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Klopotnik owned three abandoned tenements on West 112th Street. Numbers 27-29
and 31, they were five storeys in height and had been condemned six years ago.
They were deteriorating fast and in the last stages of decay. What had happened
to each of them happened to all of them. They were built shortly after the Civil
War in the “Belmont” section of the Bronx, and in the intervening one hundred
and fifty years they were the home of more than 300 families, almost all of them
It was Mr. Klopotnik’s ambition to convert these three abandoned tenements into
a single twenty story up-scale apartment, or ‘town house’ as he preferred to
call it. It was to be known as “Exeter House.”
As he walked by the three deserted eyesores, he considered how far he’d come and
how far he had yet to go. The plans were finished and they languished in the
building department down in City Hall awaiting approval from the zoning board.
That could be in a month or two! By summer perhaps - who knows - the ball might
swing and the whole run down rat trap would collapse in the street.
Except for the windows on the top floor of number 29 the buildings looked
abandoned. All the other windows were boarded up and the ladders from the fire
escapes on the second floor of all three buildings had been removed. The front
doors were gone and were replaced with steel shutters. Mr. Klopotnik wanted no
trouble from the squatters in the neighborhood, he was well aware that once they
took over an abandoned building it would take forever to get rid of them. To
keep squatters out he permitted a Columbia adjunct professor of obscure
philosophical essays to stay there rent free.
On this spring afternoon the windows of the top floor of number 29 were open and
the curtains were blowing out. On the window sills, like palace guards, stood
pots of green ivy. Professor Zacharias came to the window and waved down to Mr.
“Good morning, Klopotnik. Come to check on your estate?”
Klopotnik wondered if he should go in and talk with Zacharias. It wasn’t easy.
He would have to go down the cellar stairs and ring the bell for the fifth floor
- all the other bells to the building had been disconnected. Zacharias would
have to come down six flights of stairs and unlock the cellar door to let him
in. Then what? He had nothing to say to Zacharias, they had nothing in common.
He was just there, living rent free, to keep intruders out of the three
buildings until they were torn down. His was the only apartment with electricity
and water. Well, Klopotnik thought, he was lucky to find a man who would live in
such conditions. He said he wanted to finish his philosophical treatise - he
wanted absolute quiet.
“How are you Zacharias - everything quiet?”
“Just me and the roaches, Klopotnik.” He picked one off the window sill and
tossed it down to him. “So how long I got, Klopotnik?”
Klopotnik watched the roach hit the concrete sidewalk, make a circle or two,
then skitter back into the building. “At least two months, maybe more. Things go
“The slower the better - I’m stuck in Kierkegaard.”
Things are quiet up there, no? Nobody sneaking in?”
Zacharias hesitated a fraction of a second. The hesitation was not lost on Mr.
Klopotnik. “The sounds at night, the voices ... nothing more.”
“Perhaps I shall stop in to see you tomorrow, Zacharias.” Zacharias did not
answer, so Klopotnik shrugged and walked off. Maybe he should have stopped in
today. “Old Zacharias,” he muttered. “What must he do with himself? ... yes,
tomorrow I will stop in and see how he’s doing.”
Zacharias watched Klopotnik grow smaller as he walked to the corner. He enjoyed
sitting by the window with his manuscript during the day. The sounds of the
street made him feel as though he were part of the human race. Later, when
darkness closed in, he would reluctantly close the window and the creaks and
groans of the tired old tenement would begin; so would the disembodied voices of
the people who lived there years ago. Their joys and tragedies. It was as though
they rewound the tapes of their lives and played them back again.
Until then he had work to do. His book! Three years in the writing! Much too
long he thought. He was at a point where he argued with himself every time he
sat down to work. This was wrong - that was wrong. He refuted his own arguments
and doubted his interpretations. Just about every time he drew an inference and
tried to express it, he thought of a counter interpretation that made him sit
back and reconsider.
“It ain’t easy,” he would say to himself as he sat surrounded by his notes and
papers. “Who the hell do I think I am anyway ...!” He would grab a rolled up
newspaper and bring it down hard as he could on a roach walking across the
table. More than likely he would miss, but even if he was successful the roach
would skitter for cover behind his old L.C. Smith typewriter. There it would sit
and wonder what that clap of thunder was ... it seemed to come from that elderly
gentleman in the chair. It held no grudge against Professor Zacharias, thousands
of generations had taught the roach that these warm blooded giants thought they
held dominion over their kitchens and bath rooms, their water pipes and dripping
taps. It was the way things were.
The life sciences were never a strong point with Zacharias. His only love in
life was philosophy. He had a brother in Denver and a wife, from whom he was
separated, in New Rochelle. These two people and Mr. Klopotnik were the only
human beings he had spoken to in the last ten years.
But he spoke constantly with Spinoza and Schopenhauer. At the window overlooking
the street in the afternoons he had long discussions with Socrates and Sartre.
