The building looked familiar on Christmas Day but then again, buildings in every housing development across New York City look the same. But this one in East Harlem - also known as Spanish Harlem or El Barrio - is different.
More than a decade ago, before chain stores, fashionable restaurants, co-ops, and new high-rise buildings replaced tiny eateries, crumbling buildings, local bars, and methadone clinics, I was introduced to Pepè and Margo who lived in the Carver Houses.
And this is where I found myself, delivering a hot meal and gift to seniors in East Harlem as a volunteer with Citymeals on Wheels, looking up at the windows of the apartment where they once lived.
To commemorate the lives of those most of us don’t see, here is a story of two people I met and wrote about, a long time ago.
There’s a body buried in the Carver Houses.
The George Washington Carver Houses belong to the New York City Housing Authority, a city agency which houses New Yorkers and their families in sometimes tired and worn down but solid, singular-looking buildings throughout the five boroughs.
Like the pigeons that used to nest in coops on top of apartment buildings, rumors have flown for years that Mount Sinai Hospital has plans to take over the Carver Houses and use the apartments as housing for their medical residents. I heard these rumors 10 years ago; I still hear them today.
But the Carver Houses are still here and so is the body. Three weary pink carnations mark the spot underneath a windowsill, lying on the dirt grounds of a housing project named after a peanut farmer. As with all gifts of flowers, there’s a story behind these, too.
Wrapped in plastic, the corpse lies buried in the soil beneath a thousand heartaches of working people. I passed by the other day, and there were the ghosts of Pepè and Margo, who lived a long time ago in a small apartment on the seventh floor.
Pepè and Margo were two of the original residents of the Carver Houses, trading one island for another when they moved from Puerto Rico to New York City in 1955. They met in a mental hospital where she cared for patients and he worked in the fields. When they arrived here, he worked as a laborer in factories and she worked as an aide in nursing homes.
He was small and thin, she was tall and plump and they were married for more than 50 years.
“She used the black magic on me,” he explained. “And it’s still working!”
They lived together for 15 years before they married and the only reason they married, he said, was to obtain their apartment as a legal couple. She called him viejo or old man and he called her “ma.”
“I feel very happy in this country,” he said. “We’ve been living in this country 40 or so years. But Puerto Rico is beautiful. I miss the wind, the sun. I was born in Puerto Rico and I am going to die here.”
Margo wanted to remain in Puerto Rico.
“I want to go back. I miss everything. I miss the outdoors.”
They spoke for each other.
“Here she feels trapped inside,” Pepè said, “You can’t just go out. We go to the yard and look at the flowers. I plant here and the next day it’s dead. You can’t have plants here unless you have a house or you live on the first floor. And outside they are savages. It’s very noisy and they don’t respect.”
The death occurred at a time when the city was overrun with drug dealers sitting on benches, destroying the life and genealogy of the neighborhood. Pepè rode the subway on most days even as an old man, before the subways became more egalitarian. As a young man, he was scrutinized for his color and his pedigree along the subterranean trail beneath the surface and soul of the city.
Pepè was small but feisty enough to hold his own against the neighborhood toughs. He and Margo lived in an apartment overlooking green wooden benches some cop told me were made in a prison. To the left is a noisy playground and straight ahead is Madison Avenue. It isn’t exactly a straight path to Madison and then to Fifth; sometimes there’s a stop at another island called Riker’s.
“We raised our children in this building,” Pepè said. “We worked. We had the control to raise our kids with responsibilities. Why can’t the others do the same thing?”
The view from apartment windows and from their peephole was better than their old black-and-white television with rabbit-ear antennas. Outside, a young man came to the aid of a woman being pummeled by a man. He tried to help her, she ran away and he got stabbed. A woman was killed when she went to answer her doorbell. She was shot looking through the door and her daughter was killed in the street. Pepè said the killers were looking for a man because he sold drugs.
He looked out of the window at a police car pulling up on the sidewalk.
“For me, the Police Department, they are wonderful. I never have problems. They try to do their job the best they can. If they tell me to move, I do.”
“There is no better neighborhood than this one,” Pepè declared. “It’s not too great, but I don’t care. It’s home. We have people in this neighborhood who don’t want to live clean. And at night, the teenagers don’t work. During the day, they sleep. Sometimes you have to blame the parents. We need more cops here. This morning, barking, barking and barking. I said ‘enough with the barking dog.’ There is urine sprayed all over the elevator. Where are you going to stand?,” he asked. “The office takes good care of the building. People here don’t take care of it.”
In the overheated apartment of Pepè and Margo, there were no doors on their closets; contents were hidden by curtains whose bulging contents created large lumps. Their kitchen was small and crowded with the pots and pans of people who ate at home and didn’t bother going to restaurants.
“I used to leave the door open when I cleaned the house,” Margo recalled. “No one used to bother us.”
Tiny, their chihuauha, slept in their bed. He was the only companion in the house; Pepè and Margo’s two sons were married with children who had their own children. Pepè carried Tiny everywhere, tucked under his arm like a football. Tiny’s legs were spindly and arthritic, his head large and oversized, his eyes too large and brown and partially unseeing, his ears hard of hearing—the four-legged version of Pepè. Once, I took a photograph of these doppelgangers and presented it to Pepè. He carried it everywhere. He trimmed the edges to a small square and that creased black-and-white portrait remained proof that they were a pair.
“Sometimes you don’t remember,” Pepè said of his age, which was 85. “Once I put my shoe in the refrigerator and I put my keys in the freezer.”
Tiny was the first to go, dying in the winter. Pepè slept with the photograph tucked inside of his pajama top. He wrapped Tiny in plastic wrap and gingerly placed him in the freezer for the winter, alongside the forgotten shoe and keys, ice cube trays and chickens. When spring came and the ground thawed, he enlisted his oldest son and the two of them shoveled the earth and buried the dog in the middle of the night under a hazy street lamp below his window. There were no cops around.
Pepè seemed smaller each time I visited him and he knew that old age and time were happening to him. On my last visit to see him, Margo said she had taken him to the hospital three times that month.
“I don’t like to leave him,” she said.
No one really knows why he did it but Pepè jumped, photograph in hand, out of the window, landing on Tiny’s grave seven floors below.
Pepè didn’t make the news. Maybe he would have by jumping from the George Washington Bridge or the Empire State Building, and his life, well, really his death, might be recalled and archived, even for a few lines. He was carried away in a black plastic body bag. That was his end.
I was the one who left the flowers, a small memorial to a life remembered. And, as I said, gifts of flowers have a story.