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Tuesday, May 08, 2012

A Song of the Past: Installment I

Sunday, Oct. 19, 2:30 AM
The western end of Chapel Street begins in quite, tree-lined respectability, the respectability of money as old as the city of New Haven itself, the respectability of Puritan lineages stretching back to John Davenport, James Pierpont, Ezekiel Cheever, and Theophilus Eaton: the aristocracy of the first European settlers. Block after block, dignified houses squat front and center upon lots so regularly shaped that their borders might have been traced on the land by some rectangle-mad geometer. These squatters break the geometrical regularity of the scheme with protruding bay windows; porches: wrapping from the front of the house around one side but not the other, covered by roof extensions supported by fluted columns evoking Greek temples and Roman villas; and mud rooms lopsidedly favoring one quadrant of the lot. At first glance, these residences might appear to present a rebuke to the dull, cost-effective sameness found in most post-war housing developments, and yet they all strive to speak in unison about their inhabitants’ place in the social order: they announce quite clearly that those living inside belong to the quite comfortable and fastidiously conventional upper-middle class. However, there is another vantage from which this local display of prosperity is akin to the gaudy jewels and overdone makeup of a once-attractive but now-decrepit dowager, which, ironically, call attention to rather than disguise the dilapidation from which they are meant to distract: New Haven is one of the poorest cities in the United States.


From that latter vantage, perhaps the foremost bauble sported by this no-longer-glamorous but still proud matron sits at the very northwestern end of Chapel Street, at its t-intersection with Forest Road. It is an impressive mansion hewn from gray and beige blocks of granite and sandstone, a fortress topped by turrets that on a winter’s night look out on the glittering downtown lights. The castle’s rocky countenance is softened by stained glass windows that transmute the vulgar sunshine they receive into the muted pastels they transmit to tone the dark oak floors lying on their other side. Set as it is among a neighborhood of larger-than-average houses, this outlier still is capable of summoning forth, in the susceptible mind, the image of stone giant quietly standing guard over his diminutive fellows. The stone giant glowers across Forest Road at a rustic stonewall marking the boundary of an undeveloped, wooded parcel. Do the Brobdingnagians fear an attack by wood nymphs or forest elves?

From hall of the giant kings, Chapel Street heads to the southeast in an essentially straight line toward downtown New Haven, in a journey that will transform its character many times along the way. After it has marched ten or so blocks towards the city center, the houses lined up to watch its promenade are still fairly large, their yards are still rectangular, and the sidewalks in front of them are still shaded by tree branches. But the attentive observer of the progress of the street can detect signs that it now houses occupants whose lifestyles are significantly different from that of the residents we have left to our northwest. More and more, there are two front doors with separate doorbells at each house, and not all of the inhabitants’ cars can fit in the attached garage or even in the short driveway leading to it. What’s more, the most common vehicles are no longer Audis, Saabs and BMWs, but Toyotas, Hondas and Fords. As you proceeds even farther southeast, it may strike you, humble pilgrim, that the street’s route resembles one of those red lines on a graph that serve as visual indicators of economic decline. A quarter of a mile beyond its passage through Edgewood Park, Chapel Street approaches the bottom of the graph, entering a region where the most profitable occupations to be found among the residents are prostitution and drug dealing.

But suddenly the street’s GDP curve passes through a relative minimum and begins to rise significantly. As Chapel Street meets the border of the Yale University campus the updrafts rising from that venerable institution raise it out of the miasmatic air into which it had plunged and, revived by the freshening breezes, it festoons itself with upscale restaurants, cafes, bookstores, chic clothing stores, and shops purveying pricey, decorative knick-knacks, or hand-woven Indian tapestries, or gourmet chocolates, or astrology charts and healing crystals. A sign propped up on stilts near the ticket window of the Yale Repertory Theater proclaims “Wilson Chekov Havel O’Neill.” On the other side of the road, the Yale Art Gallery occupies almost an entire block.

But a high wind doesn’t last all morning: the updrafts fade away, and Chapel crosses Temple Street and enters the downtown area, which was the primary target of the strenuous urban renewal efforts to which New Haven was subjected during much of the 1950s and 1960s. The outcome obviously was not what the planners had envisioned: The sidewalks are bordered by dingy shop windows, cluttered with displays of the cheap merchandise that is available beyond the soot-tinted glass. The upper floors of these brick buildings sometimes harbor cheap apartments or artists’ lofts, sometimes simply sit vacant. Some of the upper stories have been stripped to their bones, and now are comprised of one cavernous room, with only skeletal columns interrupting the expanse of interior space. The floors of those rooms are typically littered with dust and rubble, with pieces of broken office furniture and fixtures fallen from the walls that were knocked down. Alternative-rock bands sometimes rent one of these spaces for rehearsals or to shoot a video.

