Falling Down in the Boogie Down
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
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
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
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
“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 Guerrilla 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.