Gold Rings With Missing Jewels

by

06/03/2006

1 Bedford St, NY, NY 10014

Neighborhood: West Village

I live where the wide expanse of Houston Street, in crossing 6th Avenue, suddenly dwarfs down to the little tributary of Bedford Street. It’s an old Mafia neighborhood, where people sit on the stoop for hours. I’ve lived here 12 years, long enough so my neighbors and I know each other, or so I thought.

I have one neighbor, Joe, who a little girl here always called “Santa Claus,” because of his mane of wild white hair and the way he tugged on his long white beard, looking perplexed at one bill or another as he goes through the mail out on the front steps.

Joe worked both as a subway driver for the MTA and as an actor with Theatre for the New City, over in the East Village. He had dark, laughing eyes. One day, as I came out of my apartment with two bags of dirty laundry tied up in sheets, I heard a muffled groan from somewhere down at the end of the hall. I looked to my left, and there was Joe, lying on the tile floor, a brown overnight bag splayed open, a 1970s rainbow-elastic belt on the floor between Joe’s right foot and the bag. I ran over. “What happened?” I asked, and Joe said, “I’m supposed to go to Florida.”

“Where does it hurt?” I asked and he said his hip, and kept talking about his nephew in Florida, and how he was trying to zip the bag, which was plainly overstuffed, and how the elastic belt went zinging off the suitcase, how the force of it was enough to push him backwards, leaving him where I now saw him, his glasses crooked, his left leg bent, his perfectly manicured fingernails gripping his trousers. His hands are too elegant to drive a train, I thought, his fingernails too clean. He must’ve retired.

Just then Jacques, my upstairs neighbor, carpenter extraordinaire, French-Canadian beautiful designer-boy came down the stairs. He called 911. The guys arrived quickly, and I heard them curse when they saw this was a walk-up and we were on the 4th floor with a heavyset elderly man. As they strapped Joe into the gurney he turned to me and said: “Hey, when I get out, will you wear your peacock costume again?”

I used to have these big, wild parties where we’d drink blue punch out of my bathtub, and we’d go up onto the roof and watch the Halloween parade. One year, some guest came dressed as Tompkins Square Park, and wore a chicken-wire fence wrapped around his naked body. The park and squatters were then under siege by the cops. The fence around this man’s body was too wide to fit into the hallway where my door abutted my neighbors’, so he took it off and passed it through my door over the heads of the guests and entered the party naked.

The peacock costume involved me walking around in full plumage that was stapled to a white satin-bustier. I had worn it years ago, when I was in my early 20s. Joe kept talking as the men groaned him down the twists and turns of the stairway and buckled him into the siren-y orange truck. I could see his pale face through the window in the back door, propped up on the gurney, sheets all around him, as the EMS technician came out, slammed the metallic doors shut and said to Jacques and I “Yup, it’s a break. He’ll be at St. Vincent’s. Probably get out of triage and into a room by 10 o’clock. You can call the switchboard then.”

We waved, and I could see the women in the Laundromat, the young Chinese immigrants in “GOOD CHINESE FOOD,” our neighborhood take-out place, and the older Chinese dry-cleaners, who had all poked their heads out of their stores, go back inside as the truck drove off. By phone from St. Vincent’s, morphine slurring his speech, post hip-reconstruction, Joe asked me to help some friends of his “rescue Harry’s art.”

The friend was Mark. He arrived and said Harry had been Joe’s lover. Joe had been married as a young man, to a very beautiful dark-haired woman who, they said, looked a little like me. They had two children, and then she died in a horrible car accident. Joe fell apart. The kids went to live with the wife’s sister. Years went by, and Joe became friends with this man thirty years his junior. They became lovers. Harry was a painter and some of his paintings were owned by prominent museums. He had died of AIDS several years earlier. Now Joe wanted us to get Harry’s pictures out of the apartment. Apparently, when I saw Joe lying on the floor, he was going to Florida because he was about to be evicted. He was 71 years old.

I had the keys, and I turned one in the lock. The second one turned with a struggle, but I could not open the door. There was some pressure from inside. Mark, one of the friends, pushed his weight on the door and we managed to open it a crack. Inside, it was pitch dark. Mice squeaked and scampered away. Empty plastic water bottles were piled at my feet and Mark asked, “Can you feel the flashlight? He said it’d be on the bathtub, just inside the door.” I felt around in the darkness and the smell of piss and mildew and old dust was sickening. I located the flashlight and turned it on. A mountain of stuff, a lifetime of who knows what, presumably some of it Harry’s art, greeted my beam. I could just barely see slivers of light somewhere far away, where I knew the two tenement windows must be. Now I understood why Joe always read his mail on the steps. Mark said “He has four apartments like this, all over the West Village.”

“Full?” I asked.

Mark nodded. “You might say Joe was a bit of a pack rat.” After that first day, I didn’t help clean Joe’s apartment. Mark and his wife and another elderly gentleman came each day around noon and worked till sunset. For weeks I’d hear Mark and the others calling to each other about each new pulley-load of stuff. When I’d emerge from my own cave to get the mail or run an errand, they’d politely ask how my writing was going. But it always seemed ludicrous to me: Mark with a flashlight strapped to his head like a miner, his wife’s pink sweatshirt covered in grime, the tarp and rope full of ancient medicine chests, broken bar stools, gold rings with missing jewels.

One day, it seemed abnormally quiet. I poked my head out of my apartment. “We’re almost done,” Mark said. I craned my neck around the front door, but the door opened wide; the stuff was gone. A big refrigerator from the 1950s sat revealed, like a Buick, at the far end of the kitchen. The tin bathtub boasted a faded white enamel cover. “We found Joe’s original lease,” Mark said. “From 1952. The rent was fifty-three dollars.”

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