$3 Pastrami on Rye
Miss Ree-Ree ran 351 Howard Avenue, which was the kind of building that needed a good power washing a decade ago and just never got it. And I’m talking about the inside. Germaphobes never made it past the front door. The glass didn’t need to be clean for you to see how filthy the lobby was. The grout between the floor tiles was supposed to be white. The walls weren’t supposed to be coal black in spots, either. Miss Ree-Ree didn’t care. This was her spot. Even a shitty kingdom is still a kingdom. She knew who was coming and going at all times. She knew if the mail carrier was early or late. She knew when white trust fund kids were rolling up to buy their drug of choice. She knew if a party or a fight was about to go down. Miss Ree-Ree saw all—but don’t go thinking she was a snitch. Miss Ree-Ree had her own vices and didn’t need anyone calling 311. What, and spoil all the fun?
When you don’t have a job, everyday is Saturday. You wake up when you want. You go to sleep when you want. If you want to sleep all day, that’s your business. In fact, it’s your only business. You’re not clocking in or out anywhere. Miss Ree-Ree enjoyed this sole luxury of the unemployed. She hadn’t been in the legal job market for 15 years. She’d put in her time at Family Dollar, McDonald’s, and Bam Bam’s Playhouse (a daycare, not a strip club) before she unceremoniously retired. She filed for disability and got it. Nobody threw a retirement bash for her. But Miss Ree-Ree wasn’t going to live off of disability alone, not in Brooklyn. So she did what dozens on her block had done before: She pledged allegiance to Beef Patty.
A beef patty is a Jamaican pastry. It’s spicy, or at least savory, and greasy and good. (If you’ve never had one, go ahead and try one. This is less of a recommendation and more of a mandate.) Obviously, Miss Ree-Ree didn’t work for a pastry; she worked for Beef Patty, who was human, if only barely. He was greasy, but he was not good. A kingpin in East and Central Brooklyn, Beef Patty dealt heroin. Of course, he didn’t deal directly. His minions did all the dirty work. You’d never find smack at his crib. He knew better than that. How else did he get to be a 53-year-old black man in East New York without even a whiff of a prison sentence? No, Beef Patty saw to it that he’d never catch a record. He made all his business decisions from afar. Holed up in the only million-dollar penthouse in East New York, just a block off from Pennsylvania Avenue, Beef Patty watched old Hollywood movies and curated a fine Harlem Renaissance collection. Rumor had it he owned a first edition James Baldwin—signed—and an original Romare Bearden. Motherfucker.
Miss Ree-Ree never met Beef Patty. She didn’t expect to meet him, either. She just expected to stay in her Section 8 apartment until she died. That was good enough for her. She was tired of moving from spot to spot because she couldn’t make rent. And on top of it, she came home smelling like McDoubles? No, thank you. Miss Ree-Ree had her man of the week push her down the stairs after her last-ever McD’s shift. She downed plenty of José Cuervo as a preventative measure, but it still hurt like hell. Then she had a sweet librarian help her with the disability paperwork. She hadn’t been to the library in years, not even to set up an email address to check on a public computer every once in a while. Yet her interest was piqued when she heard librarians now did more than shush you or hold storytime for toddlers.
“I hauled ass,” she told anyone who asked for pointers. “Maybe the librarian judged me, I dunno. I don’t care. I got on disability, whether that bitch liked it or not.”
Miss Ree-Ree stayed on at Bam Bam’s Playhouse during the 90-day approval process. She parked herself in a rocking chair like the old lady she convinced herself she was. She mostly stayed quiet, except to yell at kids about throwing blocks at each other. She got up to feed the children with the rest of the day care workers. She waited at the door at the end of the day as parents came to pick up their little ones. And then the minute the government approved her disability request, she bounced. She just didn’t show up to Bam Bam’s the next day. Her supervisor, Mrs. K., a Russian crone, called her two hours into her shift.
“I ain’t never coming back,” cackled Miss Ree-Ree.
“You’re a stereotype,” scoffed Mrs. K., before hanging up the phone.
“And you don’t know nothing about my life,” said Miss Ree-Ree to nobody but herself.
