My apartment building in Cobble Hill, a rather fashionable neighborhood in Brooklyn these days, sticks out like a weed in an otherwise neatly manicured garden. Sitting on perhaps the noisiest stretch of a relatively quiet neighborhood, across from a rowdy high school courtyard where juvenile delinquents fill the air with epithets from morning to afternoon, the building is what might now pass for a tenement. Its brick exterior is a drab brown, the heat and hot water are as temperamental as an unruly toddler, and the croaks and groans of pipes and radiators often pierce the night’s silence. The front door doesn’t lock and Yemeni kids who call the building home loiter on the front stoop, particularly in warm months. Its four floors hold a crowded mix of old-timers, young arrivals to the neighborhood, and large Yemeni families. In spite of everything, though, that mix makes it a pleasant, even charming, home.
The building is part of the real estate empire of a Yemeni man and his family (the name of which I’ll refrain from using), which owns many buildings in the neighborhood (Yemenia Airways on Court St. and Aden News on Smith St., to name a few); the namesake, who has since returned to Yemen, is something of a nobleman there. He once graced the list of the top 25 New York City slumlords. I’ve heard that he lives in a castle in Yemen and keeps several wives.
The namesake’s burly son (whose name will remain anonymous), who must be in his early twenties, has run the show the last few years; until recently, he had been somewhat more responsive than his father in addressing this building’s constant problems. But in the last seven months, things have turned around here, and it’s in great part due to our new landlord, Sal, his half-brother. Sal can’t be more than 16 or 17, but the way in which he’s filled into his role has been fun to watch. Whether planned or not, he was brought into the fold at a time of great distress in the building, and from that crucible he’s emerged as the unlikeliest of leaders.
I’ve lived in the building since September 2008, and around that time Sal (before I knew his name) was just one of the Yemeni teens on the front stoop. He didn’t even live in the building, but the stoop is the meeting place for all of those who live in Cobble Hill. Sal didn’t stand out; he has a baby face, short curly hair, and is hardly taller than five-feet. At times he’s tried in vain to grow a thin mustache. Among the group, he never said much. The boys’ conversations are full of empty bluster – overnight stays in juvenile detention, petty theft, tough talk – but they’re actually pleasant and respectful. They hold the door for you and clear a path when you walk up the front steps. I’ve seen them return from the local Met with groceries in hand for their mothers.
Sal’s coronation arrived last July. There was almost a popular uprising in the building when the gas pipeline went out and we were left without cooking gas. Every day brought more promises of solving the problem, and construction in the basement and inside the apartments became an unnerving daily fixture, but weeks passed with no hope for resolution. Sal’s half brother, the actual landlord, went missing in action. Then, one day, he told tenants that he was sending over his brother to oversee the repairs. Unbeknownst to me, his brother was one of those Yemeni teens; he had been plucked from high school and the stoop for what was his family duty. He introduced himself as Sal, apparently short for Salim, but still I chuckled at his Americanized nickname.
Sal oversaw daily repairs, and, surprisingly for the once-notorious operation, he got things done. Within short time the workers he supervised had installed new pipes in each apartment; the gas, after a month on the lam, had returned. You could see Sal slowly grow into his role. After the problem was fixed, he sat on the stoop, warmly receiving praise from tenants.
Since then, Sal has been the de facto landlord of our building. He quickly responds to any request that goes through his half-brother. (I’ve heard they’re related through their father; their mothers are two of his multiple wives.) The other day Sal himself fixed my leaky shower faucet and radiator. I have seen him fixing the door of one of their newsstands on Court Street. Sometimes he sits on our stoop with his trademark newsies cap turned backwards, like a lord overseeing his fiefdom. One night I saw him walking down Court St. with a few older friends, wearing a suit several sizes too big, ready for a night on the town. And though he no longer spends much time with the other kids on the stoop, when he does, they pay their respects to him like a young Don Corleone.