It seems like only yesterday that I moved from Long Island into my girlfriend’s studio apartment in Manhattan on the outskirts of West Harlem on the Upper West Side. My building sits between Amsterdam and Broadway, on the safe side of the street, barricaded in with, maybe twenty or so security guards. It’s across the street from the General Grant Housing Projects. Why would I risk my life and move into a neighborhood where I can’t tell if it’s gunshots or fireworks? Why would I subject myself nightly to hearing a man from 13 stories up blare out of a mega-phone, “Stay in your car.” It’s hard to explain. Since high school I’ve loved the sight of Times Square, the thunder of Broadway, the sizzle of excitement. I’ve always wanted to live here, regardless of the neighborhood. Public transportation has become my way of life now and I like the fact I can order food and have my laundry delivered and never have to leave my apartment. I’ve always loved the bright lights and have gotten used to the roar of the subway. It’s the people on my floor that I’m not so sure about.
I saw Ramona the other day. She’s this short, doughy woman with thinning light brown hair and glasses in her mid-sixties who lives at the end of my hall. Somehow she’s always in eye view. It’s almost as if she sniffs my scent as I exit my studio. Most of the time she’s either waiting for the elevator with her dog Dirty Harry, or waddling down the hall ready to spill the latest saga of her chaotic escapades into my tenuously tranquil life. Sometimes she’s outside, rain or shine, shuffling down the path of least resistance. Nevertheless, she’s everywhere. Once in awhile her gossip makes me laugh. Other times I’m not coherent enough to even concentrate on her senseless babble. But, she’s nice so I try to listen.
This time she stopped me as I was heading to the subway to inform me that she had enrolled herself in BarberShop school. I stood there smiling as she walked away. “Yoga or Tai Chi” I thought to myself. But, BarberShop school? Before I continued my getaway she blurted out, “It’s the only way I’ll meet a man!” Somehow I can’t picture this lady giving a clip, shave, and an Aqua-Velva spritz to an older gentleman on a humid Saturday afternoon.
“Now that I’ve razored your scalp, will you go out with me?”
The following day Ramona told me she hired a woman to organize her closets. What does that mean? I imagined a female lumberjack in black high tops and a ponytail banging nails and ripping out floorboards. Ramona, her assistant, had a ruler between her teeth rolling in drywall, and Dirty Harry was covered in wood chips.
Then I thought, “If it’s closet space you need, why not stuff the dusty clothes into garbage bags and ship them off to the Salvation Army?”
Plenty of the financially less fortunate could use a smock or an old pair of baggy jeans, even if it is stenched in dog breath. I believe the organizer was going to gather and toss thousands of wire hangers Ramona had kept in boxes at the bottom of her closet. Don’t they have programs on TV about people like this? The stuffer was a woman she plucked from the depths of Riverside Park on the Upper West Side. In a matter of minutes, the good Samaritan must have been knee deep in Ramona’s dirty laundry and agreed to do this task somewhere in the neighborhood of three times without pay. Why would a stranger volunteer such a service? “Our dogs seem to have a chemistry,” Ramona explained. A chemistry. So, two dogs sniffing each other’s private parts in a park brought the hoarder and her helper together?
Then she stopped me in Met Food, our local supermarket to tell me she’d received an anonymous letter in the mail. The sender was foolish enough to scribble a return address.
“He said I was an effigy of the devil!” she cried.
I cracked a smile and held back a chuckle. “The devil?”
“What kind of a human would forward a letter like that?” she asked me.
Maybe Dirty Harry had crapped on the sender’s shoe by accident. Or maybe the letter writer became subjected to an earful of her mindless chatter and got offended at something she said. I shrugged, shook my head, and told her that the sender was probably drunk or stoned. She changed the subject and once again I was lost in her one-sided conversation.
I thought about Adele the other day. She was the 89-year-old Jewish lady with the white hair, walker, raspy voice, and coke-bottle glasses, who lived next door. Adele reminded me of an older Anne Ramsey in “Throw Momma From the Train,” only a tad nicer. I never knew Adele existed until the day she rang my doorbell. Unbeknownst to me, she’d been friendly with Jan, my girlfriend, for a few weeks when she decided to welcome herself into my life. As soon as I opened the door that afternoon, there she stood, sideways, hunched over, clutching her walker, in a white cloth nightgown, glaring at me as if I’d eaten her last chocolate chip cookie. We stared each other down for a few seconds, and then it happened. In a deep gravelly tone she belted the words, “Where’s Janice?” leaving out the “r” in a fairly heavy New York accent. I didn’t know how to respond, so I stared.