Miss Ree-Ree knew disability wasn’t going to give her what she needed for playtime and emergencies. She’d spent more than 40 years counting change and scraping by. From the time she was a bitty girl, she picking up pennies from the sidewalk to put in her mama’s coin jar. It’s not like her estranged husband—the man-ho who ran off with a Dollar Tree ho—ever attempted to ease her financial suffering. He put in about ten hours a week at Dollar Tree and spent the rest of his waking hours boozing and kvetching. Miss Ree-Ree was the working fool, the worrying fool, the bitter, bitter fool. And yet it was still never enough. The bills always piled up like mice behind a radiator. Miss Ree-Ree knew that doing a few odd jobs a month for Beef Patty could put all that behind her.
Nobody knew Beef Patty’s real name, not even his wife or mistress, but anyone who lived east of Utica Avenue long enough knew who Beef Patty was. Children learned by middle school. Gentrifiers who committed to “roughing it” for more than three years learned too, at least if they paid attention to something other than new neighborhood coffee shops and yoga studios. Miss Ree-Ree didn’t have to beg. Beef Patty was always hiring.
She asked a little boss, as you do. The little boss asked a bigger boss. The bigger boss asked an even bigger boss. That boss gave the okay and informed Beef Patty of the “new hire” at their next meeting. Miss Ree-Ree was just another number. She was too small a fish to concern Beef Patty. As long as she did what she was supposed to do and didn’t go opening her big mouth, she could earn her extra cash and stay at 351 Howard Avenue.
Miss Ree-Ree watched. She told the little boss what he needed to know so he could tell the bigger boss, so he could tell the even bigger boss, so he could tell Beef Patty—if it concerned him. Enforcing strict protocol for the chain of command meant Beef Patty could sit back, listen to his Duke Ellington records, and rack in the millions without sweating too often. He was a visionary, a man of big ideas and overall strategy, not messy, boring details. When you’re the Big Boss, you don’t fret over the mundane. You watch Bogart films until somebody important gets shot and the cops notice. Then you put on your thinking cap and come up with orders for all the little bosses to put into action.
Miss Ree-Ree didn’t know who Humphrey Bogart was and probably wouldn’t have given a rat’s ass if Beef Patty himself hadn’t told her. She liked music: Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston, Seal, Earth, Wind & Fire. Those were some of her favorite artists, but really it was just music in general. Movies took too long to get through. And she had her own problems. She didn’t need to get caught up in a fictional character’s problems, too. Now that she was done with McD’s and Bam Bam’s, she could do whatever she wanted, so long as it was cheap or someone else was paying. Listening to music and drinking and laughing with folks in her busted lobby sounded just fine to her. She didn’t even care what they talked about, as long as there was plenty of laughter. She got a man again, one who used a cane like her, and she had him move in once she felt sure he would stay. “351 Howard Avenue could use another rascal, Stanley” was how she ended that conversation. Stanley agreed. He liked to laugh, too.
Miss Ree-Ree might’ve had another 10 or 20 years at 351 Howard Avenue if it hadn’t been for the kindness of the Central Brooklyn Tenants’ Coalition. It all started with a summer evening, right around dinnertime. Some punk on the third floor stabbed his uncle in the hand for reminding him of a debt he owed: $3 for the pastrami on rye he’d ordered from the bodega a week before. The kid, a jobless 19-year-old high school dropout, was drunk and mad. He didn’t have $3 and couldn’t his uncle let this go? The kid saw his uncle in the stairwell an hour after the first reminder and the kid stabbed him in the hand. Anyone who was conscious in the building at the time heard the uncle’s cry of “You stabbed me for $3?” ring through the halls. More than one neighbor crept up to their door, but nobody dared open up. Except for Miss Ree-Ree. She had one duty at 351 Howard Avenue and that was to know who was coming and going and bringing trouble.
“What the hell’s going on here?” Miss Ree-Ree shouted as soon as she could throw on a T-shirt and put out the blunt she was smoking. She didn’t even shut her apartment door. She looked from the terrified kid to wailing uncle. Blood spurted from the uncle’s hand all over the floor.
“This little shit stabbed me!” the uncle shrieked and pointed at his nephew with his good hand.
