This post is part of a collaborative narrative series composed of my writing and Chris Arnade's photos exploring issues of addiction, poverty, prostitution and urban anthropology in Hunts Point, Bronx. For more on the series, look here.
"Move along if you're standing here. You don't need to be standing here getting in the way of business," said the man exiting the laundromat, neck heavy with chains. He got to the corner, turned to look at the group ignoring him. His left boot slid in the snow, eroding his menace, as he walked away. Drunk, with an edge of a stimulant. The stuff he sold, probably. 1 a.m.
"Go sling your crack somewhere else then," Michael muttered, pencil-lined lips in a smirk. The group near the storefront didn't move but stayed under the building's umbrella of dim fluorescence, made hazy in the chilly night mist.
Michael stepped back and forth, cold in a zip-up sweater. He and his friends had been evicted from an apartment on the block earlier that day, one that was set on fire a few hours after the fact. The fire lit on the top floor, at lip of the stairs. Flames breathed through the wall of the vacant apartment, and water from the fire trucks flooded the two floors below. No one was hurt, just annoyed and stuck standing around.
Water and rubble made into mud trickled down the stairs of the burnt structure, next to the bodega with the plastic lazy susan steadily doling out soda and cigarettes. After hours, customers weren't allowed inside.
People milled by, glancing into the black of the open building door. Evidence of the fire was all but invisible from the outside, minus a few broken windows and the sodden floors. Even then, it was within the realm of normal, shattered glass and building disrepair commonplace to the street, despite it being the main avenue crossing town.
If pedestrians craned up past the foyer, they could see a light, an orange extension cord trailing through the wet to light a bare-bulbed lamp at the top of the stairs. If they were to climb, they would see flowered wallpaper curled and blackened, handrail spindles dislocated from the floor, thin boards jutting from walls. The owner and tenants shuffled in and out, hefting charred luggage down and a plastic tarp up to cover the gaping roof.
Michael, post-fire. Courtesy of Chris Arnade.
The original rumor said Pepsi, a homeless addict and a friend of Michael's, did it, Pepsi high on crack, smoking on the top landing of the stairs. A gaggle of police officers stood around while a couple of their number held her for questioning. Usually staggered around the neighborhood, the police seemed content to stand together. Company, for once.
Onlookers were few, arrests on the block too numerous. After the police lingeringly dispersed, shrugging off damage and accusations, Pepsi ran off to get high, or so everyone said. Stressed. Her friends set off after her, group mentality intent on teaching her a lesson, though, one-by-one, individual rage crumbled. Other things to do. They weren't paying rent for the apartment anyway. 1:15 a.m.
Still, at the scene, people stood. A high pimp wandered by to stare too intently, his gaze bleary and unfocused. Six inches away from a face, "I'm $mere. Do you know who I am?" A friend, who professed a career in the music business, grasped his shoulder and steered. 1:40 a.m.
The crack dealer with the chains returned, to saunter in circles or affirm territory. "I am the biggest drug dealer in Hunts Point." Arms up, voice loud. Michael paused. "Well, it's true. He does have good crack." 1:45 a.m.
Mary Alice, a normally talkative heroin addict, passed through, swift with a silent male companion at her side. She had recently moved, a 10-minute drive from the neighborhood, to housing set up by the local homeless shelter. Now she was back, dressed up prettily all in black, stiff with a swagger. Going somewhere. 2 a.m.
A man dubbed "Curly" dragged a tarp from an invisible place around the corner, a thick black snake tripping sidewalk stragglers. He and other neighborhood addicts were paid in crack to help clean and sort debris. 2:10 a.m.
Curly with tarp, post-fire. Courtesy of Chris Arnade.
"Clear the sidewalk. Cops will come if they see a group like this. It's hot out." Those standing around were once again addressed, this time by a different drug dealer waiting for snacks to cycle through the plastic carousel. 2:15 a.m.
In the distance, a SUV veered into the avenue's median and banked itself. Smoke and a bad smell permeated as two policemen hustled by, running the opposite direction. 2:20 a.m.
The night continued, activities funneling off in fingers.
The later version of the story had someone related to the building at fault, a man who sold crack to the residents and ran a hidden gambling den, someone who wanted an insurance payment. Other rumors questioned whether the building had insurance, whether the first responders to the fire actually were the ones to set it, and whether or not whoever had set it had been paid off in crack. Everything included crack.
Two days later, Pepsi remained disappeared.