My landlord George fled communist Armenia at a young age. Whenever I have occasion to talk with him in the hall he is infallibly cheerful and quick to offer words of encouragement.
“How a you doing?” he asks me, “is beautiful day but must still be working, what can do.” He shrugs at the day’s obligations.
“Yes, yes,” I agree, “what can do?” He sees me enough around the building to realize that I do not work as hard as he does and I can’t help but wonder if he thinks of me as shiftless. I recall the time I asked him why he had not retired at the age of seventy and he stared at me bewildered as if he had caught me eating soup with a fork.
“What you talking?” he had responded incredulously.
A lot of the time our transactions only last moment or so but if a task is not imminent he chats longer. Often he will recount the early days in his homeland where at the age of 26 he was the only person in his village to be able to get a private car.
“I have a private car drive ah through street in snow, it ah stuck and everyone come out and say ‘you ah good man’ and push car from mud.” His face glazed over in bliss at this memory.
Whenever I meet people who don’t have a strong command of the English language I have a tendency to regard them as vulnerable and childlike, in need of my guidance to work through a conversation. In George’s case this feeling is more pronounced due to his small stature and habit of following almost everything he says with a genuine little belly laugh complete with tiny arm flails. This prejudice I have comes back to bite me sometimes when I’m talking with him. Once in particular he was telling me about a time he was driving his cab (his second job) and a man attempted to rob him of his valuables.
“He come to my side and say ‘give me money’ I say okay and then I come from under and box him” as he spoke his full body gestured the motion of a large sweeping uppercut “I say ‘I kill you mahtherfahker’ and I box him and take knife and.” At this point he butted his balled fist into my arm to show where he had stabbed his would be mugger. The story took me off guard and he must have noticed my shock because he stared wide-eyed shaking his head slowly as if in disbelief of the actions also.
About a month after my roommates and I moved into the brownstone apartment we got a knock at the door and were pleased as always to see George. At our consent he entered with a rare somber look on his face and told us of his stress. As it was he had amidst his busy schedule forgot to make receipt of our security deposit and in an honest mistake had come to try to collect the amount for a second time. We told him that we had paid and were able to dig up the bank record of the cashed check. Upon seeing the evidence and realizing his error George appeared deeply embarrassed about the whole thing and he apologized at great length.
“Please, I no try to take money twice.” He pleaded, “ I don’t know how I forget.” We assured him that we knew it was an honest mistake and that we harbored no ill feeling toward him. He left still feeling unresolved and couldn’t help but feel that in some way we had wronged him. Later that evening he returned and repeated his regret, only this time the apology came with two small cactus fruits that he produced from his pocket. “These ah for you” he qualified the gift as he placed them gently in my hand.
Since that day it has become commonplace for George to have several cactus fruits on standby in his coat should he run into me on the stairs. This week I went to his door one morning to report a problem with my freezer and he met me in his long john underwear. I saw that I had woken him and said that I’d come back later. He agreed but then grabbed my arm as I turned.
“Wait one ah minute” he said and trotted back inside his room. He returned a moment later clutching a small green cactus fruit in each hand; with no words he extended them to me and went back inside leaving me in the hallway alone. What can do, I thought.
Granger Greenbaum is a writer who lives in Brooklyn. His blog can be found at: imminentbystander.blogspot.com