There are these two stories about the neighbors here I've been wanting to write about but I can't get enough ahead in my report-writing or my novel revisions to get to where I can think about it, but there are these images of two women here from the past few months. Still something about them calls out to me. Wally has been in Queens the past few days, where he's still king, so this is all this work plus telling the story—if it is one—about the neighbors is possible if not plausible. It's cool and dry now, beautiful clear sun pouring in, something is eating the plants in the window garden that finally grew.
Quite a few of the neighbors on the hall knew my grandmother but only one neighbor—Juanita—has been here forever. She is my parents' age and has two daughters. We didn't play with them much but a little bit and for years going back to my junior year in college I remember going out in the morning (to my internship at Ad Age in the old Daily News building) and Juanita was there all dressed up in her suit and stockings waiting for the elevator. We would ride down together and walk to the subway. So there were these little pieces of conversation—just small talk, but friendly, sweet—with her all these years. Sometimes I would see one of her daughters and we knew each other but I could never remember her name. Still there was always such a warmness there, not a deep history but one of proximity. After all we had met each other when we were little girls. How many people do you still see on a regular basis that you can say that about?
In August five years ago Juanita was standing here at the door when I told her Grandma Miriam had died and I can just hear Juanita's voice so clearly, with that great Southern accent, that deep, resonant "umm, umm, umm" shaking her head. "You got some big shoes to fill, my. Um, hum, some big shoes to fill." It gives me chills just thinking about it, in a good way.
Not long after that day in August Juanita mentioned it was her birthday, then we said see you later or whatever you say to a neighbor on the hall who is not really a friend and she went into her apartment alone. She had retired by then and was sort of a shade removed. She'd stopped wearing a wig—I never realized it was one until it came off—and looked older with the cropped short hair. Anyway I went out that evening and got her a cupcake. I don't even know if I knew about Billy's Bakery then or what but I had an infant and did what was expedient so it was just a regular cupcake from the grocery store in a plastic case and I left it outside her door. I never heard about it one way or the other. Alex later told me it was weird thing to do. Something you do out in the country maybe but not in the city, leave something to eat by the door.
There is another neighbor here, Laurie, younger than Juanita with a daughter just out of college. I first remember meeting her when she sold me a t-shirt for the Intergenerational Garden. She was wildly enthusiastic about the garden and encouraged me to get on the waiting list for it which I immediately did. Every time I saw her she was happy, bubbling over about how lucky we are to live in such a green place. I remember running into her one evening in June, I was across the street with Wally and she was on her way home. "Look!" She pointed to a pine tree behind us with bright green off-shoots. "New growth! I just love it!" The next time I saw her she was at the Intergenerational Garden as Wally and I passed by from the nearby playground one Friday evening already past Wally's bedtime but too bright and glorious to be inside, a week before the longest day of the year.
Laurie called out to us -- she was there in the garden with her mother, daughter, sister, brother, nieces and nephews having the most fantastic picnic with orzo salad and watermelon with mint and feta cheese, open bottles of wine on the table under the cherry tree. Wally was soaking wet from the sprinkler I had forgotten a towel of course and even a bathing suit - I must have had the baby with me in the carrier. Yes I did, because Laurie made a big point of showing Petra to her family, but she paid a lot of attention to Wally, the "big brother" too. They regaled us with watermelon and olives and offered wine and gave me a plate of salads to take home. I did not know her well and she was there already with her family so I was -- I don't know if the word is surprised but I just didn't expect to be welcomed in such an euphoric way. But that was the moment she was in, not me. Laurie was elated and radiant, and even several hours later that evening I saw her out on the street corner still shining, like she just couldn't come down from the moment in the garden.
Then there was a day in there in July I guess when lots of big furniture was being moved out of Juanita's apartment. (The story lines don't overlap but in my mind they do.) I got an almost knot in my stomach - other neighbors on the floor popped their heads out of their doors like prairie dogs, "Is Juanita moving?" Not possible. One, because no one ever moves from this place, how could you afford to live anywhere else, but two for me personally it just wasn't something that would ever happen. Juanita had that great old Southern accent and knew Grandma and knew me as a child younger than Wally and she was just going to always be there, through the longest and shortest days of the year, commiserating about the howling wind in the winter and shaking off the umbrella from a summer storm and just the hellos and goodbyes and how are yous and the remarks about how big the kids have gotten. The seasons pass and there's the new growth off-shooting from the pine tree and the leaves gathered up a few months later and these people are there. You never know them well but they're tied into that natural rhythm of things.
