, I pulled off the Major Deegan Expressway, headed up Fordham Road and took a right onto Andrews Avenue. It was a lively block. A mélange of faces: Puerto Rican, Dominican, African-American, even a few older white folks wandering out of their never-give-it-up rent-controlled apartments to the half-stocked corner shop that pathetically passed for a grocery store. I dodged the legions of kids cooling off in an open fire hydrant as I made my way to 2277 Andrews Avenue. For the first time, this Billings, Montana, native touched down at what would be my home for the following year, a four-bedroom sixth-floor apartment in the Bronx.
My room was in the back, away from my four roommates, because they were all of the female persuasion. I grew up with three brothers, so living with women was as mystifying as anything in the ‘hood. We were all members of the Jesuit Volunteer Corps, an organization that sent fresh-faced college grads to help out in underserved communities, just like those rouge cats in the Society of Jesus. We too took a vow of poverty, as our monthly stipend left us roughly $20 a week spending cash. It sufficed. Different times.
Before I joined the after-school education and recreation team at Pius XII North Bronx Family Services, I “knew” what you probably “knew” about the Bronx: the Yankees, buildings aflame, abject poverty, bombed-out blocks that looked like Dresden, KRS-One, the Bronx Zoo, and the overall sense that no sane person would ever go there if they didn’t have to. As spelled out in “The Message” by native sons Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, the borough was like a jungle sometimes.
The neighborhood we lived in, University Heights, wasn’t the apocalyptic end-of-the-world South Bronx scene of the 1970s, but in 1993 the horrible embers of the crack era still burned. With six times as many murders citywide as there would be in 2013, talk of a Gotham renaissance didn’t yet go higher than 96th Street. On Andrews Avenue, the only nighttime traffic consisted of zombie crackheads on foot and their suburban car-owning counterparts zipping off the Deegan to score, leaving with baggies in the glovebox. During the day, the asphalt of certain out-of-the-way blocks was festooned with the previous night’s Carnival colors: reds, blues, yellows, oranges, greens—all the pretty little crack vial tops, a rainbow leading to whatever’s the opposite of gold.
At the two-decade mark, I’ve been ruminating on my first year in the Boogie Down. In a broad sense, it was the gateway to a lifelong love of New York City, a place I’ve more or less called home ever since. In a specific Bronx sense, it was an incredible one-off experience that comes to mean more and more as I clearly recall less and less. The brain, it bounces, it slingshots, it clarifies, it fades. But other than a few snapshots, it’s all I’ve got. I know there was joy, there was pain, sunshine and rain for that matter, but mostly, there was love. Veracity be damned, I’m a better man for the Bronx and this is how I remember it.
Day 1: On the first full day in my new apartment, all of our respective bosses came over and we made dinner. Lentil soup, if I had to guess–it was always lentil soup. As we went around the room exchanging pleasantries, a fight broke out across the street. Two boys, thirteen at best, got into it verbally, then physically, then one ran and got a big length of metal pipe that was twice his size. Kid had trouble swinging it, but it could’ve done damage. The target ran off momentarily, only to return with some sort of sawed-off gun. I ended up being the only voyeuristic asshole staring out the window when the gun went off, ignoring the fact that bullets can travel six stories up. All manner of “Holy shit, I live in the Bronx” was filling my head when stern Sister Pat Howell, a you-don’t-fuck-with-me-nun from St. Luke’s School on 138th Street, took control.
“Call 911! Say shots fired! Always, always, always, say shots fired! Otherwise the damn police never come,” she said.
The cops promptly showed, but the kids had all scattered after the single shot. Things quickly returned to whatever counted as normal on Andrews Avenue. Sister Pat didn’t seem all that rattled. Welcome to the Bronx. Lentil soup was served.
Day 3: Mid-afternoon, a man with a mustache came climbing up our fire escape. Maybe I should have been wary, but I was enamored with the living, breathing version of the Sweathogs rapping on Mr. Kotter’s window. His name was Chris, a young Puerto Rican dude who lived downstairs. He talked a blue streak, leered a little bit and generally made the women uncomfortable, but on that day, he was delivering Mets tickets. Sure, they were giveaways to a Wednesday afternoon game on an ugly ninety-two-degree day for the worst team in the league, but still. Free baseball! One of my roommates borrowed a van from her women’s shelter and three of us drove to Queens to watch the Mets lose 4-1 to the Reds in an empty Shea Stadium, with a pathetic team only outdone in the loss column by the infamous 1962 squad. Mets fan for life. Fucking brilliant, Mr. Kot-ter.
