|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
at 601 Pelham Parkway North, sharing a small 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.
Once, when he was stationed in Izmir, he got in trouble with the Air Force over some scam involving used-car sales. He was called on the carpet by the colonel, but by the time he walked out of the hearing, he had not only beat the rap but sold the colonel a Swiss watch and a couple of Parker pens!
After being discharged, Uncle Louie moved into a city housing project near Hunt's Point in the south Bronx. As a 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 had been mugged twice and never went 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" are creations of his.
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 ditty, "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 played softball here, with a traveling team that took on the locals in high-stakes, fast-pitch games. The yard looked pretty much the same as it did then, except for the Latin flavor. There was a street band playing salsa in the far corner and both the teams on the field bore Spanish names on their gaudy, multi-colored uniforms. But the game, the city game, was still the same: quick, well-played, hard fought, and suddenly I felt a surge of nostalgia, remembering the times I'd played here, with my Uncle Louie looking on, shouting encouragment.
He'd taught me how to play softball, bought me my first bat--a big, fat, green thing which, as it turned out, wasn't new. He'd picked it up in a pawnshop, a cracked Louisville Slugger 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 space where he could do the deep-breathing exercises he learned in Japan many years ago. A small man, partially bald, much stooped and slowed now, he stood with closed eyes, oblivious to the screaming kids all around him, the cries of "Vamos, Jose, toma tu turno y trata de batear un cuadrangular," and to the shabby streets and tenements beyond, the last white man in the South Bronx, breathing slow, breathing deep.