Before the nineteenth century became the twentieth, many tenement buildings in New York City were built as five-story walk-ups. They were known as cold-water flats and became home to thousands of immigrants such as my Sicilian parents, who occupied a top floor tenement flat.
Most of the buildings were joined by a series of common walls, side by side, in a long row from one end of the block to the other. Anyone game for an unusual adventure could enter a tenement from the street, climb the stairs to the roof and walk along the roofs from one end of the block to the other or descend the stairs of which ever building he chose.
Each flat had two sets of windows: one set overlooked the street and the other set, the kitchen windows, overlooked the rear yard where an array of clothes lines, threaded through pulley-wheels, extended from the fire escape across the yard to a large tree-trunk-sized pole, where it was threaded through another wheel for its return trip. The woman of the house was thereby able to hang her laundry out to dry, securing one item after another with a wooden clothes pin as she pushed the line out and away from her. Clothes lines extended across the yards from every fire escape along the block, contributing to the expanse of an overcrowded net-like mass: truly a photographer’s dream of a study in abstract realism.
The roof was off limits to all of us. My father had forbidden all of his children to enter upon the roof or to even to approach the stairs leading to the roof, and for good reason: tenement rooftops were not an ideal place for children to play. Tragedies had been known to occur when children or adults ventured too close to the edge. There was one instance that I, as a child of five, recall: a white middle-sized dog lay dead on the street after having unknowingly and playfully run off the roof. To my knowledge, no one had ever survived the sixty-foot-plus drop.
I was the youngest of eight siblings, so for the most part, I was left at home, excluded from fun things my older brothers were doing. The brother closest to me in age was two years my senior at age seven. He was baptized, Alfonso, which was Americanized to Alfonse, but everybody called him Alley. The next in line was nine-year-old Calogero, or Charles, who went by the nickname of Charley.
To Alley and Charley, the roof prohibition dictated by my father presented a challenge which spurred a line of thinking similar to eating of the forbidden fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil: they simply had to know what was up there. The logistics required for such an adventure, however, had to be favorable to their endeavor: timing was everything. They selected a time when my father would be out of the house for a good part of the afternoon. My mother was on her way to Delancey Street to do some grocery shopping. She didn’t mind the extra walk because Delancey Street was the place where practically every purchase was subject to negotiation.
So with my parents gone, the field was wide open. They double-checked and when they were sure the coast was clear, they very quietly climbed the stairs leading to the roof and, once reaching the top step, pushed open the large metal-coated wooden door and entered the forbidden zone.
“Wow,” remarked Charley, “There’s plenty of room to run around up here.”
They were not used to so much space. Their world generally consisted of long streets and sidewalks congested with tall stoops and banisters, fire hydrants and streetlight poles and garbage cans lining the front of each building. An occasional baby carriage might be left blocking the sidewalk. On summer days, children with chalk delineated the limit lines of an upcoming sidewalk game or took advantage of an illegally opened fire hydrant where they braved the water’s gush, which could very easily have sent them sprawling for several feet. And of course there were always lots of people. Canyon-like buildings lining both sides of the street concealed much of the sky, depriving those below of its natural beauty but with the passage of time, any interest in looking upward was replaced by complacency until those who had become used to living in this environment no longer noticed.
But now that the boys were on the roof, they could actually survey the sky and the long line of rooftops all the way to the end of the block. The boys walked from one rooftop to another, over several buildings. Alley, who was occasionally known to parrot his big brother’s words said, “Wow, there’s plenty of room to run around up here.”
Then Charley inched his way toward the front edge of the building, pausing long enough to take in a bird’s eye view of the hodge-podge below. And while this was happening, Alley, taking his own words quite literally, began to run around in very tight circles. “Make sure you keep away from the edge,” came a caution from Charley. But Alley’s circles seemed to grow progressively wider, so wide in fact that as Charley turned to check on his little brother, a shock flashed before him in just a fraction of an instant: It was a glimpse of the little guy disappearing over the back edge of the building and it left Charley stunned.
Charley was frozen in place, unable to move. The shock which overtook him was compounded by a woman’s scream, seemingly coming from the same abyss which had taken his little brother. Charley was left in a trance of disbelief and self-condemnation. But the woman’s voice in a long monologue of unintelligible words brought him back to the here-and-now. She might have been speaking a mixture of Yiddish and English, he wasn’t sure. But whatever the language, it was enough to pull him out of his frozen trance and direct him to move ever so slowly toward the roof’s edge. And this he did with an image in his mind of Alley’s little body sprawled out on the ground far below.
His movements were not as brazen as they had been just minutes before. Drawn by the sound of the Yiddish language, he found himself inching his way toward the end of the roof, forcing himself to peer over the edge and when he did, he saw his little brother hanging with one hand on the clothes line and the other on the fire escape, being helped by a woman who ranted in a language neither boy could understand.
Alley was safely brought onto the fire escape and into the woman’s kitchen. Charley could not contain his joy: he raced down to the woman’s flat. But there, both boys were detained for an obligatory admonition. A complete stranger, through the use of sporadic and mispronounced English words and lots of sign language, seemed remarkably clear in her dissertation to the boys to stay off the roof. The advice came with an abundance of cookies as she sent them on their way.
As Alley and Charley descended the steps of the tenement, Charley cautioned his little brother, “Make sure you don’t say anything to Papa.”
Of course Alley, who could not allow his brother to have the last word, replied, “You make sure you don’t say anything to papa.”
Charley came back with, “Yeah, well just make sure you don’t say anything to Papa.”
And in this manner the reciprocal cautions volleyed back and forth between the brothers and between intermittent bites of cookies in a game of one-upmanship while descending the stairs until finally they had reached first floor hallway leading out to the front stoop. Although Alley had tired of the game by that time, he was determined not to relinquish the last word, so he ended with a final response: “These are really good cookies."
[Image from the NYPL Digital Gallery of The New York Public Library.]