Friday, Feb. 14, 2003, 2:07 AM

Apartment stories number one

Last night it was three degrees outside. I was driving around after midnight on the deserted city streets. No one was out but the lights on the "Yield to Peds in Crosswalk" sign were still flashing merrily away. I saw a tow truck towing a tow truck. I just know there is a parable in that, somewhere.

As I was driving it started to flurry the snow of the extreme cold. Those little icy flakes that catch in your headlights and sparkle like a latter-day Elvis suit. And as I was motoring up a hill toward a traffic light the reflective surfaces of the gravestones in the cemetery beside the road all changed from green to yellow to red with the light.

When I was younger I grew up with my mother as we moved from one low-rent apartment complex to the next. I have so many memories from these buildings. Like the time that my mom and her friend Jean went out and left us with a babysitter. Well, the babysitter had her boyfriend over, sequestered us in our bedrooms while they fooled around, got high and passed out. At one point we managed to get out of the bedroom to find the babysitter unconscious on the couch. The door had a deadbolt that could only be opened with a key, so when Jean and my mom returned and knocked to get in we couldn't wake up the babysitter to get the key. Jean was only 5' 2" tall, but she was so pissed and concerned because we were crying and saying that the babysitter was dead and wouldn't wake up, that she kicked down the door.

Another time when my mother was taking me out (I must have been about four) she was holding me with one arm so that I could see over her shoulder. After passing through the large metal security door at the end of the hallway she gathered me in her arms and turned around to gather herself and her bags before heading outside. The steel door was slowly closing as the piston sighed in a losing battle of resistance and I could just see the light of the hall through the spine of the door where the hinges held it firmly to the jamb. I was enthralled and stuck my finger through just as the piston surrendered to the steady onslaught of the door's weight. My scream must have been enough to curdle milk in a cow and my mother reacted faster than light but it was too late for my poor right-hand pinky finger. The tip, halfway back along the length of the finger nail, hung limply, barely attached to my hand. I have a clear memory of sitting in the back seat of my mother's lemon-yellow Volkswagen beetle as we sped toward the hospital. I was crying the cry of a tired child--the occasional sob punctuated by a yawn or a sigh and I kept unwrapping the towel from around my hand to look at the bony tip of my finger protruding from the end of all the pink flesh. It was so white. And now I have two scars, one on either side of my fingernail, that crease the tip of my finger to make it look like I have just removed a string or rubber band from the end.

And then there was the time that I got a bigwheel as a present and a bigger kid from one of the other three buildings that sat like oversized bricks in a sea of black asphalt parking lot beat me up and took it. I was so scared that my mom would be angry with me for losing it that I hid the fact from her for almost a week before she realized it was missing. My mother dragged me by my arm across the black body of the parking lot and made me witness to a shouting match between her and the assailant's mother until the bigwheel was recovered. The bully, who was much bigger than me, had taken to riding the bigwheel at top speeds before locking his knees and skidding to a stop. The monotony of this game had worn a flat spot on one side of the front plastic tire so that when I rode it was akin to driving over potholes with a constant "kawhump kawhump kawhump kawhump" to broadcast my arrival to anyone within earshot.

There was a pathetic excuse for a playground that sat on what may at one time have been a plot of grass anchored to the end of the building housing our apartment. It contained a swing set with rusty chains and two swings, a slide with a railing on only one side of the stairs, and one of those spinning wheels that had a list so severe that one edge brushed the ground when it spun. On Sunday afternoons, when nobody was around, the wind would blow and the rusty chains of the swings would squeak and rattle and it reminded me of a ghost town full of promise and broken dreams.

One sunny winter day I ventured forth, across the black ocean of asphalt, circumnavigating one and then two of the other buildings until I stood at the edge of the complex on a small strip of grass that kept the parking lot from spilling into a wooded lot. The days had been cold and snow-filled for the week before and the tracks of innumerable sleds and the ruins of conquered snow forts littered the land. I came upon the remains of a snow man who had stood too long in the afternoon sun and warming temperatures of the last two afternoons. His body had slowly melted and congealed into an amorphous blob of solid and clear ice. Some shiny objects, glass beads or costume jewelry which had probably served as eyes, were now encased in the ice like gems in glass. My mission beckoned and I amassed an arsenal of sticks and stones and one old bent metal spoon and unleashed a relentless assault. The ice clouded slightly around the impact point of a particularly good blow but resisted. I carried on doggedly, pausing only long enough to remove my coat when the exertion brought beads of sweat to my forehead. I kicked with my moon boots and I hammered with rocks and I prodded with sticks and I whittled with the spoon, but in the end, I conceded as the sun slipped below the tree line and the sky faded from pink to the purple of my bruised ego.

And I learned about death when the old lady who lived in the basement apartment that smelled like dusty rags and always had a jar full of colorful hard candy for the children stopped answering the door one day. I remember the ambulance and I remember them taking the gurney out of her apartment with a black bag on top that looked like a body wrapped in a blanket. A few weeks later when my father was over babysitting me on one of the occasions that my mother had to pull a late shift, my parakeet flew frantically around his cage before suddenly stopping in mid air and plummeting to the paper-covered bottom of the cage, landing on his back and kicking his legs futilely a few times before dying. When I pointed this out to my father who was busy making macaroni and cheese and fish sticks (that I referred to a fish legs) he took a sheet from the newspaper, wrapped the bird up and threw him in the garbage before returning without reverence to the stove. When I asked if it was the right thing to do he said, "It's dead, what does it care?" Lucky for him that I didn't do the same to him when he died two summers past.

I remember waking up on Saturday mornings and drinking tea with cream and sugar and watching Bugs Bunny cartoons for hours on end. And Sundays were the Three Stooges. And every day of the week it would be The Price Is Right with the little Alpine Climber who yodeled his way up the hill, and usually off the edge. And I would create these elaborate kinetic security devices for my bedroom door that usually included fifteen feet of plastic track, at least two Hot-Wheels cars, twenty feet of twine, dominoes, marbles, push pins, a bell, my plastic piggy bank, Tinker Toy and Erector set components, a thin hardback book for a catapult with a shoe as a fulcrum and several action figures. The layout would take hours to construct and would become so elaborate that I could not venture close enough to the door to set it off without causing a premature detonation. I remember standing somewhere out of the way and hollering for my mom until she would whip the door open in an angry state setting the whole thing in motion. I always wanted to get a live chicken and a boot on the end of a stick that swung and kicked something so that is could be as cool as the cartoons, but I learned to make do with what meager tools I possessed.

The funny thing about being young is that you have no concept of rich or poor, and imagination is not curtailed by lack of money or friends or material possessions. I never realized that we were poor and living in the projects. I never realized that we made do without certain things. I never realized that I wasn't supposed to be having fun. But I realize now how lucky I was to have lived through it all and how enriched my life is for it.