Photo by Jenni Douglas
She looked like a collection of spheres stuck together to represent the female body. Round little torso, round little head, protruding chipmunk cheeks like those on the marionettes on that TV show “Spitting Image.” Dark little eyes that glared from some bottomless well of anger and pain.
Her mail came addressed to two completely different names. Behind her back, everybody called her Bingo. Eventually, she did the same.
Our eight-unit building has two apartments on each landing. Bingo lived across the landing from me. When I first moved in, I tried to be cordial, and she chirped her hellos and told me how happy she was to have me as her new neighbor. She started giving me things. Kitschy fold-up tray tables with faux black marble tops. Little spring-bouquet and cartoon-animal decorated note cards I eventually threw away. Then one day she offered me a knit black vest that reeked so powerfully of bourbon it made my eyes water. I said No Thank You.
Maybe it was then that Bingo’s attitude toward me began to roller-coaster, alternating friendliness and fury for the rest of the time I knew her. It probably would have happened anyway.
Bingo told me she was a hand model for a local art school. Everyone else said she was a retired prostitute. Those letters to the two different names appeared to be earnings statements from financial institutions. So maybe some prostitutes really do save up their money.
The clanging of bottles would herald her arrival. Bingo drank. And when she drank, she fell down. I’d frequently hear the tumbling of Bingo and unknown objects to the floor inside her apartment. When she drank in bars, she’d fall trying to make it back up the stairs to her place. We’d hear that too. One day I found her lying at the bottom of the stairs, rolled up like a little hedgehog in a terribly matted pink fake-fur jacket and wrinkled black miniskirt, dead leaves and twigs stuck all over them. As I helped her up, she mumbled about having fallen down in the park.
We never knew quite what she’d do next, or what would set her off. One afternoon an actor stopped by my apartment to pick up a script. We were both in a hurry, spoke briefly, then he took off. A couple of minutes after he’d gone, Bingo’s screaming voice assaulted my door. “Cunt! Bitch! Bitch! Cunt! Cunt!” and went on for several minutes. I didn’t think this was necessarily a crime, so I didn’t call the cops, but I rang up the landlord for guidance. Held up the phone so he could hear the continuing screams. “Forget it!” he laughed, “She’s harmless.” And that was true. She scared the hell out of me anyway.
Apart from that psychotic dirty look she’d sometimes shoot your way, she never did actually hurt anybody, though sometimes she got into screaming fights with people over nothing. And every now and then she’d do something flat-out insane. One night she stood in the garden, bleating a fractured monologue about how the Catholics were going to get her, but the Russians were going to get them. One day she had her answering service call me to ask what I wanted from her. Her smoke alarm had started chirping as the battery ran out; she had no idea where the sound was coming from, and assumed I was tormenting her. One Christmastime, she ran up and down the stairs ringing a Salvation Army bell. She dropped her underwear onto the tree branches outside the windows of Glen, the cute pastry chef who lived in the apartment below her–apparently unaware that Glen was gay. She also dropped her used tampons into the courtyard below her east window, seriously disconcerting the young couple who found them outside their door.
Every now and then late at night I’d hear her conversing with a fellow barfly at her front door, Bingo murmuring a boozy protest, the guy saying something original like “Come on, baby, you know you want it.” They’d go in, and sometimes a scuffle would ensue. She’d scream for help, knowing I’d call the police. They’d show up, there’d be slurred explanations about Catholic missionaries or something, nobody’d get arrested, and the cops, rolling their eyes, would retreat till the next time.
The end began for Bingo with one of her famous falls. I didn’t know about it till months later when she told me she thought she’d broken her arm, but never went to the doctor. The bone didn’t set properly, so she lost the use of it; it hung stiffly at her side, and she needed help taking care of herself.
I was heading out for a meeting one day when I heard this rhythmic grinding noise coming from the stairway. Some kind of machinery? Hornets? A radio show? The plumbing malfunctioning? Nope. It was a man in a down jacket snoring away on the landing. An acquaintance of Bingo’s with no place else to go.
He moved in and became her “caretaker.” I still heard the falling-down noises every now and then, but he ran all the errands, took in the mail, lugged the groceries. At one point it occurred to me that I hadn’t seen Bingo in months.
Bingo’s great luck/bad luck lay in the miniscule rent-controlled rent she paid, a fraction of the fair-market price.
One day a crew of workmen descended on the apartment. They came out rolling their eyes the way the cops did. One of them mentioned to me the irony that the “caretaker” was beating the patient up.
The landlord got her declared incompetent and evicted her.
And so she was gone. Replaced by a parade of attractive, fit, cheerful young career women, Katies and Jennifers and Stephanies. The change reminded me of Times Square. The seamy, dangerous and forbidden giving way to the corporate, bland and clean.
Most of the time I’m consumed by my own work and life. I’d only think about my odd neighbor after one of those episodes with the cops, or some notable screaming/falling/discarding of intimate objects incident. But Bingo did force me to think about her ex-profession. I work in film and TV, where hooker characters abound, as gimmicks, plot conveniences and vehicles for glamorous actresses to dress down and win Oscars. But in reality–john after john after john, violation after violation after violation– Did the terrible routine of her profession shatter her sanity? Was she unhinged to begin with, and the booze and career choice push her over the edge completely? Or did it all mesh together, like Bingo tumbling down the stairs? Why did she think she needed two names? To pretend that one of them wasn’t really her?
Two weeks ago I did something that had never occurred to me before: I Googled Bingo’s two distinct names. One gave up no results whatsoever. The other produced just one little notice–that she died in upstate New York earlier this year.
A native of Chicago, Illinois, Christine Nieland graduated from Northwestern University. She has worked as a filmmaker, playwright, screenwriter, journalist and story editor in Chicago, Los Angeles and New York. She currently works as a writer, researcher and story analyst for RHI Entertainment, and in her spare time, she’s a figure skater.