Read an Excerpt
If These Walls Could Talk
By Bettye Griffin
DAFINA BOOKSCopyright © 2007 Bettye-Lynn Griffin
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe Young Family Brooklyn, New York October 2001
Dawn unlocked her mailbox and tossed the contents into her tote bag without even looking at it. She just wanted to get upstairs to her apartment, take off her shoes, and sit for a few minutes before starting dinner. Funny, but lately she'd been thinking about how nice it would be to retire, a notion rather premature for a thirty-seven-year-old who'd likely be working at least another twenty-five years.
By now she had a pretty good sense that those twenty-five years of middle age would hold nothing extraordinary for her-nothing other than an average life of subway rides, working five days a week, paying bills, and taking an annual vacation. After that she and Milo would probably retire to Delaware or the Carolinas for more of the same, with their lives brightened by visits of their grandchildren.
Lord, that sounds boring. But even as Dawn formed the thought she also knew that she, Milo, and their son, Zachary, ranked among the fortunate. She couldn't really complain, at least not with any honesty, that they never did anything or went anywhere. They ate out most Saturdays, ordered takeout at least once during the week, usually on Fridays, and barely three months ago they enjoyed a weeklong cruiseto Bermuda, the latest in a string of annual vacations.
She knew that the terrorist attacks last month were behind her restlessness. They made her more acutely aware of all the things she wanted to do and places she wanted to see in her lifetime, and now she feared there wouldn't be enough time. The people behind bringing down the Twin Towers might be poised to do something equally evil, like blowing up subway tunnels all over the city during rush hour. She could practically see the sand running through the hourglass of her life, and it was already almost halfway through-maybe more, she happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, like the thousands who perished that fateful Tuesday morning.
But how did that saying go? Something about life being short for everyone, but that its sweetness depended on each individual. If she'd fallen into a rut, she'd allowed it to happen. Maybe she'd do something different tonight after she finished the dishes, like mix a cocktail for her and Milo. Something different from the typical Rum and Coke or Vodka and Orange Juice, something a little exotic. They had some liquor in the cabinet that they rarely drank.
Dawn smiled faintly at that idea. Then, as she left the large mailbox vestibule, she noticed a large group of residents crowding around the two elevators. "What's going on?" she asked no one in particular.
"The elevators," someone answered. "Both of them are out of service."
"Both of them!" Dawn shook her head in disbelief. "For crying out loud! And at this hour, with people just getting in from work. Do they say when they expect to have at least one of them running?"
She recognized the heavy, almost masculine voice of Gloria Hudson from the fifth floor. "They're saying they don't know. Can you imagine? And all that rent I pay every month."
"I guess that means they're both empty. They wouldn't be so vague if somebody was stuck inside; they'd be trying to get them out," Dawn said thoughtfully.
She found Gloria's comment amusing, in spite of her annoyance at the situation. Gloria and her husband had lived in this building for over thirty years. They'd raised six children in a three-bedroom apartment and then downsized to a one-bedroom when the last of their offspring left home. This eighteen-story building and its twin next door had been constructed in the early sixties by Mitchell-Lama, a major player in building affordable middle-income housing in New York, and for that reason the tenants paid rents substantially lower than market rates. Dawn and Milo paid only $720 for a two-bedroom apartment with a terrace on the twelfth floor with fabulous views of the Manhattan skyline. She felt fairly certain that the Hudsons, with all their years of residence, paid less than five hundred for their one-bedroom. Gloria complained as if they paid three times that much. But Dawn did feel bad for Gloria who had to be near seventy, though her skin, like that of most black women, didn't tell on her. She shouldn't be forced to walk up five flights of stairs at her age.
Fortunately, Dawn noticed no other senior citizens among the group waiting in the lobby. Most of them did their errands and laundry in the morning and were back in their apartments by noon.
"My daughter told me they were out when she got home from school," another woman said.
Dawn immediately thought of nine-year-old Zach. He'd called her this afternoon, as he did every day, to report he'd gotten home safely from school, and he didn't mention anything about having to walk up twelve flights. Thank God he hadn't been in one of the elevators when it stopped. She'd had that experience once when she was seven years old in the East New York housing project where she lived with her family, and the experience still traumatized her.
She had been trapped in that small, windowless box that smelled like pee and, to make it worse, the elevator light kept flickering off and on, sometimes leaving her in total darkness. She'd pressed and held the ALARM button, which drowned out the sound of her terrified screams. It had taken a very long hour for the maintenance staff to get her out, crying and shaken. For years afterward she never entered an elevator alone, and if the person with her got off below her family's eighth-floor apartment she, too, would step out and take the stairs the rest of the way.
