It is rent collection day in the buildings my neighbour Fernando owns in the nearby town of Kingston, New York. For some time Fernando has been urging me to join him on his rounds. He takes a protective but also frankly spectatorial interest in the lives of his tenants, following their dramas with the fascination of a soap opera addict. Most of them are on Welfare or Disability or Social Security, and are too sick, too illegal, too dysfunctional or too recently out of jail to be employable. Their rent, in many cases, is paid by the Department of Health or some other agency, with the cheques made out directly to their landlord. This makes them a surprisingly sound proposition, and there are enterprising people in every upstate town who earn a good living from the business. ‘Welfare warehousing’ is one of the politer terms for it.

As we drive through the dusk from his house, Fernando fills me in on the stories currently unfolding: the mildly retarded woman whose 11-year-old daughter has had to move in with her, following the death of the grandmother; the old man who ‘wears’ his food; the three room-mates who have been evicted but won’t leave; the level-three sex offender (the worst) who has been hanging around trying to get Fernando to rent him a room. A familiar vague uneasiness comes over me: I haven’t quite settled where the legitimate pursuit of ‘material’ ends and voyeurism begins.

It is dark by the time we reach Kingston. The town was once the state capital and has a few streets of fancy brick buildings to show for it. Otherwise it’s a more or less typically dispirited upstate town, its old clapboard neighbourhoods marooned between strip malls, overpasses and half-vacant industrial parks. Fernando has been buying up properties, convinced an upswing is on its way. A Puerto Rican who grew up in the Bronx, he has the intoxicated optimism the American success story encourages. He believes fervently in redemption, and sees himself as a provider of second chances – whether to derelict buildings or broken lives. It doesn’t trouble him to be making money in the process; I am not quite clear why I think it should, though it seems I do.

We stop at Washington Manor, an adult care facility that Fernando acquired recently at a foreclosure sale after its previous owner was arrested for stealing from his tenants. We enter at the back of the ramshackle wooden complex. A man’s voice is audible in the darkness. Coming closer, we see him sitting alone on the porch, lost in a reverie of what turns out to be incredibly foul-mouthed malediction against an array of phantom antagonists. I feel a little nervous stepping into his livid aura, and wonder briefly if Fernando might have had other reasons than he let on for wanting me to accompany him. But on noticing us, the man surfaces with a blink, mutters a greeting, and slopes off down an alley to resume his vendetta in private. We go on in, entering a cavernous and dimly lit room, empty except for three elderly, genteel-looking ladies watching Hugh Grant on a large TV. They seem delighted to see Fernando, whose suave gallantries set them gently aflutter. As we move on – it turns out we are only here to see one particular set of tenants – I remark that it must be hard on the ladies to have to live with someone like that man on the porch. Fernando tells me that one of them is having an affair with him, and assures me they all get along very well.

We move deeper into the building, along wood-panelled corridors punctuated by heavy, brown-lacquered doors. The place is clean-smelling but gloomy in the extreme, and very silent. Climbing the stairs to a half-landing, we knock at a much smaller door. Beyond it is a tiny, bare room. Inside are Rita and Crystal, the mother and daughter Fernando mentioned in the car. The mother, a large, crimson-faced woman, is on the bed, smoking. Crystal, the daughter, is tall and angular, buddingly pubescent, with long shiny hair and dark rings under her eyes. Both are effusive in their welcome, shaking our hands and treating Fernando to a torrent of questions about his family. There is something immediately disconcerting about them. The mother, despite a shrewd look in her eyes, is not quite coherent. The daughter, who is intermittently conducting a conversation on a large mobile phone, seems feverishly over-eager in her curiosity about Fernando and me. She gazes at us, her mouth hanging open, her twangy, stammering voice a little too loud and enthusiastic as she alternates between quizzing us and reporting back to her friend on the phone. She asks gravely if I am Fernando’s son. I tell her I am not. ‘He’s not Fernando’s son,’ she says into the phone. Rita hands Fernando an official-looking cheque. The smallness and utter bareness of the room – no ornaments, not a toy or a book or a magazine – has the effect of throwing the unguarded sweetness and oddness of the pair into rather painful relief. They seem over-exposed, under-protected. As we leave, Fernando tells me he’s concerned about Crystal. Some Mexican migrant labourers on the floor below have been whistling and trying to flirt with her as she goes by, and he has decided to have another, larger apartment made ready for her and Rita in his main rental building, where he thinks they will be safer.

