In 1971 the man who ran me over with his car moved to Brooklyn Heights.
My family had moved there earlier–in 1966–and so I spent my first birthday and the subsequent seventeen ones on Grace Court. My father, Brooklyn born and raised, had decided, not unreasonably, that a one-bedroom on West 10th Street was cramped for three. My mother, Boston born and raised, declared that the trail would lead no further than Brooklyn Heights, and still glows with maternal pride that she spared me and my brother an upbringing in Flatbush or Sheepshead Bay.
And Grace Court was a beautiful block, with Promenade views without the pedestrian foot traffic of the Promenade. And the building, then rent-controlled, now co-op, where we lived was big and rambling and in disrepair. There was the super, Mr. Nader, and his three daughters, and his German Shepherd, Lobo, who spent much of his time sticking his head out of Mr. Nader’s first floor window and barking at anything that came near him. Unfortunately, Grace Court was a dead-end street, now a cul de sac, and was perfect for stickball, with first base roughly demarcated by Mr. Nader’s window. This was fine as long as you were under four feet tall. If you were any taller, you risked being decapitated, or at least scalped, by Lobo.
Lobo died terribly, poisoned by something concealed in raw hamburger meat, and everyone believed that Sarita had done it. Sarita was British, but not really particularly from anywhere, read tarot cards, and was certainly capable of poisoning Lobo. Years later she attacked a friend of my mother’s who had befriended her for a time, and years after that a friend of my brother’s got a peek into her apartment and reported she was running a dog mill.
There was also Mary R. who used to pass out in the lobby, and who was saved from certain Mr. Goodbar fate by her conversion to Sufism. In the basement laundry room I would watch as she unfurled yards and yards of white cloth from the dryer. I could remember her in the hallways with her business suits, her cigarette and her highball glass, and then, one day, there was all this white.
And Mrs. Sours, who always wore purple wool. Adults always just seem indistinguishably old to children, but Mrs. Sours was about a hundred. She had gnarled hands, chin hair, and unusually sparkly eyes. We called her, not inventively, “The Witch.” Once when my father was in the elevator with her, a cockroach crawled out from her purple sleeve. Mrs. Sours died during the heat wave of 1977 and no one noticed for a while.
Mrs. Thacker was the doorwoman and from down South: Kentucky. Her son had been the super before Mr. Nader, but young Thacker had left and Mrs. Thacker had stayed. I don’t know if she was an official employee of the building–very little was official in those days–or if she just liked to sit in the lobby, but she was there every evening. The front door of the building would be propped open and Mrs. Thacker would sit. What she was preventing or welcoming is unclear since she was grossly overweight and hobbled by diabetes and most likely everyone would have been much safer if the door had been locked and Mrs. Thacker had been in her apartment. Still, she was there to tell us not to run through the lobby, and to bear witness, and to chat with passersby in speech that would be of interest to linguists; Mrs. Thacker pronounced the past tense of regular verbs as their own syllable, as in, “Sarita attack-ked Vivian…”
Which is all just to say that when the man who ran me over with his car moved to Grace Court in 1971, he fit right in.
It’s strange to begin to see your own increasing age in the world through the increasing ordinariness of electronic appliances, but in 1971, air conditioning was a luxury. So were push button phones, and there were no such things as answering machines or VCRS. And so it was not exactly a mark of abject poverty in 1971, on a hot summer day, to anticipate the opening of the fire hydrant, though it was as illegal as it is today. But Mr. Nader had the wrench, and he had the cap that made the hydrant sprinkle rather than dribble or push you back like a rioter. And sometime in the early afternoon I heard the sound of water on pavement.
I had a one-piece bathing suit in pink. It signified the start of my fascination with velvet at age six. When the bathing suit was wet, if you ran your hand over it one way it turned a sleek and shiny icy pink with tones of metallic gray in it. If you ran your hand over it the other way, it became a rough deep rose, spiky like freshly turned earth. It was transfixing. Perhaps too transfixing for street play, even on a cul de sac.
I appeared in the living room in it and my mother looked dubious–she hated hot weather and I had never been allowed to play in the hydrant unattended. I could hear the shrieks of joy from the other kids on the block, the uneven sound of the water being held back by the older boys and then released with renewed vigor. I could tell I was in for grave disappointment unless something radically new and unexpected happened. And I don’t know what it was, but it happened, and I was allowed to go downstairs after being told to be careful.
The water was cold. Everyone was either in the spray or on the sidelines, baking up before another pass. The jets were forceful but not overwhelming and on the edges the mist was fine, producing rainbows when viewed from certain angles.
I remember the deliciousness of running through the arcing water, the rough feel of cooled-down wet asphalt. I remember my last run, the dim realization that no one else was in the water with me; that in fact they were all on the sidewalk; that in fact they were all looking at me with a mixture of concern and pity; that in fact, they were all yelling various things at me.
Like, “Watch out!”
And I remember seeing, at the last moment, the blue Volkswagon Beetle, right before it hit me, right before I slid up the triangular surface of the Beetle’s hood and almost up to the windshield and then back down to the ground.
The next thing I knew, I was on the sidewalk across the street from my building, bleeding, worrying the velvet on my bathing suit–smooth icy gray, rough spiky rose–and repeating, idiotically and futilely, it seemed even to me at six, “Don’t tell my mother!”
