Five-Room Apartment in Tenement


Location South Slope (Brooklyn)

Rent $708 (rent stabilized)

Square feet 500

Occupants Yvonne Derrick (scheduler for Councilmember Angel Rodriguez; sales, Almars Cards & Gifts), Kyle (junior, Lincoln High School), Wyatt (7th grade, M.S. 51)

I’m torn. I don’t know whether to ask if you’re stockpiling antibiotics in your closet or talk about what happened in 1977 in San Antonio when you said a man soaked the roof of your parents’ house with gasoline and lit a match. Let’s go with the latter. It was like the first house my parents ever bought. We were the first Mexicans in an all-white neighborhood, and we were pretty much ridiculed. One day, some guy broke in and stole my mother’s ring. He was arrested, and he and his friends retaliated by setting the house on fire. We got out, but we lost everything. My mother found us another house, but by then my father had gone off and married my best friend in high school, the blond beauty every boy wanted. I just got up one day in 1978 and went to Hollywood to be a comedienne. I was 18, working as an usher in a lot of these famous theaters. It was the Aquarius that changed everything for me. Ain’t Misbehavin’ was there. I formed a friendship with Nell Carter. I lived with her awhile. When she went to New York in 1980, she said, Come, too. And that’s how I met Frank, the show’s drummer. He’d been Cab Calloway’s last drummer. We were together 16 years. We have two boys and a daughter, Rheanna, who’s 18. She stays with her boyfriend in Staten Island. Frank and I moved here in ’83. But first we lived in the President Hotel when he was on Broadway and rakin’ in the bucks. Later, Hempstead, to take care of his cousin, also a musician, whose wife was murdered. My sister Margaret was murdered four years ago in Laredo. The man she lived with for 10 years was indicted, but he fled the country. Me, my mom, and my dad went on a mission for justice. He was missing for years. No one helped us—not the cops, not the FBI, not Governor Bush. Only the editor of the Laredo Morning Times helped. We finally got the monster in Mexico. They put him in a cell. Later that night, he hung himself. Then we had to fight the Mexicans to do an autopsy to make sure it was him. That was last year.

All your individual terrors in the midst of this monster horror of bombs and powder and never a moment’s rest! We all have a poisonous gas in our family. I look at my life in the last four years—losing my sister, the relationship with Frank disbanding.

Everything happened in this apartment. Do you have indelible images of the past here? Not really. When Frank left, I got a brand-new bed. But I still have all the little things he used to bring me from traveling—a piece from the Berlin Wall, a small Colosseum from Rome, a stone from Morocco, a little gondola.

The world is in your living room! Miniature is always a more perfectly realized universe. When we first moved here, we lived in a smaller apartment upstairs. This one is better but I always say, I want to move, but I can’t.

It’s as though no one’s allowed forward motion now—economically or any way. Also, if I did get something I want right now, I would feel a sense of guilt. Who am I? I think about the 100,000 who lost jobs at airlines.

Where is the card shop you work at? Fifth Avenue and 11th. I’m there weekends, Valentine’s Day. I used to have four jobs; now I just have two. The card shop’s my connection to the community. I was also PTA president and a board member for 12 years at P.S. 124. That school is my heart. I used to schlep up and down the street to get donations from merchants, fans for the school. When my sister died, the teachers raised enough money for me and my kids to fly home. I’ve also been vice president of CATS, Care About the Slope. In the past, we’ve talked about the neighborhood post office and complained—how it takes forever to get a stamp, a lot of things we thought mattered.