Later that day I saw Juanita in the hall and she assured me leaning out her door that she wasn't moving, just getting an update to her furniture. I was relieved. Wally puzzled over a chair in the hall with a heat-drying contraption over it like something from an old salon.
Then there was a weekend day, I was coming back by myself from the grocery when I saw Laurie out on the curb helping someone out of a sort of like ambulette car into a wheelchair set up on the sidewalk. She seemed to be waiting for something though before she was going to get him out. I asked her if she needed help and she said no, she had it. I said okay and went inside.
On July 7 we were coming home from Connecticut and met Laurie waiting for the elevator. She did really acknowledge us, but stared straight waiting, an empty laundry basket resting on her hip. When we got inside the elevator Wally asked, "Did you have a good July 4th?"
"No," she said. Nothing more. It wasn't the kind of thing that you pressed for an explanation and anyway Wally kept chippering on and on in that little squeaky voice. "Then make your own July 4th," he said.
"You're right," Laurie answered, "I should" staring straight ahead, mostly just air in her voice. When we got to her floor she stepped out and turned to face us. There was no way to ask her what was wrong, no time, and without the garden and the late spring evening and the wine under the cherry tree no invitation to approach her for long enough to find out.
"Shalom," Wally called out to her. Just before the door closed, she put her hand over her heart and smiled in that touched and sad way someone whose heart is broken is somehow able to smile. It’s
amazing that there is a word like that. Shalom. One that means hello, goodbye
and also peace.
I've seen her only once since then. She did ask about the baby, and looked hard at the baby's face, then kept moving.
Juanita I saw down by the recycle bins last Thursday, holding 5 pillows, wondering were she could put them.
"This is it," she said, setting them down. "This is the last day."
"What? What?" Here I was too histrionic. She was impassive.
"Yep, that's it." It was so understated, after 37 years, but more than that, exhausted and resigned.
"You're leaving? I can't believe it! I can't believe it!" I knew my tone was off, too loud, too dramatic.
"It's not easy," she said quietly, "With Social Security." We didn't actually even say goodbye. I was just so caught up in what it meant for her to leave. The symbolic end of the old guard. Shalom, I should have said, but instead I just watched her return to wait for the elevator for one final look around her empty apartment.
Out in front I saw one of Juanita's daughters. We exchanged a few words. I almost felt an impulse to, but there was no reason to ask for contact information. It would just be to avoid the reality of a final goodbye, even to someone you really barely know and never spoke to much when they lived ten feet away.
Later that evening up in the dark hall, (it seems one of the bulbs was out or is that just how I'm remembering it) I ran into a neighbor on my floor who knows Laurie. I asked him what was wrong. Her husband died, he said, 8:30 am on July 4th morning. He'd gotten very sick, he was okay for a while, then it came back very suddenly in the past few months, and he had come home to die. Was that him, waiting to get out of the car into the wheelchair? It had to have been. I'd never taken notice of him. I didn't even think to notice that he wasn't at the garden that night with the rest of the family, that he wasn't there when Laurie stayed out hours longer, still not all the way down from that high.
will write Laurie a note today. I never met her husband. Juanita and her daughters I will likely
never see again. There is a slowness here, and that's the surprising part, a
cadence that that is old, familiar, deliberate. Not that things aren't
happening, sirens blaring, new buildings going up overnight, but unlike so many
other parts of the city, people stay here. So you see them, through the various dream-like stages of
lives you never really know. You leave a cupcake by their door, carry home
watermelon they gave you on a June evening, see them get rid of the chair
they've had since the 1940s. You have glimpses of them, snapshots—you never
go in their apartment or sit down for an actual meal where you find out where it is they worked all those years or
why their husband wasn’t at the garden picnic—but you see them day by day, in
the elevators and the hallways, as they slip into the privacy of their home, or
come out and prepare to enter the world, you see them incrementally grow
exhausted from a lifetime of work as a single mother and don’t even realize how
tired they’ve looked now for years until you see them without their wig, carrying
the last pieces of their life here down to the recycling bin, or catch them in a euphoric moment in the garden in spring, just weeks, days, hours, seconds even before and
after they are submerged under crushing grief.