Hard-Begged Money — Part One — Keys
The condemned building sign and the chain-linked fence went up just a few hours ago, and already people are flocking to the Basquiat Building. The last of the businesses moved out yesterday, the end of the month. Now the homeless will move in, like air rushing to fill a vacuum. They come alone and in pairs, some with children in tow, most of them carrying belongings. They keep wary eyes on one another as they pass through the gate that has already been forced from its hinges. They are especially wary of those without belongings who are likely looters or troublemakers.
Clyde guides his shopping cart through the gate. The brimming cart is almost too much for his thin frame to handle. Sandy comes through the gate after him, followed by a much larger Theo. Sandy stands out from all of the other street people. Her clothing is much more stylish. She wears a summer dress with a jacket and flats. The other homeless people are dressed in layers of mismatched items that are more practical than stylish.
The side entrance halfway down the alley stands open, beckoning. Clyde instantly dismisses any thoughts of hauling his cart up the flight of concrete steps leading to the open door. He passes by the entrance, hoping to secure the cart out of sight at the end of the alley while they look around inside the four-story building.
Trash has blown in and piled up near the end of the alley. This is where he spots a door hanging loose and crooked in its frame. Rusty iron grates bolted to the wall protect two dirty windows, one on each side of the door. He swings the creaking door outward and looks inside. The flickering streetlight on the building opposite does little to help illuminate the room. Theo flicks on his flashlight and shines it over Clyde’s shoulder, revealing a small utility room around ten by twelve feet. The floor is bare concrete, and the walls are wooden.
Clyde pushes his cart up the single step and into the room. “I think I just found my new home.”
Sandy ducks around Theo and joins him inside. “It’s perfect.”
Theo remains at the doorway shining his flashlight into the upper corners of the room. The ceilings are twelve feet high, making the small room look like a well. A single bulb hangs from the ceiling. However, the bulb, like the rest of the building, lacks electricity.
Clyde follows the light with his eyes. “What are you looking for, Theo?”
“They are more afraid of us than we are of them.”
“Don’t I wish that were true? Let’s hurry up and see what’s in the building before it’s picked clean.”
Clyde inspects the door. There is a latch on the outside that doesn’t align with the hook due to the oddly hanging door. He lifts the door by its handle and is able to align the latch. “I have a padlock in the cart. I don’t want anyone moving in while we’re gone.” He locks his cart into the room, and they head back to the side entrance.
A family approaches the steps from the front of the alley. The man and woman look exhausted from wheeling their stacks of suitcases behind them. Their children stare blankly ahead clinging tightly to their bags of toys. They huddle from the chilly evening breeze that carries with it fog from the East River. Their eyes pop open at the sounds of fighting and yelling from within. Everyone pauses at the bottom of the stairs.
Clyde takes a step backward, as there is the sound of something heavy falling within the building, followed by more shouting from an upper floor. The fighting may be over items found within, but more likely, it is a dispute over the best living locations. A good location will provide shelter until the building is demolished or renovated. Negotiations and lawsuits between New York City and the owners of condemned buildings can drag on for several years.
Clyde says, “Maybe this isn’t such a good idea.” His wild imagination conjures up the scene within the building. People running around with knives drawn. Some carrying pipes. Others carry torches as they chase families through the hallways. He imagines one family hiding in a closet to escape, but to no avail, as others use a bookcase as a battering ram to smash down the door. That might have been what the loud crash was.
“Where’s your sense of adventure?” Sandy elbows him in the ribs.
Clyde’s wild thoughts scramble away as he snaps back to reality.
Theo heads up the stairs. “We’re missing all of the fun.” That’s just like Clyde, he thinks, trying to slink away at the first sign of trouble. He feels in his pocket to ensure his switchblade is handy as he ponders their unlikely friendship. Sandy is nice and all, but he has a general mistrust of white people, and Sandy and Clyde definitely fall into that category. He and Clyde never would have become friends on their own. Theo knows that Sandy somehow manipulated them and managed to create the friendship. It is just as well. They all get along, and it is good to have friends when you are living on the streets where there is an inherent mistrust of the loner. Along with Clyde and Sandy, they all look after one another. He still looks over his shoulder constantly and jumps at every noise, but knowing he has friends nearby is a comfort. He can’t look all directions at all times.
Clyde shrugs and follows Sandy up the stairs. He is sure that Theo can handle any trouble that might be waiting for them inside. When threatened, Theo can become meaner than a half-blind, rabid, wolverine.
Sandy looks back when she reaches the door. The family is still standing tentatively at the bottom of the stairs. “Come with us. We have a flashlight. It will make it easier to find a good room for you all.”
The man starts up the steps. “Thanks, but why don’t you go ahead and find rooms for yourselves?”