“Well, it smells like a butcher shop in here, so we better get you patched up, Leroy,” Miss Ree-Ree said. “Stanley, bring me a towel!”
Leroy cried, “I’m gonna need stitches, girl!”
“Who’s gonna pay for that?”
“I don’t care! I’m not losing my hand! I work!”
“We all work, son, just some of us aren’t dumb enough to pay taxes.”
“Please don’t call the cops, Miss Ree-Ree!” the boy said when he was finally able to form the words.
“That’s exactly what we’re trying to avoid.”
Stanley came out with the towel and a bottle of whiskey.
“I need to go to the hospital,” Leroy hissed when Stanley poured the whiskey on his hand.
“You go to the hospital and the cops get involved,” said Miss Ree-Ree.
“So what? He stabbed me. I saw him. He’s not innocent.”
“Yeah, then they come sniffing around here and what else they gonna find?”
“I don’t gotta worry about that.”
“Oh, like you so squeaky clean.”
“Compared to the competition.”
Miss Ree-Ree narrowed her eyes and then fixed on re-tying the towel around Leroy’s hand.
“It’s not tight enough. I need a doctor.”
“You go to the hospital and you ain’t never coming back here.”
“I don’t even live here! I was just visiting my sister and this idiot!”
With that, the kid tossed his bloody knife on the floor and flew down the stairs.
“What took so long, boy?” Leroy snarled, but the kid was already nearly out of the building.
Leroy’s sister, Marla, shyly emerged from her apartment. She had on fuzzy leopard print slippers and smelled like Lysol. Her cell phone was pressed to her ear.
“What took you so long?” Leroy asked. “I shoulda known you was home.”
Marla put her hand on his shoulder and started speaking to the operator. “Yes, hello? There’s been a stabbing at 351 Howard Avenue, 3rd floor.”
“Well, now it’s too late.” Miss Ree-Ree threw down the bottle of whiskey and grabbed Stanley by the arm to scuttle back to their unit. “I better never see you here again, Leroy. And Marla, I know you heard me.”
The crime went on the police blotter, which watchdog organizations like the Central Brooklyn Tenants’ Coalition monitored when they had enough grant money to put someone on it. An admin noticed that nobody from the coalition had visited the building in years and that the landlord had dozens of outstanding violations. It was time for someone with a lot of education and privilege to assist residents of 351 Howard Avenue with making it a less miserable place.
Swetha was a dewy-eyed recent NYU grad and the daughter of a surgeon (father, alma mater: Columbia) and a college professor (mother, alma mater: Yale.) She showed up to 351 Howard Avenue, eyed the lobby, and felt squeamish before she even stepped inside. Armed with a clipboard, she noted violations not logged by 311 complaints. There were exposed wires, mailboxes with doors that didn’t shut all the way, and rat droppings by a side door that led to a narrow alley. That’s not to mention the stench of dry vomit and old alcohol that hit you as soon as you entered the building.
“When was the last time anyone mopped this floor?” Swetha asked. She made the mistake of doing so out loud.
“Can I help you?” It was Miss Ree-Ree, hobbling down the stairs that led to the lobby.
“Hi, my name is Swetha and I’m here from the Central Brooklyn Tenants’ Coalition.”
“The what now?”
“We’re a non-profit advocacy organization. We help tenants know their rights and seek legal action against their landlords if necessary.”
“I got you. Did the police send you?”
“No, not at all. My supervisor noticed nobody from our organization had been here in a long time, so it’s possible residents need help addressing issues with their landlord and don’t know what to do.”
“Everything here is fine.” Miss Ree-Ree gestured around the lobby without a hint of sarcasm.
“I do see a few—”
“None of it’s a big deal, darling. We’re not fancy folks.”
Swetha nodded. “It’s not about being fancy. Some of these conditions simply aren’t safe.”
“Still safe enough for me to live. I ain’t dead yet.”
“We can call a building meeting. All the residents can meet here to discuss their thoughts and maybe we can draft a letter to the landlord.”
“He ain’t gonna read it.”
“We don’t know that. And we can at least try to—”
“Excuse me, where you from?”
