PORT MORRIS — Mary Brimage was born in the South during World War II, toiled on a farm as a child, marched in Civil Rights protests in college, moved north and married and bought an antique store in the South Bronx, which she has run for nearly three decades.
On Friday, she sat behind her cluttered desk inside Thrift World Antiques on Bruckner Boulevard, making wisecracks to neighborhood friends between drags on her Marlboro Lights cigarettes in near-darkness.
Her power had been cut off.
“I’m not mad at nobody,” said Brimage, 68, who lives in a small apartment in the rear of the store. “I just need my lights back on.”
ConEd removed the store’s electric meter last week after a judge denied Brimage’s motion to stop the seizure. Brimage owes the utility $12,490.60, a spokesman said.
“We gave her a [payment] agreement and she defaulted,” said spokesman Bob McGee, noting that her last payment was in January.
Brimage must make a down payment of at least half her outstanding bill to restore the power, McGee added.
“If she doesn’t,” he said, “obviously, the situation will continue.”
Brimage disputes the bill, noting that an $8,673 charge was inexplicably added to it in August.
Brimage believes it stems from one of the three apartments above the store in the building at 41 Bruckner Blvd., which she owns. One apartment has been vacant for several years, but still has power; Brimage thinks ConEd may have transferred its power bill to the store’s account.
McGee did not respond to questions about the charge.
“How could a little store create a bill like that?” Brimage said.
For now, Brimage has run an extension cord from the building’s basement, which still has power, up to her store to light a few lamps.
Neighbors, many of whom she has known since she moved her store to the block in the mid-90s, stop by to chat, or bring her home-cooked dishes, flowers or cigarettes.
“Everybody knows Mary,” said Marilyn Gonzalez, 36, who lives near the store. “Mary just became one of our moms.”
Brimage took over Thrift World Antiques on Westchester Avenue in Longwood in 1984. After a fire destroyed the store, she relocated in 1996 to Port Morris, an area that has become known for its many antique stores.
In those early years, the neighborhood could be rough.
Brimage can recall drug dealers who lowered their products in baskets from their upstairs windows to avoid leaving their apartments. She still keeps a long machete in a sheath behind her desk.
“There was no ‘dignity and grace,’” Brimage said, alluding to a line from “Gone With the Wind.”
At times, Brimage could also be rough, often spicing her speech with choice words learned from sailors in the seaport town in Virginia where she was born.
“In the beginning, she was bad. She used to cuss me out,” said Luis Rivera, 58, a friend and neighbor. “But now, she’s calmed down.”
Brimage’s own past is as rich as that of the porcelain china and oak cabinets in her store.
Born in Virginia, she grew up in rural North Carolina, where she helped farm the peanut and potato fields of her grandparents, former sharecroppers.
At public college in North Carolina, she became active in the civil rights movement and was arrested once during a protest outside a segregated business. Sympathetic townspeople slipped hot dogs and crackers through the jailhouse windows, Brimage recalled.
She later studied at American International College in Massachusetts, where she met her future husband, an Iranian immigrant. They were married 35 years (except for a brief separation), before he died in 2011.
“We had more fun than 20 barrels of monkeys,” Brimage said.
Some neighbors worry that an unscrupulous investor could seize on Brimage’s current money woes, offering her an unfair price to buy her building on the up-and-coming block and redevelop it.
“That little store is her life,” said neighbor Yusuf Hasan. “If you kick her out, she’ll die.”
But for her part, Brimage seems less than alarmed by the thought of lurking developers, even saying she would consider selling her property for the right price.
“Gentrification is just about who can hit the hardest,” she quipped.
On Friday, she vowed to keep working, seven days a week if necessary, until she pays off her bills.
That afternoon, as a customer inspected an ornate porcelain urn at the front of her dim store, Brimage stepped over her sleeping cat Samantha and approached the man.
“Talk to me,” she said, her straw hat tilted back on her head. “I’ll listen.”