Ten Days | Eviction | Police

Barbara Fisher

by

10 Days
a true story by Barbara Fisher

published by Ten Penny Players, Inc. 393 St. Pauls Avenue Staten Island, NY 10304 www.tenpennyplayers.org

You remember the corner? It’s that dark, quiet, now expensive street in the far western part of Greenwich Village, a few blocks shy of the West Side Highway where an attractive young television advertising executive was making a telephone call during a power outage to his building when he was murdered. This was before cell phones made the public telephone booth obsolete. His wife was left with memories and their dogs. A stoned white transvestite working that corner fingered a homeless black man who lived in a neighboring park. They arrested the homeless man. The gun wasn’t found. The transvestite disappeared; the homeless man at length was released for lack of evidence. The case is still open; the corner now patrolled by security paid for by residents and local businesses.
1

The night of the shooting a friend from the street called to tell me. I’d lived on that block for 21 years until I’d moved the year before the murder. But not before the transvestite prostitutes had turned a sleepy dog walkers’ haven into a meat rack; not before the glitzy realtors had outpriced resident artists and senior citizens and replaced us with people able to pay $1,100 a month for a 1-bedroom Greenwich Village address near that road that almost was Westway; not before the buying and selling of crack became the new uptrendy local industry. Of course now that same apartment’s costing closer to $5,000 a month than $1,000.

2

My building was the first loft space in NYC to gain a legal Certificate of Occupancy that allowed artists to live and work in the same unit. It had been a hard won fight. I’d been an active member of the Artist Tenants Association and it had taken us years of negotiating, marching about and lobbying politicians in NYC and Albany to gain the legislation that made our living in lofts legal.

3

The fourth floor corner windows in our 750 square foot space gave me light and views to the east, south, and west. Whether at the typewriter (this was before Apple provided an alternative to carbon paper and wite out), handsetting type and working the Kelsey letterpress printer or at the kitchen sink, I’d had years of watching the native and transient street life of my neighborhood. I was a dog walker and community organizer. I’d lived in the Village for 32 years. People knew me. The phone rang one morning. ‘They’ve robbed us again,’ a woman’s voice on the phone began. ‘The fourth time, just after we opened the store. With guns. It’s from the building next door. They’ve turned it into a crack house. You gotta help me get the police to do something.’
4

“I’ve watched the cars pull up and the packages passed between the people in the basement apartment and the people from the car. New Jersey plates. I’ve written down the numbers. All sorts of creatures living in there now. That’s why we’re being robbed so much.”
5

I knew some of the other people who’d lived in that building. One family had been on that block even longer than I. “How do you know it’s coming from that building?” I asked.

Next door to her boyfriend’s dry cleaning store was only two buildings uptown from where I lived. I knew the building well. It was a small brownstone a friend had owned until he’d died of cancer the previous year; his roommate had just died of AIDS. I often wondered who had taken in their sweet tempered yellow crown parrot.

“Have you spoken to the police?” I asked. “Yes. I keep calling the precinct and nothing’s happening. We get robbed. They come and take pictures, fingerprint the place. I go to the precinct and look at mug shots. I talk to the detectives and then they go away. Sometimes they send an extra patrol around the block.” “What about the Community Patrol Officers? Have you filed a complaint with them?” “Of course. They come around too, when they’re patrolling the street. But nothing… nothing’s happening. Somebody’s going to get killed the next time.”
6

“Have you called the Community Planning Board to ask them to pressure the precinct?” “That too. I tell you, I’ve been thorough. I’m losing sleep over this. I can’t work. I’m scared. We’ve got locks on the front door and you have to buzz in now. The last time they got in holding laundry. I thought they were customers. I’m on the phone with the police all the time. Can you help?”

7

Of course I said yes. The Mary Poppins Syndrome, I call it. Off and flying on my broomstick with my pad and bag at the drop of somebody’s problem. I was already planning to move from the neighborhood, but still wanted to help. I don’t like pushers. And I felt responsible for the people on the block. They’d always avoided becoming community involved. Most of them were artists and ‘too busy’ with their work to become active. Too lazy, I’d thought. Too selfish. But I knew they’d have no idea how to deal with a crack house and I didn’t want to see anyone I knew caught in the violence that usually accompanied drug ridden areas.

8

My own work as a teaching artist at drug rehabilitation and incarceral programs gave me a fairly clear understanding of junkies and pushers. Community meetings with the police gave me names in a phone book and numbers to call. Before she rang off I asked her how the druggies had managed to get an apartment in the building. She told me the lawyer for my friend’s estate had rented the apartment to a guy who’d recently left and turned over his keys to friends. They were legally occupying the apartment for that reason. She told me that if you looked through the window, part of it was covered up, but part showed that there were many mattresses on the floor and people were seen to be going into the building at all hours of the day and night. Sounded like a crack house to me.
9

We were both worried about several older people who lived in the building. One was overly friendly to casual passersby and talked loudly and at length about her life, medical problems and daily observations to anyone giving her a ‘good morning, how are yuh?’ greeting. I told her that if we were going to do any thing we’d have to be careful not to be stupid. That we’d keep in contact with each other and another woman on the block who we knew would work with us and that we’d let the police do their job. We’d stay in the background, keep out of the way, and work primarily by telephone.