She sighed. She'd long since gotten over that childhood trauma, riding the building's elevator alone again, albeit uneasily, from the time she became a teenager. Even then she'd realized she had no choice but to conquer her fear. People who lived in New York City had to deal with elevators, just as they couldn't avoid going underground to ride the subway. There was no way around it, even if one had money.
No, that wasn't right, she thought. Rich folks didn't have to ride the subway, and they could avoid living in high-rises in favor of townhomes or brownstones, but chances were that wherever they had to go to earn those big paychecks was located many stories above street level.
The concept of wealth didn't apply to her and Milo, anyway. They belonged to the great mass of middle-income citizens. Even if they lived in Westchester or Jersey and worked in one of those sprawling suburban complexes where people drove to work, their home life would almost certainly involve an elevator. Apartment living was a way of life for people like them who didn't have thirty thousand dollars for a ten percent down payment on a house, plus thousands to put out for a monthly mortgage. Even those nice garden rentals in the suburbs she'd seen photographs of were well out of their price range.
Dawn looked down at her sneaker-clad feet, her footwear of choice while commuting. She carried heels in her wine-colored leather tote bag. It would be a long walk up twelve flights, but she gathered from the conversation around her that some people had already been waiting for over an hour. It was already past five-thirty, and she'd like to eat by seven. Besides, Zachary had been alone long enough. Best to begin the trek.
By the time she unlocked her apartment door Dawn felt like she'd gone ten rounds with Laila Ali. If she took those stairs once a day she'd probably lose those thirty pounds she wanted to shed ... if she didn't have a heart attack first.
"You home, Zach?" she called.
He emerged from his bedroom, relief etched on his young face. "Hi, Mom! You're kind of late tonight."
She could tell he'd started to worry. Staying in the apartment alone after school had been his idea; when school resumed last month he came to her and Milo and firmly stated he no longer wanted to spend afternoons at Georgiana Sanders's apartment until they got home from work. Between the noise made by the numerous other kids there and Georgiana watching her soap operas with the volume way up so she could hear above the din, he said he couldn't concentrate enough to do his homework.
Georgiana, like numerous other tenants in the two buildings, supplemented her family's income by running a day care center out of her apartment, an enterprise both unlicensed by the state and prohibited by the building management. The terms of everyone's lease contained a paragraph stating that apartments should not be used for commercial purposes. Georgiana cared for several small children all day, plus numerous older kids in the few hours between the end of school and their parents' workdays. But Dawn and Milo suspected that Zach's real reason for wanting out of day care was because his friends in the building all went home alone, some of them even responsible for supervising younger siblings, and he didn't want to be teased for being a baby. But that didn't change the fact that he was still only nine years old, city kid or not.
"The elevators are out," she said to him now. "Both of them."
"Yes, from what I heard you got upstairs just in time."
She dropped her purse, tote bag, and jacket on the floor and plopped into a leather swivel chair in the large living room, breathing heavily, her long legs stretched out on the matching ottoman in front of her. She knew she couldn't sit indefinitely, but she would give herself a chance to catch her breath before getting the meat loaf and sweet potatoes in the oven.
Her hand went to her scalp, which was wet with perspiration. At times like these she wished she wore her hair natural, so she could just get in the shower, wash out the sweat, and let it air-dry. Dawn wore her hair in a short pixie cut that required either a wet set or a wrap. The process really didn't take long, but nonetheless she tried to limit it to once a week. She'd always believed that frequent shampoos were for those whose hair didn't require chemical straightening.
She patted her ends, half-expecting to find them dry and brittle, but they remained silky smooth.
After a few minutes she began to cool off and smiled at her surroundings. Dawn loved her apartment. It had good-sized rooms and plenty of closet space, plus great views, although now she hated to look. The Manhattan skyline had been tragically altered just a month ago by those jets crashing into the World Trade Center, on the type of sunny, clear morning she hadn't seen since. Now, instead of the two majestic Twin Towers, a massive cloud of dust hovered around the skies of lower Manhattan. She could see it both from here and when she emerged from the subway in midtown. It made her feel vulnerable, like her life could come to a sudden halt at any moment. She knew from talking to her coworkers that many of them felt the same way.
Dawn wondered if she would ever feel truly safe again. She found herself sneaking glances at fellow passengers on the subway as she rode to and from work. Were any of them packing bombs in their briefcase?
She achieved her greatest sense of safety and security here, in their roomy apartment in Williamsburg. So what if their landlord charged them an exorbitant fee during the summer months because they had air conditioners in the living room and both bedrooms? It beat sweating her hair out and being unable to sleep at night.