“Who are you?” she barked.
“Tom,” I replied.
“Well, where’s Janice?” she repeated.
I shrugged and with that, Adele wandered back to her apartment slowly hanging on to that walker for dear life.
A week later the bell rang and I just happened to be home alone again.
“Yeah, where’s Janice?” she snapped as I answered the door.
“Not here,” I told her.
She eyeballed me. I smiled. Then her gruff voice echoed in the hallway,
“Who are you again?”
“Tom, the boyfriend,” I answered.
She gawked at me for a few seconds and then decided to disrupt my evening with the Knicks.
“Tom, the boyfriend, could you help me? My remote is broken. The TV doesn’t work.”
I agreed and told her I’d slip some shoes on and come right over. Adele’s pint-sized television had to be twenty years old and sat on a wooden table that was older than that. The volume was cranked up to the highest decibel, because apparently she was hard of hearing. Because of her poor vision, the TV remote was twice the size of a computer keyboard. I wondered how she was even able to lift it when attempting to change a channel. I mean, this contraption mirrored a heavy piece of slate you’d find in a quarry. Each number had to be eight inches in length, four inches in width. The sight of it was comical. I laughed. Then she belted out over the loudness,
I pointed the remote toward the tube and pressed the number three.
“Nothing,” I yelled.
And with that, the television was fixed.
As I was leaving she grabbed my arm, breathed in my face and said, “Tom, the boyfriend, can I give you some ice cream?”
Two weeks later I was back inside Adele’s neatly cluttered apartment taking the batteries out of her over-sized remote as this time it wouldn’t work at all. I took the elevator down, hopped over to Duane Reade, spent six dollars on double A’s and all was well.
Now she began spewing out phrases from her scratchy voice when I entered and left such as, “Come in, my good friend Tom” and “You’re a doll.”
Adele was in her wheelchair one night when she saw Jan by the elevator. She told Jan to lean down into her face.
In a soft, hoarse tone she whispered into Jan’s ear, “I love him, he’s such a mench.”
In a matter of weeks I had gone from “Who are you?” to “a mench.” What a priceless turn of events. Adele passed away about six months later. I think about her all the time.
I knocked on Chloe Stack’s door the other day. She’s the quick-witted, energetic, pretty African-American woman with a big chest who wears lots of jewelry and lives across the hall. Her quips are so instantaneous that sometimes I think they’re rehearsed. I could be at my mailbox, meandering down Broadway, or throwing out the trash. There she is, smiling and passing me, and at the same time tossing out some dig such as, “Who cuts your hair, Ramona?”
One morning Stack and I walked out of our apartments at the same time to go off to work.
She glanced at me and in seconds shook her head and uttered, “Look what the cat dragged out.”
I yawned and with morning tears dripping from the corners of my eyes, responded, “How do you do it?”
As the elevator door opened she asked, “Do what?”
I answered, “Think of this shit. It’s like your brain is on cocaine.”
She smiled and as we hit the ground floor she threw her black leather bag over her shoulder, winked, and chuckled, “See you later, cowboy.”
I had accidentally locked myself out of my apartment one night throwing out the garbage. I’d forgotten to unlock the doorknob as we had a plumber come in to fix a bathtub incident that day. In a daze the door slammed behind me and by the time I realized the door was locked, my own private hell had broken loose. On the stove was a pot filled with water, the gas light on. The plan was pasta, not leaving my keys inside the apartment.
There I was, standing in the middle of the hallway, swearing under my breath, “Oh shit!”
I took the elevator down only to find the lobby empty. Where are the security guards when you need them? I rode the elevator back up and knocked on Stack’s door.
Through a tiny opening she stared at me, “What happened now?”
I stood there silently as this may have been the first time I’d ever knocked on her door. It felt strange.
“Speak up sonny, I’m not here to schmooze,” she told me.
“I locked myself out and…”
As I continued, she opened the door, mumbled the word “figures” under her breath, let me in, and was dialing security. It was only the second time I’d been in her place. There was no dust, not a spec. No newspapers, magazines, strewn clothes anywhere, just a 60-inch flat screen that looked like one giant piece of glass. At one point I thought about emptying a bag of chips onto her floor, and then eating them in front of her.
Still on the phone she turned to me and wanted to know, “Hey, hot shot, what letter are you in?”
I stared dumb founded.
“I guess the drugs have kicked in?” she asked.
Then I realized and smiled. “Oh, letter, OK, E.”
She hung up, plopped herself down on the other couch, threw her legs over the top and sighed, “So, what’s your poison, dude?”
