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Light on the Dark Side

A Meaningful Life

by L.J. Davis, with an introduction by Jonathan Lethem
New York Review Books, 214 pp., $14.95 (paper)

One Manhattan mid-morning in the spring of 1967, I heard the crack of a gun going off below, along the broad reach of Central Park West. I jumped up from the table where I was working on my second novel and looked down five stories to the street, on the other side of which breathed the quiet greenery of Central Park. What I saw was a man lying in the middle of the street attempting to raise himself up from the waist, like a seal, collapsing, trying again, then falling flat.

At the same moment that I looked down I saw Billy the doorman glance up at me. We had both witnessed the murder.

Shortly after, two detectives arrived at the door of my apartment. Billy had reported to the police that there was another witness, me.

The detectives drove me to the local precinct on 102nd Street where I was questioned for nearly two hours by a third detective. In the course of the searching interrogation I was led to recall, bit by bit, watching the victim rise up and fall, seeing out of the corner of an eye a green sedan slowly driving by and from a backseat window an arm thrust out its hand holding a gun and firing a second time.

That evening when Martin, my husband, came home from teaching I reported what I had seen. “Oh God!” he said. “We’ll have to move out of here.” Later: “Maybe Brooklyn.”

I dreaded the long commute such a move would mean for my two sons and me. I had managed to get them full scholarships at the Ethical Culture’s school in Riverdale, Fieldston. I taught in Ethical’s elementary school located many blocks down Central Park West, at 63rd Street.

The neighborhood we were living in was a slum in the midst of which our apartment house thrust up high in the air like a great watchtower. In the late evenings, hanging out of the bedroom window, I liked to watch what was going on down below on 104th Street. I had once seen, less far down, an elderly woman being mugged on the gravel-strewn roof of a tenement across the way that a century ago had been someone’s mansion—a thin youth grabbed her purse, knocked her down, and departed in no great haste, in full view. Often I saw ambulances parking to pick up the wounded or the dead, the vehicles’ roofs emblazoned with a red cross. I listened fascinated to drunken conversations echoing upward. So much happened after dark that I began to see the street as a movie set, distance flattening horror as it usually does, turning the suffering of others into a troubling but nevertheless absorbing spectacle.

The Saturday after the shooting, I drove across the Brooklyn Bridge with my younger son. My other boy was visiting schoolmates and Martin was in bed with a virus. I think a friend had told me about Boerum Hill, a small neighborhood in South Brooklyn where, she had heard, there was a three-floor apartment for rent. Or had I seen an ad in a newspaper? What I’m still sure about is the rent: $325 a month, $40 less than we were paying for our apartment on Central Park West.

After several wrong turns, I found Dean Street. Brownstones lined both sides of the narrow street between Hoyt and Bond. A four-story brick hospital rose at the western corner like a bookend. The sidewalks were empty of people. We parked the car with ease; there were many free spaces in those long-ago days.

The sunlight was thin and weak, the air chilly. As I got out of the car, I heard the sound, oddly threatening, of an old window being raised. I looked up to see an old woman staring down at us from the third floor of a house. She slammed the window back down.

The street, the houses on it, had a convalescent, ambiguous look. It wasn’t a slum, though it was ragged. It wasn’t clearly working-class, it wasn’t middle-class (yet). It neither welcomed nor glowered with hostility.

But you saw the sky in a way you rarely saw it in Manhattan. As I looked up at it I realized, as I seldom did in Manhattan, that it was limitless, not a roof for a city, not a part of a stage decor, but the heavens.

We read the house numbers and found the one we wanted, on the north side of the street, close to Bond. The landlord, Ralph, lived in the neighboring house. We climbed up its stoop to the massive door and rang the bell.

A man with a worried expression appeared on the threshold.

You have a rental available?” I asked. He nodded, turned, and picked up a key from a small table

Next door. Up the stoop,” he said, in a flat voice. “The garden apartment is already rented.”

I stared at the dusty windows of the house we were going to inhabit for the next three years.

It looked unsheltered, open to weather, despite being squeezed between adjoining brownstone houses. I had a momentary delusion that it was standing by itself as if on a prairie. Ralph said he owned both houses as he was opening the large entrance door, with a squeak of hinges. I smelled dust. I felt the house’s emptiness.