“Clyde already found a room.” She points a thumb toward Clyde. “Theo and I have beds at the Gathering Place shelter. The family section of the shelter is already full, otherwise I would suggest that for you, but we can help you find a place here.”
The man hesitates. Theo sticks his head out of the doorway. “We’ll help you look, but we’d better hurry,” He says as he looks toward the gate where more people are coming through. He ducks back inside, and the family hurries up the stairs to see Theo’s large frame silhouetted by the light bobbing down the hallway. Sandy ushers them inside. Clyde steps to one side to allow them to follow Theo. The early evening light provides more illumination on the west side. Theo heads to the darker east side assuming fewer people would be prepared with a flashlight to explore in the dark.
The form of a man materializes in front of them, running in their direction as fast as he can, while carrying a stack of chairs. They move to the side to let him hurry past. Theo shines his light on a door showing the symbol for stairs. “Would you rather be on the first floor with easy access, or higher up where it would be more secure?”
“Higher up, maybe the fourth floor, the top,” The woman says.
Without another word, Theo enters the stairway and shines the light ahead for the others. They climb the stairs and exit on the fourth floor. Theo pauses to listen. There are definitely other people on this floor, but not nearby. “It’s probably safer further away from the stairway. Let’s check out the corner office.”
The office at the end of the hall is empty and has large windows on two sides bordered by columns and curved at the top. The brickwork around them is a testament to artisans of the past. Theo opens a door leading off the side of the office. It opens into a meeting room containing a scratched and coffee-stained conference table with six chairs that have tears in their leather upholstery.
“A semi-furnished two-room suite,” Clyde says.
Sandy pulls out a chair and looks under the table. The children gaze at her curiously. “If you turn all of the chairs around, you can have a fort under the table.”
The girl tugs on her mother’s sleeve. “Mommy, can we stay here?”
The boy crosses his arms. “I want to go back.”
His mother kneels in front of him. “We can’t afford to stay at the hotel anymore. This will be nice.”
“I hate it.”
“You’ll make lots of friends here,” Sandy says. “I saw a lot of boys your age.”
The father walks to the white board at the end of the meeting room. There are markers and an eraser. “There’s a drawing board here, and there’s plenty of room for your toys.”
“Your new friends will want to come over to play,” The mother says.
“Well, all right.” He jumps into the chair Sandy pulled out and begins to spin.
The girl pulls out her own chair and jumps in.
Red and blue lights reflect off the building across the street and glow in the fog. Theo walks back into the office and looks out of the windows. “The police are here. Somebody heard all of those idiots yelling and fighting.”
Clyde looks out the window. “Maybe we should get out of here.”
“It’s too late,” Theo says. “They brought the wagons.” They watch as the police round up anybody who steps out of the building and place them into vans. “They will do a sweep of the building next. We’ve got to find some place to hide.” He turns to the family. “You can probably all hide under the table in there. Pull the chairs in tight, and keep your suitcases out of sight.” Theo turns to Sandy and Clyde. “Let’s go.” Theo bounds out of the room and heads toward the dark interior of the building. They follow the ghostly light of the flashlight.
Theo stops and tries a door handle. It is locked. Clyde tries one next to him and it opens. “Over here,” Clyde says.
Theo shines the light inside, revealing a storage room with shelves and boxes left behind by the previous tenants.
Clyde moves inside and walks along the rows of shelving. The last row is close to the wall. “We can hide behind these shelves and stack some boxes at the end here.”
Theo shines the light up into the corners of the room. Sandy runs her fingers lightly up his back imitating a spider.
Theo jumps and almost drops the flashlight. “Damn it, Sandy.”
Clyde and Sandy chuckle.
Theo lets one last shudder ripple through his body. “Okay, let’s get out of sight.” He closes the door behind them. There is no lock on the door.
Clyde shuffles in behind the shelves, followed by Sandy and then Theo. Before turning off the flashlight, Theo stacks some boxes at the end of the shelving unit to conceal their hiding place. They scoot over to give Theo more room.
“Ouch,” Clyde says.
“What is it?” Sandy says.
“Stubbed my toe. Theo, hand me that flashlight.”
Theo turns the flashlight on and hands it over. “Just be sure to turn it off quickly if we hear anything.”
Clyde shines the light down by his foot. “There’s a black case back here.” He unlatches the clasp, opens the flap and shines the light inside. “It’s a typewriter. A really old typewriter.” The ivory keys shine like jewels.
“Maybe it’s worth something,” Sandy says. “Like an antique.”
They hear footsteps coming down the hallway. Clyde snaps off the flashlight and they crouch down. The door opens, and a police officer makes a quick sweep of the room with his flashlight, not thorough enough to reveal them.
After another thirty minutes of waiting in silence, Theo says, “They’re gone. Let’s get out of here.”
