Tina and Rosie, the two fat ladies across the street, have disappeared. One day Tina was sitting on her front stoop, just as she did almost all year round except when it was below freezing, and Rosie was marching up and down like a rooster in a barnyard; the next thing I knew they were gone. They were the owners of side-by-side houses on Cleveland Avenue, two of the dwindling few buildings in the neighborhood that haven’t been taken apart and put together again with sharp new windows, skylights, Jacuzzis, and natural wood siding. These houses had siding all right, but it was the dingy lowbrow gray-green stuff that seems to characterize the buildings of the in-betweeners, those who came after the solid, respectable Germans and before the new-wave yuppies.
Now that I think back on it, it seems a wonder that Tina and Rosie held on so long, considering how they were looked down on by both the aging old guard and the snooty, well-groomed newcomers. Mostly people tried to keep out of their way. But that wasn’t easy; the stubborn ladies had ways of making their presence felt. You could feel Tina’s beady black eyes boring into your back as you walked along the street, and if you let your glance slide in her direction, she’d beckon from, her perch in front of the door, smiling invitingly with her toothless mouth.
“Come on over. Talk to me. I can’t walk much anymore.”
She talked of her latest operation, her bingo game, the person who picked her up and took her to the grocery store, her cooking. Tina was a great cook and was always threatening to feed you one of her heavy, bright-red lasagnas. If she managed to get you up into her apartment (the bottom floor was rented to a man she said was her son), she’d sit you down at her kitchen table and point out her two extra big ovens and a wall of cooking utensils.
“The old-fashioned kind. I don’t go for all these modern machines. I cook old style.”
The room smelled of garlic and tomatoes, the essential ingredients of Tina’s cooking. “If it hasn’t got garlic, it’s cake,” she’d say. You’d never get into her living room; it was stuck in the back somewhere, dark, flowery, and stuffy.
Rosie was called Mrs. Five-by-Five by some, Nosy Rosie by others. Like Tina, she bordered on obese, but where Tina’s flesh was soft and jellylike, Rosie’s was solid, impacted. With a fine sense of territory, she kept to her own side of the street, demonstrating her command by strutting the block from end to end. Her voice was enormous and boomed whenever her tenant was in the vicinity. That person was variously identified as her son, husband, and lover by the neighborhood gossips. Whoever he was, he and Rosie were like an active volcano, erupting once every 24 hours.
Rosie was bossy. If you didn’t want to be instructed on how to park your car, how to walk your dog, or how many lights you needed to leave on when you left your house, you quickly learned to steer clear of her.
Dog walking was Rosie’s specialty, and her way of winning acceptance from the newer residents. These fashionable people invariably acquired one or more pedigreed dogs as soon as they moved in, but being career professionals for the most part, they were never home. Rosie became the neighborhood’s official dog walker, receiving right of entry to otherwise well-protected dwellings. She paraded the thoroughbreds along the street or stood at the corner holding forth on canine habits to anyone who would listen, her bosom puffed out an extra inch, her voice echoing off the bricks of newly rehabbed buildings.
Tina and Rosie had a habit of throwing a block party every August. Tina did the catering and Rosie served as PR director, plastering the block’s tree trunks and stuffing its mailboxes with posters and fliers that were provided, according to neighborhood lore, by her tenant, who supposedly worked for the city.
The week prior to party night, Rosie would march up and down the block, nabbing residents as they walked by. “Hey,” she shouted, “you gonna come to the block party?”
“Sorry, we’re going to be out of town,” the person lied.
“When ya going?” Rosie challenged.
The neighbor, not remembering the exact date, took a guess and was trapped.
“That’s the day after the party!” Rosie thundered triumphantly. “You better be there. It’s gonna be good.”
Something in her tone made people think twice about avoiding the party.
For one party, a couple of summers ago, Rosie promised music by a couple of famous jazz musicians. “I’m gonna sing myself,” she added. “I used to sing the clubs in New York before I retired. I’m pretty good. There’ll be dancing in the street and terrific food. You’ll love it.”
The day arrived and a group of men–I think they were policemen, but I don’t really remember–set up yellow wooden horses while Rosie waved her arms and shouted orders. Later they brought a huge tank of beer and big plastic cups. Tina’s and Rosie’s basement tenants, both heavy and bald, carted picnic tables down the street, sweating and arguing. They sat mopping their brows on Tina’s steps and, as evening approached, they lumbered up the stairs and returned loaded down with weighty platters of lasagna, spaghetti and meatballs, and rich gooey chocolate cakes.
