75: Kindness of Strangers (4)
[TAPPING] Starlee Kine We watched I, Claudius on PBS and it was three hours. From the first credit to the last credit, it was continuous tapping the entire time. She just sat in her door and banged her cane for the entire time. And she'll do it. She does not get tired. And that's what she does with her day. Instead of eating, she just bangs her cane. Paul Tough That's kind of sad. Starlee Kine It is sad. I know it's sad. It's hard, though. Because it's hard to know what the right thing to do is and to be confronted by such meanness. Sometimes you'll just be coming home, and you'll be like, god, this woman is the saddest woman in the world. You'll pass by her door and get feelings of pity and affection. And then she'll open it and she'll yell at you. And you're just like, man. She makes it so hard to do the right-- to just be a good person about it. Paul Tough A couple of years ago, there actually was a drug dealer in the building up on the top floor. It was a bad scene. Junkies being dragged downstairs and out to the front stoop, people sleeping on the roof. And everyone else in the building banded together and went to court and actually got the drug dealers kicked out. Helga was one of people who testified. And Starlee thinks that that might be connected to what's happening now. Helga got a lot of attention and support from that campaign. And so now she's trying to do it again with Starlee.
I tried to speak to Helga about all of this, to get her side of the story, but it wasn't easy. The way Starlee described her, she's suspicious of strangers. She never lets anyone into her apartment. She doesn't answer her buzzer. So I decided that I'd try to speak to her out on the street. One night I waited outside the building for about an hour. And finally, she came out. Paul Tough Excuse me. Do you live in this building here? I'm trying to find out-- It was a very strange interview. She wasn't what I expected. She seemed completely normal. I told her that I had heard something was going on with apartment number three, and I asked her if she knew it was. Yes, she told me, they're selling drugs. I asked her if she'd talk to me about, and she said that she would, but she didn't want me to use her voice on the radio. Too dangerous, she said.
She led me across the street, behind a van, where she said it would be safer to talk. She was deadly serious, very intense. She clearly felt that she was in a dangerous situation. She was willing to give me a few details, but the rest, she told me, I'd have to dig out myself. Here's what she said. The building is full of students. The people in apartment three sell to the students in the building. They also use the students as couriers to sell drugs in the bars all around the neighborhood. It's a big operation, and it's all being run by that short girl, she said, meaning Starlee.
If Helga were to hear this story on the radio, she would tell you that I've got it all wrong, that I've been duped, that everything Starlee told me is a lie. And some of what Helga says makes perfect sense. She says that people are coming and going all the time from Starlee's apartment, which is, in fact, true. She says the phone rings at all hours of the night, and it does. For Helga, that points to one thing, drugs. For Starlee, it's just that she's a student. She stays up late. She's got a lot of friends. There's no middle ground for Starlee and Helga. They see absolutely everything differently.
From Starlee's point of view, there was a period at the beginning where this whole thing was sort of funny, where it was just a good story. But as time went on, things changed. And Starlee became as serious as Helga. Starlee Kine There would be times when I wanted to catch her in the act so badly, because I never caught-- she's so quick. And you could never catch her putting the signs up. I wanted to just open it so badly that I just wouldn't leave for an hour. I'd be like, no, you guys go ahead to the movie. I'm just going to stay here and just wait by the door for a little longer. And it was hard. Paul Tough There's a way, especially at that period, where the two of you were sort of inextricably linked. That she's sitting there waiting in her apartment for you, and you're sitting here-- Starlee Kine Right. Well, that's what it was. It was me lying in wait of her lying in wait for me. Absolutely. Yeah, the bond was strong. Paul Tough Most of the time, the unkindness of strangers is a barely conscious thing. You cut someone off in traffic. You take the last doughnut. You bump into someone running for a train. You don't even think about it. With Helga and Starlee, things are different. They're unkind to each other, they spy on each other, they bicker, they yell at each other in the hallway. But for each of them, those unkindnesses are part of a bigger picture. They're mean because they have to be. Starlee's trying to clear her name. Helga's trying to clean up the neighborhood. Starlee Kine If someone had gotten to her first-- if you were writing a history of the East Village or writing the history of this building, and then someone just interviewed her, it would go down that this heroic old lady tried to get these drug dealers out. She'd be the martyr, or whatever. And I guess that could become fact then. I told you, it almost is fact sometimes. I'm questioning myself sometimes about it. I used to. Paul Tough You used to question whether or not you were a drug dealer? Starlee Kine No, but just am I right? Am I doing something wrong? Is there something wrong I'm doing like that? Is she a little bit right? Not that I'm a drug dealer, but am I-- Paul Tough Like just are you a bad neighbor? Starlee Kine Yeah, bad neighbor, bad person. Am I abusing her? Paul Tough Starlee always thought of herself as a basically good and neighborly person. She never thought she was the kind of person who would do something like yell at an old woman in the hall. And yet she does. Unkindness breeds unkindness. Still, Starlee can't help wishing that things could somehow be different. Starlee Kine I've been having these dreams-- very, very clear dreams, like long, epic dreams-- where she'd come over, and we've chatted on the bed, and we've been giggling in the dreams. And I've had dreams where we've come to terms with a lot of things. I've explained it. Like, this summer. Before, they used to be-- they were only violent. I was at her funeral. I was a little sad at that point. I was visiting her in jail. But this time, I've had these friendship dreams all summer long.
