Tuesday, March 30, 2004

Life in an apartment building - "do you have hit?"
"This is an apartment building" he says. I am frozen to the bone, and I take a shower to warm up. Accustomed as I am to sharing the hot water with my family, I am quick. My NYC connection laughs, and tells me: "There is enough hot water, you can have a really long, really warm shower, you can warm up that way!" I crawl under my covers, and beg him to make me a cup of tea. He complies with a smile, still shaking his head at my frugal habits.

Staying warm in apartment buildings take another, more sinister turn as the bell rings. "This is a city inspector. Do you have hit?" Do I have hit? No, I don't, I haven't been hit and I haven't hit anybody. "No," I reply, bewildered. "What apartment, apartment, 3?" I reply, giving the right number, still confused. As I open the door a man in a uniform and carrying a clipboard is hurrying towards me. "Do you haf hit, iz your hiting working?" he asks, his accent heavy with his east-european background, and he grins at me who opened the door wearing my tight yoga outfit. "Oh, heat, forgive me!" I reply, befuddled. "Yes, we do, we had none in the week-end, but today it is warm in here." And he smiles again, the fatherly smile of one immigrant to another. And like the old russian lady in the Foodtown store who lent me her card to give me access to the discounts, I know he thinks of me as a recent immigrant from eastern europe, Russian perhaps, or from the Baltics, dark and blue-eyed, with high cheek-bones, one of their own. And so he explains it very carefully, patiently.

"You can complain. Call 311 24 hours. Day or night. Then I can come, and I will write them a ticket. Ask for the..." and here I am lost again, the names of the correct office of city inspectors a string of non-sense sounds to me. But I repeat them to him, carefully, with the number. "Remember." he repeats. "Anytime. If you have no heat, you call me, and I will write them a ticket." I assume the "them" are the landlords, and I nod, envisioning this tall aging east-european against the correct Italian woman in her large, dark house with the grand piano in the front parlor, blinds carefully drawn and the house in polished, scentless twilight, counting out the rent in 50- and 20-dollar bills after my NYC connection and I had emptied our accounts in order to be able to pay the rent one cold december evening.

When he is gone I start laughing, then it hits me. People die from the lack of heat in this city. If the heating goes, I have no access to it. There is no electric heating here, no way for me to make this place comfortable or even livable. And I know that, I have spent more than one day wrapped head to toe in blankets, blessing the heat off my lap-top as I wrote my thesis. I just didn't realise I might need an emergency number, one that can call a tall uniformed hero who talks like the crooks in movies from the cold war, armed with a clipboard and the power to write a ticket to a woman in a house that could have been the home of friends of Tony Soprano. Only Tony lives in New Jersey, but that is just across the bridge.

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