Location East Village
Square feet 500
Occupant Edward Bordas (executive director, Shelter and Food for the Homeless, Trinity Lower East Side Lutheran Parish)
It seems we should begin speaking of your destiny, since you’ve already run into it. As we sit near your 175 editions of Moby Dick—more on that later—please begin. I was living in Williamsburg a few years ago. A friend at work asked if I’d build him some bookshelves in his new apartment in Brooklyn. I said, “Sure.” A few days later, I said, “Serge, can I have the cheap apartment that you’re vacating on 9th Street?” This isn’t the one I’m in now, though it’s on the same street. Serge said, “A lot of people have expressed interest, but I’ll keep you in mind.” I forgot about it. A few months later, he said, “The apartment’s yours.” It was just over $400, significantly cheaper than Williamsburg, which was $600. The morning I got the apartment, I called my mother at work in Massachusetts. I was raised in New Bedford. I said, “Mom, I’m moving to 9th Street.” She said, “Between what and what?” I said, “B and C.” She said, “Get out of here.” I said, “It’s a safe neighborhood.” She said, “I know it is. Do you know who lived there?” I said, “Who, Frank O’Hara?” She said, “No, your father! We met on that block, three doors away.”
Tell me about your father, the Catholic priest. He was ordained in ’67. In ’69 he came to New York from Iowa with a group of priests and seminarians to work in a poor neighborhood. The seven of them rented an apartment at 644 East 9th. My mother’s good friend from high school lived on the block. When my mother was moving down to 13th and First, her friend said, “I know a bunch of young, strong guys.” So he got all the priests to help her move—well, except my father; he came later to the party she had to thank the priests.
Was it love at first sight? I don’t know, but my mother said to my father, “You can’t be a priest; you’re too short.” Then it sort of blossomed from there. He decided to leave the priesthood. This was a time when so many were leaving. My mother’s friend next door on 9th Street was a parole officer and got a job in New Bedford. My parents went, too, and got jobs as supervisors at a halfway house for mentally retarded men. We lived in the house. I remember one guy, Uncle Bernie. He never knew what day it was, but he had social skills. He’d take us to the dog pound. A wonderful guy, a sweetheart. I went to Brandeis. After college, ’94, I commuted to Boston from New Bedford, three hours each way—I couldn’t afford an apartment on my salary—and worked in Boston for City Year, an urban peace corps. Then I was at a VA hospital in Maryland, a Red Cross Disaster Relief Center—there was some flooding in Washington State—the Community Service Society of New York, the Family Center . . .
I feel like such a selfish I-don’t-know-what. You’ve done all this and now you run a soup kitchen where homeless people come to eat. I always wanted to do this kind of work. I feel I have an obligation to help other people. It’s just the values my parents instilled in me.
But you do get to live in the church’s cheerfully renovated apartment that comes along with your job, which you got by accident online over a year ago, after you lost that other apartment. We don’t have room to discuss your girlfriend in Hell’s Kitchen—you met her when she was working at the Museum of Jewish Heritage and you said to your friend Josh, “Who’s the one in the brown cords?”—but how do the 175 editions of Moby Dick fit in the picture? When I was in AmeriCorps in Maryland, I had a friend on my team, and we’d hit all the used-book stores. I began seeing different editions. I said, “I’m going to start a collection.” You see, New Bedford suffers from a terrible inferiority complex. It fell on hard times like a lot of smaller cities in the Northeast. Moby Dick celebrates New Bedford as the wealthy whaling port of the 19th century. So the greatest American novel begins in New Bedford. Though wait, Moby Dick actually starts in Manhattan.
Ed, the same fate may be thine.