And they're really realistic. She acts like herself and I say the thing I'm supposed to. I can't figure out what I'm supposed to say when I'm awake. And I say it. And then all of a sudden, really, logic comes into her eyes. And she has sat down on my bed, and we've started to giggle and just talk about things and make jokes to each other. Paul Tough What do you mean, the thing that you're supposed to say that you can't figure out? Starlee Kine Whatever I'm supposed to be saying, whatever I could possibly say to her in real life to make her see the light, you know. Paul Tough Well, how do you think you'd feel if the notes just suddenly stopped one day? Starlee Kine I don't know. I'd probably wait a couple days and I'd see-- I don't know. I can't imagine they would stop, though. Paul Tough So when was the last time you talked to her? Starlee Kine I talked to her yesterday. She called me a pathological liar.
[MUSIC - "LOVE TO ANNOY" BY JULIE DOIRON] Act Four: Chairman Of The Block Ira Glass Act Four, Chairman of the Block. This story takes place almost around the corner from Starlee's apartment building, just a few blocks away. It's about one small act of kindness leading somewhere completely unexpected. A resident of the neighborhood, Blake Eskin, tells the story. Blake Eskin About a month ago, I went out one Friday evening with a friend in the East Village, where we both live. On the street, we heard Frank Sinatra music blasting loud enough to wake the neighbors. Nick Drakides [SINGING "YOUNG AT HEART"] Blake Eskin As we reached Fourth Street, I saw 100 people huddled around the stoop of a sixth floor tenement. Most of them were post-college, pre-childbearing types. Plus there were some older people who probably lived on the block. Everyone seemed to have forgotten where they were headed, whether to a party or to another bar or back to bed.
A short, dark-haired guy in a suit stood at the top of the stoop holding a microphone. At first, I thought maybe the guy was lip syncing because he sounded exactly like Sinatra. But after a few seconds, I realized he was doing the crooning himself. The guy looked a little like Sinatra, and he moved like him too. But this was no run-of-the-mill Sinatra impersonator. It was as if he was possessed by the spirit of Sinatra, channeling the Chairman of the Board, that Frank himself had emerged from retirement, dyed his hair black again, and was with us on Fourth Street. Nick Drakides [SINGING "THE LADY IS A TRAMP"] Come over here, Susan! Blake Eskin At the bottom of the stoop was someone you would not ordinarily see with Frank Sinatra. An older woman with spiky salt-and-pepper hair and a leopard print vest was doing a spirited if slightly awkward tap dance on a piece of wood she had dragged out onto the sidewalk.
After my initial confusion, and my subsequent bliss, my next reaction was to wonder how this was possible. Where were the cops? The 9th Precinct is a block away, and New Yorkers are quick to complain about noise. And Mayor Rudolph Giuliani has made it a priority for the police to crack down on what he calls "quality of life violations" like these, noise, crowds, blocking traffic, drinking in the street.
But on Fourth Street, everything was copasetic. And it still is. Somehow, by some quirk of fate, the show outside 124 East Fourth Street has happened five Fridays in a row. The singer, Nick Drakides, lives on the first floor of the building. And the tap dancer, Laraine Goodman, lives on four. Gary and Wanda, who run the garden-level thrift shop, put their merchandise, the chairs and overstuffed couches, on the sidewalk for the audience's comfort.
Nick Drakides and Laraine Goodman are neighbors. And like most people who live in the same building, they didn't know much about each other. Laraine did know, however, that Nick had a big jazz record collection. Five weeks ago, Laraine decided she wanted to tap dance in front of the building, as a sort of therapy, she says. And she reached out to Nick, asking him to play some tunes while she tap danced that weekend. Nick Drakides What happened was, I was coming home-- I'll tell you exactly what happened. I was coming home that Friday evening around 9:00 and I forgot her name. And I'm walking down Fourth Street from Second Avenue.