Seeking illumination on the Grand Concourse

January 18, 2010 at 7:52 AM 4 comments


You would not believe the amount of shlepping it takes to shoot a short documentary. I’ve been renting lights, camera and a boom mike from a rental shop on 45th and Ninth, and the haulage involved in transporting the equipment to the film location in south Jersey is almost enough to make me want to ditch the whole thing.

Craig’s List was advertising a set of secondhand Lowel lights, so I decided to take a look. Owning lights would surely reduce my burden, not to mention eliminate the hassle of lugging the stuff to my car parked near the West Side Highway.

The seller was asking nine hundred dollars. Now, I haven’t had a paycheck since the end of February 2009. I stopped shopping for clothing, I make no travel plans, I don’t go to theater or restaurants at all anymore and once my COBRA runs out, I don’t know what I’m going to do about health care. But a year of living abstemiously was wearing a hole through the financial lobe of my brain, and all of a sudden, I couldn’t think of anything I needed more than those Lowel lights.

Venturing into gunshot country

Kyle, the seller, lived in the south Bronx near Yankee Stadium. Judging by his voice and accent, I took him to be an inner city wannabe. You know, a white twentysomething from Westchester who was freaking his parents out by renting a cheap place on the Grand Concourse so he could live his art. We picked a morning for me to come look at the lights.

By car, 168th Street off the Grand Concourse isn’t even a fifteen-minute drive from my home. Yet anyone who has ever done jury duty at the Bronx County Courthouse knows that it’s impossible for an outsider to find a parking spot in the area. The better way to get there is on the Bx1 bus. The problem is the Bx1 is a real milk train. Door to door the trip takes more than an hour. I could drive to Newark and find parking in that time.

Almost nobody from Riverdale, the Bronx neighborhood where I live, visits the Concourse. Why would they? Except for the Yankees and the courthouse, the Concourse doesn’t have much to offer beyond iglesias, funeral homes, synagogues-turned-warehouses and apartment buildings that house an epidemic number of asthma cases.

Around the same time that I wanted those lights, I heard Brian Lehrer, the WNYC radio talk host, do a show about gun violence in the Bronx. The episode was inspired by the wounding in September 2009 of fifteen-year-old Vada Vasquez caught in the crossfire between rival gangs. News accounts reported that Vada was hit in the Morrisania section of the Bronx, which is just about where Kyle lived.

Starbucks, where are you when we really need you?

I know what you’re thinking.

You’re supposed to meet a Craig’s List seller in a public location. Go find a public location on the Grand Concourse. Starbucks, where are you when we really need you?

I kept putting off my foray to 168th Street. And Kyle had his problems too. One afternoon he called to apologize for not returning my call. He had spent the day in the hospital with his father, a lifelong heroin user.

No easy parking. Long slogging ride. Violent neighborhood. Limited funds. I had plenty of reasons to bail out of this adventure. But the possibility of owning that lighting set and not having to rent from an ornery rental shop — I had to make the trip.

“I’ll be Little Miss White Person if I come out on a Sunday,” I told Kyle. “Let me take the bus on Monday when there are more buses and more people riding them.”

It was true. I would be Little Miss White Person, but some things you just do not say.

“I don’t know why I say that,” I said. “I used to interview people up and down the Concourse for a hospital job I once had. Nothing bad ever happened to me.”

Kyle said something about the neighborhood starting to turn around and about the nice Hispanic families in his building. I felt like a jerk. Now I had to see those lights.

We shared an awkward moment

The civil engineers who designed the Grand Concourse should have factored a traffic light into their plans at 168th Street. I saw a home healthcare aide navigate the local traffic lanes, the four boulevard lanes and a diagonal intersection. I followed her east until I found Kyle’s building at the corner of Sherman Avenue.

Why did he have to live there? I could hear the Melanie Griffith white moll character in “Bonfire of the Vanities” whining “Sherman!” You can tell yourself ten times a day that you’re not a racist, but then a thing like that happens — the conflation of a street name with a movie about racism in NYC — and you are brought face-to-face with your own presumptions about inner city streets, inner city people. How many times in my quest for Lowel lights was I going to feel like a toad?

A pile of old newspapers and soda cans was crushed into a corner of the vestibule. Kyle buzzed me in and I climbed the four flights to his apartment. The graffiti in the stairwell told me I was in gangsta territory.

Kyle opened the door a crack and peered out to assess the danger from me. So much for accents and voices. Kyle was young and black.

He lived in the apartment with his soft-spoken fiance Angelique and their cat Jinx. Another unseen couple rented out space off the living room. The place was messy. It was strewn with advertising circulars and balled-up clothing. Then again, so is my son’s bedroom.

Kyle put the lighting set together over the course of the next hour. All of the lights worked, but a couple of them needed some expert jiggling to turn them on.

He had a kind word for everybody: For Angelique, who worked at a real estate office so that Kyle could pursue a career in filmmaking; for Jinx, whose in-your-face interrogations indicated a mistreated kittenhood; for the graffiti artists, whose parents worked three jobs and were still poor; even for Best Buy, which had given him a job in one of its Upper West Side stores.

