103rd Street is not so different now from thirteen years ago, when I lived across from Dante Stevens in the Nathan Miller Housing Projects. There are the same pawn shops and fast food restaurants, the same store-front Pentacostal churches painted yellow or lilac, the same decrepit brownstones with boarded-up windows and wise-looking kids on the front steps.
The Nathan Miller Houses were built in the 1930s and they look their age. Two boxy buildings—North and South—face each other across 103rd Street, graffiti scattered across the lower floors. If you lived on the East side of either building, like Dante Stevens did, you could watch the sun come up over the Harlem River. It came up slowly in a burst of orange fire that could make any ordinary life—even my own—seem potentially remarkable.
There were green benches in front of the buildings, and always too many people outdoors to fit on them comfortably. If you couldn't sit down, you hung around on the sagging lawn, leaned in on other people's conversations, or stayed inside and watched the street from the windows.
In 1995, I wasn't the only one twisting arms and breaking bones on those benches; it was whoever got hit that day, didn't have 10 dollars for a bag, whoever's stomach was empty or whoever's husband had just left for another woman. It was Harrison Stevens, Dante's dad, hitting his wife in the face hard enough to break her nose when she came up the stone path in her cheap tall shoes, eyes big with cocaine, arms flung wide like a pigeon coming in for a landing.
The day I saw Harrison Stevens break Haydee Luna's nose, I was fifteen years old and had been living at Nathan Miller for about eight weeks. Dante was one year older than me. We were sitting on a bench outside his building, passing a cigarette back and forth, enjoying the October sun when his mother came stumbling up the cement path, the enormous heels of her yellow shoes singing out across the Projects.
Haydee was a powerfully attractive woman, with long black ringlets of hair and slanted, Asiatic eyes. She had Dante young, and only one child, so her body stayed firm, her breasts high and round. She had big, muscular buttocks that she stuffed into cheap skirts made of denim or different satins that she bought in the same shops where Rosario Luna shopped for more sensible materials.
Even before I met Dante, I knew who his mother was. Everyone in the neighborhood knew Haydee Luna because she worked the corner of 104th Street, one shameless block from where her family lived. Every bench on 103rd provided an unobstructed view of the large-boned, curvaceous woman, ringlets of hair pinned at angles all over her head, scrambling to turn tricks with anybody's husband or dad.
Local mythology had it that Haydee worked so close to home just to be near her son. "If my baby needs me," she was quoted as saying, "then I'm just up the block." To be honest, I respected her for this, but I think I was the only one. Most people, men and women, disliked her- for her shamelessness, her curvaceous beauty, her extreme ups and downs. Haydee was prone to crying spells, and when she cried she most often sought out her son. Or, conversely, sometimes the sight of the boy would make her cry. This was why Dante and I, when we began to spend time together, would turn right to head south down First Avenue, instead of left for north.
Haydee's husband was a perennially humiliated man. Each year, as her cocaine addiction grew, she turned more tricks, and Harrison went outside less and less, until finally he did the East Harlem version of taking to one's bed: he lay down on the couch (which was also his bed) and turned on the television. He only got off the couch to beat her up. There were days, solving math problems in Rosario Luna's kitchen, when their howls would rush like the shifting wind through the long hallways of the apartment, threading their way in and out of the broken windows. Rosario and I tried not to look up. We built walls around ourselves with the stoic x's of quadratic equations.