The Clothes of Puerto Ricans

In spite of New York being a very impersonal place, one becomes unwantingly privy to many personal things in the daily lives of others, all depending on the neighborhood you live in of course. Some areas have whites, some have blacks and some, like my neighborhood, have Puerto Ricans. Every day, they hang their clothes out on the line above my backyard and every day I marvel at how strange and inconsistent the garb is.

I sit in a broken Adirondack chair wondering how many people could possibly be packed into one apartment to need this amount of clothes. Momentarily distracted by the smattering of cigarette butts my next door neighbors had left near an overturned ashtray by the fence, I was startled upon feeling a drop of what I hoped was water fall onto my forehead. I looked up to find a grinning old Puerto Rican woman staring back at me.

Feeling rather uncomfortable, I slowly crept back into my apartment. It always feels somehow wrong to get caught in the act of watching others perform a task that should be personal—as though you’re the one who should be ashamed for happening to observe it even though it’s the other person who ought to feel embarrassment for being so cavalier with actions that should generally remain private. That’s the thing about New York though: everyone quickly loses sight of what’s “normal” and what’s positively disgusting. For manifold reasons, you have to become okay with shedding the remainder of your dignity (most of which gets damaged while looking for a job). But I had only been living in New York for a year and was still laboring under the misconception that I was above lowering myself to tasks like washing my clothes in a basin and hanging them out to dry.

When I went outside the next day, the clothes were gone. I knew, however, it would only be a matter of hours before a new batch was put out onto the line, thrust in front of my face for undesired examination. I started to read a book called People Are Unappealing: Even Me, a title that seemed all too resonant in my life at the moment. Just as I was turning to a section entitled “Antichrist,” I heard the sound of the Puerto Rican woman above me wringing out some clothes right before a huge splash from the excess water hit my head. I slammed my book shut and looked up at her. She was unaffected by my blatant expression of rage. Before I could scream or yell or verbalize any sort of discontent, she vanished from the window, presumably to finish hand washing some more clothes.

Livid and feeling the unshakeable essence of another human being on my body, I decided that I needed a passive aggressive plan. Just like in Mean Girls, everything had to be sneaky and underhanded when dealing not with women, but with neighbors in New York. Rather than call the landlord, an archetypal Hasid who would refuse to acknowledge my existence unless I had forgotten to pay the rent, I knew exactly how to take matters into my own vengeful hands.

That night, I waited until I saw the light go out in the Puerto Rican woman’s window before I crept outside with a ladder and a pair of scissors in tow. With my mind on a single mission, I ascended the ladder with the agility and purpose of Romeo the night he went to Juliet’s. As I mounted the top rung, I felt for the end of the clothesline in the dark. To my surprise, there was no laundry on the line, which would have made cutting it feel far rifer with retribution; to be able to soil their clothes in addition to preventing them from hanging them up again. It occurred to me that maybe I should time this better, perhaps wait until there were actually clothes on the line. It then struck me that I had the choice between being a bad person and a vile person. I chose vile. It was now my intention to lie in wait until the Puerto Rican woman put out a fresh batch of clothes, at which time I would cut the line.

Right as I was about to get down from the ladder, the light in the Puerto Rican woman’s apartment came on, surprising me enough to jump and angle the scissors skyward, exactly at the moment when the Puerto Rican woman poked her head out the window. This resulted in some mild bloodshed, specifically my scissors nicked the side of her cheek. She cried out in a combination of shock and agony, clutching to her face the way a crackhead clutches to his pipe. I didn’t know what to say or do, so instead I stood there watching her scream like a madwoman for a brief moment before I jumped down the ladder and fled without addressing the situation.

I didn’t leave my apartment for about forty-eight hours after the incident, and every time I heard someone walk up the stairs or down the hall, I feared it was the Puerto Rican woman and her entire family coming to pinch me to death with clothespins. Finally, I had to force myself to leave as I had run out of toilet paper, milk and every other household staple. On my way to C-Town, I felt like a fugitive on the run, turning my head every which way to see if someone was following me. God, why did I have to be so cruel and calculating? It always landed me in the worst possible situations. Now I would probably have to move out of my building and start all over again with a new set of Puerto Ricans who would invariably piss me off with their laundry, too—and the cycle would go on and on until I’d exhausted every possible living option in the neighborhood.

After making my purchases, I just had the final obstacle of getting back into my apartment without being seen again. By now, I assumed the rumors of a deranged neighbor randomly slicing at people with scissors had spread throughout the building. As I was genuinely considering giving my landlord my one month’s notice, I fumbled for the keys to the front door, nearly dropping my grocery bags as I fished them out of my purse. Hunched over like Quasimodo’s daughter, I failed to see one of the Puerto Rican’s countless children scampering out the door. I recognized him by the clothes he was wearing, which I had seen many times before out on the line: those ill-fitting denim shorts and a blue Spongebob Squarepants tank top. Oh how I had been forced to look at this ensemble’s hideousness for hours on end many a morning while trying to enjoy my coffee in the yard.

He didn’t seem to take any notice of me (maybe all white people look the same), so I kept my head down as I passed him. It wasn’t until I was back safely in front of my door—or so I thought—that I heard the Puerto Rican boy exclaim, “Mami, mami, es la diabla blanca!” I had heard enough Spanish during my time in California to know what this meant. Struggling to find my apartment key, I put the wrong one in the door, allowing the Puerto Rican boy and his mother, who I assumed was the daughter of the washerwoman I had accidentally stabbed in the face, to catch up to me. She gave me a look of anger like I had never seen, except maybe in The Exorcist. Before I could react or flee, the spawn of the demonic washerwoman came at me with her acrylic nails, scratching my face with the same lack of abandon as a feral cat.

It ended as quickly as it began, and all I really remember from the encounter was lying on the ground afterward with my face bloodied and my groceries poured out all around me. If I had walked by and seen me, I would’ve turned on my heel and went the other way. It looked like the aftermath of a rape scene. About ten minutes later, I reconciled 1) what had happened to me and 2) that I would need to move out of the building immediately. It didn’t matter to me anymore that my lease wasn’t up. And subletting involved the patience of a saint, which, clearly, I was not.

Three days later, I found myself in a one-bedroom well out of my price range on the south side of Williamsburg. There was a washer and dryer in the building. Never again would I need to see a clothesline again. In fact, short of taking a trip to Europe, the clothesline, as far as I was concerned was an obsolete, eradicated entity that could only serve as a trigger of the memory of my altercation.

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