The Undertaking

 Location Harlem
Rent $370.30 (rent-stabilized)
Square feet 340 (studio in 24-unit building above store)
Occupant Charles Townsend (graduate student, anthropology, New School; adjunct lecturer, critical thinking, LaGuardia Community College)

Tell me about your former embalming career. We'll talk later about how you've lived in this one room for more than 20 years. The embalming was after college. I went to work for my uncle at Townsend Funeral Home, a pretty old-fashioned funeral home in Philadelphia. Very Charles Addams.

You're stroking your Persian cat. Wilma Jean, named after my mother. The embalming was my father's suggestion. My uncle had this business but no children. My mother was like, forget it, get your master's. The embalming's really simple. You use arteries and veins. Wait, I don't remember if you cut a vein or an artery. You push the embalming fluid in and flush the blood out. There's another part where you have to go into the viscera. The hair has to be done. I actually liked that.

Harlem, Harlem, Harlem!: former embalmer Charles Townsend
photo: Jay Muhlin
Harlem, Harlem, Harlem!: former embalmer Charles Townsend

Where are you going? You just got up. I just heard my mother's voice saying, "Get up and close that closet door." [He closes it.] There, better.

Don't you get crazy living in one room—for more than 20 years? Though it is so cheerful and salmon pink. No, I'm happy.

Small rent money creates a big roomy place in the head. Economically, life becomes very spacious and full of possibilities. This sounds like a fortune cookie. I've always thought that a lot of the claustrophobia in New York is economic. Oh, here's your old lease from 1983. It's crumbling. It was written on a typewriter. Only $156 a month! I even kept the apartment when I went to business school in Arizona. Then I studied in Costa Rica. About five years ago, there was a fire here. Me and my landlord have been going back and forth over this shit—it's been so funky here. Though my apartment was not damaged. The only thing was that the crackheads were breaking in, going shopping. I lost a lot of stuff. They were coming in through the roof and the fire escape. My floor is the only one that's occupied now.

You said there was a murder next door and you heard it! Yes, I did. Whatever the nationality of the super is, that's the nationality of the tenants. First, it was Haitian, then suddenly half were Dominicans. I found this apartment two months after I moved to New York. I didn't know anybody. I was 22, adventurous. I was finally living in Manhattan! James Baldwin, The Autobiography of Malcolm X—Harlem, Harlem, Harlem! Around here, 148th, it's gone through a lot of changes. I'm right on the edge of the Hamilton Heights district. Toward Broadway, there's an eclectic mix of Ethiopians, Chinese, Spanish. Eritreans. Go two blocks east, that's Sugar Hill—you've gone around the world, beautiful graystones. Sugar Hill's always been mixed. I'm from the Germantown section of Philadelphia, which has a bohemian history. It was a stop on the underground railroad. People went to Germantown to live in sin. It was interracial and very steeped in Quaker, abolitionist traditions. My father's family came up with the first wave of blacks from the South. I was born in '58.

When we went on a neighborhood walk, you noticed everything that was Latin. We were on Broadway in the 140s, you said it was like Mexico City, flower vendors, mangos, mesquite, plantains. You talked about the clothing store run by the Galician from Spain. You love things Latin. There was a Puerto Rican family on my block growing up. I was fascinated because they were different. José's grandmother spoke Spanish. I was fascinated by old people. José? I don't know what happened to him. He was younger than I. He said, "Meet my grandmother." She couldn't understand a word I said. We just communed.

 
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