Room for rent
Growing up I wasn’t fortunate enough to have children my own age to play with either in school or on Henry Street. During the summers, the streets of downtown New Haven became my playground.
Down the street from the White Tower on the corner of George and College Street was a rooming house that was home to a variety of New Haven “downtown people” as they were called.
It was a huge brick building, standing 3 floors high with a horizontal red neon sign that just read, “Rooms”. We’ve all seen this signage in old movies depicting less than favorable housing in low rent neighborhoods.
The occupants of this neighborhood house were as varied as you could imagine.
Barbara and Eddie managed the builing and the tenants. Eddie was a slimy looking short guy, with greasy slicked back hair. Eddie would walk around with a cigarette always hanging out of his mouth so that the smoke would always blow back in his eyes and cause him to constantly squint making him even more devious looking than he already was. He lived with his common law wife Barbara who was insanely jealous over any woman or girl that Eddie talked to. She was shorter than Eddie, always wore flowered house dresses with no sleeves, sneakers with no laces or socks. She had an annoying habit of always burping. She followed him like the Pied Piper of Hamlin, obeying his every command and wish.
Eddie would perch himself on the second step of the outside entry way smoking, squinting and grinning, so that his face was level with the chest of any woman walking by. His eyes told it all. Barbara watched from the 2nd floor, leaning out the open window as if she were going to pounce on anyone who dared to flirt with Eddie. Barbara and Eddie always held themselves over the tenants, believing that the occupants were the low lifes, not them.
Each room in the boarding house consisted of the same thing, small formica table with 2 chairs, 1 twin bed or 2, a dresser and a hot plate. No cooking was allowed and perishable food was kept on the window sill mostly in the colder months. It wasn’t unsual to walk by and see bottles of milk stuck in pots or containers holding ice, mayonnaise or mustard jars or loaves of bread lined up on the window sill.
Earl and Kevin were two veterans that lived together. They had been injured in the Army and had lost their legs. They lived on the 2nd floor and could fly up and down those steps faster than some people with their limbs intact. They used their arms as pivot points and would raise their bodies with their arms and swing their torso onto the step over and over again. Their muscular arms were sculpted like a body builder.
I would sit with them outside the rooming house and either watch or help them strap their bodies onto their home made skateboard with belts. The skateboards were made of regular 2x4 pieces of plywood, curved at the ends, with wheels taken from old pairs of roller skates that they salvaged. Extra wheels were kept in their room.
They would then paddle themselves using their gloved hands as dry oars, up and down the streets of New Haven, faster and smoother than Tony Hawk or any other skateboard contender. Upon arrival at the White Tower Restaurant or grocery store, they would then take their food, coffee and supplies and belt that to their body and then the skateboard and whiz right back to their room.
Henry and Evelyn were not as fortunate as the occupants inside the house. Most nights they could be found sleeping inside the front door to the rooming house. Evelyn was a 20+woman who was mildly retarded and Henry was her much older companion who tended to her care. Both were street people. By day, you would see them walking a grocery shopping cart with their 2 dogs inside, amidst bottles for the 2 cent return. They scrounged garbage cans for food and never would accept help, although Evelyn was caught trying to steal soda bottles for the money. There was a certain understanding to their relationship. Evelyn was childlike, innocent, and sad and trusted no one except Henry. Henry treated her as a daughter, with the utmost respect and tenderness. Legend always accompanies people like this and although it may not be true, Evelyn’s family was supposedly to have had money, but nothing could be done for her. Henry seemed to be her only source of salvation that she wanted.
No, I haven’t had a normal childhood with play dates and friends, but I have learned about people, their survival skills and acceptance.
And I have always remembered those dogs in the shopping cart.