We walk over there now, climbing a narrow stairway between a bank and a Chinese restaurant, and begin knocking on doors. Each one opens onto a world of strangeness. Here are Heather and James, an obese girl of about eighteen living with her boyfriend, who appears to have mild Down’s syndrome. They seem cheerful, but utterly incapable of looking after themselves – there are dirty dishes and cutlery all over the bed. Here is Anna, prim and proper (though an ex-hooker, Fernando later tells me), her hair scraped back, her room an immaculate 1950s parlour, with a lace-draped chiffonier, plastic flowers and a cloying odour of air freshener. She is loudly disapproving of the other tenants and obsessed with their failure to turn off the lights in the shared kitchen and bathroom, thereby wasting electricity. It is hard to tell whether she’s genuinely public-spirited or just trying to ingratiate herself with Fernando. He asks after her health, at which she brightens up, going into gleeful detail about a recent operation for lymphoma. Here is a little old man, barefoot and shirtless, leaning over the stove in the communal kitchen. His long hair and beard are matted with rotten food, as is the hair on his chest. His finger and toenails are yellow and hornlike, so long they have begun to curl. Tiny flies are seething all over his shoulders. He looks like a derelict garden gnome with very lively blue eyes. We go with him to his room, which is piled almost to the ceiling with empty cans and other bits of shiny or brightly coloured junk, in the midst of which a TV is blasting a game show. Fernando asks him, rather sternly, if he has been having visitors, a violation of house rules. He denies it vigorously, and it does seem unlikely that anyone would want to visit such a man in such a room, though as we leave, cheque in hand, Fernando quietly explains that the man has been letting girls come up and do crack in his room in exchange for sex.

A story is emerging, as we go from room to room, concerning a woman named Judy. Some sort of wild outburst has occurred: doors being slammed all night, rooms broken into, the cops called twice; everyone assuming theatrical attitudes of affronted delicacy as they add their tidbit, and demanding action from Fernando. I am reminded of a stint I did as a volunteer in a New York homeless shelter where the residents, generally affable, went in for similar fits of not-quite-real indignation at any misbehaviour, and took a grim satisfaction when the perpetrator was thrown out. The pleasure of knowing there are worse fates than one’s own is, apparently, a constant at all levels of society. Matt, a crop-headed, tensely muscular ex-marine watching Ronald Reagan’s funeral in the blackness and stifling heat of his room, tells Fernando he’s intending to bring charges against this Judy for trespassing and assault – he claims she attacked him – though when Fernando offers him a ride to the police station he becomes suddenly vague, handing Fernando a cheque and turning moodily back to the funeral coverage.

Judy, it turns out, is one of the threesome Fernando has officially evicted from the building, and our next stop is their apartment downstairs. She is a tall, good-looking woman, dressed in a sweatshirt and jeans. Her front teeth are missing, but otherwise it’s hard to connect her with the various lurid bits of information I have heard about her from Fernando and his tenants: that she is Kingston’s most illustrious prostitute, that she has a habit of lifting her shirt whenever she thinks a man may be interested in her, that she won a large settlement after a car accident but blew it all on drink and drug binges, which have in turn made her prone to psychotic episodes. Her room-mates, both older Hispanic men, are named – somewhat improbably – Mingo and Dingo. Mingo, grizzled and fiery-eyed, walks with a crutch and wears an enormous tweed cap. Dingo has long, greased hair, mournful El Greco eyes, a tooth missing from each jaw, and an overall appearance of broken nobility tinged with a playful, fantastical dastardliness. He slaps a basketball nervously from hand to hand as we stand together in the starkly lit main room. This room, which contains a writing desk and some overflowing garbage bags, feels like a stage set, and the scene that unfolds in it – obscure, inconsequential, intense – is oddly reminiscent of the avant-garde plays of twenty or thirty years ago. The situation is this: the three were renting the apartment for $250 a month under the previous owner. Fernando has raised the rent to $950 a month (this is America), which they are apparently willing to pay, but he has evicted them anyway because they make too much trouble. There is nowhere for them to go except for a notoriously awful guesthouse where the manager himself is a crack addict, and though they have packed up, they have made it clear that they are not actually going to leave until the marshal comes to throw them out. As is often the case in this country, the impersonal machinery of economic and legal conflict is strangely unaccompanied by rancour at the personal level. Relations between them and Fernando are, if anything, rather cordial. They seem to regard him as a sort of spiritual counsellor, a role he accepts with relish, dispensing practical advice on how to get their lives together.

None of which conveys the feeling of primal chaos gusting around this room: the impression of a world in which nothing is or ever has been reliably itself, and the consequent erosion of reality which, unlike the more outward, physical manifestations of poverty, seems irreversible. There is an attempt to get to the bottom of last night’s incident, but it rapidly becomes clear that the basic principle of continuity that would make such a conversation possible has been replaced by one of perpetual, dreamlike slippage. One moment Mingo is pointing with his crutch, in a spirit of nostalgic fondness, at various bits of makeshift carpentry he has performed in the broken ceiling and walls during his twenty years as a tenant. The next, mid-sentence, he starts brandishing his crutch ferociously towards Judy, denouncing her for stealing and hiding his prosthetic leg the previous week. Ignoring the accusation, Judy goes into a complicated tale of a four-dollar loan to a woman upstairs, then breaks off to reflect, with sudden cogency, on how people see her. She attempts to quantify her own proportion of bad to good, concluding that she is 5 per cent bad, 95 good. Catching my eye (she has a powerful presence, confused but passionate, and I have become somewhat mesmerised by her), she begins addressing herself very intently towards me, describing how sad she is to be losing her home. She starts sobbing and I feel peculiarly implicated, though at the same time I am uneasily remembering her alleged quirk of exposing herself and want to avoid incurring that embarrassment. Dingo, meanwhile, is slapping his basketball unceasingly from hand to hand, saying nothing but reacting chorus-like to everything with histrionic expressions of fellow-feeling on his magnificent wreck of a face. And out of nowhere a crisply dressed young man – a car thief, I learn later – has materialised in the room and begun spouting verses from the Bible.

