The rapper Lil’ Kim’s younger brother Bo was my third Bed-Stuy landlord. He grew up in the neighborhood, knew Biggie Smalls personally, and, like many a young man I got to know in my time there, was from a broken home. Along with his more famous sister, as an adolescent he cared for himself on those unforgiving corners. He had long since decamped for Queens, although early each month he’d sail by in his Lexus SUV, one with rims that spin on their own, to collect our rent. It was kind of a shock when I first met him—he’s diminutive, like his sister, but with a warm manner, speaking New Yorkese with a velocity that rivals Korean. He counts cash, which is how we paid for the place, faster than any human being I’d ever seen. Never once did he replace or fix anything in our crumbling Brooklyn digs; we’d simply do it ourselves and take money out of the rent for it. Still, I thought it was neat having a black landlord in our mostly black neighborhood. I was beginning to think by law you had to be a Hasidic Jew to own a piece of property in this part of town.
This was at 551 Kosciuszko Street, between Malcolm X and Stuyvesant, just a block and a half south of the Bushwick border. It’s one of the poorest zip codes in the borough; much of the neighborhood is dominated by a series of decaying row houses and brick walk-ups filled with immigrants from the Western Hemisphere’s most impoverished countries. I lived in a four-bedroom town house with a hard-drinking white lighting technician friend from film school, who’d given up on making art of his own, and an assortment of other clowns from various stages of our lives. The place cost half what I’d paid in “Clinton Hill,” and the constant, unspoken class antagonism that had taken hold of me and my well-heeled friend no longer existed. I bought nickels from young Haitian or Dominican kids on our block, or from a skinny, gold-grilled thirtyish black dealer named G, who lived around the corner, on Pulaski, with his two kids and Spanish wife. I had been introduced to him by JP, a charismatic Haitian teenager, already the father of a young child himself, who lived with his mother and younger brothers in a squalid apartment across the street. Crackheads lived in the basement apartment beneath them. I’d spy them from my window sweeping the sidewalk or taking out the trash gingerly each dawn before their morning beer, leering at one another and the new day outside in that serene, docile way they seem to have when they aren’t screaming their heads off. From my window I once watched JP, who couldn’t have been much older than 18 when I met him, dropkick one of them, as I entertained a friend from college.