Hookers, Hookahs; in the end, it'sjust home

HOOKERS, HOOKAHS; IN THE END IT’S JUST HOME

by Erica Heller

 

“Yom asal, yom basal” (One day honey, one day onions)

Arab proverb

Ralph Huezo was perhaps the world’s most gentle, firm but discreet doorman. How could he have been anything else and survived at the Apthorp for 26 years?

That doesn’t happen by accident. For over a quarter of a century, he was the quiet strength, the immovable face and force you’d meet if you came through the gates often enough. Day after day, year after year, he’d greet you with that same serene, steady and calming gaze. He wouldn’t gossip and had been blessed with a visage that could easily have won him gold in the Poker Face Olympics. Maybe he just woke up that way everyday, with that face which surely held a thousand Apthorp secrets a, and that was just before lunchtime. And an expression which hinted at none. Ralph was formidable. He forgot nothing and could be trusted with everything. If you were ever in trouble, in those days you prayed that Ralph was on the gate. If you were waiting for a package, avoiding a boyfriend, needed a laugh or a bit of curbside wisdom to go, Ralph was your man. You looked at that face with its glasses and swarthy, wide moustache and although it never changed, it told you everything you ever needed to know. Other doormen came and went. Some drank, some grumbled and accosted you with their problems. Or offered controversial opinions unasked for, or complained about the building owners. They usually lasted a few weeks. Some thought they were more interesting than the building they guarded and protected and might well have been, but that wasn’t the point of them. They were here until they weren’t anymore. Ralph lasted.

Ralph was an Apthorp doorman from 1975 until 2001.  I hadn’t seen him for about 8 years when I ran into him recently in my neighborhood one Sunday afternoon, with his wife. He looked 50 pounds lighter and 100 years younger. Life post-​​Apthorp was apparently treating Ralph kindly.

When we spoke a few weeks later, he was still the warm, affable, professional yet inscrutable Ralph, still guarding the place although he didn’t work here anymore.

I asked him about my parents, what he’d thought of them, and he told me that Mom had been a “very nice lady” and Dad ” a very quiet man.” “They were part of maybe a handful of tenants who never gave me any problems at all.”

Problems? Ralph?

But then somehow, after awhile, maybe because of all the time gone by, he released his inner doorman and suddenly gave me an uncharacteristic earful. Ralph Unchained. The anecdotes flew past me so quickly my pen, with which I was jotting things down nearly had sparks.

Apparently there had been, in the 70s, an apartment of hookers, college girls, who paid their rent the old-​​fashioned way, mostly with sleazy clients in from out of town. When these ladies of the evening began plying their trade in the daytime however, the building caught on and they were unceremoniously tossed out.

There were also drugs. Different kinds. Some tenants bought. Some sold. Some were versatile and did both.

At one point, also in the 1970s, a mad cutter lived on the roof, the tenant who had had a miserable break-​​up with a lover and, disgruntled thereafter with life and with the building, took his peevish rage out on the telephone wires and television cables. Night after night he tiptoed around in the Apthorp shadows, snipping and slicing, turning the tenants into reluctant Luddites. For three to four months this went on and although the owners and management suspected him, his crimes couldn’t be proved. Later, when he died, all of the fruits of his handicraft and the tools of his trade were found, piled up in his apartment.

Does every Manhattan apartment house have murder and suicide? You have heard already about the body found on our roof. We also had a tenant here who had cancer and one night blew his brains out.

And for charming Apthorp tenant lore, we cannot overlook the real estate lawyer who lived here with his family, became a crack addict, acquired the haunted look of a derelict almost overnight, banished his family elsewhere and had his own little stable of hookers in and out for the old in and out. And these were not, I might add, the type seeking degrees, unless we’re talking about second or third degree crimes. He was eventually arrested with drugs down in the subway, the subway my neighbors were at the time unknowingly keeping lit, jumping and rumbling with generous donations to Con Ed.

Benjamin Franklin wrote: “Love thy neighbor — but don’t pull down your hedge.” In the old Apthorp days, when Mary Smith would almost certainly have been the one to lovingly tend such a hedge, such an act would have been unthinkable.

These days it might be more of an act of kindness, provided you can find one, or rather, one which doesn’t look as if it just popped up in a toaster.

Horace wrote that: “It is your business when the wall next door catches fire.” True, unless you’d lived here at the Apthorp once upon a time and gotten the wrong doorman in the middle of the night, one who wouldn’t call the fire department because he deemed such an act making a “personal call.” As wise as he was, there was no way that Horace could possibly have foreseen the endless, swirling, sorry circuit of crazy that just keeps things spinning and twirling at the Apthorp.

And speaking of “sorry,” Ralph told me, unasked, that in all of his years here, guarding the enchanted gates and peering into the lives of souls walking through them, he had never seen a sorrier or sadder sight than my father as he entered and left the Apthorp the day of my mother’s funeral service. This was fifteen years ago and he says he still pictures my father “broken.”

Ralph had seen and remembered it.

As far as I was concerned, this alone meant it was true.

 

Erica Heller, daughter of Catch-​​22 author Joseph Heller, throws open the doors on her family’s history and skeletons in her wry, mordantly funny, heartbreaking memoir Yossarian Slept Here. A love letter to a New York City that barely exists today, this revealing and engaging memoir tells of Heller’s life and her relationship with her father and Catch-​​22 (the catch being she admits to never having read it). On the radio recently, when asked at the end why she has never, in 50 years, managed to read Catch-​​22 all the way through, she answered with typically Hellerian Talmudic logic: “What’s the rush?”

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