At nightfall people began to filter through the parked cars. A few straggled from around the corner, where wobbly cottages had not yet attracted the attention of rehabbers. These pasty-faced, tobacco-stained men and women had about them an aura of airless rooms, musty basements. One man with plastered-down hair and a handlebar mustache was reputed to be the cast-off husband of a woman who owned several buildings she was in the process of selling. The liberation she felt from her newfound wealth, so the gossip went, had led her to get rid of the husband along with the houses. Shifty-eyed and dazed, he was followed by a thin woman with skinny legs and socks that dragged down over her shoes.
From across the street came the neighborhood Republican (and proud of it!). He was a lover of motorcycles and other vehicles, which he lined up in the alley beside his house and washed every Saturday. On this occasion he coaxed his wife out to join the party; she was almost never seen in the neighborhood. Their house was neat and clean with a white cat posed in the window. They painted every spring–red for the bricks, white for the wood.
Marge came from the pub in the next block. Of the drinking establishments in the area, hers was one of the few still operating; pubs were proving to make excellent high-priced housing (as were grocery stores, pharmacies, and high schools). Marge, a friend of Tina’s, had kept up with the times, dressed well, and catered to the new breed of pub crawlers. Her place was packed with rowdy men and women most nights of the week.
Old Joe, the ex-grocer, stood with his wife on the edge of the group, disapproving. “There was a time when we had good people living here. Respectable families. They ordered their groceries every Friday and we delivered. Now they want that cheap stuff from supermarkets. Everything mass produced–no personal attention.”
Joe and his wife had been reduced to running a small operation on the ground floor of their house, where they sold candies to children and made deli sandwiches for the workers who rehabbed the buildings nearby. Their shop, smelling of stale food and unwashed linoleum, failed to attract even former customers. “We can’t keep it up much longer. He’s sick and so am I,” said Mrs. Joe.
Tina surveyed the sparse group from her lawn chair on the sidewalk. “It was always a big affair that everyone looked forward to,” she complained. “They all died. These young ones don’t have no community spirit. The only time you see them is walking their fancy dogs or running in those skimpy clothes of theirs with earplugs on their heads so they don’t notice no one.”
Rosie policed the group making sure everyone ate and drank. “Here, take a plate,” she bellowed at a squeamish man who professed not to be hungry. “You gotta eat. Tina’s the best cook in the city.” He waved his hand, refusing the food. Rosie grabbed a handful of lasagna and stuffed it in his mouth.
If Rosie’s musician friends were truly famous, it was impossible to tell from their appearance. Except for the sax and trumpet they carried, they were indistinguishable from the down-and-outers. But when they began to play, joined by a younger man, a percussionist, we knew right away they were genuine. Their wailing Dixieland came swinging out into the night, drawing the peekers outside from behind their shaded windows. When the group turned to faster tunes like “Chattanooga Choo-Choo” and 50s boogies, people began tapping their feet, then swinging their hips, and soon they were moving out onto the center of the street with a tentative shuffle that gradually warmed up into a twirling jive. A young couple, dressed to kill, brought the dance into the 80s with shimmies and up-and-down disco moves. When the musicians went into a tango, even Joe the grocer and his wife got into the spirit. They danced like Latin lovers with dashing twists and backward bends.
At midnight, Rosie went up to the microphone and sang “Embraceable You” in a surprisingly weak voice. “I get stage fright,” she explained later. “That’s why I had to give it up.”
Stage fright or not, Rosie was determined to star. She held on to the mike for a long boring set, causing the guests to wilt and drift back home.
Tina and Rosie threw two more block parties after that, but for one reason or another that one was my last. A couple of months ago I left town for a few weeks, and when I came back they were gone.
It must have been an offer they couldn’t refuse–a handsome offer with tough conditions: both houses or no deal, and clear out fast. The ladies made the deal and were swept away without a trace. Even people who hated Rosie’s bellowing and prayed for her to drop dead were shaken.
Then the ritual began: the tearing apart with crowbar, pickax, and saw; the parade of Dumpsters filling up again and again with piles of rotting lumber; the scavengers in their doomful trucks hauling out refrigerators, stoves, water heaters, and furnaces whose backsides displayed years of collected dust hanging in matted gobs.
Those drab facades became even drabber without windows or doors. Sunlight glinted through the hollowed-out shells; walls lurched, posts sagged. A lonely cat, on no visible support, sat framed in a gaping hole. At night, when the lights came on on Cleveland Avenue, the two hulks stood empty and black. Now there is nothing, just two empty lots and the bulldozer that has wiped them clean.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jon Randolph.