You’re standing in the hallway,” Ralph said. “To your right is the living room with kitchen and dining space over there, in the back. The fireplace doesn’t work.”

The quite large living room was marked by pencil-like shadows cast by the ascending stairs. I noted a thin line of utilities in the rear, all small: sink, stove, refrigerator, two narrow counters. Together they spelled out in a kind of shorthand, kitchen. A door at the rear led to the backyard. As I opened it, Ralph said, admonishingly, “Those steps go down to the yard. You can’t use them without permission of the tenants below” (who proved to be a quite friendly couple).

We climbed the steps to the next floor. I saw a bathroom, its door open, looking like plain white underwear, slightly soiled. Next to it was a small room with a window giving onto the backyard. I stared into it and the yards of the next street, backed up against those of Dean Street. Dirty windows rebuffed the sun’s rays. I could see blurred shapes through some, bedsheets or ragged shades covered others.

On the top floor was another, smaller, bathroom and two rooms, one as large as the living room, the other small.

We returned to Ralph’s house where, in his small office, I signed a three-year lease and arranged to move in in two weeks’ time. Ralph looked a little less grim as he said, “The utilities are your responsibility, of course.”

The evening of the day we moved in, I made a quick supper. We sat at a table surrounded by stacked cartons that evoked in me a memory of Stonehenge, a cardboard one. The atmosphere at our table was a mix of hilarity and malaise. The neighborhood and the house felt alien. We had moved into a foreign city, a feeling shared by some of our friends in Manhattan in those years, and indeed still.

But I was not the first member of my family to live in the borough. My Spanish grandmother, born in Barcelona, married and after a few years widowed in Cuba, turned down her father’s offer to pay her passage back to Spain; instead she had sailed for Brooklyn with her five children at the end of the Spanish-American War, in 1898.

She told many stories about the farmhouse in Sterling Place where she and my mother and five uncles had first lived. The neighborhood had been semirural then—she saw tethered goats, chickens scrabbling in the earth of neighboring farms, heard cows mooing. Long ago Sterling Place became a black ghetto.

Gradually I remembered that I had disliked Brooklyn as a child; its shaking, rattling trolleys that seemed to be everywhere in the borough when I rode them to visit my grandmother’s friends; its different neighborhoods so dull and ugly, as shabby and discouraging as the suburban Queens we moved to later, as common as I was inclined to feel the whole world was. I was thinking about that as Martin and I and the boys ate our dessert of ice cream that first evening, among the packed boxes.

I still felt anxious about my children having to travel the far distance north to Riverdale by subway and bus. I was in a state of worrying indecision about my job at the Ethical Culture school in Manhattan. I had published one novel and begun a second. Time was my trouble. I stretched it, bent it, cursed and tricked it but it still maintained its tyranny. I only relaxed when I sank into bed at night in Boerum Hill.

But I discovered something in the passing weeks and months, the singularity, the charm of the borough: its tree-lined streets and gardens, its distinctive neighborhoods that sometimes changed by the block, and then changed in a different way when the old working-class or slum populations moved out and new ones (from all over the US and Europe too) moved in; young people, house-mad, scraping paint off marble fireplaces and mahogany bannisters, overjoyed to leave asphalt Manhattan behind for what was, most importantly for some, an investment, for some a true dwelling, as true as a dwelling can be in a country, in a world, that shifts and slides as if on sand.

Three years elapsed and we bought a twelve-foot-wide house in a nearby neighborhood west of Dean Street. Down its side streets you could glimpse the Upper Bay. I had finished my second novel and it was duly published. A movie actress bought it as a vehicle for herself—a small-budget film that Frank Gilroy wrote the script for and directed. That made possible our buying and renovating the Rumpelstiltskin house with its waste backyard that had once been a garden and would be so again.

The day before we moved out of Dean Street, I was at my desk in the room I used to write in. Suddenly the window shattered, there was a tremor in the air, a bee-like buzzing flying past my cheek. I shrank with fear. Then collecting myself, I peered out of the window into the backyards. A young man and woman, their hands raised in fright to their faces, were searching in my direction for the broken window. A gun was dangling from the girl’s right hand.

It turned out that the foolish young man had been teaching his foolish girlfriend how to fire a gun. He had held it for her as she gripped the butt and was curling her finger around the trigger. It went off.

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