Days 5 to 365: At the other end of the block from the three-story converted home where I worked sat McGovern’s, the last bar standing, a dingy hole-in-the-wall that had probably seen its best days when the old boys, now guzzling away their pensions in the afternoon, were still fighting the Jerrys. I went to McGovern’s on one of my first nights, then I went again. And again. And againaginaginagainandagain….
The fun-loving regulars included Ronnie, a black corrections officer, who never got too drunk and always stood at the end of the bar watching the front door; Eddie, a white dude of scant employment who always wore Yankees or Giants gear, always toasted and wasn’t quite right in the head due to a cocktail of alcohol and autism; and Teddy, a fat white guy who claimed to have played football at the University of Tennessee and tried out with the Raiders, and snorted lots of grade-Z cocaine. (Only time I ever tried it was with Teddy; I still flashback to that throbbing headache.) And then there was Jose.
He was the guy who took a shine to me. Always made sure my drinks were paid for, once offered to buy me a hooker who’d walked in off of the streets to use the toilet (“Just go do it in the bathroom, she’ll let you fuck her in the ass if you want.” I passed), and escorted me home late at night so I didn’t stagger the streets by myself. He claimed to be a former Marine who had studied to become a Jesuit, currently worked in some sort of IT job for the city, and was also bisexual, if I was game. Again, I passed. He was cool about it though, just running it up the flagpole.
There was nothing tender about this bar. Men—and it was ninety-nine percent men—went there to get drunk. But McGovern’s offered a Cheers vibe, even if they didn’t really give a shit about knowing your actual name: “Hey—get this Montana Irish Catholic church fuck a shot of Jameson.”
Day 34: Billings may have been a million miles from the birthplace of hip-hop, but my hometown crew lived for rap. It’s how I got to know the kid—Let’s call him T—who lived next door in the apartment abutting my room. He was a soft-spoken young teenager, mumbled mostly, but thanks to the beats booming off our mutual walls, we got to talking. He started borrowing my CDs, and then asked if I could help him write.
His songs weren’t particularly interesting: boilerplate gangster rap from a kid who spent all his time holed up writing rhymes and playing video games. One time I tried to get him to open up, maybe expand his topics to a larger worldview, to relate to issues of the day, like some sort of hip-hop Dead Poets Society. I went so far as to scratch “Don’t care what it takes, I’m gonna’ get paid, I’ll cause more controversy than Roe v. Wade.” T ignored my wise old MC act. One night, I heard his mother—a woman I don’t ever recall seeing–screaming at him about “not doing shit.” Not long after that, T quit stopping by.
Day 67: The Newark JVCers threw a Halloween party. The only group costume we could come up with on short notice–which required neither buying nor making anything–was to go as Mexican cholo gangsters. This set off one of our roommates and led to a lot of pre-party handwringing about “cultural appropriation.” I could see where she was coming from, but this wasn’t exactly blackface. Our costumes consisted of us wearing baseball caps and flannel shirts buttoned up to our necks. For some reason, I chose to wear rouge and lipstick. On the PATH train over, said roommate decided she wasn’t wearing the outfit and “cultural appropriation” was invoked yet again.
By Jesuit Volunteer Corps standards, the Halloween party was rollicking. People danced, lots of cheap vodka-y punch was downed, and I have a distinct vision of an up-to-that-point staid Brooklyn volunteer going nuts to “Insane in the Membrane” and later demurely hitting on my roommate. At some other point, years after Halloween 1993, I learned that back home, while we were pogo-sticking to “Jump Around” in a Newark basement, Mom had sort of, maybe, intentionally/unintentionally taken too many sleeping pills. It didn’t take and I don’t know if anyone even knew at the time, but it was a damn sight more disturbing and real than “cultural appropriation.”