He even had a kind word for me and the “awkward moment” we shared on the phone when I worried about being Little Miss White Person in the violence-prone Morrisania section of the Bronx.

“I can’t say there’s nothing to worry about here,” he conceded. “Last week I heard gun shots down on the street.”

We chatted. I asked him to send me a link to his films online. We shook hands. I told Kyle I would call him later about my decision. I hurried down the stairs and passed a chubby Hispanic mother and her little girl. “Excuse me, missus,” the mother said, even though she had done nothing to offend me.

In the evening, Kyle texted me an even better offer: He would throw in a reflector bounce board and pay for a cab to deliver the lights to my door. For nine hundred bucks, though, I wanted the lights to turn on with a flick of a switch. Still, all my shlepping would be over if I bought them.

Why does cruelty exist?

The northbound Bx1 showed up twenty minutes behind three Bx2’s and an out-of-service articulated bus. I got to watch a handful of ordinary men and women push strollers and pull luggage trolleys and a jittery black panhandler approach each one of them for money. I may as well not have been there. Nobody said a word to me.

On the bus, I sat down next to a middle-aged black woman. I had an hour’s ride ahead of me. I pulled a hardcover book out of a canvas bag emblazoned with the eco-green-and-tan logo of the New York Botanical Gardens. It was Cruelty by Kathleen Taylor, one of the audio essayists in Bookpod. I opened the book to a chapter called “Why Does Cruelty Exist?”

“Why does cruelty exist?” The question was so quiet that I asked my seatmate to hear it again.

I tapped my head. “Because there’s something wrong with us up here,” I said.

Dr. Taylor rejected the idea that some people are essentially cruel in favor of a belief that each one of us can choose to behave well or badly. Personally, I’m buffeted between both ideas. I am easily buffeted.

I expected my neighbor to lay cruelty at the feet of a racist society. Why else would she challenge me — the only white person on the bus — to engage in conversation with her?

I looked into her eyes. They were lit up and friendly. What little sunshine got through the clouds outside shone on her bottom lip. In the quietest voice, she proceeded to recapitulate Dr. Taylor’s position: That while we each have the capacity to be cruel, we also can be educated to turn away from violence.

“Could you ever picture yourself doing something really cruel?” I asked.

“Like what?”

“Like throwing a baby against a wall?”

“Like the Nazis?”

“Yes, like that.”

She said, “I love this country because I never even had to think about doing a thing like that.”

Neither one of us spoke. Then she said, “I know we’ve done things. That prison in Iraq. You know which one I’m talking about.”

I did.

“But I have a hundred chances every day to do something good,” she said.

She was on her way to volunteer in her son’s school cafeteria. “I need them more than they need me,” she said.

At 200th Street, she stood up with the help of a cane. “I got hit by a bus in 1998,” she said. “But I get around.”

I said it was nice talking.

“Enjoy the book!” she said.

“It’s a strange book to enjoy!” I said.

I saw the light

Was I out of my mind to think about spending nine hundred dollars on lights that didn’t turn on unless you fussed with tungsten bulbs that could actually explode in your hand?

My excursion to 168th Street on an overcast day took two hours round-trip. I didn’t get the lights. I did happen to see a ray of light, though, in the eyes of my seatmate on the northbound Bx1 — where I least expected to find it.



Note: The photo on the Bookpod home page is of musician William Parker. It is not a photo of “Kyle” in this blog post.

Related links:

Do we choose to be cruel [Kathleen Taylor on Bookpod]

Listen to Constance Rosenblum talk about the Grand Concourse [New York Times audio].

Bronx Bohemian


Entry filed under: Apartments, Bookpod, Fiction, New York City, Race, Rentals, Tenants, Travel. Tags: , , , , , , , , .

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4 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Sharon  |  January 18, 2010 at 8:57 PM

    That was some adventure you had there. Well worth it for the insight you gained and the story you got to share.

    I can relate to the Lowell Light envy. But … I am a little relieved you didn’t plop down the $900. You can really make it work with a trip to Lowes. Some poster board, a couple 150watt bulbs, a few other accessories… and you’re lighting your set like a frugal pro… And no $900 lights that don’t work to ruin your day.

    Happy resource action anniversary btw.

  • 2. Edie A.  |  January 30, 2010 at 11:29 AM

    do you tweet Brooke? I love the way you capture the world. Why am I not surprised that the nazis are immediately tagged to the cruelty no-matter-by whom…

    • 3. modestine  |  January 31, 2010 at 6:10 AM

      Edie! I do tweet. — It amazed me too that my seat-mate associated cruelty with Nazism. — So great to hear from you. I need to come to D.C. soon. Maybe we can see each other? — Brook

  • 4. Sara Bennett  |  January 31, 2010 at 7:56 PM

    There’s got to be a larger audience for your writing. Everything I read of yours either makes me think or laugh out loud.


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