At Home With Peter Bradley

Peter Bradley was one of two children formally adopted by a woman named Edith Ramsay Strange: he survives; the girl is dead. Edith Ramsay Strange took in 62 other foster children but she did not adopt any of them. Edith brought Peter to her home when he was three days old; Peter did not know from where. He did not know why he was adopted and the others were not but he did know that being adopted meant that he could paint. Peter had pocket money, his own room at the top of the house, and tailor-made clothing. None of the other children had these things and Peter could feel that his mother bestowed these privileges on him not because she favored him over the others, but as a shield against the taunts that would surely come from the children who Edith Ramsay Strange had not chosen to adopt.

The house where Edith Ramsay Strange brought up Peter Bradley was in Western Pennsylvania and it had 27 bedrooms. The window in Peter’s bedroom looked onto the Youghiogheny River, a river that George Washington’s horse crossed when George Washington was on his way to set up Pittsburgh.

Peter woke up each morning and spent the day painting. In the evening, his mother came upstairs after a day of work. Edith Ramsay Strange did not do the work expected of a Black woman in Western Pennsylvania in the 1940s, she refused to do that, just as she refused to be listed in the Green Book (you either knew or you didn’t). She did not sweep white floors; instead, Edith Ramsay Strange accepted payments from the state of Pennsylvania for each of the 62 children she fostered, and she held shares in famous jazz clubs in Detroit and Baltimore and Pittsburgh. Every evening, Peter’s mother came upstairs and leaned against the left side of the door to his room and the Youghiogheny River reflected the light of sundown against her reddish hair. She asked how many drawings Peter had made that day and Peter told her how many and she said, “I like this one,” and “I don’t like that one,” and then she asked how much paint Peter needed for the next day and he told her just how much. Then she went to the paint store, which in their town was called Bradley Paints, a coincidence.

In the living room, books on railroad law were stacked on the coffee table and among picture frames, as if the house was a furnished rental owned by a railroad company.

It was, in a way. Peter got the name Bradley from Edith’s second husband, a man named William Bradley. William was a cook for the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad Company, which is one of four railroad properties one can purchase in a game of Monopoly. When a train carrying Mr. Bradley passed by, Edith stood on the back porch and waved but William did not look up from the flank steak before him. How could he have known? Edith’s porch was just far enough from the tracks that her hair did not rustle as the train passed, but the bird feeder a yard closer did give a shudder. His “father’s” work and the law books were Peter’s clues that the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad Company was not a ghost in the house but a landlord.

Edith Ramsay Strange’s lease on the house was a precarious arrangement. Someone at the company had taken a liking to her and decided that she and William Bradley should live there and pay very little money. Because the house was given to her off-the-books, seen as charity, Edith did not enjoy the ease of entitlement that someone who had acquired a house with 27 bedrooms through inheritance, or oil money, might have. She could have lost it at any moment, had the smoky paunch over at Baltimore & Ohio Railroad Company decided that the home would be better suited in the hands of a more lucrative employee. The house belonged to Edith Ramsay Strange but, lest it be revoked, she committed herself to a frantic milking of the space, a total use.

A long time later, in 1976, Peter Bradley found himself in the window seat on a flight home to New York City next to a man who seemed to wish that he, and not Peter Bradley, were sitting in the window seat. When Peter looked down into his pack of peanuts he felt the man lean over him to watch the city grow larger in the window. Soon, the man turned to Peter. “This is a good suit,” he said. Peter wore a silk suit custom-made by Roland Meledandri, of Fifty-Fourth Street between Park and Madison Avenues in Manhattan. Peter Bradley almost always wore custom-made suits, and had since he was a child, so when the people at Perls Gallery, where he worked selling art, tried to get him an account at Bloomingdales, Peter said no, it would be Meledandri or it would be nothing at all. And yet, at Perls, Peter had to eat his lunch upstairs inside the gallery because they did not want him having his lunch with the Sotheby’s Girls across the street.

The man in the aisle seat was named Thomas K. Wong. He was the head of the Chinatown Service Center, which controlled large buildings in downtown Manhattan. Thomas K. Wong asked Peter if he would like to come and check out this firehouse he had Downtown. Peter Bradley’s mother had taught him to like unusual houses, so Peter said yes, he would come and take a look.