Day 79: On a chilly windy night, Chris invited me to the movies. We went to the Loew’s Paradise on the Grand Concourse, a massive theater that opened in 1929 with The Mysterious Dr. Fu-Manchu. By November 1993, when we took in Addams Family Values, the once-extravagant palace had devolved into a decrepit four-screen multiplex with holes in its roof. From our seats I could see slivers of its former glory: the skyscape ceiling mural, the bronze fixtures, the defunct orchestra pit. I couldn’t, however, close my eyes and drift off to the glory days of the Grand Concourse. I was too petrified.
The fright wasn’t due to the macabre antics of Pugsley and Wednesday, but because of the nonstop parade of rats scurrying across the screen, illuminated to super-monster size for the handful of us sad moviegoers. I put my feet on the chair in front of me and sat statue-fucking-still. The vermin were scarier than any of the “thrills you’ll never forget” that Dr. Fu Manchu promised. I felt the shadows of the freakish beasts crawling all over my skin while Chris laughed and laughed and laughed.
Day 104: As the only recreation/education coordinator at Pius XII with a driver’s license, one of my primary responsibilities was packing fifteen kids into a beat-up Chevy Suburban and hitting the town. In early December, I took some of the younger Pius XII kids, many of whom who rarely spent time in Manhattan, to check out the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree lighting. I failed,stopped dead by the impenetrable holiday throng.
By the time we got the group back to the Suburban, the kids were cold, tired and whining for hot chocolate and hot dogs. As we lined them up for a headcount, a little Christmas magic sprinkled down upon our weary bunch. As the opening funkadelic bassline to “Who Am I (What’s My Name?)” rang out, a fun-loving scamp named Miguel screamed “Snoopy-Doggy-Dogg!” Instantaneously, he and the rest of the kids jumped up on a ledge, started singing the hook and doing a dance in unison, the choreographical origins of which remain a mystery.
High pitched wails of: “Snooooooooooooppppp-Dogggggggggggggie-Doggggg…” were the highlight of the holiday season.
Day 119: Right before Christmas break, I was recruited by my roommate to come and play Santa Claus for her St. Luke’s first-graders: kids who still believed, kids who were in awe of the fat man with the bag full of gifts. Here’s what I learned: Every man should dress up like Santa Claus at least once. Red felt, a plastic belt and a fake beard imbues an amazing sense of joy. Some of the kids seemed more skeptical, more jaded than I expected, with lots asking if I was “real.” One kid informed me, “You ain’t the fucking Santa!” And he was right, I wasn’t the fucking Santa, but I was a fucking Santa. And a pretty damn jolly one at that. Up in the Bronx, it was the most wonderful time of the year.
Days 127, 132: Back home in Montana, it was winter, but not much of a wonderland. The day after Christmas, two chairs were pulled in front of our basement couch. Close, like too close, like in a way we’d never sat before. My brothers and I were on one side, our parents on the other. Should have recognized it, the universal familial furniture arrangement for the “we’re separating” announcement. Or “working on it.” Inevitably, over is over.
I wanted out: of the family quorum. Of the basement. Of Billings. I couldn’t wait to get back to New York City and its 2,420 murders. I missed the Bronx. I missed McGovern’s. My then girlfriend (now wife) Kim came up from her Maryland job for New Year’s. We rang in 1994 like true tourists, chugging beer in Times Square, long before the NYPD’s no-booze metal pens were instituted. There wasn’t a cop on every corner and brown baggin’ it was quasi-legal. It was a long night and I’m not sure we even saw the ball drop. I woke up late on New Year’s Day in my Bronx bed in my Bronx apartment. I was home.
Day 153: On January 21, 1994, I fulfilled a lifelong dream and went to see one of my idols, David Letterman, at his new home in the Ed Sullivan Theater. After the show, I hit the joint next door, McGee’s Pub (R.I.P.), and in walked a bunch of Late Show staffers. I got to talking with a couple of them at the bar, and not wanting to look cheap, I broke out the “emergency” credit card to buy some drinks. One of the guys, a floor manager (not Biff), explained to me how to apply for a writing job and gave me his contact info. This was it! This is how it works in New York City! This was my big break! I was on my way to fame and fortune working, or at least interning, for David freaking Letterman. They kept talking, I kept buying.