Swetha cleared her throat. “New York.”
“Okay, but you’re Indian or something?”
“Indian-American. My parents are from India.”
“Thought so. Manhattan girl?”
“So how you coming here and talking like you know how things here work?” Miss Ree-Ree tapped her cane on the sidewalk each time she said “here.”
“I’ve worked with many buildings like yours and—”
“I don’t wanna hear it. Get out.”
“I’d like a chance to speak to some of your neighbors, if you don’t mind.”
“I do mind. How you gonna march in here and—”
“The front door was unlocked!”
Well, Swetha was persistent because it was her job to be. She pushed past Miss Ree-Ree and began knocking on doors. Miss Ree-Ree hobbled back to her apartment, sat down on the edge of her unmade bed, and texted the little boss a single word: “rat.” The little boss didn’t respond until an hour later: “lol wut?” By that time, Swetha had already knocked on every single door. Only two residents answered and only one cared to listen to what she had to say. Miss Ree-Ree peered out her kitchen window and watched Swetha exit the building. Once she was halfway down the block, Miss Ree-Ree left her apartment to grab the piece of paper on her door. She had spied Swetha from her peephole and observe the earnest woman leave a paper at every unit. Miss Ree-Ree glanced down at the piece of paper, read the call for a meeting taking place in the building lobby the following week, and balled up the flyer. Then she tsked, flattened out the paper, took a photo of the flyer, and texted it to the little boss. This time the little boss got back to her right away: “oh hell no.”
“wut we gonna do?”
“u go to that meeting”
“call me after”
The meeting was set for 7 p.m. on a Tuesday. Miss Ree-Ree was the first to arrive and she was ten minutes late. She stared at Swetha, who tried to avoid eye contact for the next three minutes. Antonio, a Latin man in his 60s, wandered into the lobby with his toddler grandson.
“What’s going on?” he asked, eyeing the posters taped to the wall.
“We’re having a building meeting to discuss tenant rights and write a letter to your landlord,” said Swetha. “I’m from the Central Brooklyn Tenants’ Coalition.”
Antonio nodded and looked around. “The meeting’s now?”
“Yep, and all are welcome.” Swetha waved around her clipboard nervously.
“OK, let me hand this guy over to my daughter and I’ll be right now.”
Miss Ree-Ree turned to Antonio, cocked her head, and mocked Swetha’s wide smile. Antonio didn’t notice, but Swetha did.
When Antonio returned, he sat down on the lobby steps with Miss Ree-Ree and gave Swetha the floor. She explained what her organization did, outlined tenants’ rights in New York City, and listed her observations about 351 Howard Avenue. Then she asked Antonio and Miss Ree-Ree if they had complaints about the building.
Miss Ree-Ree pounced to answer first. “It’s fine by me. I got everything I need and people seem happy here.”
Antonio raised an eyebrow and said, “I’ve lived here 20 years and it’s always been a dump, but now it’s worse than ever.”
“I never took you for an uptight man, Antonio.”
“This isn’t about being uptight. This is about standing up for myself and my family so we can live someplace safe and clean, with dignity. My fridge has been broken for a month. One month in the summertime. If I could afford it, I’d replace it myself, but instead I have to wait for these bozos to do their job.”
Miss Ree-Ree pursed her lips. Just then, a black woman in her early 30s entered the building. She hadn’t lived in the building more than a year or so, but everyone knew of her. She turned heads with her blue-black complexion and bleach-blonde hair. Miss Ree-Ree could never remember her name and referred to her as Night when talking to Stanley or the little boss.
“Hi, what’s going on?” Night asked as she studied the small gathering and posters on display.
“We’re having a tenants’ rights meeting,” said Swetha. “I’m from an advocacy group here to help communicate with your landlord and possibly take legal action. Do you want to join us?”
“Sure. Our landlord is a joke. I hope he goes to jail.”
“I didn’t realize we had such uppity people in this building,” murmured Miss Ree-Ree.
Night, who had been in the process of sitting down on the staircase, froze and locked eyes with Miss Ree-Ree. “Uppity?” she said. “I’m uppity because I want consistent heat in the wintertime? Because I don’t want peeling paint in my kitchen?”
