By James Maher
Name: Jennifer Bonilla
Occupation: 100 Ton Inland Master Mate Near Coast
Location: 7th Street between Avenues B and C
Time: 3:15 on Thursday, Aug. 27
I was born in Amarillo, Texas. I’m a 100 ton inland master captain with a sail and tow auxiliary. I drive boats. I used to work for a New York Waterway and I worked for CUNY on the research boat. I went off to work in Alaska, Oregon, Idaho and now I do private jobs mostly from the Bahamas to somewhere else.
I came here the first time when I was 25. I was an artist. I made jewelry and I realized I could sell it on the street without paying for a permit. [I sold them] on Broadway all the time. I had all this money but then the police took me to jail and kept the money.
Then I got out. I didn’t have my jewelry and I didn’t have my money. I was homeless. I was staying at the Y but when that ended I was out on the street. I got involved with a bunch of squatters and we squatted in an abandoned building. And now I’m a landowner, baby. It’s a good story. I built my apartment. I live on the 5th floor and I carried every single thing up there. Twenty-seven years I’ve lived in the same place.
There were no floors. When I moved in I had to cross over this beam to get to the little area of the floor that was left. We had no toilets, no heat and no water. We got our water from the street and eventually we put in one bathroom on the ground floor with a hot water heater and everybody who lived there shared that.
Then in 1988, we had a five-alarm fire and it burned the front of the building down. We rebuilt it. It was an incredible feat of architectural and structural work that we did to save it. We had a group of architecture students who volunteered with us for three years. They lived there and they camped out in tents. It was fun. We had the greatest life.
Nobody cared back then. The whole neighborhood, every empty lot had trash to the top of the fence. I used to walk around really dirty from the collar down all the time. I could wash all that you could see but a lot of times there was no place to take a bath. That’s how a lot of people remember me those first years. I was working for a bath. Every time I’d meet someone, I’d be like, ‘Do you think I could come to your house to shower?’ And then people would be like, ‘Really?’ All these guys thought I was hitting on them. Then I’d go in their bathroom and I’d lock the door and I’d come out two hours later, ‘Thanks a lot.’
It was so much quieter, even during the drug haze days. We had the big coke C and D cartel on our block. In 1995, the cops busted our block and every one of those guys who were working the block went to prison. Fifteen years they spent in prison. All of them are out because all of their mothers still live out on the block. They’re all reformed criminals. Let’s hope they’re all reformed.
Anyway, there are no more drugs being sold on our block, but with the way those drugs left, total mayhem came. When the drug dealers were running the neighborhood, there was some control going on here. You had security. You could walk on your block, and if somebody was bothering you, they’d step over to you … every one of those drug dealers would surround them and they’d go, ‘Is he bothering you? Cause you’re a homegirl.’ They’d go, ‘Homegirl, homegirl.’
One guy was harassing me and he was following me around. He said, ‘I’m going to send you back to Texas in a box.’ I was petrified and I crossed Avenue B and all those guys, they saw everything. It was amazing. And that guy never bothered me again after they were done talking to him. They had some kind of clout that doesn’t exist here anymore.
James Maher is a fine art and studio photographer based in the East Village. Find his website here.