Clyde turns on the flashlight and hands it to Theo. Then he closes the case, snaps it shut and picks it up by the leather strap. He is surprised that it is so heavy. Theo leads them back into the hallway to where they left the family in the corner office. He steps in and shines his light around, being careful to shield the light from the windows.
“It’s Theo. Are you all right?”
A voice comes from under the desk. “We’re fine. Are they gone?”
Theo looks out the window to make sure there are no police cars out front. “Yes, they’re gone. We’d better get going too.”
The family crawls out from under the table and the man extends his hand. “Thank you. They call me Doc. My wife, Twinkie.”
“Not my real name,” she says.
“And our kids, Carrie and Blake.”
Theo makes the introductions then he, Sandy, and Clyde bid their farewells before heading back to the main floor. When they get near the door, they see piles of boxes, chairs, tables, and a coffee pot.
Clyde says, “The police must have made everyone drop what they were carrying.”
Theo pokes through the items. “How about a table and chairs for your new place? I’m sure the shelter could use another coffee pot.”
The next day, Clyde takes the day off from panhandling to arrange his new room. He wipes the grime from the windows to allow more light to enter. He sets up the table and chairs. Then he places the typewriter in the center of the table where it gleams like new. Clyde knows it could bring a pretty penny, but he is reluctant to part with it. The keys shine white with black letters. The type bars lie side-by-side in an arc as if smiling. The body is made of a solid black metal with a sturdiness not found in anything made today.
While unpacking his shopping cart, Clyde realizes that some shelves would be nice. There is probably a bookcase in the building. On his way up the alley, he takes notice of the graffiti on the walls. It is very intricate. Most of it depicts heads, some wearing hats. Some have phrases weaved within. Others have seemingly random letters and symbols.
A man sits on the stoop. He looks up as Clyde approaches, surprised to see him coming from the enclosed end of the alley.
“Do you live here?” the man says.
“I’m in the room at the end of the alley.”
“Didn’t know there was one. We’re just trying to keep out the looters.”
Clyde stops in his tracks. “I was going to go inside to see if I can find a bookcase.”
“That’s fine. It’s not looting if it stays here.” The man smiles and extends a hand. “They call me Tonka.”
Clyde shakes his hand. “I’m Clyde.” He passes through the door and sees the inside of the building in daylight.
Two rows of rose-colored marble columns run through the lobby. Matching columns stand on each side of the two ancient elevators. The floor indicators are brass arcs with intricate brass arrows, both indicating the lobby, where they will stay for quite some time, as the elevators are currently non-operational. The floors are made of dark grey marble tiles with rose flecks that match the columns. Clyde hopes that nobody pries off the brass accents and sells them. Details like those are what make these old buildings special.
He heads to the stairway and takes the dark stairs up to the second floor. Each person he passes stares at him and he stares back. They permanently etch the other’s face in their memory. It’s important to know all of your neighbors by sight so that strangers are easy to spot.
Up ahead in the hallway sits a pile of chairs, lamps, tables, chairs, and, yes, a bookcase. Clyde walks over and kneels by the bookcase. A short, stocky man emerges from behind the pile.
“Can I help you find something?”
“I’m looking for some shelves. This bookcase would work well.”
“This is yours?”
“It is now. It can be yours for ten dollars.”
“Actually, I know where some other shelves are. Thanks anyway.” Clyde thinks of the shelves they hid behind last night. They are much larger than what he needs, but they might still be there for the taking. He turns to leave.
Clyde stops and turns back to the man. He looks around. “I don’t see people lining up for your bookcase. Are you expecting a big crowd later?”
The man stands patiently with a face of stone.
“One dollar,” Clyde says.
“One fifty and you help me carry it back to my room.”
The man cracks a smile. “You drive a hard bargain. Deal.” He extends his hand. “I’m Burlap.”
Clyde shakes his hand and introduces himself. They haul the bookcase to Clyde’s room where Burlap waits outside for Clyde to retrieve the dollar and a half from the change can hidden within his shopping cart.
Clyde places the bookcase on the far wall and begins to unload his shopping cart. He folds his spare clothing and places it on the bottom shelf. The middle shelf is for his non-perishable food. The top shelf is for his library books. Once finished, he takes one of the books off the shelf and sits on his stoop to read.
Some children play soccer with a crushed can in the alley. Clyde looks up when the can comes bouncing toward him. A boy runs after the can and stops near Clyde.
“What are you reading?”
“It’s a detective novel.”
The other children come over to see what has suspended their game. Clyde recognizes Blake and Carrie, the children from last night, in the group.
“A crime was committed and the detective is trying to solve it.”
“Can you read it to us?”
Clyde smiles. “You wouldn’t like it.” He glances at his watch, late Saturday afternoon. The library will be open until five. “I’ll be back this evening with a more appropriate book. I’ll read to all of you then.”