Miss Ree-Ree didn’t reply. In fact, she remained silent the rest of the meeting, even during the portion when the group drafted a letter to the landlord. Swetha promised to return the same time next week, with copies for everyone in the building. She said she would also go from unit to unit collecting signatures. “We need as many as possible, so please encourage everyone you know to sign it.”
Miss Ree-Ree called the little boss after the meeting as instructed. As always, she spoke tersely and in code. The little boss only said, “I’ll send a boy.” Then he hung up.
She knew to expect a boy, a literal boy, a child, at some time, but that was all she knew. Beef Patty had little bosses recruit children, usually boys about middle school age, to serve as messengers. They never delivered more than a couple of words at a time. Messages of that length allowed the children to communicate enough information of value to a higher-up, but not so much that they ever posed much of a threat if grilled by cops or competitors.
Miss Ree-Ree was listening to Bill Withers and stirring lemonade for vodka lemonade when a knock came at her door. She finished emptying out a Sweet’N Low packet and limped to the front hall. She peered through the peephole to find a boy, about 12 years old, standing at her door. She opened up and pointed her chin at him.
“Black Escalade, three.”
Miss Ree-Ree sucked her teeth and closed the door. She headed to her kitchen table and pulled a chair to the window. It was her job to confirm that a black Escalade pulled up to 351 Howard Avenue at three, whether a.m. or p.m., she did not know. It was even possible, though less likely, that three Escalades would roll up at an unspecified time, in which case it was her duty to notice exactly when. The vodka lemonades would have to wait until after that happened. She needed to remain alert. If she missed the Escalade, or Escalades plural, there would be trouble.
“Well, maybe one couldn’t hurt,” mumbled Miss Ree-Ree to herself. “Stanley! Could you fix me a vodka lemonade, baby? Lemonade’s already done. I gotta watch the window.”
“Sure, baby,” he called from the bed. He’d been in bed, staring at the flaking paint on the ceiling, wondering if it was full of lead, and listening to Bill Withers change to James Brown. He threw off the elephant print blanket he’d had since he was a baby, grabbed the cane leaning against the bed, and slowly made his way to the kitchen.
“What you lookin’ for, baby?”
“Black Escalade. Maybe one, maybe three. Don’t know yet. Beef Patty likes his mystery.”
“You don’t get to be a man like that by blabbing all over town,” said Stanley. Then he took a long sip from the glass of vodka lemonade he poured. “You know, I heard he got a photo of Louis Armstrong worth more than this building.”
“A lot of stuff worth more than this building, baby,” Miss Ree-Ree chuckled.
“Don’t tell that Indian girl that.”
“Her? She ain’t coming back. Too scared. Too uppity for a place like this.” Miss Ree-Ree took the glass Stanley handed to her and sipped. “Would you turn up the music?”
“Of course, baby.”
One Escalade pulled up at 3 a.m. and Miss Ree-Ree saw right away, even though she hadn’t taken so much as a nap all day or night. She saw a dark figure in the passenger seat look up at her window and she flicked the kitchen lights off and on a few times. She couldn’t make it down the steps fast, but she went as fast as she could. When she finally hobbled up to the SUV, she registered the driver and passenger were wearing masks.
“Smack,” said the passenger.
“Apartment two,” said Miss Ree-Ree.
“We’re clearing it out.”
“All of it?”
“Yeah, lobby clear?”
“I can’t check that fast. My hip. Can you wait?”
“No time. No parties going on?”
“No parties. It’s mouse-quiet now.”
“Should be fine. Walk me to #2?”
“Then you can go back to your place and watch the car from your window. Never know when you might need a witness.”
The passenger hopped out of the Escalade and took Miss Ree-Ree by the arm like she was his grandmother. They walked to #2. He knocked on the door, muttered “Archibald Motley,” and went inside when a man Miss Ree-Ree mostly pretended she didn’t know opened up. She stepped over a used condom and a brown bag wet with vomit on her way back to her apartment. She had already parked herself in the kitchen chair when she heard Stanley groggily call her name.
“Go back to sleep, baby.”
And he did without another word.
