For displaced, misplaced, and nostalgic ex-Bronxites

Mr. and Mrs. Shorty


by Elima Hall

I

think the Shortys were Irish. I don’t think we kids thought of them as white because they wereSupers. Teachers were white. We never went far from Kelly Street. If we went to visit Aunt Consie, that was Harlem. Tia lived right up Longwood Avenue at Hewitt Place. There were old Jewish women on the block, but no other white people. White people hadn’t come into my world yet, except for the teachers at P.S. 39.

Mr. Shorty resembled Andy Capp, and Mrs. Shorty reminded me of Olive Oil. His cap was always a little off-center, not sideways like the kids wear them today, just off-center. It was a large woolen, gray, working-man’s cap with a huge peak, worn as men wore hats in those days to show status, not style. I never saw him without it, winter or summer. His mouth seemed to be twisted to one side. He walked with a limp - a sort of up and down bobbing movement - as though one leg was shorter than the other. He moved fast and purposefully up the block, with both arms crooked and swinging from side to side.

Mrs. Shorty is dimmer in my memory. I see her from a distance and above, perhaps from my window, early dark mornings, moving the large empty garbage pans and sweeping the alley way. Or perhaps it was looking through the banister from my third floor landing, watching her quietly mop the vestibule with the biggest mop you can ever imagine, and the pungent smell of CN burning my nostrils. She wore long old fashioned skirts and a dirty white apron under her coat.

Mothers and fathers looked a certain way, Supers were different; they looked like Supers and they did not have children. I see her grabbing her coat to keep it closed; it was missing buttons. Her head is bowed against the wind, she is rolling the big garbage pans and a cigarette is sticking out of her mouth. I can’t remember the sound of their voices but I know they spoke “funny”. That’s what we kids said; “Mister and Missus Shorty talk funny.”

Everyone called them Mr. and Mrs. Shorty. I don’t know now if it was because they were white or because he held such power over our heads: heat in the winter, access to the owners of the building in case of a falling ceiling, a blown fuse, gas leak, or plumbing problems. My parents always called for Mr. Shorty whenever anything like that was happening

They were the Supers of our apartment building at 867 Kelly Street in the Bronx, leftover human relics from the days not too many years before, when Jewish families lived on these streets of the south Bronx. I am sure he was “Shorty” then, and his wife was “Dearie,” or whatever term of endearment the Jews used for Supers in those days.

Mr. Shorty was a good Super. I heard that said by grown-ups, He always obliged by turning up the heat if enough tenants banged on the radiator on a particularly cold night. He operated the dumbwaiter for lowering the garbage from each apartment into the basement. This exercise happened on certain nights at a certain time. If the time came and he didn’t call “garbage,” my father would open the dumbwaiter door and yell down “Mr. Shorty, garbage!” There was a loud buzzer that stopped working at sometime and was never repaired, so you just yelled! We kids were never allowed to open the dumbwaiter door, but I did. I did it all the time. I loved the cool damp smell of earth that wafted up to my third floor apartment. I climbed on a kitchen chair and unlatched the dumbwaiter door and stared down into the darkness. When it wasn’t hauling garbage it seemed amazingly clean, I could hear Mr. Shorty clanging things in the basement.

My greatest memory of Mr. Shorty was in the early fall when the coal truck came to our building. He would be in the basement with a huge shovel directing the flow of the fast moving shinny black coal. The truck men with loud booming voices were shouting to him and each other above the din of the truck unloading and putting into place the long metal chute that carried the coal from the truck into a small opening at the basement level of the building down into the basement at Mr. Shorty's feet, where it eventually made a huge mountain of coal near the furnace. This excitement, the soft crashing sound the coal made, is clear in my memory. It only happened once or maybe twice during the winter if it was a really cold winter, and the tenants appealed to Mr. Shorty to let the owner know we needed more coal. He couldn’t keep “pinching” the load; we needed more heat! He did, and the coal truck came twice that year. If we kids were lucky we might get a piece of coal that was left on the sidewalk. Mr. Shorty did a good job of sweeping it all down the chute. We waited on the stoop for a piece of coal. It felt nice in your hand and you could write on the sidewalk with it or in the hallways if Mrs. Shorty wasn’t around. Just touching it got your hands and clothing all black.

Mrs. Shorty died. It was during the summer that this news was going around the block among us kids. I heard my parents say it too. I don’t think I really knew what “died” involved. I was five years old, but we never saw Mrs. Shorty again. We still saw and called to Mr. Shorty, “hello Mr. Shorty.

At another building down the block toward Intervale Avenue, the Super there was a tall man whose name I didn’t know. He had one normal eye but the other was closed and leaked a white substance. I never liked to look at his face. His wife was an obese woman. I never saw her do anything other than sit on the steps, sidewalk level to her basement apartment and spit snuff into the street. Winter or summer, she would be there in a coat or a sundress.

The Supers all had basement apartments in the buildings that they took care of. They had “free apartments,” I heard adults saying, almost in awe "Supers get free apartments.” I don’t think anyone wanted to be a Super but a free apartment was something!

The Super with the bad eye went away. I think he went to jail. I remember the police coming onto our block one night in speeding cars with bright, circling, white lights parking catty-corner and on the sidewalk, using a megaphone, calling out and running down into the basement where the fat lady and the runny-eye Super lived. We watched from the window, behind the curtains, as they took someone away from that basement. We never saw the tall super with the bad eye again.

It seems that not long after that, Mr. Shorty moved from our basement into the basement apartment of the fat lady down the block. We got a new Super; I don’t remember his face. I do remember him hauling garbage. He would haul a very large bag from upstairs down, pounding on each apartment door as he made his way downstairs, shouting “garbage!” I see the back of him with the bag over his shoulder as if he and the garbage were one. They had sealed off the dumbwaiter after Mr. Shorty left. It was nailed shut. Some nights the new super didn’t come to collect the garbage. You had to carry your garbage down into the basement, or put it on the sidewalk. If it was a bad night or daddy was late, or my mother was sick, we kids would throw it out the kitchen window into the back alleyway. We couldn’t keep it in the apartment; rats would come. It’s a good thing Mrs. Shorty wasn’t around to see that!

All the kids said Mr. Shorty got married to the big fat lady. It was hard to believe because the real Mrs. Shorty was so skinny, like Olive Oil. I didn’t know if I was supposed to call the big fat lady Mrs. Shorty. Nobody ever did.

One day we lay on our stomachs and looked into the basement window of Mr. Shorty’s new building, hoping to see him shovelling coal into the furnace. It had just turned dark that winter evening. Near the furnace we saw Mr. Shorty bathing the big fat lady! He seemed to glow in the dark and she blended with the shadows. She was naked, and standing in a large wash pan. He had his cap on and circled her and scrubbed her with a brush, up and down as he bobbed. We screamed and ran before he could reach outside. Our mothers bathed us in the sink in the kitchen near the oven during the winter but we were kids and they were Supers! We didn’t know what to make of what we saw. I’d never seen a naked person. I was scared. I never wanted to see Mr. Shorty or the fat lady again. After that, I crossed the street whenever I passed their stoop.




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