Saturday, July 28, 2012

Crack smokin' fix-a-flat.

150 East 100th Street, Manhattan.

I lived there from 1986-1990. At that time, anything above 96th Street was known as "North of the DMZ" (DeMilitarized Zone). My street was a good case in point: there were only two other habitable buildings. The others were either abandoned or had been torn down, leaving trash-filled lots. The opposite side of the street contained one long, continuous brick wall, courtesy of the bus depot facing Lexington Avenue. There were no trees, although one day workers with a flatbed truck full of saplings tried to remedy the situation. "Ed Koch, Mayor," read the insignia on the truck. Within a year of planting, all the trees were dead.
east harlem
My building is the black one on the right.

I had a five room, two-bedroom apartment for $540 a month, unheard of in Manhattan, unless you lived somewhere like I did. It was a five-story walkup with a solid steel front door. The building had a street-level social club that blared salsa music until three or four am on the weekends. Labeling the bar a "private social club" was a vaguely legal maneuver to avoid paying for a costly liquor license.

All my neighbors in the building were latinos, including Juan, the super. He was awe-inspiringly obese and always seemed to be in a good mood, with a broad smile. He worked in the sewer system for the city. Whenever the plumbing broke (which was often), I would go knock on his door downstairs. There were never less than 8-10 people inside; I could hear and smell food frying in the kitchen. He would slowly make his way up to my apartment, sweating with his toolbox, bringing one or two of his children. On his first visit, a little girl of about eight looked around and asked, "Where's everyone else?"

I owned a second hand Datsun 280zx (remember t-tops?) that I was stupid enough to try to park on the street. I couldn't afford to keep it in a garage, and had to move the damn car every day to comply with parking regulations. It was a stripped down model: three-speed automatic, no fancy rims and no radio (with corresponding NO RADIO sign in the window). Golfing one day in Pelham Bay, I found a little furry monkey headcover on the fairway, and put it on the gearshift. Two days later, someone threw a brick through the passenger window to steal it. Cost of replacement window: $280. One Saturday morning I arrived to find blood all over the driver-side window and hood. God only knows what happened on the street the night before.

One night after moving the car, I was walking back to my apartment, when I realized I had left a book I was reading on the passenger seat. I doubled back to fetch it, crossing the street this time to return. As I approached my apartment building, I passed two guys sitting on the steps of an abandoned building, sharing a crack pipe. I looked at them, and said "Hey" as I walked by. One of them nodded to me.

abandoned buildings
Photo of my sideview mirror. Social club has plywood patch in background.
"We thought you were afraid to walk by us, man."
"We saw you park your car, and it looked like you were afraid to walk by us. We were saying how that was fucked up, you were judging us. But then you crossed the street again and walked here right in front of us. So it's okay, man. We were wrong about you."
"I wasn't avoiding anybody, I just went back to get a book."
"You got a nail in your tire."
"Your car got a nail in the front tire, man. I work in a fix-a-flat, and got this habit of looking at car tires all the time now. I can pull it out for you if you want."
I glanced back at my car across the street, focusing on the tires. A silver nail head, the size of a dime, reflected back at me.

"Where's your shop?"
"The shop is closed. I can fix it right now—I got tools with me. If you wait ´till tomorrow, the tire will be flat."
His logic was unassailable. "Okay."

He had a black satchel at his feet, which I hadn't noticed until then. He pulled out a tire iron and some kind of widget; it looked like a cross between a large wine opener and a wing nut. The tool screwed into the tire, with an empty, interior cavity that encircled the nail. The wine opener part pulled the nail out, with the rest of the tool still embedded in the tire. He placed a sort of rubber licorice stick into the cavity where the nail had been extracted, and screwed that back in. When it held fast, he extracted the entire tool. The tire looked perfect again; it hadn't even lost air. He tossed the nail at my feet.

"That was fast," I said. "How much do I owe you?"
"Nine dollars, sixty-five cents," he said.

Where the hell he pulled $9.65 out of, I can only guess. It was probably what they charged at the shop he worked at. I gave him a 10 and told him to keep the change, but he shook his head, dug in his satchel again, and gave me the thirty-five cents back. I guess tips weren't allowed at his shop, either.

"Thanks," I said.
"No problem, man."

I looked at him expectantly, but there was nothing more to say; our encounter was over. His buddy commenced to light up another rock, and I continued on to my apartment.


  1. ha, good story.

  2. mean habitable right?

  3. Nice little insight on living the life in East side Harlem. I actually went to High school around that area.

  4. great story. I appreciated all of the details, especially the unexpected ones, in this story.

  5. I love this - I went to school in the Bronx and I totally would cross the street to avoid those guys - and then I guess I would have a flat in the morning ;)

  6. Good story. Nice and tight. $540 a month in NYC? It costs more than that to park. My favorite character is the little 8 year old girl. "Where is everyone else?" Love to know more about a girl like her living in a place like that.

  7. I am familiar with the area now in 2012. Much has changed (sort of), but thanks for the insight into the history of the neighborhood

    1. Was in the nabe during the summer, and made a point of visiting that block. I would guess rents have tripled or quadrupled. It was pretty hairy (like much of Harlem) in the '80s. I was robbed at gunpoint and pistol whipped in front of the building once, and saw a drug dealer get shot on the corner. That was horrible--watching the blood puddle form under his body while his girlfriend screamed.


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