Read an Excerpt
( I )
AN OFFER IS MADE
I’ve been down in New York City, brother,
and that ain't no place to be down.
GIL SCOTT–HERON, “Blue Collar”
On the evening when he will learn that his apartment is being sold out from under him, Ike Ambrose Morphy finds a good parking space on Central Park West, then walks north toward home beside his dog, Herbie, through the early–December snow. Though he has just spent the better part of seven and a half long months in Chicago at his mother's bedside, Ike can already feel the crisp New York air instilling in him nearly the same energy and sense of purpose he felt twenty years ago when he dropped out of college, left his mom’s house and his hometown, and moved to this city that, for him, always represented freedom and possibility. Man, he can barely wait to get to his street, return to his building, climb the stairs to the second floor, enter his apartment, lock his door, drop his suitcases, take his clarinet out of its case, and play once again just as he promised his mother, Ella Mae Morphy, he would on the morning earlier this week when she closed her eyes for the last time.
At the corner of Central Park West and 106th, Ike turns to cross the street. He is bound for the Roberto Clemente Building, where he has lived for just about all of the two decades he has spent here in Manhattan Valley. But the moment the traffic light changes to green, Ike’s unleashed seventy–pound black retriever–chow mix bounds up the steps of the park’s Strangers’ Gate entrance. Ike now recognizes just how stifled Herbie must have felt in Ike’s ailing mom’s drab, run–down house on Colfax Avenue on the South Side of Chicago. “Wait up, Herb,” he tells his dog, and then he jogs the half block back to his maroon Dodge pickup truck. He puts his suitcases on the front seat, locks and closes the door, and returns to Strangers’ Gate with an old white tennis ball. He flips the ball to Herbie and soon the man and his dog are running up the steps side by side.
The steps here at Strangers’ Gate are divided into eight segments, and as Ike follows Herbie up toward the Great Hill, he counts them-ten steps, ten steps, ten again, eleven, eight, eleven, another ten, then seven. To Ike, who has always found inspiration for his music in the sights and sounds of this city, the arrangement of steps seems suggestive of a progression of notes, unpredictable yet part of some pattern, vaguely reminiscent of A Love Supreme, but he is trying too hard to keep pace with his dog to discern any specific melody. After they have climbed the steps, Ike and Herbie briefly continue to run, but when they reach the temporary black fence surrounding the lawn on the hill, the animal stops. Now, Herbie begins to whine. He crouches down and he jumps up; he puts up his paws and barks at a sign on the fence: CLOSED FOR THE SEASON. NO TRESPASSING.
Ike Morphy can remember when he first came to this part of Central Park. Then, he was just some poor, gangly, bespectacled nineteen–year–old kid only trying to make enough dough playing music or working construction so that he wouldn’t have to turn around and head home, so that he wouldn’t have to go back to Chicago, where he’d found himself finally unable to study or play his clarinet since he always had to mediate the incessant arguments about money and boyfriends and God–knows–what–else between his sister, Naima, and their widowed mother, Ella Mae. During Ike’s first days in New York in the late 1980s, nobody seemed to give a damn about the park lawns this far north. Ike slept for three straight nights amid overgrown weeds and broken glass, and never even saw a cop. But now that every inch of Central Park seems to have become as pristine as the rehabbed buildings that surround it, the city says Ike and his dog can’t even walk on the lawn.
Herbie at his side, Ike walks around the fence, searching for the usual opening. Failing to find it, Ike heads back to his pickup again with Herbie, this time to retrieve a long pair of shears from the gardening kit that once belonged to his mother; the kit is the only item that Ike has brought back to New York from his childhood home. Ella Mae Morphy had been a horticulturist at Chicago’s Garfield Park Conservatory, a verdant oasis in the midst of one of the city’s most neglected neighborhoods, while his father, Bill, who died when Ike was in high school, had worked as a painter and set designer for the few theaters that remained on Chicago’s South Side. From his parents, Ike inherited both a love of the beautiful and a gnawing sense that others would never fully appreciate it, and his worldview, like Bill’s and Ella Mae’s, could be both cynical and naive at the same time. Ike’s expectations were often so lofty that he felt unbearably frustrated when, inevitably, they were not met.
Now, Ike and the dog return to the Great Hill, where Ike looks to see if anyone else is around before he uses his mother's shears to cut open the fence. Soon Herbie is romping gleefully through the clean white fluff. As Ike watches the dog, he isn’t sure who feels happier—Herbie for being able to run again, or himself for being able to see his animal so excited and free. Ike hums to himself as Herbie drops his ball, chases it, buries it in the snow, digs it out, then chases it again—nearly an hour of this until a squad car pulls up.
At one time, Ike knew all the beat cops, and in the winter they would always let dog owners open up the fence here so that their pets could play. But Ike doesn't recognize this cop—he’s a hostile dude with a buzz cut, “Cahill” on his nameplate. The cop leans out his window as he drives over the asphalt path, through the opening Ike cut in the fence, then onto the lawn, asking Ike, what does he think he's doing here, neighbor? Ike explains with a confident smile that all the cops around here know him and Herbie, but Cahill doesn't respond, just picks up his ticket book and starts writing; to him, Ike isn’t Ike Morphy the virtuoso clarinet player, onetime member of the R & B outfit the Funkshuns, and longtime resident of Manhattan Valley anymore. Apparently he’s just some thug, some tall, menacing, thirty–nine–year–old black dude with a shaved head, a gold stud in one ear, a pair of thick glasses, and a set of garden shears ready to do some damage. Cahill doesn’t even look up at Ike, keeps asking for ID, muttering about trespassing and violation 161.05 in the New York City health code. Hey, man, Ike tells Cahill, this has always been a tight–knit community where everybody looks out for one another. He offers his hand and begins to introduce himself to the officer, but Cahill still doesn’t make eye contact, not even when Ike points out the treads the squad car made in the snow, and remarks that Cahill has probably already done more damage to the lawn by driving over it than Herbie ever did by playing.