After wading through this stretch of downtown New Haven, Chapel Street revives a bit as it enters the old Italian neighborhood around Wooster Square, crosses under the highway overpass of I-91, and then, in an area occupied by municipal utilities, cement foundries, and junkyards, it dead ends at a blocked-off bridge. One would be hard to put to invent many good reasons to visit this end of the street late at night. The industrial concerns shut down when day ends, the road doesn’t go anywhere except back from whence one came, and the scene—the blocked bridge, the idle factories, the low, drab concrete warehouses, the smokestacks—is strangely inhuman in the artificial, blue and amber light that seems to feebly resist the onslaught of the ink-black night. Nevertheless, Jim Abruzzesse and his friend Bill Danken found themselves, not by reason but by alcohol-blurred instinct, visiting just that stygian demesne. After a night at the Greenery, a Chapel Street bar located back near the Yale campus, a night spent in heavy drinking and futile attempts to pick up women, they were feeling their way through New Haven in search of local roads leading to their hometown of Branford. The principle guiding their quest was that, when you are more than a little drunk but can’t see a way to avoid driving, short of sleeping on the street, then you are better off doing thirty miles per hour on local roads than sixty miles per hour on the highway. Citing their mutual faith in that principle, Bill had proclaimed that driving southeast on Chapel Street was what their creed required of them, as it represented the virtuous mean between recklessly choosing to drive on the highway and not getting home at all. But, due to the combined effects of the dim lighting and their dimmed vision, both the driver (Jim) and the passenger (Bill) had missed the signs declaring that the bridge upon which they had hoped to cross the Mill River and thus proceed out of New Haven and towards Branford was closed, as it was under construction. In fact, they were within about ten feet of hitting the saw-horses blocking off the approach to the bridge when Jim brought the car to a brake-screeching halt.

“Damn, that was close,” Bill said, as he shook his head at Jim. “Maybe you shouldn’t be driving.”

“How the fuck else we gonna get home?” Jim was wrestling with the gearshift and the steering wheel in an attempt to turn the car around.

“Maybe we could take a cab.”

“Yeah, you got twenty-five bucks to blow on a cab?”

“No.”

“You want to sleep down here?” Jim gestured at the eerie and deserted landscape around them. “It’s fucking freezing tonight.”

“I guess you got a point.”

Jim continued to turn the car around. As its headlights swept across the weed-filled space between the edge of the asphalt and the page-link fencing marking the boundary of an industrial lot, Bill caught a glimpse of some object that, while lifeless, was lifeless in a disturbingly different way than the rest of the lifeless shit that surrounded them.

“Whoa, what was that?” he asked, while whacking Jim on the arm.

“Hey, watch it with the hitting shit. But… what are you talking about?”

“Right there.” Bill pointed at a dark form lying next to a fire hydrant that, Jim having completed his U-turn, was now to the right of their vehicle, no longer illuminated by its headlights.

“How the hell do I know what it is? And why the hell should I fucking care?”

“I’m telling you, turn around and point the fucking headlights, you know, where they were pointing, just a minute ago. There was something really fucked up back there.”

Reluctantly, Jim acquiesced and began to reverse the triumphant maneuver that had required all of his will and concentration such a short time ago. After a moment, the car’s headlights began to sketch a shape on the frozen ground, a shape that, as it grew more distinct, more and more resembled the shape of a human body. Jim hesitantly suggested, “It’s just some drunk sleeping off a bender.”

“In this place?” Bill waved his arms about to indicate the inhospitable character of their surroundings. “And in this weather? Anyway, even if it is a drunk, he’ll die of exposure if we leave him here.”

Bill, ignoring Jim’s sputtered objections, opened his door, extracted himself from the car, and walked toward the body-like form. As he got closer to it he started to shake a little, and by the time he reached it he was shaking a lot. Like most inhabitants of modernism, previously he only had seen the dead in funeral parlors, all gussied up and neatly boxed, packaged so as to not disturb the living. On this frigid October night, with a bloody corpse lying unstaged at his feet, death revealed itself to him in its raw, elemental form for the first time. When he circled around the dead man to view him from the front, he saw another difference between this body and the ones he had encountered at the wakes he had attended—the face of this corpse was mostly missing: a gory pulp was in its place. Bill convulsed, doubled over at the waist, and onto the ground he spewed the remnants of a goodly number of margaritas and some french fries, partially digested.

Once he was sure that he was done puking, he wiped his mouth, turned, and walked back to the car. Steadying himself by placing his left forearm on the roof over the driver’s side window, reluctantly he acknowledged, to himself as well as his friend, “We have to call the police.”

* * * * *
Soon the southeastern end of Chapel Street was caressed by the waves of red and blue light with which a police car massaged its surroundings, as if it was attempting to apologize for the oddly arbitrary angle, relative to the line of the street, at which its driver had chosen to place it.

Officer Calzone, a short, thin Italian with crooked teeth, and Officer Johnson, a tall, hefty African-American, bent over the body of the young black man lying on the sidewalk. From the hole in his face and the one in his chest his blood had poured out over the pavement. Calzone searched the corpse for a wallet. Finding one in the back pocket of the baggy jeans, which the victim had worn belted down at the top of quadriceps, he drew forth a driver’s license from within it, doing his best to leave the rest of its contents undisturbed.

Reading the name off of the piece of plastic, Calzone said, “I know this guy. Ben Moore. He sold crack over on Prospect Street. I guess he won’t be selling it there anymore, hey?”

“Well, at least it’s one more dealer we won’t have to pinch,” Johnson replied.

Calzone shook his head. “We ain’t supposed to look at things that way. The powers-that-be gonna say you gone all cynical, lost your sympathy for the little guy.”

Gonna say that?” Johnson laughed. “The powers-that-be gave up on me long time ago now. And why you think they got any hope for a wop-mother-fucker like you is still beyond me.”

Calzone’s laugh pierced the silence of the deserted lots around them, and it spooked him as it echoed back to its creator off of the concrete hulks that lurked amongst their shadows.

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