The Perfect Dwelling
August was suffocating and I could feel my feet sizzling on the sidewalks as if they were being fried. If that summer hadn’t been so hot, I still wonder if I would have made such a hasty decision to sign the lease of my renovated apartment in Brooklyn. The thick air and the rancid smell of garbage that piled up on the curb created a nauseating concoction I can still smell. There was also the odor of the stairway, with all the stews and fried food mixed with the smell of cheap cigarettes. Then there was the noise. Especially, the noise. The dogs howled in the distance at night, creating an echo of despair. Every now and then, the windows shook when a car accelerated with its blasting music, usually Salsa or Regaetton. On some nights, la loca—that’s what she was called—who hoarded garbage and cats in her house across the street, would have a row with her husband; minutes later, I’d hear the sirens wailing outside and there’d be a merry-go-round of flashing orange lights reflecting against the windows. The sound that still rings in my ears is the wooden staircase creaking every time someone went up and down, followed by a loud thumpty-thump that reverberated on my bedroom wall. As time went by, the rattle of the elevated train tracks became a muted background buzz. There were other nuisances apart from the noises and smells, and I know for a fact that anyone else would have left the first month. But something made me stay.
As I turned the door knob to my new apartment, I heard a voice from behind. I was startled at first; a shirtless man with a protruding scar that traversed his chest stood with a plate of food in his hand. His leathery, dark face broke into a smile as he pointed at the food, believing that we didn’t speak the same language. Since he was Hispanic, I addressed him in Spanish. He handed me the plate. “Pa que comas. No tendrás comida si acabas de llegar,” he said. I took the providential dish and thanked him. At that moment I wouldn’t have imagined that this man, Carlos, would introduce me to the underground life of New York City.
Every time I entered the front gate in the evening, I heard Latino music and the raucous voices of men brimming throughout the building. Carlos’s front door was across from mine and it gave onto his kitchen. The door was kept open all day and all night, the cackle of people and clatter of pots and pans intruding my peaceful apartment. Privacy was unheard of. Since I couldn’t defeat my neighbors with their invasion of noise, I decided to join them. They were all men; there was the father and his son and an old uncle who they called El Tio, and a Porto Rican and a Mexican who rented the contiguous rooms. And there was me, la blanquita. Every time I was about to enter my apartment after work, Carlos would bid me to go into his kitchen, and without giving me time to say anything, he would place a plate of food in front of me.
Carlos’s kitchen was the meeting place of the building; everyone was welcome and anyone could show up. Carlos juggled pots and pans, with no shirt on, in a curtain of steam. The stove had pots bubbling over with creamy sauces and chunks of meat, frothy fish and peanut butter soups, fizzling plantains, and stews of gelatinous pork trotters. The saffron rice was always ready in the rice maker. The food was laid out on an assortment of mismatched plates on a plastic crocheted tablecloth. Above the table, a discolored painting of The Last Supper hung on the wall like a shrine that blessed our meals. In a corner, hand-made wooden shelves covered in blue and white checkered self-adhesive plastic contained stacks of lustrous pots of all sizes. The fire escape drew its silhouette behind the blue gossamer drapes. On the floor, two loud speakers and a portable amplifier shook with the sound of Salsa music.
The morning I was awoken by Caribbean music hammering on my walls, I was ready to fight. I ran down the stairs, the gluey feel of the torn linoleum sticking to my feet, and knocked on everybody’s door, since the music seemed to be seeping out of the walls of the whole building. At each door, I was received by a Latino man who flinched at seeing a blonde, green-eyed girl yelling at them in perfect Spanish. How could this gringa blanquita have ended up here? I could read on their faces. But much to their surprise, they didn’t know that their blanquita was Spanish and was going to mark her territory.
When I got to 1R, a sturdy, swarthy man with an aquiline nose flung the door open, and laughed when I said that the music was too loud. “No le gusta la musiquita? Pero si es alegria!” he said, shouting over the music. He pointed at a D.J. controller and two loud speakers as he invited me into his home, a small crowded room with a bathroom. The two windows that gave onto the street were barely covered with a towel of a naked woman that hung from a string. On the opposite side, there was a small built-in closet with no door, which was full of old televisions, radios, antennas, tools, cables, speakers and other gadgets. The bed occupied most of the room, leaving space for a mini fridge, a dentist’s chair, and stacked up bags and boxes. This allowed for one person to be standing up and the other person to be sitting on the bed. The man invited me to sit on the bed, and handed me a beer. As I sat down, a green bird that looked like a parakeet flew over my head. It was his pet, he said. He started jabbering, first about his possessions, while pulling them out one by one, then about all the neighbors in the building and about the neighbors across the street, and about his job. Everyone in the neighborhood knew him as Güicho, and soon I would find out that he was the most important member of the party of friends at Carlos’s house.