The rest of the world bored him, it consisted of living people - there were too
many of them for one thing, and to be perfectly frank, he couldn’t tell one from
another. Dead philosophers were the only people he talked to, violently
disagreed with and slavishly respected.
When night came, Zacharias wandered aimlessly through the empty tenements. He
was kept awake by the half heard voices of families who once lived there. He
carried a Coleman lamp with him to light his way; holding it aloft, it would
reveal the ancient scars on wallpaper - the ceiling leaks - the patched floors,
and the abandoned and broken pieces of furniture left behind. In broken English
and fluid Italian, the voices could be heard every night, and from the sound of
them there was disagreement, argument and tragedy; he often asked himself, “was
their ever happiness here? He never heard an expression of joy or gladness.
Shouldn’t there be some echo of joy, some sign that there had been a moment of
contentment in this house?”
There were things left behind. Old newspapers lining closet shelves - stains on
wallpaper where pictures had once hung - a sachet bag hanging in one of the
bathrooms - the stub of a ticket to the Eltinge Theater. Zacharias would stare
at these things and wonder how they fit in with the families who used to live
here. One of the newspapers, a tabloid, crisp and yellow still revealed a photo
of Amelia Earhart and Fred Noonan with the news of their disappearance in the
Pacific. Zacharias tried to remember when that was -- he couldn’t, but it was a
long time ago -- before the war he thought. The newspaper fell apart as he held
it gently in his hands. His nocturnal walks were like visiting the ruins of an
ancient civilization and trying to discover what life might have been like in a
city whose language and customs were unknown to him. Like Vesuvius or Macchu
He might have imagined it, but Zacharias thought the voices had grown louder now
that the tenements would soon be demolished. Maybe they were having one last
fling before they were silenced forever. For the past three nights it seemed all
300 families were talking at once, he couldn’t sleep; he was forced to walk the
empty rooms until daylight came. Aside from the rooms he occupied there was very
little difference between night and day in the tenement and the stale air was a
perfect sounding board for the voices of the past.
It was in the third floor kitchen of number 27 that Zacharias found what he
thought was the center. He thought of it as ‘the center’ - the focal point of
the sound and presence of the place. As he stood there holding his lamp high,
the voices could be heard clearly, but the people were only shadows in the
WOMAN: Speak to him. You’re his father, you have to speak to him.
MAN: I drive a cab! Eleven hours a day I drive. He’s never here when I get home.
How can I speak to him?
CHILD: When do we go to grandma’s? I like it there.
OLD MAN: Twelve years I been here now in this country, and when I dream I still
dream of the old country.
OLD WOMAN: You remember papa ... Walking into the wine cellar, the smell of the
sausiche, the salami, the cheeses and the proscuitto hanging from the ceiling?
Who were they? He couldn’t see them but their voices were clear and there was
life in them, there was no doubting the fact that these people once lived here.
He looked around the kitchen, it had probably been the home of a dozen families,
and now except for him and the roaches, it was abandoned. He was filled with a
sadness when he thought of this old tenement being demolished - what did
Klopotnik say -- two months maybe more. Yes maybe less too. Who can say?
What could he do to stop it?
Would Klopotnik do such a thing if he knew of the voices? Maybe not... he was a
good Polish Catholic, he carried rosary beads in his vest pocket and crossed
himself while he stood waiting for the light to change on Amsterdam Avenue.
Maybe there was still a chance to save the old place - maybe it could be
converted into something else without destroying it.
Zacharias didn’t have long to wait. Klopotnik had planned to stop in the next
day, and about four in the afternoon he stood outside and shouted up into the
open fifth floor window.
“You up in there, Zacharias?
Zacharias, sleepy eyed, came to the window and looked down. “Klopotnik! Good to
see you. We should talk.”
“Come down and open the cellar door my friend. I would like a word with you,
“Tell you what, Klopotnik. Go up to the deli on the corner and get me a sandwich
and a beer. I have yet to eat today. I’ll be waiting at the cellar door.”
“You have a preference, Zacharias?”
“What kind of sandwich? What kind of beer?”
Zacharias waved his hand. “Anything will do. When you’re hungry anything will
do.” Klopotnik turned and walked quickly to the Belmont Deli and Zacharias
lighted his lantern and started on the slow descent to the basement of 29 West
He stood there shifting his weight from foot to foot, wondering how to tell Mr.
Klopotnik about the voices and how to convince him to abandon the idea of the
Exeter town house. Then there was a knock on the door.
“Klopotnik out here. Are you there Zacharias?”
Zacharias opened the door and Klopotnik handed him his bag of lunch as he
stepped inside. If he were to stand erect Zacharias would have been a head
taller than Klopotnik, but from years of writing and the study of philosophy,
his posture had deteriorated and the two men were almost identical in height.
