Why do certain places have an aura of danger or mystery for kids? In Pomonok the stairwells, basement, roof, and elevator fascinated and sometimes frightened me.
There were two separate stairwells in the seven-floor apartment buildings. One stairwell led to the front entrance of the building and the other to basement in the back of the building. One of the two also led to the roof, but I can’t remember which one. The stairwells were excellent for playing hide and seek because you always had a choice of two routes. If you were hiding and heard your pursuer’s footsteps coming up one stairwell, you could exit at any floor, run down the hallway, and enter the other stairwell to escape. But the stairwell was a scary place if you were alone. I was always afraid that the boogie man might be lurking just out of sight on one of the landings. I had nightmares about that.
Even scarier was the basement. All it was really was a long, dim and musty-smelling corridor that ran the length of the apartment building. However, along one side of the corridor were various locked rooms. The one room the tenants had access to was the storage room in which people stored bicycles, cribs, carriages, and old furniture, all the stuff that they didn’t have room for in their tiny apartments. It really wasn’t very secure since everybody had keys to it, but I don’t remember anything ever being stolen from there.
One other room I remember was the incinerator room. I don’t remember ever seeing what was inside, but I knew that’s where the tenants’ garbage ended up. In each hallway, next to the elevator, was a small heavy door that opened into a chute. You’d pull down the door, dump your brown paper garbage bag into the chute, and listen to it hit bottom. Then you’d let the chute door slam and it would make a very loud reverberating sound in the hallway. On designated days, they would burn all the garbage in the incinerator room and you’d see plumes of dark smoke rising from the Pomonok chimneys. The smoky air would burn your eyes on your walk to school and ashes would descend like snow. In the winter, when you saw the ash falling, you’d be hoping it was snow so that school might be cancelled.
It was in one service room or another that the maintenance men would hide, waiting to jump out and scare the hell out of you. They all wore dark blue work uniforms and carried lots of keys and tools on their belts. I don’t remember any one of them being at all friendly. They were grim and authoritative, and if they caught you where you weren’t supposed to be, they would report you to your parents. Apparently, the basement was one place you weren’t supposed to be. Whenever I was caught down there, I ran back up the stars as fast as I could so that I couldn’t be identified.
The maintenance men had a huge underground headquarters in the building across from mine. I dreaded having to go down there, but when our fuses blew out, my father sent me there to get new fuses. Confronting one bogie man in the basement was bad enough, but having to explain yourself to a whole pack of menacing bogie men in their underground lair was really scary.
One of the worst places to get caught by a maintenance man was the roof. Nobody was allowed on the roof, but occasionally it was necessary to go up there. We played a game in the court with a rubber ball, Spalding or Pennsy Pinkie being the best quality, in which the object was to throw the ball way up high and hit the space between the seventh floor windows and the roof. If you hit the window, the game would end because whoever lived there would open it and yell and we’d all scatter. If you threw the ball too high it would end up on the roof. Then you’d have to take the stairwell that led to the roof and retrieve the ball. Sometmes the door to the roof would be locked, but, for some reason, it usually wasn’t.
I actually dreaded having to go out on to the roof. There was fear of getting caught, of course, but even worse was the fear of being up so high. I am pretty much afraid of heights and I knew the fall from 70 feet would most likely kill me. The roof was covered with tiny pebbles and once you got out there, your footsteps would make an ominous crunching sound as you walked around looking for your ball. I never dared to go to the edge, which was surrounded by a three or four foot high brick wall, and look straight down, but you could see far into the distance at the Queens College campus, Kissena Park, Shea Stadium, and planes landing at LaGuardia Airport. One bonus of having the courage to go up to the roof was finding other rubber balls that kids never bothered to retrieve.
The elevator probably had the deepest effect on me when I was a kid. I always imagined that the elevator was much larger than it actually is, but that’s the case with most things you remember from your childhood. The Pomonok elevators are only slightly larger than a coffin and cannot be used by anyone with claustrophobia. There were seven round black buttons with worn white numerals for each floor, an emergency switch that resembles an electric light fixture, and a red button that sounded an alarm like an alarm clock and could be heard throughout the entire building. Kids pressed that alarm or fun so often that nobody paid to it anymore.
To me the elevator was a source of both wonder and horror. It was magical how the doors would slowly roll shut on their own. It was fascinating looking out of the little rectangular window on the door and watching floors go by or getting a glimpse of the greasy mechanisms recessed into the shaft walls. But on occasion, the elevator would malfunction in very disturbing ways. For example, instead of stopping at the floor you wanted, it would stop a foot above or below that floor. The door was not supposed to open if the elevator didn’t stop level with the landing, but for some reason it did open, or you were able to push it open. You had to then step up or down to get out. Sometimes the elevator stopped between floors and then would continue on after you pressed the button again. For many years I had a repeating nightmare that the elevator would not stop where I wanted to get off. It would keep rising and rising, past the top floor, all the way to the roof and beyond.