by Cynthia Rodriguez
Mr. Jefferson's Piano and Other Central Harlem Stories
by Betty Wilson
I was contacted quite some time ago by an author in New York City who told me in her e-mail she was 60 years old and wrote her first book. What intrigued me about her was the fact that she was involved in the housing industry for a few decades. Myself, being born and raised from Woodside Projects in Queens, I thought it was an interesting coincidence, and was excited to read something from a fellow New Yorker.
Although the book is touted as "fiction", personally, I would call it more non-fiction than anything. "Melba Farris", the main character, who is a city property manager in Central Harlem during the 70's, 80's, and 90's seems like a conduit for the author's work biography. You can tell this lady knows her business. Very detailed accounts of tenants, supers, and "suits", and she calls them, meaning the upper management that many times seem to be the villians in the whole mix of things. Along with the stories, many memos and inter office mail type of correspondence is included in the book to show alot of what happens behind the scenes.
The stories themselves raise a hybrid of emotions. Some of the stories were sad and touching, some were very amusing, some pissed me off knowing how certain tenants were mis-treated, and some were just outright shocking and appalling. For example, how some drug dealer/user tenant who I believe was one of the Superintendents clogged up his own toilet with syringes and as a result filled up his bathtub with his own poop. Probably the most touching story I found was towards the end, when she describes her work day in NYC the day the twin towers went down. She explains in haunting detail her experience as another office worker in the Big Apple the day of 9-1-1.
The other thing I liked about the book was that her epilogue, unlike many others, included the conclusion of the myriad of characters she'd wrote about throughout the years, to the best of her ability, to give us a sense of closure to certain stories where you'd be left thinking, "I wonder what happened to so-and-so?"
I definitely have a new respect for anyone working in the field of city housing, managing any type of inner city projects and so forth. Something else someone like me growing up in that situation probably took for granted. I can imagine all the crap those people put up with just handling the place I was raised in. Some people, even some I know, never leave the projects. That becomes they're whole life. They're whole world. I don't know if that's good or bad. I think maybe a little sad.
This book I believe would be very well suited as a text book in schools for anyone interested in getting involved with any type of social work, especially in this area. For anyone studying this line of work, I feel it should be mandatory reading.
Sidenote: I plan on meeting with the author in the near future for an interview as well as a tour of Central Harlem armed with my camera. I'm excited about being on the scene where alot of these stories took place. I feel that it will be an interesting way of getting a taste of some New York history that many people probably wouldn't experience that way.
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