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Sunday, January 8, 2006

Falling Down in the Boogie Down

I can't believe it. I'm going to die, and in the stupidest way possible.

It goes without saying that there are certain hazards when going nutty places. The two big ones are getting arrested and dying. I'm of the mind that if you haven't gotten a little taste of both, you aren't challenging yourself enough. I always thought my taste of death would at least be somewhat glamorous – dodging a subway at the last minute, slipping while climbing up a suspension cable, that sort of thing. Instead, I've idiotically taken a blind step backward and fallen through a hole in the floor.

The Bronx has always been my favorite borough, and is certainly the most unappreciated. It's where my roots are, my family first settling on Kelly Street during the 1920s – an area that later contributed two of the most important cultural innovations in the history of New York: Hip-Hop and Salsa. It has a distinct topography and a demographic pattern that's fascinating. And it's the borough where you're most likely to still find any kind of interesting abandonment, such as a gorgeous old courthouse in a still-dilapidated area of the South Bronx.

I made sure to pass by this courthouse every once in a while, always seeing if there happened to be a way in this time. Once again, timing and patience pay off: a sloppy job securing the back door leads to entrance. Without a flashlight, I decided to back off, call a couple of other people, and head back in with them the next day. The place is next to a police station, so we're a little tense as we check the surroundings, negotiate the door, and head on in. I start to relax. This is going to be fun.

We civilized folks have internalized a great many habits and axioms that we aren't even aware of when it comes to the built environment. One of these axioms is that in a building, a railing surrounds the hole in the ground that is used for a staircase going down – therefore we unconsciously walk around without worrying about falling into said holes in the ground all around us – in fact we probably don't even think of the floor as having “holes.”

This axiom about railings turns out not to be true in abandoned Bronx courthouses. I only fall for a fraction of a second, but I'll remember that fraction of a second for the rest of my life. And I'll remember the lesson learned: never get comfortable in a place not meant for everyday use. Never take a thoughtless step.

I end up falling about 6 or 7 feet. Blind luck dictates I don't land on a step corner or bash my head open. Instead, I land the best way possible – like a pro wrestler. Flat on my back, on a relatively even surface. There's one quick flash of blinding pain, and then I feel like I've just gone 12 rounds with Mike Tyson. I try wiggling my toes to make sure I'm not paralyzed. Everything seems to work. I temporarily consider abandoning my upbringing as a staunch atheist.

I scramble out of the hole and manage to croak that I'm OK. “Just let me lie down a minute.” I say. I don't want to be the party pooper after all. Who wants to go do fun stuff with someone that's going to pack up and go home at the first little brush with quadriplegia? Still, I lag pretty far behind. It hurts like hell to breath. It hurt to breath for the next three days.

We head on through the courthouse, finding old jail cells and beautiful detailing. We unsuccessfully hunt for a way up to the roof for a while, and then decide to call it a day. I still feel like I've been beaten like a gang initiate. As we walk to the subway I decide the best course of action is to head to the nearest hospital and make sure I haven't cracked a couple ribs.

Despite having health insurance, I make the idiotic decision to go to Harlem General, mostly because I know it's only a 10 minute ride on the train we're taking. Six hours later, I'm still in the waiting room, and it still hurts to breathe.

The other folks in there are mostly the uninsured waiting for non-emergency related care. One young lady who needs a bunion removed is astounded when I tell her my story. “I'm sorry, but you're stupid” she says. I don't take much offense at this – I certainly was stupid. But according to the lady, it's not, as it turns out, for the reason I thought.

“How did you not call an ambulance? You know you're not getting any money now, right? You've got to call the ambulance if you want to try to catch a settlement.” I hadn't even thought about that until she brings it up, but I have no regrets. There's a deal all responsible urbanists have with themselves: you grant yourself the privilege to go where you want, but you take complete responsibility for yourself when you do.

A few years later I go back to the courthouse as part of an official event. The jail cells have been ripped out, and I still can't find a way onto the roof. The hole where I fell is covered with a board - the place has been prepped for at least temporary human occupation. Still, I make sure not to take any backward steps this time.

Neighborhood: Morrisania
Tracts Walked: BX141

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