For displaced, misplaced, and nostalgic ex-Bronxites

The Five-Story Walk-Up: Windows on the World

by Thomas Williams


hen I was going to college in the Midwest in the early 60s, everyone, including the professors, had opinions about New York City, mostly about how bad it was. One idea that drove them was how nobody cared in New York. "You see a body on the sidewalk, you walk around it," was their usual comment. And they believed it. Now the students I could understand. Many of them were from places like Bent Stick, Oklahoma, or Rabbit Tracks, Missouri. What did they know? All they wanted to talk about were the glories of small town living and their high school basketball team. But the professors, who were supposed to be researchers and should have known better, really bothered me. Their sole experience with New York was a trip in to the city to see a show or to go to Macy's or Bloomingdale's. They didn't even know where the Bronx was, much less know about what it was like to grow up in a Bronx neighborhood. I 'd always be waiting for those guys when they came back from their big trip. I'd ask them if they had seen any bodies on the sidewalks. I stopped doing that when it started taking a toll on my grade point average.

What these Midwesterners didn't know about New York could have filled volumes, especially the teachers. What they especially didn't know was how neighborhoods worked. They knew nothing of Bronx neighborhoods with all their four and five-story walk-ups. And they knew nothing about the most important and influential people in those neighborhoods, the Window Watchers.

"Ritchie! Ritchie! Ritcheee!"

"Hey, Ritchie. Your mom. You gotta go in."

And we were glad his mom was out the third floor window calling. Well, it was more a mix of a call and a yell. He was a good hitter in stickball, and on the other side, and we were losing.

"Hey, Ritchie, have a good supper. See ya."

It was mostly moms who called you in from the window. The window was usually opened wide, as far up as it would go. Mom was standing on the floor of her apartment, bent over slightly so she could get her head and shoulders all the way out the window. She braced herself by her two arms spread across the length of the sill while calling us by our first name at a volume that could be heard for at least a block. She looked like a runner set up in the starting blocks, and she almost always wore an apron over her dress. If not an apron, then a sweater, until August. That's when they went Bronx beach casual with an assortment of modest but cool tops. Fathers rarely called you in from the window. In fact, they rarely used the window. They came out in the street, right down the steps of the stoop, and when they did it was usually bad news. If they still had their slippers on it was worse than bad news. You were in serious trouble.

In the Bronx the window was usually the domain of women, especially mothers, always called "Mom or Ma," as in "OK, Mom. or I'm coming, Ma." The Window Watchers and the Window Callers formed a real social network that worked. This is what those sociologists and psychologists missed completely in their discussions about the dangers of living in New York City. But how would they know? They never came to the Bronx, and they weren't from the Bronx. Who ever heard of somebody from the Bronx teaching sociology? Sociology was what you learned on the streets, not in the classroom. Whoever heard of Bronx kids studying sociology in college? Waste of time. The only time Bronx guys ever studied sociology in a classroom was in the 70s, and then it was mostly cops getting ready to take the sergeant's exam or the lieutenant's exam. And rhat was when the NYPD was going through all kinds of changes in training.

Anyhow, it's important to understand the difference between Window Callers and Window Watchers. Most Moms were window callers and usually good. They could spot their kid blocks away while propped in the standing position and leaning outside their window . These gentle ladies could then pierce all the ambient city noise around them in usually only three or four calls. That's all it took. They would then stay in that position until Ritchie, Joey or Tommy started heading home, running at a moderate pace. But in that short time they remembered all that they saw and you could be sure that they would question Ritchie, Joey or Tommy as soon as he stepped in the door if they saw anything unusual. The Window Callers often shared their information with other Window Callers and the Window Watchers.

Now, the Window Watchers usually had a stool or high chair immediately behind them in their apartments so they could take a break and sit. They almost always had a pillow on the window sill to lean on. In short, they were in it for the long haul. Hours at a time if the weather was nice, and they missed very little that went on in the neighborhood. They were willing to share it, too, with other Window Watchers when they'd gather in their camp chairs on hot summer nights near a first floor apartment window in the neighborhood that often served as a home base. They often sat, talked quietly and sipped ice tea, or a cold Ballantine, 'till almost midnight in the heat of those summer nights.

One thing about the walk-ups, they offered the best lookout spots. From the first to the fourth floor was best. The second and third floors were the ultimate. Calling from the fifth floor was only for that rare Mom who could make the hair stand up on the neck of a second base umpire in the Stadium with a yell from the center field bleachers on the rare occasion when she got to go to a game. And I mean dead center. That was beyond the monuments. When I was growing up, there were a few Moms who could make some of those southern hog callers sound like monks who took a vow of silence.

Window Watchers called only when necessary; they mostly watched. Our neighborhood in the north Bronx was also dotted with private homes, all two stories. Those second floor windows worked well, too. When I was a kid I dated a very nice girl whose mother was often at her second floor watching post when we came home at night from a date. We'd sit on the porch with the roof to hide us while we got romantic. Usually, though, after ten minutes there was a splash of water in the front yard thrown from the second floor window that would interrupt our interlude. She'd get up for a quick kiss, then say, "Time to go in," and that was that.

The best of the best among the window watchers in my neighborhood, the last stop for the 'D' Train at 205th, was Mrs. D. She had 209th Street and parts of Decatur Avenue under complete control. She was at her post on 209th for years with her pillow on the sill of a second floor window in her apartment. It was only when she became ill that we didn't see her out there...and she was missed. I remember coming home from college for vacation and she'd always be at her post when I tried to sneak back into the neighborhood. "Hello, dear," she'd call down. I'd look up and she'd tell me I looked all grown up. She'd then tell me about her son (who was my best friend) where he was, when he'd be home and what he would be doing that night, all by way of invitation. She used to catch guys coming home on first leave after finishing basic training, trying to sneak into the neighborhood in uniform. "Hello dear..." She knew everyone. She was so good that when we were kids the other mothers would shout from their apartment windows across the street asking her if she had seen their kids. She took shopping orders, made shopping orders, and kept an eye on all of us while relaying messages all from her second-story vantage point. I remember years later at her funeral and many of the neighborhood guys lined up by her coffin at the cemetery to say goodbye.

Well, times change and things change. First, there was the coming of home window air-conditioning units. You didn't want to be opening windows in the summer and letting the cool air out. Mrs. D had her own way of dealing with that. She moved her post to her bathroom window. No air conditioning there. Talk about improvising; she was great. But then age started to catch up with the Window Callers and Window Watchers, my Mom included. I remember coming home when my parents were in their mid-sixties and they had moved a few blocks from 209th to a new apartment on Perry Avenue. This was an adjustment for my mother because it was an eight-story apartment building with a couple of elevators. My dad went for the top floor. My mother, even in her window-calling prime, could not have yelled from the eighth floor and been heard. She did once and I had to go back up stairs to get the message. So she was mostly content to stand in the living room window waiting when I was due to visit so she could see me coming and wave. However, I did see a chair right by that window in the living room when I visited. She was still watching with the windows closed, even on a new block, even though her kids were grown and gone. She watched right up until the day she died in that eighth floor apartment. So did Mrs. D., until disease took her from her post and death ended her watch. These were great ladies, all the Moms who were Window Watchers and Window Callers, because they cared about their neighborhood. We could not get away with much in our neighborhoods and didn't try. We couldn't hide many things either. When they heard the bans of marriage announced at Mass on Sunday, they'd just smile. They already knew.

You can't put all that in a text book, you have to have lived it; you have to have known those ladies to understand how a neighborhood worked. Nobody cares in New York? Give me a break. Those guys never knew Mrs. D.

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