Twenty five years ago I rented a three room "shotgun" apartment in a brick building that looked kinda like a place the fire department might set on fire to train new recruits.
The building sat between two mill houses, in fact, it was surrounded by mill houses, inhabited by some old white folks, some black folks, and one college photography professor and his wife who never came out of the house. The mill houses were low and my second story apartment allowed me to look down on all of them. They all had long covered porches and they matched the sky in its various states of gray, ashen white, dusky yellow, late day blue, before the storm asbestos siding. Silver Avenue was just that, it was chrome and aluminum and overcast with clouds . . . the sun always came through a dirty filter on that wide thoroughfare, it was always cold there, even in July, it was cold.
There were four apartments -- two downstairs and two up. Apartment Number One was on your left when you came in the front door. It was forever changing hands. Apartment Two, on your right at the entrance belonged to Keith - a blond boy, a classmate who wrote lyrically -- Coltrane and Bird were always seeping through the spaces between his door and the hallway.
Go up the stairs, you're met by double 12 over twelve windows that gaze out onto the wide boulevard, and West to the rest of the world. Turn left and you can stand outside Apartment Four, that's Kimmie's apartment. You can hear her in there. She's cooing to her enormous pewter cat Pussums, "She's half Siamese and half Persian!" Pussums fetches small colorful balls with bells in them, all day long, like a Border Collie. And you can hear the ball rolling around a ringing . . . if you didn't know the truth, you might think Tinker Bell was haunting the place. Kimmie was depressed, and overweight, and sweet, and she looked exactly like Elizabeth Taylor in the Richard Burton years, the Second Marriage, not the first . . . covered in freckles that seemed lovingly hand-painted across the bridge of her nose. It was as though Tennessee Williams came and wrote Kimmie into my lease and she was forever meeting me at the top of the stairs, asking me to come in, to eat whatever she had baked that afternoon, to throw the ball for Pussums.
But if you can tear yourself away from Kimmie's door, with the 4 hanging all askew, you can make an about-face and knock on my door, Apartment 3 and there's no number on my door, someone took it, long ago. But the fact that it was Apartment 3 was enough for me. Three's had always been fortuitous to me, and they remain so today. The address was 3 somethin' Silver Avenue and the Apartment was Number 3 -- it was an abundance of threes, so I took it.
There was a front yard and a back yard -- nothing lush, nothing anybody spent any time on, I don't think anyone every attended to it with a mower or seed or fertilizer . . . the grass was always the same height, it never grew or died or bloomed with violets in the spring or burgeoned with crocuses in a warm Southern February, we, the tenants, took it completely for granted, it was buffer, and nothing more, and nothing less.
There was a driveway too, but we never parked in it -- we parked on the street. The driveway was paved with two licorice stripes of concrete that stretched from the street to the back of the building, to the foot of the Fire Escape. We all had Back Doors, they were in fact Kitchen Doors, that led to small cramped screened in porches that opened onto the Fire Escapes. We considered these to be one thing and one thing only, portals for criminals, and so we all had no less than four locks on our kitchen doors, we might as well have nailed those doors shut, with their frosted glass window panes -- those doors were unloved, deceitful, and disdained.
Every Southern town has its divide -- the Train Tracks -- one side is White and one side is Black. Silver Avenue was on the Black side, although the Whites who lived there denied it, defied it, and we were all Black for living there.
There were sidewalks on Silver, but no one who lived there walked on them. You walked The Line, you walked the middle of the road, always. This kept you safe, from that which lurked in the shadows, in the alleys between the mill houses. You kept to the Open, if an attacker or a dog or a ghost came your way, the Middle of the Road gave you the advantage. Just as I learned that anyone swimming in the Winter Months in Bermuda was a Canadian, I learned that anyone walking the sidewalks on Silver was an Outsider.
There was not one working street light on Silver. They were all shot out. The only thing that lit your way down the street at night were porch lights and the light you could gleen from the 7-11 back on Lee Street, the 4 lane thoroughfare at the head of Silver. Sometimes it was so dark that the essence of the changing red or green lights out on Lee cast shadows ahead of my feet as I made my way home from the library late at night . . . like the light of a star long dead reaching Earth. The light of televisions through windows rayed across my path sometimes. No place was darker than Silver at night and no place was more like the Universe with its satellites posing as bedroom windows and even the orange burn of a lit cigarette that rose and fell in the hand of an unseen god sitting in a rocking chair on the stoop at midnight . . . and when the moon shined on Silver, oh, we rejoiced. Silver swallowed light and yet, it was a beacon, it bellowed its weird energy out to Lee Street, down to the Beef Burger, under the tracks, to meet the 3 a.m. train to Penn Station. Silver vibrated in its darkness.
Nature on Silver consisted of cyclones of starlings and a blue jay who sat on the half dead myrtle outside my window . . . the Jay that spoke to my half-wit cat named Marley. The Jay would utter guttural notes and Marley would answer him in the same vein and I would chalk their friendship up to dysfunctional loneliness.
The first winter: the wind blew through holes in my rotting plaster walls, through the seams around my 12 over 12 double windows in every room. I finally determined I was living in a Light House on a rock somewhere north of Greenland. The wind howled in high pitched banchee voices round my bedroom, westward past my workroom, and let loose out to the sea over Silver Avenue. There were Puffins perching in the crevices in the rocks between me and Apartment One downstairs. The Puffins never slept -- they cooed all night, and swooped and waddled and nested during the frigid daylight hours. I spied freighter ships miles off shore, they're lights twinkled like icicles nightly and during the day I saw them rock on the rough gray waves of the Avenue. I lit candles and sent out hazard signals to them, warning them to avoid the rocks, and occasionally they were dashed upon my glacial shores and my white shepherds, played by my two cats, donned our Shetland sweaters and Wellies and saved the sailors before they succumbed to the black seas. I kept a diary, the diary of a Lighthouse Keeper, I waited for Donald Sutherland to be washed up on my rocks, and terrorize me with his Nazi Intentions, as though I was Kate Nelligan in Eye of the Needle.
It was so cold . . . how cold was it Wolfy? It was so cold that when I ran a hot bath (there wasn't a shower) that by the time it was deep enough for me to get in and wash, the water was something close to freezing. It was so cold that I slept in my sub-zero North Face sleeping bag under blankets while wearing a hat, gloves, socks and thermal long johns and long sleeve T, with the cats fighting to get in with me. It was so cold that some mornings I couldn't get water to boil for tea and the kerosene heater complained to the authorities.
My pathological fear of the dark returned while living on Silver . . . I had been temporarily cured by the presence of roommates, in my dorm room, in my first apartment, but my entrance into solo life on Silver relapsed me. I kept my kitchen light on all night and it drifted down the hall and comforted me enough so that I could fall asleep. But then I would dream of marauders climbing up the cliffs to the lighthouse, silently strangling puffins on their way, climbing like gargoyles up the serpentine stairs of the tower, cutting my radio lines, silencing my voice to the Mother Land, and then? Sitting on my chest, pressing the life out of me, while the sea roiled outside and the ships on my watch became helpless, lost, wounded on rocks, and sunk, I was raped and left for dead. I would wake, and startle, tear my wool hat from my head, push the cats out of the sleeping bag and take in air, as though I had experienced a fall from a great height and had the wind knocked out of me.