My mother, of course, appeared shortly after that.
As for the man who ran me over, he drove us to the hospital. He was in his mid-twenties and had just moved into the building; this had been one of his first drives down the block as a resident. He talked a lot, and it would be reasonable to assume it was because he was nervous, but the following thirty years proved he was always nervous and he always talked a lot.
As for me, I was more or less ok. Banged up. I had a bad bruise on my right leg, the one that had led the hip-check of the Beetle. The blood had come entirely from biting my own tongue. By evening I was recuperating on the couch, the TV rolled out from my parents’ bedroom, as it was on these convalescent occasions, which would expand to include, before the year was up, a tonsillectomy, a broken arm, and chicken pox.
Then the man came into the apartment with a stuffed animal, a maroon owl with white wing and breast accents. “Now don’t go getting hit by cars to get presents,” he said to me, before moving into the dining room to present the next and more important element in his anti-litigation package: a small baggie of pot for my parents.
While they torched up at the table and got to know one another, I watched the TV, named the owl–not inventively–Hooter, and listened to the rise and fall of their conversation over the familiar acrid smell that constituted Happy Hour at Grace Court in 1971.
In the late 70’s the man who ran with me over with his car wanted to be a rock star. He played at Max’s Kansas City, a place I had discovered with older friends. We would go to see The Speedies and my mother and her friends would go to see the man. Or, they went once. Because, apparently, the man was not a very talented musician. But we wound up with his 45, the cover shot a photo of his wife’s foot in a furry high-heeled mule on the octagonal black and white tile of Grace Court. I spent some time staring at it, trying to reconcile the leg in the bathroom with the man’s wife, who lived in sweatpants and wore glasses and was a little bit bent over.
Then the man converted to orthodox Judaism, adopted two daughters from Korea, single-handedly destroyed a New Year’s party of mother’s with an a capella version of “Proud Mary”, and told us one day a long story about how a goldfish in his apartment had died, but he had brought it back to life.
My friends began to refer to that day in 1971 as the day I hit the car.
I went to college and lived away for ten years after graduate school. The building went co-op and couples with no children moved in and there were no more stickball or volleyball games in the circle at the end of the block. The absence made me remember the sheer numbers of us–girls playing jacks in the front of the building, older boys trying out their hockey skates, younger boys playing handball. “Outside” was simply a destination, a place to be. The Good Humor man came every night of the summer, invariably during dinner, and the year of the bicentennial the street was packed with all of us–old and young. And Mr. Nader guarded the building and its prime rooftop view of the tall ships with, it was rumored, a gun; Lobo kept a little patch of sidewalk open in front of his window.
When I’d grown and moved away, it was always interesting to see who I ran into when I came back. And I usually ran into the man who ran me over. He was always out on the street, talking, smoking, hanging out. It was difficult to talk to him because, while he expressed great interest in anyone’s doings, he did most of the talking, got most of the details wrong, and there was little opportunity to correct him. In 1999 I was living back at Grace Court for a few months and wound up leaving for work the same time as him every morning. I tried to walk slowly; I walked the long way to the subway, avoiding him.
And then one night a few years later, in the fall, I went over to my mother’s for dinner and there was the man, sitting outside the building. “Welcome Home, Lizzie!” he said. His eyes sparkled. He looked thrilled to see me.
“Hey,” I said. “How are you?”
“That’s what I do,” he said, “I sit here and I welcome everybody home. Welcome home! Where are you living these days?”
“Just on Henry Street,” I said.
He’d let me go, he said, so my mother could have me over, he was sure she was waiting eagerly. Since I went over about once a week for dinner, I wasn’t as confident as he was about her enthusiasm, but I went upstairs.
“What’s wrong with Michael?” I asked. “He welcomed me home. It was creepy, it was like ‘The Sentinel’ where the suicide guards the gates of Hell.”
“He’s in very bad shape,” my mother said. “He has brain lesions. But very good meds. He’s in a great mood. It’s terrible.”
Then in the winter, I went over again, and he greeted me once more: “Ellen!” he said. “Welcome home!”
“I’m Lizz,” I said.
“I meant Lizz,” he said. “I know who you are. I meant you were going to see Ellen.”
“Why are you standing so far away?” he said. “Come closer.”
I’d been standing in front of the door, but I walked over to where he was sitting by the shrubbery.
“Where are you living these days? Tribeca?”
“No,” I said. “Just on Henry Street.”
“One of the kids from the building is living in Tribeca,” he said. “So I thought maybe that was you.”
“No,” I said.
“It’s cold,” I said.
“I’ll let you go,” he said. “Go and see your mother.”
I wasn’t going to see my mother; I was feeding her cat while she was away. But like so much of life among neighbors, the details, the distinctions somehow aren’t important, or important enough.
I fed the cat and stared out the kitchen window into the courtyard, a vantage from which I’d often looked, tossing water balloons and, later, cigarette butts. Sometime in the early 80s a sign had been posted in the lobby requesting the cessation of chicken bone tossing into the courtyard, but that hadn’t been me–I was already gone.
The apartment was quiet, the street was quiet, everyone on their way to somewhere else. Which is exactly where we’d all always been heading anyway, despite the way time can slow and warp at the moment of impact, or in the daily living of life behind identical doors that only in dreams would we mistake for our own.