You know what, Ike says—he’ll bet that Cahill will be the laughingstock of his precinct if he bothers writing him up for letting his dog play on the lawn. This is his and Herbie’s turf, Ike thinks; the cop must be new on the job—doesn’t know how things work up here. When Cahill snorts and keeps writing, Ike snaps his fingers in front of Herbie’s snoot. “Follow,” he commands. Man and dog quickly walk away from the cop, then start running again, Ike feeling certain that no officer around here would chase him over a lousy seventy–five–buck trespassing ticket. Over the path they go, down the steps, out the park at Strangers’ Gate, across the street, west on 106th past Manhattan Avenue until they reach Ike’s block and the Roberto Clemente Building.
Ike stands outside at the top of the Clemente's steps underneath the banner that reads OPEN HOUSE TONIGHT! and tries to catch his breath. He looks up and down the street to make sure Cahill hasn’t followed. As he reaches into his blue-jeans pocket for his keys, he notices a moon–faced, ruddy–cheeked young white guy in a dark gray suit worn underneath a full–length black leather duster opening the door from the inside to leave the building. When Ike reaches for the handle, the man firmly closes the door behind him, then takes his iPod earbuds out of his ears and stares Ike down.
“Uh, do you live here, sir?” the man asks.
The question smacks Ike like a snowball to the face.
Does he live here, sir?
Well, yes, he does, sir, he thinks, longer than just about anyone else in this building. Ike has lived here long enough to remember his first days on this street when some of the apartment buildings looked like bombed–out ruins—warped boards up on all the windows; toughs in Starter jackets loitering by Amsterdam Avenue in front of the Round the Clock Deli; crack packets on the sidewalk and in the gutters, color–coded to differentiate which gang had sold them; rats jumping out of trash bags, so bold they didn’t even bother to scurry out of people’s way. Ike has lived here long enough to remember when he, Ricardo Melendez, and some other dudes started helping to renovate the Clemente and a crackhead from the rehab clinic down the street wandered in and started banging on everybody’s doors; Ike and Ricardo took the brother over to the A&P on Columbus and made him drink a whole bottle of orange soda to settle him down. Ike can remember when he and Ricardo joined the other members of the neighborhood block association to protest that youth hostel down the street because, back then, it was a whorehouse with royal blue shower curtains in every bathroom and a sign in the lobby that read: $25 FOR FOUR HOURS. NO LUGGAGE ALLOWED. Tough neighborhood in those days, some said, but Ike was always street smart; he kept to himself and rarely had any trouble. Sometimes, though, he and Ricardo made up stories about how dangerous the street was just so jackasses like this guy wouldn’t move in and start raising the cost of living for everybody in the community.
Does he live here, sir?
Ike can still remember when he began playing clarinet with the Funkshuns and their tunes were just starting to get airplay on some FM stations at the right end of the dial, and supers and store owners would greet him as he walked by: “Hey, Ike.” “S’up, Ike?” “Soundin’ good, Ike.” Ike can still remember when that condo building over there on 106th and Manhattan was a community garden called the Common Ground where on summer nights he and his old on–again, off–again girlfriend Muriel Ostrow would get drunk and watch 16–millimeter movies on a collapsible screen. Ike can recite the name of every liquor store owner on Amsterdam, every numbers runner who patrolled the bodegas of Manhattan Avenue, every fix–it man in every Columbus Avenue hardware store where Ike has shopped ever since he quit the band nearly seven years ago, returning to work construction gigs in the city until he could decide whether he wanted to keep playing music or not. He’s lived here long enough to remember when Columbus Avenue didn’t have any gumbo restaurants or tapas bars or creperies, long enough, in fact, to remember when practically the only white guys around were the ones who drove in from Jersey looking to buy reefer.
Does he live here, sir?
Ike pulls out his keys and inserts one in the lock. “That answer your question, sir?” he asks, gesturing to the key. The man mumbles “Sorry” and walks quickly past Ike and down the front stairs as Ike and Herbie enter, Ike counting steps all the way, searching for some melody, some pattern upon which he can improvise the moment after he takes his clarinet out of his hall closet. But when he reaches apartment 2B, the pattern he was starting to hear fades and disappears as Ike notices that his door is already half open.
Standing before the door, Ike flinches and tries to shake off the nagging sense that, in his long absence, something as yet indefinable has changed in his city. He thinks of the cop in the park, the Yuppie in the leather duster downstairs. He breathes deeply, takes a tighter hold of Herbie’s leash. Warily, he pushes the door open the rest of the way. Could he have been so damn absentminded as to have forgotten to lock up half a year ago before leaving town to tend to his mother? he is wondering, when his eyes settle upon three strangers, thieves perhaps, who are walking through his apartment.
No, they don’t look like typical thieves, Ike knows, but he still thinks he can recognize them as such, the men at least, just as record execs and talent scouts have always looked like thieves to him; he can’t imagine why, though, they would bother pillaging the meager contents of this shabby two–bedroom apartment for which Ike still pays the same $350 monthly rent to Jerry Masler as when he first moved in. After all, Ike hasn’t ever repainted his place, has never fully furnished it. The floors need waxing, and the pigeons on the air conditioner make a mess of Ike’s bedroom window; he has never had the heart to remove their nest. Still, as long as Ike has been able to sleep with the living room windows open, listening to the music of sirens, traffic, boom boxes, and mah–jongg tiles on the boulevard, the apartment has felt like home to him.
From the Hardcover edition.