I was so fired up, I kept the party going out in Woodside, Queens, with another JVC crew at their version of McGovern’s. It got ugly. I woke up on the subway home with a hole in my jeans and a long cut on my thigh that was bleeding a bit. Some opportunist with a switchblade was now in possession of my wallet. Good luck with that, fella. Guaranteed, I have less cash than you do. In need of money, I decided to go borrow some from Philadelphia relatives. Problem was, I had no means to buy a train ticket. I sheepishly went to the Amtrak office at Penn Station and explained my situation. As pathetic as I looked, they agreed to give me a free ride. The only stipulation was that I sit in that exact chair and wait for two hours, when the five a.m. to Philly would leave. They made it clear they weren’t going to come find me, or wake me up, and nobody else could know about our arrangement.
In desperate need of coffee, I had to do the one thing that nobody ever ever ever wants to do. “Ummmm, excuse me, I had my wallet stolen and I really need to stay awake for the next train. Could you loan me a couple of dollars? Give me your info and I will mail it…” The first few times, I got told in not-so-polite terms to fuck off. Can’t blame anyone for not handing a buck to a beer-soaked, bloody stranger. Finally, the kindest woman in the world showed me some mercy, listened to my sob story and said I didn’t have to pay her back. I sipped that incredible cup of crappy Penn Station coffee slowly, made it last until the gruff Amtrak conductor told me to follow him onto the back of the train. I said “thank you” and he walked away. Kids, if you learn only one thing from my experiences, it’s this: Never go to Queens.
Day 201: Pius XII had a young handyman we’ll call Jorge. In his off-hours, he held some sort of management/posse position with the hip-hop trio Two Without Hats, so named because only one of them wore a hat. He invited me to come check them out at the famous disco, then a rap club, The Fever. I wasn’t exactly in sync with hip-hop etiquette, so I showed up in flannel, way too early (a.k.a. the time the show was supposed to start), settled in at the bar and waited. And waited. And waited. I burned through all my money, at most $40, on the most expensive beers I’d ever paid for, $8, maybe $10. At one point, I went downstairs to see when Two Without Hats was going to take the stage, hoping there was some sort of V.I.P. set-up I could loot. I wandered around in the dark and somehow wound up in a room filled with beer.
“I cannot believe a white guy stole shit from my club,” said The Fever bossman to me, the moron sitting in front of him and two bouncers in a back office. “You’re suppose’ to be smart enough to know we got cameras everywhere. How we going to make this right?” Fortunately, I’d torn off my I’m-with-the-band sticker so it wouldn’t get back to Jorge. I played the “volunteer” card and to bossman’s credit, he was sympathetic. He only charged me $60 for the three cans of beer in my pants. He had one of his guys drive me to an out-of-the-way ATM, laughing the entire way at how stoooooopid I was, and I emptied out my bank account. All $80 of it, because I knew I’d have to pay for my own livery cab back to Andrews Ave. I never did see Two Without Hats, (who are still going strong apparently) but Jorge loved that I got kicked out of The Fever. Never ceased to remind me.
Day 246: Jorge and Darrell, a big African-American dude who worked the front desk for a few months when he was on hiatus from selling crack upstate, decided to “show me” Times Square. I guess they thought the virginal Montanan had never been to a strip club before. One evening after work we had a few beers, they smoked a blunt, and we headed into the city to a middling upstairs gentlemen’s establishment around 42nd Street. It was early on a weeknight. The main floor was sparsely filled; we never made it to the champagne room. We ordered our mandatory two drinks, they peeled off twenties, and we sat up near the front of the stage. At one point, Darrell called a dancer over, gave me a stack of singles and encouraged her to give me some special attention.
The African-American dancer kindly shook her massively fake assets in my face, much to the delight of Jorge and Darrell. I assumed we were just getting started on an epic Gotham outing, but that was it. We finished our drinks and got back on the 4 train. The entire night lasted less than two hours. Weird, but I’m grateful I can forever lay claim to an old-school Times Square motorboating.
Day 278: On a hot summer night, I was walking home all sweaty from the Fordham gym when a cop car rolled up on my corner. This is how it went:
“Yeah, you. What the fuck are you doing around here?”