Firehouse Engine Company Thirty One on the corner of Lafayette and White Streets in the lower part of Manhattan was built in 1895 to resemble a castle in France. When he saw the firehouse, Peter told Thomas that yes, he would like to live there.

An unlikely sequence of events led Peter Bradley to stand in 1976 on a sidewalk outside an empty firehouse: In 1972, Engine Company Thirty One dissolved. The firehouse passed from the New York City Fire Department to the Chinatown Service Center, which gave Thomas K. Wong control of the deed. The Chinatown Service Center put ping pong tables on the ground floor for community use. They were in search of a tenant for the upper floor when Thomas K. Wong met Peter Bradley on an airplane and heard that he was looking for a new place to live. Peter’s mother had a house with 27 bedrooms because a vacancy had needed filling; both he and Edith were seen by their landlords as temporary, stopgap tenants but they did not see their tenancy that way, for why would a person see themselves as temporary?

Although Peter paid Thomas $450 in rent each month, he moved into the firehouse as if he had purchased it. Peter was not at all cowed by his renter status, nor by the many empty rooms in his new house. The cavernous top of the firehouse was not too large for Peter Bradley, his wife Suzanne McClelland, one Basenji named Rue, and one Rhodesian Ridgeback named Ruffian (all of the animals they ever had would be named with the letter “R”). The family expanded, grew louder, until the house was just the right size for the four of them. One bedroom, three studios, one kitchen, one living room, and two closets. Peter ordered a 30-foot Saguaro cactus from Arizona and planted it in the center of his living room, like a flag on the moon. When it arrived on Lafayette Street, a crane had to tip the cactus from the sidewalk, over the terrace, and into the firehouse through an open window. It seemed to trail red sand the way children’s feet track through the house when they return from the beach.

The firehouse did not have any heat, so Peter and Suzanne burned wood they brought from forests upstate where it was free. At night they also took wooden crates from the Gristedes parking lot which had held tomatoes or bananas in the afternoon and they burned those.

Peter used 7500 Altec Lansing speakers, the best kind, he thought, to keep away the silence. He liked to listen to the same musicians that his mother picked up from the train station and drove to her house, where they could sleep and have breakfast. Music played all the time in the firehouse. This tactic he had also learned from Edith, who played music all the time in the same way that in a quiet forest, you speak too loudly and step heavy on the path, to scare away the snakes. If the music stopped, Peter and Suzanne heard the dim thud of ping pong paddles. Later, they heard a family downstairs listening to the Beatles.

On Friday afternoons, the Boys Choir of Harlem took a yellow bus to the firehouse. They ate popcorn and drank guava juice seated on the edge of low white couches draped with cowskins. They were told to take off their blazers if they really wanted to paint, and then they entered the studio near the kitchen and Peter began their art lesson.

If he had any Black neighbors, Peter Bradley did not know them. In the 1970s and 1980s, the people who owned large lofts in Soho and Tribeca were white. They were not yet hedge-fund people, they were artists, but they were white people. Peter would have liked for the firehouse to be a place where Black artists gathered, but this did not happen naturally because most of the people who drifted in and out of the firehouse lived nearby. Peter had done four shows with André Emmerich, a prestigious gallerist who did not show any other Black artists in that decade or in any decade which had come before. Peter was aware of his place at the mercy of the white curators, dealers, and collectors.

In the spring of 1981, Peter found two white men standing in his firehouse, having a look around, checking out his walls and windows and tiling. (When the Chinatown Service Center had knocked out all of the tiles downstairs and they lay in a quiet heap, Peter carried them upstairs in cooking pots and lined his kitchen and bathroom with rescued porcelain.) Peter saw the way these men were appraising his home and he called into the bedroom, “Suzanne, they’re going to try and take away our firehouse.”

Jon Alpert was a 33-year old white man from Port Chester, New York, who owned a television company and held a black belt in karate. Earlier in 1981, the City of New York had indicted Thomas K. Wong for corruption or embezzlement and control of the firehouse fell to another landlord, a man more interested in profit than Wong. Soon after, Alpert and the Downtown Community Television Center had moved in downstairs, replacing Thomas K. Wong’s community center and its ping pong tables.

