I work for a city agency that specializes in housing preservation and development. In 1978, I joined the agency as a Property Manager. I became a Senior Property Manager in 1984. In 1988, I became a director of Central Harlem’s Crisis Unit until 1998. All of my work until 1998 was field work. That is, I spent my days working with neighborhood residents, occupants, tenants, supers and repair staff to provide essentail services to city-owned buildings in my assigned territory of Central Harlem. In 1998, I exchanged my field hat and combat boots for a business suit and pumps when I went to work in the agency’s main office as an executive staff analyst. In 2001, I switched hats once again to join the education unit where I currently work a curriculum developer, designing courses to educate the public about housing issues.
On the home front, some thirteen years after the dissolution of a bad marriage, at 47 I came out to her family as a lesbian. Living up to the adage ‘it’s never too late,’ at 55, I outed myself to my boss and other coworkers. I can attest that coming out hasn’t always been easy but it was something I decided to do, especially since I was writing Lesbian romanance novels that I hoped to get published one day. The best part of coming out was the acceptance and encouragement I received from my then seventy-nine year old mother. When I told my mother, she said "I always knew you weren’t living alone. I was just waiting for you to tell me with whom.”
I've always been in love with books and the words in them but I never thought I could create something with the words I knew. When I read To Kill A Mocking Bird, I realized everyday experiences could be written about in a powerful, memorable way. I read James Baldwin's books in college and later I read a bit of Toni Morrison and Alice Walker. I fell in love with words all over again. Walter Mosley's short stories about Easy Rawlins and his friends encouraged me to start writing in earnest. I've always kept a diary of some sort--scraps of paper, pocket-size notepads, the back of agency forms or the margins of books I loved. It was my habit to make those little notes to myself. I thought some day I'd make them into a book.
I did make them into a workplace memoir based on the people I met during twenty years as a property manager in city-owned buildings. Mr. Jefferson’s Piano & Other Central Harlem Stories is an anthology that weaves together a rich tapestry of 68 short stories, agency memos and letters of events that take place during the late seventies, eighties and nineties as seen through Melba Farris’ eyes.
Melba writes notes about everything, chronicling her journey into the field of property management as she tries to help her less fortunate brothers and sisters with their housing woes. She meets the oldest woman in Harlem in the title story Mr. Jefferson’s Piano. 101 year-old, Nora Jefferson and her kid sister, 96-year old Minnie, enchant her with the story of how their father acquired the baby grand that sits in the middle their living room.
The devil made me do it, Melba becomes an exorcist when a routine call about a broken stove turns into removing an invisible devil from Ms. Johns’ oven. In Neisha, Melba writes a series of memos to her boss asking for help to improve the hazardous living conditions of 17 year-old Neisha an independent minor, her two young children and a teenage brother—all of whom Neisha is responsible for since her mother died of AIDS.
These three tales represent some of the delightfully funny, sometimes perplexing but intriguing personalities I met as property manager performing my job duties in city-owned buildings.