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Home DUCTS.ORG Issue 12 | Winter 2003 the webzine of personal stories
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Hell’s Kitchen

Jennifer Doll

Most of Manhattan's legal infractions occur in Times Square. I read this in the New York Post recently. Granted, it's a tabloid paper, a dubious step up from the Star or the Enquirer, but from what I've seen so far, I believe it. Not that I worry, much. Most of the crime is petty, misdemeanors rather than felonies – muggings, concealed weapons charges, and minor assault cases (generally after dark). There is the occasional homicide, but it's usually among people who already know each other. And lots of drug deals, but to some that's a benefit rather than a drawback … talk to my “Rastafarian” neighbor, who has never been to Jamaica but wears dreadlocks and can be counted on to send potent waves of da ganja from his window to mine at least twice a day, three on Saturdays.

I live a few blocks from this crime epicenter, in Hell's Kitchen (“Clinton” to those with a stake in its gentrification). It's a New York Magazine - and Time Out- espoused “up-and-coming,” neighborhood, the next East Village, the next-to-next-to-next-to-last vestige of true, gritty Manhattan reality, primed for yuppies to pillage and trendify before they move on to the Boroughs. I live, with a trendy yuppie roommate and my bourgeois boho self, in a walk-up with hallways that reek of cat pee, in this neighborhood on the fringe.

The Milford Plaza Hotel is about two blocks from our apartment. I actually stayed there once, when I was a college senior up to the big city for an interview with the corporate conglomerate that would go on to ruin the first year of my life. I stayed there because it was cheap, unaware that it was located in the middle of pre-Guiliani, sex-central Times Square, and that I would be confined, along with my innocence, to the inside of my room at night, hungry but unable to leave (or even order delivery) for fear of what might happen.

Just after I moved into my neighborhood, a woman was murdered at the Milford Plaza, which still manages to live up to its classic slogan of being “at the center of it all,” though perhaps not in the ways the advertisers intended. We read about that, too, in the Post , our 2-week free trial subscription really paying off. She was a sailor, who went back to a room with two other male sailors, and when one attempted to have sex with her, she said no. I imagine there was drinking involved in this scenario. I imagine that the white uniforms were sullied as things are from leaning against bars, from staying out until 3 in the morning. That was when he hit her, and she, not a sailor for nothing, fought back. By 3:30 she was lying on the street outside, ejected through the window. They say at six stories up you cut your chances of survival by almost 100 percent; a room on a floor below might have saved her. Then again, maybe nothing could have. The image that sticks with me the most is of the third sailor, neither attacker nor victim, who'd fallen asleep in the room and remained that way through the entire event.

I have to admit, I like it when I tell people where I live and they gasp a little. This is especially true when conversing with some of my parents' friends, who wouldn't know Hell's Kitchen from Greenwich Village but are quite sure they don't like anything that Satan may be involved with. There's a certain rebellious pleasure to it, a “badder-than-thou” thrill that I enjoy, particularly when I'm within the fenced-in community of my parents' Florida neighborhood on Christmas vacation.

It is not uncommon, in my neighborhood, for phones to ring off the hook for hours at a time, for people to smell less than clean, for money to exchange hands and furtive glances to be exchanged. There is an ostensible grime in my neighborhood that seems to hover in the air, just enjoying itself – climaxing around Times Square and gradually fading out as you head east toward Park Avenue. Filth pervades my neighborhood in innumerable ways. It is not uncommon for people to sin, but there are those who seek salvation in my neighborhood, and those who profess to give it.

Across from my apartment building is a church, a progressive establishment with (it seems) traditional values. It welcomes all but forgives no one, and its slogan, which hangs in plastic letters from a cheap marquee above its front door, is particularly foreboding. “Fear God,” it says, “And give glory to Him.” The church is called Crossroads, the same name of the wayward girls-and-boys home in my hometown, and this seems appropriate; the church would appeal to those same bad kids, if they ever did make it from Bumblefuck to Manhattan and find themselves in a religious way.

A few blocks away, there is another church, outside of which hangs a huge, ominous cross. Electricians have had their heyday with this particular piece of religious paraphernalia: red letters within the cross light up at night causing its words glow for blocks both west and east; a high voltage message from a higher being. “Sin will find you out,” says the cross, and this too fits my neighborhood, though I'm not sure of the Christian meaning it carries. Sin will find you out, and it's all I can do not to throw up my hands and walk straight into the nearest bar, or strip club, or off-track-betting place, all of which are frequently and conveniently placed, in my neighborhood.

There is a man I see frequently near the Church of Sin. He wanders the block alone, back and forth, forth and back. Perhaps he is waiting for Sin to find him out. He is monstrously tall, almost seven feet. He mumbles out of the corner of his mouth, which is twisted as if he's had a stroke, revealing a small triangle of teeth and pink gum. I think he is a real-life giant, of the sort you'd see on the pages of Ripleys, Believe It or Not!, a book that I have lost interest in since becoming an adult and learning how much there really is that's too easy to believe.

There is a piano player who lives in the apartment below mine; rumor has it that he's been there since the building was erected and pays a paltry $400 a month (compared to our thousands) in rent. He is the owner of the cats, who stink up the hallway with an acrid aroma that is particularly bad on rainy days, stinging your eyes with a superfeline intensity. But he plays the piano beautifully, and often I am cajoled to sleep by the sound of his practice – soft, tinkling notes muffled into greatness, reminiscent of Vivaldi or Beethoven – as they travel into my room through the hollow of the radiator.

At night, noises penetrate the thin walls of my apartment. There are the usual creaks and aches of the building, the noises of it “settling in,” stretching and yawning, sticking its cold feet into fuzzy bunny slippers - as if it had had as taxing and difficult a workday as its occupants.

There are other noises, too, that scare me when I am alone in my apartment at night; they are the kind that I cannot laugh off when my roommate is out of town. I must arm myself with a makeshift weapon (the remote control, a pair of nail scissors, a pen – never underestimate the power of common household objects) in order to investigate. Too-near sirens, screeches of tires and of people, strange whispery noises that seem to come from inside of my closed closet door. Scratchings like those of a mouse, or worse, a rat, from the vicinity of the kitchen, and the loud tock of the clock that jerks me away from the edge of sleep, fearful of a break-in.

But the clop-clop sound of the hansom carriages going by, heading home after their last ride of the night, is a soothing one, no matter how sorry I feel for those poor, ragged Manhattan nags with blinders on and a whip hanging over their heads. Clop-clop, bringing back a kind of bucolic childhood that I never knew, wind blustering at my windows as my parents read the paper softly to one another in the next room and I drift off to sleep, covered by a patchwork quilt stitched by my grandmother. A world where a horse will take a sugar cube right out of a child's outstretched palm. A world where blinders wouldn't exist.

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