This post is part of a collaborative narrative series composed of my writing and Chris Arnade’s photos exploring issues of addiction, poverty and prostitution in Hunts Point, Bronx. For more on the series, look here.
Sonya and Eric live in the basement apartment of a three-level row house, a space rented from the drug dealers that dwell above. They were proud to move from their other house, an abandoned one where fence-climbing and casing stairs through the dark were required. To make their $80 in rent each month, the pair does “plumbing work” on the building, though their own foyer and apartment bulk are submerged under several inches of untreated sewage.
Sonya and Eric’s basement apartment entryway. Courtesy of Chris Arnade.
Half a block away, check for loose ends, untied shoelaces, undone hair. Note the nonchalance in deep breaths and that the Crayola row houses look inviting. Stop at the moss green one. Nod at a supposed-gang member at the upstairs entry. Enter a peeling black iron gate your height.
Down a short concrete flight, maintain balance on a wooden 2×4 plank. Hold your arms up in high-fives. Step — one, two, pivot, three. Don’t fall. Toe open the knob-less door. Ease a foot into the discolored fluid, careful — wide step, wide step — into the dark. Straddle the once-white tiled floor. Stretch yourself taller. Separate from the ground. Try being one-legged. Wonder what you squish. Don’t breathe. Hold the wall. Have small goals: just get past the foyer.
Yell names. “Erik! Sonya!” Don’t breathe. Notice the mop against the wall. Wonder how long you can take it.
Sonya and Eric’s foyer. Courtesy of Chris Arnade.
The basement itself slopes up at a slight angle, leaving the back bedroom, alone, above liquid level, giving the apartment the appearance of a sinking ship. Even in dry areas, brown liquid stains mar five inches up the wall. Electricity lights the back.
Inside, an exposed pipe wears a necklace of soda tabs as decor, next to a wall boasting a torn piece of black plastic that closely resembles a giant insect. A litter box lies amongst trash below, small for two or maybe more cats, next to an oversized Arm & Hammer cat litter container. The cats, Moba and Boo Boo, don’t adhere well to the litter policy, leaving the apartment speckled with cat waste.
In the bedroom, the walls are bare save for two religious prints, stray needles and tacks. A small TV perches on a shelf at the foot of the double bed, proof to Eric that he and his wife are making better for themselves.
A wall of Sonya and Eric’s bedroom. Courtesy of Chris Arnade.
A knock at the door, mid-day on a Sunday, announces a building inspector, there to deem the premises unlivable and to remove the tenants. The basement had a history of violations dating back at least a year. Others had been kicked out before, too. Living conditions were “unfit” — there weren’t proper exits in case of fire. Eric and Sonya needed to leave within the hour.
Eric’s hands became planes sharply waving, refuting the couple’s ability to move on so quickly. They had everything they own here, the TV and cats, and Sonya wasn’t even home.
The visitor spoke of Red Cross options, about how the couple could return to collect items, just couldn’t return to sleep. He then retreated to his car, sitting to wait. The inspector needed the pair to leave to fasten a sign to the door. He saw this kind of thing all the time. He cracked dead cat jokes.
For a few minutes Eric stood alone, hands through his hair to rest on his head, then down to emphasize points with his plane hands. Sonya appeared lugging a cat carrying case, their month-old kitten inside. She had been to the vet downtown. Made tense from her husband’s state, she paused at the edge of the sewage line.
Her eyes touched Eric’s across the apartment length before voice levels erupted, each fighting for the verbal dominance over the other.
Amidst the argument — where to go for the night, what to do with the cats, the likelihood of fooling the inspector, whether they should go to detox — one agreement surfaced. And to meet it, Eric whisked out of the building, off to buy heroin. If they just had an hour, they needed to cop drugs quick.
When he returned, he shot himself up first, in the arm, before turning to Sonya on the bed.
When Eric moved away from his wife, the skin between her knuckles was a taut, white throb. She grasped her wrist to ease the hand’s trembling, though the whole of her body was a tremble. Hunched on the bed, she snagged on the exhale of her sobs until she lost breath. Her face didn’t lose the sob, though. Eric had hit a nerve with the syringe. So much for the ease of the heroin. The dope was more for preventing sickness than for pleasure these days anyhow.
Sonya’s hands, a nerve hit with a syringe. Courtesy of Chris Arnade.
They wouldn’t take the Red Cross options. It was likely a scam. They could go to detox, if they figured out what to do with the cats that had become their kids. If no one would steal their stuff in the basement. If they didn’t have to make decisions so fast. Was the hour up yet? What time was it? And so they sat, polarized members of the scene: she overcome, he detached, both immovable.
Sonya and Eric on the bed, post-eviction. Courtesy of Chris Arnade.