When Miss Ree-Ree caught sight of a herd of men carrying duffel bags to the Escalade, she realized Beef Patty’s wish was nearly fulfilled. The Escalade sped off and the moment it left the block, she texted the little boss “done.” His reply: “good. get some sleep.” So she joined Stanley in bed and closed her eyes.
A week later, the day Swetha was scheduled to return to 351 Howard Avenue, the little boss called Miss Ree-Ree and said, “Grab your essentials and clear out. The park across the street is not far enough away. Try Fulton.”
“How much time I got?”
Miss Ree-Ree told Stanley and they packed a backpack. Neither one knew what to say, but their eyes shared the same language. They knew this was the last time they’d ever stand in this apartment.
They headed to a park ten blocks away and sat on a bench until the little boss called and said, “Escalade, behind you.”
Miss Ree-Ree turned around and tapped on Stanley’s shoulder. They got into the SUV without a word.
“They burned down 351 Howard Avenue,” said the driver when he hit the first red light.
That was the beginning and the end of the conversation. Miss Ree-Ree didn’t ask who “they” was. All she knew was that she would’ve gotten blamed for it if she was found anywhere near there. Stanley squeezed her hand.
Half an hour later, they were in Canarsie, farther east into Brooklyn than Miss Ree-Ree had gone in years. The driver dropped off Miss Ree-Ree and Stanley at a tiny white clapboard house mostly hidden by trees. The little boss’s boss met them. Though unremarkable from the outside, the inside of the house was unlike anything either one had seen before. Shelves reached from floor to ceiling on every wall and altogether held thousands upon thousands of vinyl records. In the center of the living room stood a bright gold turntable on a polished granite table.
“Welcome to Beef Patty’s record collection,” announced the little boss’s boss. “You’re in charge of it now.”
“Me?” asked Miss Ree-Ree as she pointed at herself.
“No, both of you.”
Stanley shrugged and said, “That sounds great to me.”
“There are rules, of course,” said the little boss’s boss.
“Of course,” said Miss Ree-Ree.
“Are you ready for your instructions?”
The couple beamed and bobbed their heads ‘yes.’
“You’re going to grow old here, you know.”
“Oh, we already old, but I’m ready to grow very old here.”
“Good. You will. Beef Patty appreciates you.”
“And we appreciate Beef Patty,” said Stanley.
Miss Ree-Ree and Stanley could not go anywhere. All of their food and booze was delivered to them by a neighborhood boy. Every once in a while, they would request new toiletries, too, but they never wanted for anything else. They laughed and listened to a lot of Miles Davis. Occasionally, Miss Ree-Ree opened the windows for fresh air, sunshine, and the sound of seagulls. Mostly, they spent their days becoming soft shadows on off-white walls.
“Is this heaven or what, Princess Ree?” Stanley said one afternoon out of nowhere as he poured his partner some coconut water.
“No, baby, this is retirement,” said Miss Ree-Ree. “We’re pre-gaming for heaven.”
“Think we’ll get to meet Beef Patty before we go?”
“No, but we’ll meet him up there eventually.”
Miss Ree-Ree took a swig of coconut water and heard a seagull cry as it pumped its wings toward Jamaica Bay. She tried to suppress her envy for the seagull’s freedom. In another life, she spent 3o minutes walking one way to the McDonald’s by Nostrand just to save the subway fare. She made the 30-minute walk back home at the end of her shift, even on the days she got paid. She hated that walk, but now from the comfort of her musical Canarsie home, she wondered if it was because she passed every second angsting over the destination. On the days when the seagulls were extra quiet, she wondered when Swetha, or someone like her—idealistic, well-meaning, and cushioned by privilege—would come knocking on her door. She wondered if she would ever tire of coconut water.
Christine Sloan Stoddard is an author, artist, and filmmaker living in
Brooklyn. Her books include Heaven is a Photograph, Desert Fox by the
Sea, Naomi & The Reckoning, Belladonna Magic, and other titles. Her
work has appeared in The Huffington Post, Cosmopolitan, The Feminist
Wire, and beyond. She is the founder of Quail Bell Magazine, the
namesake publication of Quail Bell Press & Productions.