I wasn’t thirsty so we sat and made small talk until security arrived. He opened my door and I immediately unlocked my doorknob as Stack and Mr. Security stood in her doorway and flirted. I scampered back into the kitchen and breathed a sigh of relief as the pot of water had just started to boil.
Stack had a 6’5” firefighter boyfriend for fourteen years. That’s right, fourteen years. No marriage, no kids, fourteen years. Talk about longevity. I’m not sure what ladder he affiliated himself with, but for some reason he was always here, and not out hosing down a luncheonette somewhere. The firefighter had size 18 shoes. They weren’t shoes really, they were muddy clodhoppers. They took up the entire welcome mat. We always knew when he was here. We saw the hoppers and heard his deep bass voice echoing from inside. I think I might have seen him twice. Both times he nodded. Several months passed and I hadn’t seen the big shoes or Stack in quite a long time. Ramona chewed my ear off one night and told me that Chloe and the firefighter were over. I guess there was no more spark. It’s been awhile since then and I rarely ever see Stack anymore. It’s sad because I miss her snide commentary.
“Choo Choo” Charlie crossed my mind the other day. I pictured him getting off the elevator with his 10-speed bike, wearing his psychedelic helmet and shorts. That’s right, shorts. He wore them even in the dead of winter. I’d see Charlie in the lobby or outside in sub-zero weather, there he was, in shorts, with his bike. That bike was Charlie’s life. I never saw him without it. But, what made Charlie so unique was that he didn’t work. He was a stay-at-home-Dad who took care of the kids, well, tried to. They used to run up and down the hallway and scream until all hours of the night and Charlie was summoned by his working wife to keep them under control. They’d play kickball, softball, dodgeball in the hallway. Their cackles were so loud our apartment door used to shake and balls used to crash into the wall just outside our door. I mean really, isn’t that what the great outdoors is for?
Charlie used to park his 10-speed in the hallway which was fine, until his working wife parked her bike next to his. Then one day as I got off of the elevator I saw the two bikes and a card table. The following day, a coffee table was thrown into the mix. Before long, half of their three-bedroom apartment was stashed at the end of the hallway. We were waiting for the book-shelves.
I said to my girlfriend Jan, “What the hell are they doing down there?”
They weren’t renovating. I mean, the guy didn’t work, so what was all of that shit doing in the hallway? And the shit kept moving, closer and closer to our door! I expected one day to come home and find good ol’ Chuck just outside his door, in a recliner, smoking a stogie watching a football game on his sixty inch plasma that he hooked up to the ceiling. The kids didn’t care. They were chasing each other underneath tables and slamming into lamps. Even Chloe pulled me aside one day and said, “That family’s a fire hazard!” Then one day, it was all gone. I stood, stared, and wondered where all the junk went. Days turned into weeks. I ran into Ramona who told me that Charlie and his family were packing up and moving to Israel. The moving trucks came and good time Charlie and his bike were no longer around. The hallway was quiet.
It doesn’t end there. The cat fights from below are horrific. God only knows what these women are fighting about. Every night it seems the same two women step out into the darkness and bark at each other. I just hear voices. You’d think by now they’d have figured out who the father was. Sometimes I hear screams, like someone has slipped off a balcony and is hanging from an air conditioner for dear life. I rush to the window, but all I see are lamp lights and television screens across the way, inside other apartments. I don’t have any idea where these voices are coming from.
For the past two days I’ve heard something drop on the floor above me which just happens to be my ceiling. I’m assuming it’s a marble. Why would someone drop a marble onto a wooden floor? Is that normal? Then the damn thing starts to roll and I’m following this thing with my ears. I’m up and walking across the apartment following a marble. Suddenly, it sounds as if the same marble careens off of a table and smacks itself into something. I’m in the bathroom shaking my head. Should I take a broom and bang on the ceiling? I mean, what the hell are they doing up there? How am I supposed to sit still? The other day I had to crank the volume on the television because two cop cars decided to chase their suspect down Amsterdam Avenue right outside my window. I couldn’t hear myself think. Then, out of nowhere, a moth and a dragonfly decided to battle it out on the kitchen light. I must have left the window open by accident. The dragonfly was as big as bird. It scared the shit out of me.
The other day, someone from our floor taped a note to several apartment doors. The writer bitched more than once that someone pulled down the metal handle and stuffed the garbage chute with an oversized bag, then walked away without making sure the bag slid down the chute. The concerned numbskull who penned this prose stated that if it continued, they would complain to management. They also said they’d tell the office that they’re living with a bunch of “pigs.” So, now I’m a pig living on the same floor as the devil. Only in New York.