I noticed him during the first week of living in my new apartment. I was staring down from my fourth floor two bedroom. He sat in a window on the south side of the block, to the west of Kelly’s Flat Fix facing 3rd Avenue, his elbow hanging out the window as if he were driving along in a car somewhere out in the country.
He was a thin man, Hispanic, balding; he looked to be in his sixties. I sipped my coffee and watched him smoke a cigarette and pull another from his pack as he watched Kelly’s men fix a flat tire on a Buick. A Puerto Rican woman dragging a cart of laundry waved to him as she passed and he gave her a nod.
I had previously been a “never-go-above-14th Street” New Yorker, but I had insisted on moving uptown because I wanted a year without distractions. In Spanish Harlem there was nothing remotely interesting to buy for thirteen blocks – the distance to the nearest Starbucks. In my new neighborhood, there would be no window-shopping and no compulsive coffee buying. There was hardly a reason to leave the apartment, and that was exactly what I wanted—to bore my material impulses until they atrophied. I needed a year to do work without interruption, no friends stopping by; just a two bedroom, two bath, newly renovated and vermin-free place with Alex, my live-in boyfriend, who cooked dinner every night.
I commuted to school in Bronxville twice a week. I was in my last year of college and was only taking writing courses. The year was for my writing, and so there I was with a blank journal and an assortment of pens lying on a new desk while I stared out the window and spied on the man in the window, waiting for him to do something extraordinary.
After Alex left for work every morning, I set myself up at his desk by the window, where I could see the man. I didn’t like the second bedroom that was my study – there was something off about the light in it. I stored my clothes and books in it like it was a big, $500-a-month walk-in closet. Out in the living room I drank my coffee and sat at Alex’s desk with my new kitten watching the street below. I followed the people; the kitten kept track of the pigeons.
The man in the window had white shirts and brown shirts, or maybe just two – one of each color that he alternated, and an old tan leather jacket that made me think he was once a cattle rancher in Patagonia. He smoked approximately three packs of Marlboros a day. At first I thought he couldn’t walk and that was why he sat there all day, but then I saw him get up and disappear into his apartment and return a minute later. He seemed perfectly agile, almost athletic.
Sometimes people brought him things. He handed something to one of Kelly’s Flat Fix guys, maybe Kelly himself, and he went to the mid-block bodega, El Chile, and returned a few minutes later with a small paper bag and what appeared to be change. Another day a woman handed him something and he handed her something which she put in her purse, and then they chatted for fifteen minutes, smoking cigarettes, words punctuated with nods and long silences. On sunny afternoons, when the sun glared down on his side of the block, he closed his window and pulled down the shade until the sun set. There was a small wooden cross ornament that hung from the window latch. In the evening he pulled up the blinds and opened the window and people stopped by on their way home from work to talk.
When I told other people about the man, they said he must be a bookie. They said off-track betting, but the man was never on the phone. There was no computer in sight. All he had in front of him was the window looking out. Some people told me he had to be a drug dealer, but he was too old, and the only people he talked to were middle age family types. Teenagers walked by and never seemed to acknowledge his presence.
I tried to convince my college friends to visit me and see him for themselves, but they declined. They were afraid of my neighborhood, with its lack of shop windows and terrace restaurants. One friend said she was pretty sure she’d get raped on the three-block walk from the subway. I don’t talk to that friend anymore.
“Maybe he’s a poet,” I said one evening, staring out the window.
“Old men sit in windows all over this city,” Alex said, staring down a manuscript he brought home from work. “Did you write anything good today?”
I liked to think that the man in the window was an exiled poet even though I never saw him writing or reading or anything, not even a newspaper. I pretended he had escaped the military dictatorship in Argentina and when the country recovered, people had forgotten him and he’d been waiting to be invited back ever since. Or maybe, since the neighborhood was mostly Caribbean, he was Dominican. Perhaps he had known Trujillo and they’d had a terrible falling out. I searched for his face in a pictoral history of Spanish Harlem that a friend gave me but I found no trace of him. Some country has forgotten their poet, I thought. The man is famous and no one remembered. “Don’t worry, I’ll tell them who you are,” I said to him one day, standing at my window looking down at him as he lit another cigarette. Then I tried to remember the last time I left the apartment.
I was waiting for a great story to unfold down on the street. After a few months, the cast of characters grew at the little commercial strip across the way. The owner of La Fonda Boricua paced outside his restaurant smoking in the late morning. He wore steel-toed cowboy boots, beige Armani suits and a very expensive ten-gallon that seemed precariously perched on his small head. Some days he wore bling, other days, bolo ties. I called him the Restaurateur. He normally shot the breeze with the West African man who ran a hole in the wall junk shop that sold sunglasses and fake leather purses. The Restaurateur and the man in the window never talked, but I was waiting for a showdown, pen poised above paper, ready to write it all down and send it to The New Yorker.
One day I was in my study, which I had finally set up, when I heard the most unnatural yelling. I ran to the window thinking This is it. This is when the man will finally do something. Maybe he’ll get up and leave his apartment; maybe he’ll confront the Restaurateur! I had imagined how their feud began: how the Restaurateur had taken everything the man had – a bet gone wrong – and started La Fonda, the most successful restaurant in town. I peeked out the window, hiding from view in case things got rough.
The sidewalk was empty except for the man who was standing, leaning half his body out the window. He was squawking, yelling from deep in his throat as if it was the first time in years that he’d spoken. I couldn’t make sense of the sounds he made, aside from that he was very angry. He carried on for five minutes and I kept my eye on the dark door of La Fonda, waiting for the Restaurateur to emerge. The West African man sat in his folding chair calmly, as if he didn’t even hear the yelling.
A man from Kelly’s Flat Fix came out, stuffing a greasy rag into his back pocket and raising his arms palms upward in a questioning gesture as he walked to the man’s window. He grabbed some bills the man held out and walked next door to the bodega. A minute later he returned and tossed the man a pack of Marlboros. The man in the window had been out of cigarettes, that was all.