|DEEP BREATHING IN THE SOUTH BRONX|
by Willard Manus
One ride on the Lexington Avenue subway in rush hour and it's as if you've never been away. It's the quickest and best way ro re-enter New York's lifestream, to bring it all back, everything that's both great and terrible about the city: the ebb and flow of people, energy, excitement; the noise and dirt and overcrowding.
I had taken the subway to go visit my uncle Louie, who lived up in the South Bronx. I grew up sharing a room with him; he had lived with us ever since I could remember (he never married), right up until the time he joined the army in 1942.
Uncle Louie stayed
in the army long after the war ended, becoming a
After being discharged, Uncle Louie moved into a city housing project near Hunt's Point in the south Bronx. As he vet, he qualified for a special, rent-controlled deal--sixty-five bucks a month. Too cheap to move, he had stayed there ever since.
Now close to ninety, he said he still liked living in the projects, despite the fact that he has been mugged twice and never goes out at night. "I've got a lot of nice neighbors," he said as we rode down the project's graffiti-splattered, knife-slashed elevator. "The black lady next door cooks me soup every day and I fix her vacuum cleaner and things like that. The old folks are fine, it's just the kids that cause trouble."
To save money, Uncle Louie still takes the subway, once a week, down to the ferry, which he takes across to Staten Island in order to shop and save at the Army PX there. The rest of his time he spends by watching television, fixing appliances, reading--and writing songs. Mostly love songs, torch songs: "There Is Nothing Wrong With You That Love Can't Cure," "Gremlins Are Spoiling My Dreams," "The Robot's Love Song."
No, none of them has ever been published or recorded, but that doesn't stop him. He sings me one he's just written: a comic tune, "Yetta From Cincinannti."
Meanwhile, we're walking through the DMZ. The South Bronx looks better to me. Most of the burnt-out tenements have been patched up, the streets are cleaner, and there's nary an abandoned car in sight. Latino families have restored all the private houses and shops on the block, planted trees and gardens. They proudly fly the flags of Puerto Rico, Mexico, San Salvador and Guatemala alongside the stars and stripes.
We moved on, to a
nearby schoolyard. Years ago I occasionally used to
He'd taught me how to play softball, bought me my first bat--a big, fat, green thing which, it turned out, wasn't new. He'd picked it up in a pawnshop, a cracked bat he had filled in with putty and painted over. It shattered with the first ball I hit.
Halfway through the
game, Uncle Louie got up and moved away, finding a