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Jewish World Review August 1, 2001 / 12 Menachem-Av, 5761

Jimmy Breslin

Jimmy Breslin
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Consumer Reports

Visiting the rest of Bubba's new 'hood -- THE work-entrance door on the ground floor of 55 W. 125th St., the building Bill Clinton moved into this week, was open and revealed a swatch of special building permits for work still being done.

The last time permits were involved it was because all work on Clinton's office was stopped in order to build a shower as big as a truck wash. This convinced everybody that Clinton was actually going to stay here, that he had no intention of using the place as a mail drop.

"What's he need done up there now?" one of the workmen was asked.

"Nothing that I know of. We're working on other parts of the building."

Suddenly walking out of the lobby came a young woman I haven't seen in a couple of years. Her name was Kimberley Robinson and I know her as someone who can write poetry. But she has spent too much of a 23-year-old young life in defeat.

"I'm an intern up on the fifth floor," she said.

"What floor is Clinton on?" I asked.

"The top, I guess. That doesn't matter. I'm in a real intern program. Not like those girls in Washington. They were stupid. We're training to get jobs, I have three kids now."

She said the intern program was part of her public assistance.

"I'll get a job because I am employable," she said. "My apartment is something else. There are leaks from the sewer pipe all over the house and the landlord won't do a thing."

A young woman with her, Gretta Chaney, who lives across the hall, handed Kimberley her house key.

"You can show him my leaks," she said.

She had appointments for a couple of job interviews.

Clinton had left the building by a rear door and had gone by car up the block and a half to the State Office Building where the ceremony honoring his new residence would be held.

Kimberley and I walked up to the state building and stood in the crowded plaza as the Boys Choir of Harlem came out and sang "Take the 'A' Train." It was written 60 years ago by the genius, Billy Strayhorn, who was Duke Ellington's arranger. It is a great song, and Clinton clapped with it.

"Where is he?" somebody in the crowd, straining to see, said.

"The big guy with gray hair," a woman said.

"I'd vote for him right now," a woman behind me said.

"I'd vote for him right now," the one with her said.

Now Clinton called out, "Now I feel like I'm home."

"He has a good voice, too," one of the women said.

Clinton, and Charley Rangel before him, talked about the Economic Empowerment Zone that had been awarded to Harlem. Rangel said he got the legislation and Clinton produced the money, $600 million.

The only people who seem to know anything about empowerment zones are the real good guys who help count the empowerment money, and take quite a bit of steam out of it.

And while everybody said it was so wonderful and we should thank G-d that a president was moving to Harlem -- and in the sun and cheering it was pleasant and even a little lifting -- the ceremony essentially consisted of thousands of words about a Harlem that was not there.

When Clinton called out that together everybody could work and make things better for every place -- the people around the corner-- he was so enthusiastic that he almost seemed to know what he was talking about.

The real Harlem was a block uptown, on 126th Street, or a block down, on 124th, or on any other block where people live in nasty little rooms in depressing buildings just as the poor have lived in Harlem for the last 75 years. There is only one zone as you walk through their streets and that is the one of misery.

Kimberley's apartment was up on 141st Street, between Seventh and Lenox.

She was in a large six story apartment house that is on an airless block. To get to her third floor apartment, we climbed a narrow staircase that had light seeping through the underneath of the steps. She has to get three children down these steps to place the oldest on a school bus at 7:15 a.m. Then she has to carry the two back, dress them, then take them down again to a baby sitter. She repeats the carrying at 6 p.m.

She has a two-bedroom apartment for which she pays $950.

The bathroom ceiling was colored rust and falling from a leak. "Sewer water comes back up here," she said. One wall of the kitchen was streaked with rust lines.

"It is going to come down," she said.

There are rodent holes in the walls along the floor. The kitchen ceiling has a gaping hole from which water drips. The ceiling of the children's bedroom was in the same condition. One wall is decorated with a blow up of crayons and of the alphabet in brilliant colors. But the wall is slick with moisture. The children have bunk beds, but both can't be used because the water drips onto the top bunk. The bottom of the wall had holes in it from what Kimberley says were mice. At least mice.

In this bedroom, a basket full of clothes that had been washed and dried was sopping wet from a ceiling leak. In the other bedroom, the children's toys were wet and dripping. There have been times when the building superintendent turned off the water for a couple of days, but it accomplished nothing.

"Broken pipes," Kimberley said.

Clinton is curious enough to look around and see this. He didn't know his surroundings.

"I'm home," he kept saying.

Jimmy Breslin, a long-time friend of JWR, needs no introduction. Comment by clicking here.

© 2001, Jimmy Breslin