Alpert’s ambitions turned out to be larger than one third of a firehouse. Alpert had tried to buy out many of Peter’s neighbors, but when they’d said no, he backed off. With Peter, Alpert was dogged, remaining at his heels, deterred neither by adamance nor by outrage. He did not accept Peter’s no as he had the no’s of the other loft residents and Peter recognized this for what it was.

Peter fought the eviction for five years. If the new landlord won, he would not buy Peter out; he would tell Peter to leave his home and then he would give Peter’s lease to Jon Alpert, who would soon have the money to buy the firehouse. Peter never learned the name of the law firm he was up against and he felt that his own lawyers were unreliable and lethargic. To pay for these lawyers, Peter painted Downtown courthouses for Rambusch Decorating Company. Each day, Peter was required to use two full gallons of paint. He was permitted only to use a brush and not a roller, which made painting walls and ceilings very slow, and by the end, Peter needed a new shoulder.

A doorway, rather than a real door, had always separated Peter’s floor from the floor below. Only the sort of people who Peter wanted to see came up the stairs. But after Alpert’s lease had begun, Peter sometimes came home or out of the bathroom to find an old white man and woman standing like ghosts in his loft. Peter looked at them—they looked back and did not speak. Taking their time, they nodded formally before returning downstairs. Peter learned that these were the parents of Jon Alpert. He installed a door with a lock at the top of the stairwell.

One day Peter returned from the courthouse to find that another Rambusch Decorator had left a 12 gauge sawed-off shotgun leaning against his door. People who spent lots of time in the firehouse hoped Peter would kill Jon Alpert. Many felt as if the firehouse was being taken from them, too. Suzanne became pregnant that year, and Peter said, it would now be a crime to take the firehouse away. The child was born. Jon Alpert was lucky Peter was an artist, Peter thought with relief, or Peter might have killed him.

Jon Alpert might have thought about things like this: here is a large place that I want and here is Peter Bradley, who is, one might say, already something of a misfit in the neighborhood. Jon might have thought: there is a temporariness of Peter Bradley in this neighborhood beyond the temporary quality of his rental of the firehouse, and then Jon might have guessed that things would yield to his gentle prodding more easily if he went after Peter Bradley’s home and not the home of another person in the neighborhood, that Peter’s being Black would make him much easier to dislodge.

Peter Bradley never ceased to resist eviction, and yet, in September 1989, Jon Alpert took his firehouse. Peter thought, this is a terrible, terrible interruption. A friend of Peter’s came to help him move and they stood together in the living room, pushing things out of the house. And then Peter’s friend did something strange. Almost everything was gone and they did not want to leave this firehouse and stand on the curb and wonder where to go. A large, heavy chain lay on the floor and the man walked over to it and picked it up, and Peter looked and did not stop him, and in lieu of a final scream, the man threw the chain out the door, where Jon Alpert was standing, watching.

Peter Bradley did not have a home for the three days after his birth, until he was adopted by Edith Ramsay Strange. 52 years later, Peter found himself homeless once more. He did not move to a new house when he left the firehouse; he did not have another house. Peter lived on the streets of Manhattan that fall, and in the winter, too.

Peter lost a lot of things along with his firehouse: a Saguaro cactus, a beautiful French vase, silk suits made by Roland Meledandri, four hundred paintings (his friends’, his wife’s, his own), the skull of an elephant from South Africa who had only died and had not been killed. He lost his friends, because one cannot continue to see the same people if they have no way to come and see you, or if the only place they know to find you is inside of a small crack house on 10th Street and Second Avenue. He also lost his daughter, who moved with Suzanne into an apartment her parents bought for her in Battery Park City. Peter was not allowed to move with them; he was, as Suzanne’s father put it, out of control.  

In 1990, Peter Bradley stopped living on the street and began to live on the road. He drove towards Canada with a man named Art Blakey, a famous jazz drummer from Pittsburgh, which is near the Youghiogheny River. Peter and Art were in Saugerties, New York, and it was snowing, when they drove past a stone house that was very large, and where not a single person had lived for sixty years. Peter lives there now, with a woman named Debra and a dog named Ruffian that is not a Rhodesian Ridgeback but a different type of dog altogether.