The Neighbor Downstairs



St Marks Pl & 3rd ave, ny, ny 10003

Neighborhood: East Village

We got the phone call on a Tuesday night. It was Nick’s boss telling us he hadn’t been to work since Thursday and hadn’t called in sick either. That wasn’t like Nick, and his boss was worried. Nick was an older man who lived downstairs from us. Since he didn’t have a phone and we were his best friends in the building, his boss had our number. We raced downstairs, banged on Nick’s door, but no answer.

Nick was a tall and jowly man in his late sixties who looked bohemian. He wore his beret at a jaunty angle, smoked a pipe, and carried his camera everywhere.

Early the next morning, there was still no answer so we started calling local hospitals and the Veteran’s Hospital, where Nick visited when he had problems. We also called the medical examiner’s office. No sign of him at any of those places. We tried to find his son, who we last heard was living in the Bronx. He was unlisted. By now we feared the worst- that Nick was dead inside his apartment.

We asked another neighbor below if we could walk through her apartment, crawl onto the fire escape, and try to slip through Nick’s back window. Although we’d had a stormy relationship for years, she readily agreed. We were no longer the Queer Couple from upstairs, but Nick’s dear friends frantic about his welfare. We could not dislodge his ancient storm window, so we went back upstairs and decided to call the police.

My lover went to work and I sat down at the computer. I was finding it hard to concentrate when there was a knock on the door. It was the police, who I led to the fire escape. Two cops climbed down, smashed Nick’s window and entered. While I hung out my window and watched and waited, my heart pounded.

I said a little prayer. The neighbor was also hanging out the window. About 15 minutes passed, but it felt like hours.

“What’s happening?” I yelled down anxiously.

“He’s dead,” she said flatly. Just like that.

I beeped my lover and told her to call home. I phoned Nick’s boss and relayed the bad news. I went downstairs into the hallway and talked to the police who by now had the apartment door cracked a bit. The stairwell smelled like Nick’s cheap after shave; the cops had dosed it all over his body. I told them we had been unable to find Nick’s son and asked what happened next.

They said his body would be sent to the coroner’s office for an autopsy. (Cause of death was a heart attack. No surprise; he was chain smoker.)

At this point, the entire building was buzzing. Everyone was out in the hallway and the super had tears in his eyes. The police and the coroner’s grey suited men were in our building for five hours. (Maybe it was more complicated because we could not locate the next of kin.) They sealed up his apartment with official yellow police tape that scared other tenants. A neighbor, who missed this commotion, thought Nick had been murdered.

That night we felt sad and told Nick stories- how he gave so much and would not accept anything in return, not even a flannel shirt at Christmas.

Over the years, Nick had taught my lover a vast amount about photography. He built the darkroom in our kitchen. When my partner first started doing photo assignments, she’d race downstairs to the storefront where Nick hung out. (Absolutely no one was allowed to enter Nick’s apartment.) She’d tell him details about an upcoming job and beg for quick answers. But he refused to hand out knowledge easily. He made her figure it out; then he’d confirm or correct. He was from the old school and insisted she learn how to use a light meter.

Thanks in part to Nick, my partner is now a successful freelance photographer and earns her entire living this way. He remained an insightful critic of her work and was proud of his star pupil. I never once detected any jealousy. He had a lifetime of photo knowledge but he lacked the personality to use it professionally. So he passed it on to a younger person with more confidence and drive.

Nick’s outward life appeared simple- going to his telephone sales job, attending AA meetings, playing on his computer, taking pictures, betting at OTB, and visit- ing us on Sunday afternoon for coffee. He was the only person allowed to smoke in our home. At Christmas, “Uncle Nick” always bought catnip mice for our cats, Bedford and Grove; he fussed over them and they loved the attention.

His boss called the following day to say he’d located Nick’s son, Wade. Someone at work remembered he had graduated from Fordham and got his number from the alumni office. We were relieved we would not have to identify the body and make arrangements. Soon Wade called to tell us there would be a funeral Mass at St.George’s Ukrainian Church. Could we notify his Dad’s friends? We made a few calls, posted a sign in the hallway, and tried -in vain- to contact his home AA group. So who would show up?

The weather was horrible the day of Nick’s funeral. It was raining hard and very windy. We waited in the church vestibule, afraid we’d be the only mourners. Then people from my building started trickling into the church- Pete and Rita, the hardworking super couple; Nancy, a senior citizen; Kathy, a commercial artist; Danielle and Maria, first cousins, well educated Polish immigrants working as a waitress and nurse’s aide.

I was so glad to see these neighbors who were soon joined by about 10 co-workers from Nick’s job. The Mass was in Ukrainian, so we had little idea what as happening, but my lover cried a lot. Wade followed the casket, along with his mother, Nick’s ex-wife. We accompanied them to the cemetery in the hearse and then they took us to lunch.

A few days later, I saw Wade in the hallway. After some hassle- like going to surrogate court to prove he’d paid for the funeral- he’d gotten the keys from the Ninth Precinct and was about to enter his father’s apartment. Would I like a peek?

I knew Nick’s place would be a disaster, but it was truly hazardous. We both fell down as we tried to navigate our way though the rubble in the dark hallway. What I saw inside was far worse than I’d imagined. Let’s just say the man never threw out a plastic or paper bag or carton box. The place had not been painted or cleaned in over 20 years; plaster was falling from the ceiling. I could not figure out where Nick slept because there was debris all over the funky furniture.

The kitchen was crammed with computer equipment and we kept finding cameras and other valuables buried underneath all the garbage. Later, Wade invited my partner to take the cameras, noting his Dad would want her to inherit them.

Admidst a lifetime of clutter, two things stood out- a crucifix and rosary beads were hanging on a grimy wall; a campaign button for Franklin Delano Roosevelt was propped on a dusty dresser as if Nick had just unpinned it yesterday.


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