10

I called Midtown South to speak to the narcotics detective I’d had occasion to speak with before and learned that he’d heard about my friend’s complaint from the precinct. Turned out that three separate police units were now privy to the problem and beginning to work on it. The police felt they were moving speedily. The civilians thought they were slow. My friend was concerned about being robbed again and her staff or customers getting hurt because of the neighboring activity. She wanted arrests and the apartment next door padlocked. I knew that the police needed to build a case or they’d be unable to make an arrest or once doing so not be able to bring the case to trial.

11

She’d found out the name of the attorney handling the estate. He was in the phone book. I called and told his secretary that I was an officer of an important Greenwich Village community organization concerned about the rumors we’d heard about the building. Although I hadn’t cleared it with the president of the organization, since I was indeed an officer and known to the planning board and the police as such I wasn’t worried about anyone questioning my right to start making inquiries on behalf of the community. I was used to hostile landlords and didn’t know whether or not he’d be cooperative. I wanted him right from the beginning to feel that there was community muscle behind my inquiries.

12

It was a friendly conversation and he was very upfront about his own worry about the building now that he knew what was rumored to be going on there. He after all wanted to sell the property for a packet. He didn’t want the building trashed...or even burned...because of crack. He said that while it was true the key had been ‘legally’ turned over to the tenant’s friends, the tenant was in rental arrears and he was trying to evict him from the property. He told me that as soon as he was able to obtain a court order he was going to send a carpenter over to the building to change the locks, board up the windows and prevent the man from returning. He said that he would also cooperate with us in trying to get the occupants out of the apartment and clear the building of people who shouldn’t be there.
13

So far so good. I was lucky that I worked in a school building not far from where I was living and I was able to make phone calls during the school day and receive them. Since the people I worked with also worked with school based drug and prison programs and shared my antipathy to pushers co-workers were sympathetic and no one hassled me over getting and making phone calls during two weeks of frantic telephone activity. As I’d believed our friend from the neighboring block was more than willing to help. She had young children and was as worried about them as we were about our own families, friends and neighbors.

14

The activities in the problem building continued unabated while we involved ever more police personnel in surveillance and activity. My friend with the cleaning store was lucky in that the man who drove her delivery truck was a former undercover narcotics policeman from Puerto Rico. She and I discovered the Island cops were even more aggressive than our own NYC officers about cleaning up drug problems and he was happy to help... he wanted to be a police officer again in any case either here or back in Puerto Rico and he was invaluable. Because of his expertise he was able to tell the police the signals that the people in the house were using to call in from the street sellers and purchasers. He understood both the hand signals and the verbal codes that they passed.
15

My friend and I were on the phone constantly with each other and various police departments. We were keeping very low profiles in the neighborhood and told few people what we were doing. We didn’t want any reporters to sniff out a story. We didn’t want whatever the police were planning to be interrupted by someone in the neighborhood wanting to play cops and robbers. I avoided walking near the house and rarely walked down the street to the corner where my friend’s shop was located. We knew that the police were trying to infiltrate the operation with plainsclothes officers. We knew that it would take a while for that to happen, but were eager for it to be over. Both of us were fearful that in the interim the old lady in the building would say the wrong thing or be in the wrong place and would wind up getting hurt.
16

We were told to just do our normal things and ignore the building and any police we knew who were in the neighborhood. It was easier for me. I was able to leave the street and go to school for a relatively ordinary day. For my friend it was hard. She was really edgy. She smoked more than usual; she ate a little too much and worried more about her weight. Her employees also worried and watched the door to monitor who waned to enter the store.

17

My friend was convinced that the police were just feeding her a story and weren’t really trying to do any thing. She was thinking about making public the problem. Going to politicians that we knew would rally the press. There was talk of a community demonstration and pickets in front of the building. Much as I enjoy a good demonstration and organizing participants, my gut feeling was the police should be given more time. If this wasn’t Greenwich Village they might be snowing the ‘public’, but not here, not in a community where they knew we could rally the neighbors and get good press. One of the people in the building where I lived was a producer for one of the network news programs. If we needed reporters I wasn’t worried about getting it. I also carry a press card. But I had faith in the police. I understood their need to work slowly. I cautioned waiting and my friend agreed.
18

Ten days went by. I got back from school late one afternoon to see more than one patrol car in the area. I watched from the window as additional patrol cars and unmarked cars pulled into the block. Like that it was over. They had infiltrated. They had made the requisite number of buys from the alleged perpetrators. The police had moved in from the front of the building, through the back garden with the cooperation of a neighboring brownstone owner, and over the low roofs of adjoining buildings. They had solid arrests and cleaned out the entire apartment. No one in my friend’s store got hurt; not one of the legitimate building tenants was hurt. The estate’s attorney immediately sent a locksmith over to secure the building.
19

The guy who had given his key to his friends came back and wanted in to the apartment to feed his cat and get his stereo equipment. Fat chance. Word from the street was that he was himself a small time dealer who’d gotten in over his head. Maybe so. Maybe not. I wasn’t interested. We’d done our bit to close down the operation. The aftermath was up to the professionals. I sold my loft, moved with my family and have quieter neighbors.

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© 2012 Ten Penny Players Needlepoints by Barbara Fisher Book design by Richard Spiegel

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