Leaving the building, we run into two teenage boys who seem to have been waiting for Fernando. One is skinny and pale with a shaven head and dark tattoos swirling up around the side of his neck. The other is no more than five feet tall and would look like an impish ten-year-old if it weren’t for his wispy blond beard. His name is Kevin and it turns out he is the level-three sex offender Fernando mentioned on the way over. He and Fernando begin to talk about the possibility of his renting a room. As I stand there I am aware of something in me judging this to be a momentous encounter, requiring an appropriate bearing. But at the same time it is impossible to connect the forbidding term ‘level-three sex offender’ with this harmless-looking individual, so that I am unable to settle on anything, and just vacillate rather ridiculously between postures of compassion and sternness. Fernando wants to know about the posting regulations under Megan’s Law (which requires communities to be notified of the presence of convicted sex offenders); the boy assures him that the sheriff’s office will take care of all that, posting pictures of him all around the neighbourhood. With an odd meekness, like a chastised and thoroughly penitent child, he adds that in other places he’s lived the landlords have always been fine with him, ‘just sometimes the other tenants get worried, case I screw up again,’ and that meanwhile he’s doing everything he’s supposed to: going for psychiatric counselling (he points off in one direction of the city), parole visits (pointing in another – the gesture makes him seem like some forlorn, Dickensian ward of the municipality), volunteering at the community centre. His thin friend, with whom he has been staying, vouches for him: ‘Kevin’s all right. He won’t hurt nobody . . .’ The talk ends inconclusively.

Walking back to the car, we pass some of the properties Fernando has been buying up in preparation for the coming boom. He sees a bustling town with a thriving nightlife: bars for attorneys on county business, restaurants for weekenders, music venues for students from Bard College and Vassar. I want him to be right, but it’s hard to imagine these dead streets coming back to life. Meanwhile, it seems only sensible for him to have hedged his gamble with a bet on failure and misery, which are evidently dependable.

A few weeks later I run into him again. He tells me that James, the boyfriend of the obese girl Heather, is in the local hospital, having cut his wrists with a steak knife after she ended the relationship. He invites me to go back with him the next week, and, somewhat reluctantly (I have more or less decided that this stratum of American life is out of my range), I accept. On the way over he tells me that James died in hospital. The news shocks me – more than I would have expected. There are bloodstains on the stairs and landing, though as far as the other tenants are concerned the event already appears to be history. Calamity is evidently the order of the day here: there is a feeling of life going on amid the clutter of its own unprocessed wreckage. Judy turns out to have been pregnant and has had a miscarriage: five days of bleeding and screaming before she and her room-mates were finally evicted by the marshal. From a cool enough distance the lives in these rooms might be susceptible to some kind of analysis, but in the thick of it one feels more need of a Dostoevsky or even a Dante than a study from the Department of Social Security. Judy’s apartment has been turned over to five young Mexicans, illegal itinerant carpenters. Three of them are there, the other two are in hospital. In pitch darkness – the electricity to the apartment was cut and hasn’t been reconnected – they tell an unfathomably odd tale of crashing into an abyss after swerving in their car to avoid a squirrel.

There is happiness too, of a kind. Kevin, the sex offender, has moved in. He told Fernando his story: a stepfather who beat him, teenage alcoholism, a neighbouring family whose nine-year-old daughter’s affection he confusedly took advantage of. It sounds like a mess of inextricable wrongs, and Fernando has decided to give him a chance. Anna, the woman with lymphoma, has surprisingly befriended him, and we find him in her orderly room, skipping about merrily in shorts and a tank top, with a bowl of cereal. ‘He’s my budster,’ Anna says with a grin. She has even given him her dispensation to leave the bathroom lights on at night, because he’s afraid of the dark.

Rita and her daughter Crystal are here also, in the two-room apartment Fernando has moved them into. They seem rapturously grateful. At one point Rita offers Fernando some money towards her $500 deposit, which she still owes. What she offers is a single dollar – I can’t tell how conscious she is of the pitifulness of this – and Fernando tells her not to worry about it. At this she becomes more insistent, and a moment later Crystal joins her, producing a crumpled dollar bill of her own, so that suddenly we are in the position of having money pressed on us (they seem to have decided I am Fernando’s business partner) by two obviously destitute individuals who in turn appear strangely excited by this reversal, becoming more ecstatically determined the more Fernando resists. Finally he accepts the bills, carefully entering them into his ledger book and writing out a receipt in return. Crystal wanders out to the landing and a moment later I glimpse Kevin walking towards her. He is just going to his room, but it is hard not to flinch from the image of him and this 11-year-old girl in such proximity. He seems deliberately to avoid looking at her, and though I don’t really share Fernando’s sunny vision of things, I try to see this as confirmation of his philosophy of redemption. The alternative is too grim to contemplate.

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