Another feature she considered a plus was that, unlike many of their friends' apartments that had back-to-back bedrooms, the bathroom separated their bedroom from Zach's. This arrangement provided Dawn and Milo with more privacy.
But the twin buildings were nearly forty years old and beginning to show their age. With the passage of time the elevators became less and less reliable. The Olympic-sized pool had long since been filled in with cement after the cost of membership privileges soared so high that few residents purchased them, making it too costly to operate at a profit. This had occurred long before Dawn and Milo moved in, and she regretted its having happened. A pool to cool off in during the often unbearable heat of July and August would be the cherry on the sundae.
Dawn loved New York, but sometimes she allowed herself to consider that if she and Milo lived just about anywhere else in the country they'd be able to have a house of their own instead of making their landlord richer with every rent check they wrote. They both made good money-she worked as a payroll supervisor, he as a programmer-but home prices in Brooklyn and the surrounding areas had gone through the roof. They weren't alone in their housing dilemma; all of their family members and friends rented apartments. The waiting list to get into the two buildings of this complex numbered in the hundreds, unreliable elevators or not. Other than some of her coworkers who owned homes in central Jersey or out on Long Island, she didn't know anyone who owned their own home, and she doubted Milo did, either.
But many city residents would consider them lucky, and she supposed they were. They had a good-sized terrace where they had a grill and a few pieces of patio furniture. Many people in New York who wanted to cook out had no recourse but to put tiny hibachi grills on their fire escapes.
By the time Milo staggered in the door she had dinner in the oven.
"That was rough," he said between breaths.
"As best I can tell, the elevators went out around three-thirty," Dawn said.
He collapsed into a chair, throwing his hip-length black leather jacket over his knees. At thirty-eight, he had put on weight in the past year, and the slight paunch of his belly rose and fell beneath the pullover sweater that covered his regulation shirt and tie. "This shit is for the birds. That's the second time this month I had to walk up those stairs. I'm too old for this foolishness." He removed his wire-framed glasses and wiped his face with his palms before replacing them.
"I'm disappointed, too. I'd planned on doing laundry tonight. I can't do it without an elevator."
"We probably ought to see about getting a washing machine. A lot of folks in the building have them, even though it's against the building rules. Dishwashers, too."
The owners of the buildings, like most who owned income-regulated rental units in New York, paid for their tenants' water use, as well as their electricity. But prohibiting these machines had to do with the plumbing, which was as old as the rest of the building, and the concern that draining soapsuds from washers on higher floors could easily clog the pipes at the bottom, creating the need for costly repairs. Quite a few older buildings in the city weren't zoned for individual washing machines including many prewar luxury apartments selling for seven figures. Of course, people who could afford to live in places that pricey had maids to make the trek down to the basement laundry room for them.
"But Milo, where would we put it?"
"It can sit right out in the corner of the dining room. It'll be on wheels, so we can roll it to the kitchen sink when we need it. When they do the annual inspection we'll put it out on the terrace and cover it up with something."
"But if it's out in the open anyone who comes over will see it. And what if Zach's friends from the building come over while I'm washing a load? It's too risky, Milo. Somebody will blab to the management."
"Dawn, I really don't think anyone cares. Look at Georgiana and all those other women who run day care centers out of their apartments. This isn't Good Times, where Florida and James are always being threatened with eviction for breaking this rule or that rule. I always thought that was a stupid plot device, anyway. People don't get evicted from the projects unless they've committed a major infraction, like going three months without paying their rent or something."
"This isn't a project, Milo." Her voice came out sharper than she had meant it to, but as a child of the crime- and graffiti-ridden projects of East New York, she didn't want anyone to infer that at this point in her life she still lived in a ghetto.
He looked at her through narrowed eyes. "So it isn't a project. Don't bite my head off, will you?"
"Sorry," she said, and took a breath. "I'm just so annoyed. And I'm a little worried, too, about these buildings going downhill and turning into something just a step or two removed from the projects. The maintenance is really starting to get bad. Remember those times last winter when the boiler wasn't working? Winter is coming, and we'll probably freeze again this year." She sighed. "What we really need is a house."
"We could use the winning lottery numbers, too, if you're granting wishes."
"Dawn, you know damn well we can't afford a house. Only rich people can buy houses, at least in this part of the country. People with incomes a lot higher than ours are renting."
Excerpted from If These Walls Could Talk by Bettye Griffin Copyright © 2007 by Bettye-Lynn Griffin. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.