In late July, I started reading “Long Island Purgatory” a book about, race, religion and a young boy coming of age, written by my good friend Bradley Lewis. The end of the introduction on Brad’s Amazon page says:
“Long Island Purgatory tells a powerful and deeply personal story that allows us an unprecedented look back at a sad piece of our history.”
I finished that book on Labor Day, yeah, I’m a slow reader. I shared Brad’s intro to the book on Facebook with the following statement:
“I just finished reading this book. Compelling story about a difficult time in America…then again, sometimes, I wonder if we’ve moved beyond these issues.”
You see, Brad’s book is set in Laurelton, NY, an area of Queens, in the early 60s. The book investigates the impact of blockbusting. About 15 years later, I was on my way to Queens, to start my “real life” having secured a job after graduate school. If I were a superstitious person, I would say: “there were signs” indicating that moving wasn’t a great idea. The first sign was Son of Sam, the serial killer. He was still killing young women and couples in Queens as I was preparing to move there with my soon to be (long since ex) wife. The second sign was the fact that a couple of hours before I was to leave for NY, the blackout of 1977 began. The third sign was yet to be revealed.
I had been in class all day. After I got home, my father told me about the blackout:
“You still think you should go?”
“I have to go, dad. I have to find a place to live, and this is the only week that works. Besides, it’s going to take 7 hours to get there, how long can the blackout last?”
“OK, but here, take this ($40) in case things are a mess over there.”
If I had had a camera, I would be sharing my own stunning picture of the completely dark Manhattan skyline as the sun was beginning to rise behind it.
I had made an “early-arrival-OK” reservation at the Pan American Motor Inn on Queens Boulevard. By the time I arrived, I had been up for almost 24 hours. What followed was bad news, questionable judgement and that third sign:
“I can’t give you a room. We don’t have power and none of the available rooms have been cleaned.”
“Can I have a room that hasn’t been cleaned?”
“Sure. I’ll give you a clean sheet and a couple of towels.”
“Fine. Is there a place nearby where I can get a paper?”
“Probably won’t be any papers today, kid.”
No paper, no classified ads. I signed-up with a
rip-off apartment finder service. They connected me with about a dozen sketchy landlords. Day-1 was a bust, I looked at a half-dozen apartments in Brooklyn and Queens that were significantly worse than my college apartment in Morgantown, WV had been.
Day-2 wasn’t much better. We had power, my room had been cleaned, I had been able to shower, and there were papers, but the prospects were looking grimmer and grimmer. At one apartment, cockroaches ran across the counter as we entered the kitchen. The agent nonchalantly quipped: “Don’t worry, they spray every two weeks.” Later, I put $50 down to hold a rat-hole apartment in Brooklyn that had been painted so many times, none of the doors could be closed, except for the entry door that boasted three locks. Still it was the best thing I had seen.
I checked out of the Pan American on my last day in NY with one remaining prospect, an apartment in a two-family house in South Jamaica, Queens. I was running out of time, money and options.
As the landlord was showing me the apartment, he asked me a series of questions. Was I looking for myself or someone else? Myself. Married? Yes. Wife also white? Yeah…esss… Employed? Yes. Any other family members? No.
The living room and dining room were nice, but the kitchen, bedroom and bath were in the basement. They were dark and they smelled musty. When I told him I wasn’t interested, he asked:
“Would you like to see the apartment that’s for rent?”
“I own several buildings. This is my office. Nobody ever rents this place. I show it so I can see who wants to rent from me. I don’t want any… (Blacks or Hispanics)”
The real apartment was directly across the Grand Central Parkway from St. John’s University, in an area known as Jamaica Hills. It was close to a subway stop, and one block from the parkway on-ramp – perfect for my wife’s and my respective commutes.
I’ve had many experiences, when I wished that I could stand on principle and walk away from an opportunity that was being given to me because I was white. Brad touched on these feelings in his book, giving me a personal connection to his characters. I forfeited my $50 in Brooklyn and signed a lease for the hidden apartment.
The following August, as we were preparing to move to Seattle, WA, the newspapers were on strike. Our landlord posted signs at St. John’s, hoping to find students to rent to. The neighbors scoped out each potential tenant. They were concerned that Hispanic students or university employees would rent the apartment. “They’ll move their entire family in with them. Once that starts…”
Laurelton was two miles away as the crow flies, and times hadn’t changed since 1963. 40 years later, I’m still not sure they’ve changed.