Every evening Güicho would go to Carlos’s kitchen to give an account of his day. We all gathered around the kitchen table, which was set with a couple of six-packs, steamed rice, black beans, and a stew, looking forward to the entertainment of the evening. At the time I arrived, Güicho was a welder in a Russian workshop. He boasted of his big, strong hands while he acted out the movements he made when using the welding machines and the weight he had to lift in his job. “Y puedes llamarme viejo, he would say, since he was sixty-five, pero mira estos brazos,” and he would show off his muscles. There’d be a moment of silence. We’d all look at each other. And then we’d burst out laughing while stomping on the floor, banging on the table, and cheering.
Güicho would tell us how the Russians at the workshop loved him and appreciated his hard work. One day we asked him in what language they told this to him, considering that Güicho didn’t speak English and the Russians didn’t speak Spanish. He answered, “Me dicen ´you good´ y yo les digo ´good´ y ellos me dan una palmadita en la espalda.” We looked at each other incredulously, and then the outrage of laughter and fists banging on the table started again. In that moment we were all happy, gulping down our beer. And this is when Güicho would get excited because he had a captive audience. To keep the excitement going, he would get up and leap across the room and make gestures and grimaces, imitating the work and performing actions he had done that day.
One of the most entertaining parts of the evening would come out of an insignificant comment. One time, we were talking about getting on a helicopter and flying over Manhattan because that’s what Güicho wanted to do on his following birthday. Suddenly, Güicho started telling us about when he had been a pilot. Again, the outburst of laughter started. Once we had seen that he always related himself to anything we mentioned, we would mischievously wind him up and say, “Hey, Güicho, I know a guy who’s a boxer,” and we would start giggling, already knowing his response. He would say, “Oh, I was a boxer once!” And the laughing would start again and we would keep guzzling down our beer until late at night. One day we asked him to give us an account of all the jobs he had had, and he started his long list: sergeant of the infantry brigade, glass blower, bus helper, joker, fireman, construction worker, baker, blacksmith, metal polisher, ambulant clown, wrestler, boxer, shoe polisher, potato factory worker, mechanic, dental mechanic, pastor, and finally, maestro del amor. While we cheered, tears rolling down our cheeks, he said his next job would be a coyotero. Then he told us how he had walked across the arid Guatemalan and Mexican mountains to enter the United States. He had made it in, and now it was his turn to guide all the clandestinians into the country. They’d all live in America without ever understanding the country or learning the language, living the world they’d build, a world within a world, and be happy. “This is Brooklyn. This is America.” I kept saying to myself. But sometimes I wondered where I was.
Each day of the week Güicho created a new form of diversion for himself, which was a new performance for us. Even on the days that there was absolute silence, I felt an uneasiness; at any moment I knew that something was going to happen. Once, I heard meowing on the stairway and I went to the hallway looking for a cat, only to discover Güicho at the end of the staircase meowing at the top of his lungs. Another time, he had found an old saxophone in the garbage and had started playing its strenuous notes up and down the hallway until we all came out to see what was happening. He started yelling, “I´m going to create a band; I´m a musician, I´m a musician!” We knew that on Saturday nights he went to a neighborhood bar to sing Rancheras and he claimed that he had plenty of ladies to choose from.
El Tio, bald and round like a ball, was an Evangelist who had had ten children with different women. His offspring despised him and he was left alone in his old age. Carlos had taken him under his wing and brought him to America. The way of finding redemption was by belonging to a church that was in Queens, miles away from where we lived. Güicho said that probably that church had more beautiful women than the ones in the neighborhood. We all laughed, but he must have been right because El Tio would go on missing for days every time he met a new woman. This made him into the mockery of the group, especially when he started reciting the Bible while drinking his glass of lechita, as we called it, surrounded by the party of beer drinkers. Although Güicho was illiterate, he would have a counterargument for each of El Tio’s sermons and he would recite the Bible word by word to rebate anything El Tio said, while the conversation got louder and louder until it became a quarrel and El Tio would slam the door and retire to his room. Güicho took pride in knowing the Bible, since he had once been a preacher on the streets of Guatemala, but he made it clear that it was mis cervecitas that gave spark to life. El Tio also needed an audience, so on the days nobody was around, he’d knock on my door and bribe me with a nice meal so he could deliver a sermon on the Bible. Many times we discussed the nature of adultery, since we always told him, “Practice what you preach.” El Tio didn’t see adultery as a sin because, after all, Christ forgives. In his mind, Christ’s forgiveness was an excuse to perpetuate the chain of sins.
