Then the tenement at the corner of Temple and Figueroa was still afloat down the middle of the barrio, with curtains, people, and underwear hanging out of most windows, laundry being churned to death in back-porch machines, and the smell of tacos and delicatessen corned beef in the halls.
All to itself it was a small Ellis Island, adrift with people from some sixteen countries. On Saturday nights there were enchilada festivals on the top floor and conga lines dancing through the halls, but most of the week the doors were shut and people turned in early because they all worked, downtown in the dress lofts or the dime stores or in what was left of the defense industry in the valley or in Olvera Street selling junk jewelry.
Nobody was in charge of the tenement. The landlady, Mrs. O’Brien, came to visit as rarely as possible; fearful of purse snatchers, terrified for her seventy-two-year-old virtue. If anyone was in charge of the tenement it was Fannie Florianna, who from her second-floor opera balcony could singsong orders so sweetly that even the boys in the poolhall across the street stopped preening like pigeons and roosters and came, cues in hand, to wave up and cry “Ole!”
There were three Chinese on the first floor along with the usual Chicanos, and on the second floor one Japanese gentleman and six young men from Mexico City who owned one white ice cream suit, each got to wear it one night a week. There were also some Portuguese men, a night watchman from Haiti, two salesmen from the Philippines, and more Chicanos. Mrs. Gutierrez, with the only phone in the tenement, was there, yes, on the third floor.
The second was mostly Fannie and her 380 pounds, along with two old maid sisters from Spain, a jewelry salesman from Egypt, and two ladies from Monterey who, it was rumored, sold their favors at no great price, to any lost and lustful pool player who happened to stumble upstairs, uncaring, late Friday nights. Every rat to his warren, as Fannie said.
I was glad to stand outside the tenement at dusk, glad to hear all the live radios playing from all the windows, glad to smell all the cooking smells and hear the laughter.
Glad to go in and meet all the people.
Some people’s lives can be summed so swiftly it’s no more than a door slammed or someone coughing out on a dark street late at night.
You glance from the window; the street’s empty. Whoever coughed is gone.
There are some people who live to be thirty-five or forty, but because no one ever notices, their lives are candle-brief, invisible-small.
In and around the tenement were various such invisible or half-visible people who lived but did not exactly live in the tenement.
There was Sam and there was Jimmy and there was Pietro Massinello and there was the very special blind man, Henry, as dark as the halls he wandered through with his Negro pride.
All or most of them would vanish in a few days, and each in a different way. Since their vanishing occurred with such regularity and variety, no one took notice. Even I almost missed the significance of their last farewells.
Sam was a wetback wandered up from Mexico to wash dishes, beg quarters, buy cheap wine, and lie doggo for days, then up like the night-prowling dead to wash more dishes, cadge more quarters, and sink into vino, toted in a brown-bag valise. His Spanish was bad and his English worse because it was always filtered through muscatel. Nobody knew what he said, nobody cared. He slept in the basement, out of harm’s way.
So much for Sam.
Jimmy you couldn’t understand either, not as a result of wine but because someone had stolen his bite. His teeth, delivered gratis by the city’s health department, had vanished one night when he was careless enough to dime himself into a Main Street flophouse. The teeth had been stolen from a water glass by his pillow. When he woke his great white grin was gone forever. Jimmy, gape-mouthed but convivial on gin, came back to the tenement, pointing at his pink gums and laughing. And what with the loss of his dentures and his immigrant Czech accent, he was, like Sam, unintelligible. He slept in empty tenement bathtubs at three in the morning, and did odd jobs around the place each day, laughing a lot at nothing in particular.
Page: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 33 34 35 36 37 38 39 40 41 42 43 44 45 46 47 48 49 50 51 52 53 54 55 56 57 58 59 60 61 62 63 64 65 66 67 68 69 70 71 72 73 74 75 76 77 78 79 80 81 82 83 84 85 86 87 88 89 90 91 92 93 94 95 96 97 98 99 100 101 102 103 104 105 106