Photo by Harriet R. H.
When I moved into my apartment going on four years ago, the building looked like a movie star fifty years past her prime. It was in such a condition that they were being ordered by the city to make capital improvements and were continually fined until they did so. I of course had loved its faded glory. Since then they’ve ruin-ivated it and now they are always trying to evict us old-timers for every petty and not-so-petty offense.
Even though I hate the apartment– it’s dark and poorly ventilated, small not in terms of New York City-sized apartments but definitely so in terms of living space shared by a grown man, woman and dog (a pit mix) — in the paraphrased words of Charlton Heston, they will have to pry the lease of my rent-controlled apartment from my cold dead fingers (actually, at that point I can pass it on to my children).
Some of my neighbors are artists. Some are on disability. Val works as a massage therapist. Syd travels a lot. He sublets the place when he’s gone but when he’s home we can hear him singing in the morning through the air shaft. My one next door neighbor has had their place since 1979, the year that I was born. On the block, it’s always the same crew. There’s Burt and Ernie– so-called because one is tall and one is short, and they are always together. When Spud (our dog) was a puppy, Burt (or is it Ernie? I mean the tall one) would give Spud a handful almonds every time he’d see him. It became so that he carried almonds around just to give them to Spud, who just loved them and would gobble them whole only to poop them out later. In a way my neighbors have become, if not family, at least familiar. There’s the older Irish lady with the collie dog and the black lady with the cane that sits on our stoop with her teacup yorkies. She lives with her nephew and dates the Spanish guy that lives on our floor. 88th street between 2nd and 3rd avenues, I sometimes think, is a surviving piece of an endangered New York.
By far our most interesting neighbor was Mazel, who lived behind the door directly across from ours. Mazel, 86 years old, chain-smoked in moo-moos at her kitchen table, complaining of pain, face caked with stage makeup. She smelled of cabbage and cigarettes, an atrocious sort of smell that still emanated from her door for months after she was gone. When we first moved in Mazel went on and on about our good luck. “Mazel tov,” she said, “like my name.” She pointed to a plaque she’d adhered to her door. “It is Israeli,” she explained. “Mazel tov. It mean good luck.”
“Neighbor! How come you never come by and say hello?”
“Neighbor! If you are going to the store, why you don’t pick me up a babka?”
It became so that Mark and I would skulk in and out of the apartment, trying to slip by undetected. Mazel was old and physically weak but she was a pain-pill addicted, lecherous vampire. We were to find out through Val that our apartment had once been Mazel’s also until she’d gotten caught by the landlord (it is illegal to have two rent controlled apartments). She had been subletting it to some guy– whoever lived there before us– for three times the actual rent.
Things began to change when Mazel’s daughter Sandy and Sandy’s boyfriend, Sean and their dog, Rocker came to stay. It was around Thanksgiving. That year I made a whole turkey, the first turkey I had ever cooked myself. I opened the door and invited Mazel to come in for a plate, humbled when all three of them accepted without pause, having no plans for dinner themselves. They came and sat around the kitchen table, cigarettes burning in the ashtrays as they downed their food.
Sandy looked nothing like the picture of her that graced Mazel’s kitchen wall. Now, ten or so years after it had been taken, a once-striking young woman was the spitting image of her mother.
Life is long and short at the same time. Sean– Mark and I were to find out– had was once worked for the New York City ballet. Sean and Sandy had also both once been clean and sober in a program of addiction recovery. That, it seemed, must have been lifetimes ago. That night, after dinner, they smoked a joint — Mazel included.
After Sandy and Sean moved in, Mazel kept ending up in the hospital. They were trying to kill her, the whole block had decided. Someone called the hotline for elder abuse. Eventually, Mazel was put away in a home. Now Sandy and Sean had control of the apartment. All the homeless junkies that had previously hung out in the park at the top of our street now congregated just outside our door. Sandy and Sean came in and out at all hours.
Soon there came constant visits from the police. High and panicking, they’d call 911, only to pass out before the EMT arrived. When they did arrive, Sean and Sandy would be so high they’d forget how to open the door. More than once, the fire department would have to break down it down (once they were called, they were not allowed to leave until they made contact with the callers). It happened so often that after a while, Spud wouldn’t even bark.
One time, Sean tried escaping down the fire escape. What he was trying to escape from, I don’t know; he seemed to be trying to get away from something only he could see. It was like the scene in Ghost when the black shapes come and get the bad guy.
Eventually, they kicked Sandy and Sean out for illegal occupancy; because the apartment was in Mazel’s name, and she was still alive, they couldn’t live there without her. It was the one time I sided with my greedy landlord.
I was at home the afternoon the marshal came to evict them. Rocker barked for days until Animal Control came and took him away. The last we heard, Sean was in jail. Sandy was living on the streets.
Within months the landlord renovated the apartment and jacked up the rent. Through the keyhole, I watched the new neighbor move in. From what we gather, he is a twenty-something professional, one who works normal business hours, as one must do to afford market rate in New York. Some months later, we still haven’t met.