The following summer, I had a friend visit me from Texas and she had the misfortune to break her dental crown. I thought it was outrageous to spend over $1,000 on fixing a crown in Manhattan and I told her there was an alternative. “What alternative?” she asked.
“I know an underground dentist that will do it for less than $20. But you have to be daring,” I said. All the immigrants in the neighborhood who couldn’t afford a proper dentist recurred to Güicho. His patients sat down in the dentist’s chair in his room while Güicho prepared prosthesis, made crowns, pulled out molars and did fillings. When my friend and I went down to Güicho’s, he was waiting for us in front of his doorway, shirtless, showing his bulky arms covered in tattoos, holding a beer in one hand.
He waved at us with a blue glove on his free hand and shouted, “Vengan, vengan con el doctor” as he laughed. My friend glanced at me as I pushed her into the room. The dentist’s chair was stuck between the bed and the fridge, the layout of glue and tools on the bed. The procedure was fast and efficient, and to my friend’s dismay, free. “Para las muchachas bonitas es gratis,” he said. Gratis was part of Güicho’s vocabulary. Whenever I was sick, he’d get me orange juice and other groceries and he’d say, “Ahh, gratis” when I tried to pay him.
Free things were part of the deal in this building. Carlos worked as a janitor and handy man at a building. He had access to the basement where all types of gadgets, furniture, and knick knacks that the tenants disregarded piled up. Any time I needed something— a juice squeezer, a hairdryer, a food processor, a desk— Carlos would come home with the item. Sometimes he’d invite me and a few friends over and he’d place a few large garbage bags full of treasures. We’d rummage all the used goods while eating and talking, and we’d all go home happy with our presents.
For a long time, there had been a mystery for us; Güicho was able to tell what time everyone came in at night with eerie precision. “Llegaste a las 3:10 ayer,” he said to me once, and I couldn’t figure out how he knew this. I had to solve the mystery. On Sundays, he played the same Guatemalan Ranchera songs over and over again on an old disco synthesizer that made every wall in the building vibrate. This time, out of annoyance and boredom, I knocked on his door and he let me in with great joy. He turned the music on louder and sang at the top of his lungs “Ay mi amor, ¿que será de mi?” as he served me a beer. I noticed that in one corner of the wall, by the window, there was a small car mirror. I asked Güicho what the mirror was doing there and he had me lay down on the bed and he said, “If I’m lying down right there and I look at the mirror, I can see everybody that comes through the gate.” That night I was more excited about telling the news in Carlos’s kitchen than the fact of having discovered the mystery.
Güicho used to boast about all the women he had; there were so many that he had to turn them down, he’d say. He talked about his girlfriend, La Chiquitilla, but we didn’t believe him until he brought her to Carlos’s kitchen. We were surprised to meet a short, shy woman with glasses. Güicho started spending more time at her place until, before we knew it, he had moved out. Güicho stopped by once in a while until, gradually, he stopped coming back. We all felt how Carlos’s kitchen had become lifeless without him.
After having lived in the building for several years, I thought that nothing could change. I had adapted to the peculiarities of my building and accepted my new friends. But slowly, life changes took over. El Tio was getting older and he had saved enough money to go back to Ecuador and buy a used car so he could spend the last years of his life driving tourists around his country. Carlos was offered a janitor position with free rent, so he moved out. The last time I saw Güicho, he was sober and he had turned to the Gospel. I finally moved out too. When I had first moved in, I thought that I wouldn’t survive the building, but when I look back, I feel nostalgic. I had immersed myself into people’s lives I would never have met otherwise and learned about generosity in its purest form. I found the perfect dwelling.
 The crazy woman.
 So you can eat. You probably don’t have any food if you just arrived.
 The Uncle.
 The whitey. (This is said in a nice way in Latin America.)
 White American girl
 Don’t you like the music? But it’s happiness!
 You can call me an old man, but look at these arms.
 They say “you good” and I say “good” and they pat my back.
 Master of love.
 Coyote man. (Name given to those who guide the illegal immigrants into a country.)
 Traditional folk songs.
 My little beers.
 Come, come with the doctor.
 For pretty girls, it’s free.
 Oh, free.
 You arrived at 3:10 A.M. last night.
 Oh my love, what will become of me?
 The Tiny one.
Alicia Coe is a short story writer and mixed-media artist from Spain. She holds a B.A. in literature and an M.A. in ESL. Alicia has worked as a writing consultant and critical writing professor for the last nine years. Having grown up in a multicultural background and speaking five languages, Alicia Coe explores multi-ethnic characters in her stories. She is currently living between New York and Spain.