“This is your lunch, Zacharias. My treat. Enjoy.” The two men slowly climbed the
stairs to Zacharias’ room Klopotnik a step or two behind. “I promised to see you
today, Zacharias. I worry about you sometimes. Your book is going well, no?”
“It’s like pulling teeth, Klopotnik. I doubt if I will ever finish.” He
hesitated a moment to catch his breath and turned to look at Klopotnik. “Do you
know Kierkegaard, Klopotnik?”
“Never heard of him.”
“He said, ‘If we choose faith we must suspend our reason in order to believe in
something higher than reason.’ I used to think that was bullshit. But now I’m
not so sure.”
“It is bullshit. I am the most reasonable man in the world ... and yet I would
not give up the church. The church and The Exeter House. Those are the only
important things in my life.”
Zacharias sat on the top step of the fifth floor landing and opened the paper
bag. “I have much to tell you, Klopotnik ... is this corned beef? I haven’t had
corned beef in years.”
“You mentioned voices,” Klopotnik said. “I want to ask you man to man; you are
not harboring squatters in here are you? We agreed man to man, remember?”
“Even squatters would not live here, Klopotnik.”
“They stick like glue once they’re inside, Zacharias. The police would do
nothing to evict them, they would rather have them in here than out on the
street. You understand, don’t you, that when the plans are approved I want to
tear this place down ... one swing of the ball ... ba-da-bing as they used to
say up here in the Bronx.”
“There is something else.”
“Like what, Zacharias ... don’t scare me?”
“There are people here ... “
“Ha! I thought so! You’re trying to pull something, Zacharias.”
Zacharias took the last bite of his sandwich and the finished off the beer. He
put the empty can and the sandwich wrapper back in the bag and threw it over the
banister. A second later they heard it hit the first floor landing. Then he
stood up. “Come,” he said “There are more things, Horatio, than are dreamed of
in your philosophy.’ Hamlet said that, Klopotnik. He had a head on him, that
Zacharias picked up his lantern and started down the stairs again.
“Where are we going?” Klopotnik asked.
“To number twenty seven next door. The third floor, that’s where they are.”
“Who’s there?” Klopotnik asked nervously. “I thought you said no one is here.”
“The voices are there. You will hear them for yourself . You might even
recognize some of them.”
The voices began as they passed through the basement door to number 27. “I hear
someone,” Klopotnik said worriedly. “Come clean, Zacharias. Are you hiding
squatters in here?”
“You’re obsessed, Klopotnik. The past is in here -- nothing more.” They reached
the stairwell of number 27 and Zacharias paused. “The third floor, especially in
the kitchen, Klopotnik; that’s where the big decisions were made, that’s where
the families sat around the table to confess and collect the money to pay the
landlord ... is that where they paid you, Klopotnik?”
The voices grew louder as the climbed to the third floor. They were clearly
understandable now as the two men stood at the door. “There are people in there,
Zacharias. What are you trying to pull?”
“They’re in there all right,” Zacharias said. He opened the door to the
apartment on the third floor and the voices tumbled over each other. In English
and Italian, frightened and angry, young and old, all fighting to be heard. The
figures were still vague - they appeared and faded again passing through each
other like puffs of smoke or fog, each of them for a moment assuming prominence
and then disappearing.
“I know these people, Zacharias. They’ve all moved away! Why are they here? Why
did they come back!?”
You might say there was a good deal of confusion. Klopotnik held his rosary
beads high and groped in his side pocket for his crucifix. Zacharias had only
his Coleman lamp for protection; his philosopher heroes were on the fifth floor
of number 29 next door. They would not have been much help in this unusual
The spirits of the tenants had a lot to say. Most of their wrath was directed at
Mr. Klopotnik and the conditions under which they were forced to live, combined
with his indifference to the supply of heat and hot water and his merciless
insistence on being paid in full on the first day of every month.
Zacharias did not escape their anger either. Kierkegaard indeed! What good was
Kierkegaard? He couldn’t put food on the table! Socrates couldn’t pay the rent -
and Spinoza couldn’t find a wealthy suitor for the oldest daughter either. They
told Zacharias to stop sneaking around at night. “Go back and play with your
philosophers,” they told him.
In great disarray, Klopotnik and Zacharias hurried down the three flights of
stairs then crossed into the friendly confines of number 29. Zacharias unlocked
the cellar door and the two men burst through into the street. They stood there
looking up at the seedy edifice of the old tenement in fear and wonder.
“What do you think now, Klopotnik?”
“I think I shall go home and have a sit down with my wife. Perhaps it is time to
re-think. Perhaps, even it’s time to look for a buyer.” He turned to Zacharias.
“And you, my friend ... what will you do?”
“They were right about Kierkegaard and the rest of them you know. Life goes on
without philosophy, Klopotnik. I think maybe I’ll go down to Grand Central
Terminal and get a train to New Rochelle.”
“Yes - if she’ll have me.”
©Harry Buschman 2006
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