“I live here.”
“Bullshit! You looking to buy?”
“No officer, I live up the street.”
“Here? On this block?”
“Yes. You want to see my driver’s license?”
I handed it over, and as he looked at it I gave him my “I’m a volunteer and I work with children at a community youth services program” spiel. He didn’t buy it, but he studied my new New York State driver’s license—thank you, blade-toting straphanger!—and handed it back.
“It’s your fucking life, asshole.”
The cops laughed and drove off. The corner guys hooted.
Day 301: There was an old run-down house across the street from Pius XII where women sat on the porch smoking, talking and listening to music. They kept to themselves and rarely ventured farther than the corner bodega for Utz Chips, loose cigarettes (termed “loosies”) and Arizona Iced Teas. One afternoon, a large EcoVan pulled up and the panicky women started hauling all their bags out onto the sidewalk. Jorge and I helped load up. They were gone within minutes. It was a secret battered women’s shelter, and the house had been made. There were imminent threats of violence, so the residents hightailed it onto the next one. I never saw anyone else go in or out of that house again.
Day 345: Not long before my Bronx year ended, I was watching Seinfeld when a couple of pop pops! rang out. By now, after-hours gunplay had become routine, but this piece went off closer than usual, and wailing sirens came quickly. I climbed out onto the fire escape to watch the police cruisers and an ambulance at the far end of our long block. There wasn’t a lot of commotion. A stretcher was loaded into the hospital wagon and then they were gone. Just like that, the scene was cleared up. I assumed it couldn’t have been that big of a deal, at least not for the neighborhood, and returned to the antics of Jerry, George, Kramer and Elaine in some other part of New York City, as far away as Montana.
The next day I passed an elderly woman dressed in black, weeping in front of one of those makeshift memorial sites. Flowers and votive candles with pictures of the Virgin Mary dotted the sidewalk. A small crowd was gathered around and a few people were comforting the woman. I don’t speak Spanish, but obviously, it was her son. Judging by his picture, he was no kid, but I doubt he made it to be as old as I am now. I scanned the tabloids for the next few days, but never found any account of the man who was shot and killed down the block during Seinfeld.
All the days, in a nutshell: The single most lasting moment of my time in the Bronx, the special Boogie Down totem I’ll think of on my deathbed, came from a small, skinny, wired boy named Ronald: “Mr. Patrick, why do all white people smell like bologna?”
* * *
I don’t have any recollection of day 365, the day I left the Bronx in August 1994. I came back the following summer, but never did find a real job, not even at the Late Show. So I did what unemployed writers do and went to graduate school. Before I headed out west, I took my youngest brother to McGovern’s. It was a cold, sleety evening; the place was dead. The bartender told me that a lot of the regulars had stopped coming by, but if I waited awhile, Jose would be in. We left. I knew where that night would have ended up, and I didn’t have enough Bronx in me anymore.
I returned to New York City for good in 1999, but I’ve only thoroughly walked the old stomping grounds once, in the early 2000s. University Heights was a lot cleaner; the once-empty storefronts were home to nail salons and cell phone stores. McGovern’s had become a legit grocery store. I thought about pouring out some liquor in memoriam, but this was Giuliani’s Bronx and I didn’t want to get a ticket, or worse. I took a stroll up Andrews and one of the kids from my program recognized me. He was a young adult now, out of high school, with a career of his own. “Hey Mr. Patrick, you want to buy some weed? I know you white college guys love weed.” I declined, wished him well, and kept on walking.
Twenty years later I decided to look up Pius XII, maybe go pay the old spot a visit, but I couldn’t find a listing. Turns out, Pius XII has been renamed; it’s now run by an organization called Good Shepherd. They no longer utilize Jesuit Volunteer Corps volunteers.
In 1946, Ogden Nash wrote a letter to the New York Times and ended it thusly:
Now I’m an older, wiser man.
I cry, “The Bronx? God bless them!”
* * *
Box Brown is an artist and publisher living in Philadelphia. He started the comics publishing house Retrofit in 2010 and his comic biography Andre the Giant: Life and Legend will be released in 2013 from First Second Books.