Death Comes to The Fenwick Arms

by

12/31/2010

Neighborhood: Upper East Side

Death Comes to The Fenwick Arms
Photo by oNico®

     I’m holding the door open for Mr. 11A and his dog, but when he sees the Medical Examiner’s van and the police car parked in front of the building, he stops, leans in close to me, and asks in a stage whisper, “Do they suspect foul play?”

     I tell him that the police had only been waiting for someone from the medical examiner’s office to pick up the body and they have no suspicions that 3C died of anything other than natural causes. He seems to accept my explanation, but he’s lingering in the doorway like he wants to be reassured by someone with more authority than the summer doorman.  I’d like to spend the last twenty minutes of my shift in peace, but 11A won’t go away. Luckily for me, the dog is more interested in emptying his bladder than in finding out if 3C was killed in the conservatory with the candlestick. The golden retriever whines and pulls on his leash until his master lets himself be led down the street.

     Much to the tenant’s disappointment, there have been no crime scene technicians, and the two detectives who were here stayed for about ten minutes. For most of the last five hours, the only representative of the law enforcement community in the building has been the rookie cop who got stuck with the job of waiting for the guys from the morgue. “I didn’t become a cop so I could babysit stiffs,” he griped. I tried to be sympathetic, but the truth is I would have been happy to trade places with him.

                                                                                 ***

          Earlier today, a very anxious-looking woman approached my desk. She told me that her name was Carol and she was a co-worker of Teri Peters. “Teri didn’t show up for work,” she said. “She didn’t call and she’s not answering her phone. Could someone go up and see if she’s there and all right?”

      “I’ll try her on the intercom,” I said. “Maybe her phone isn’t working.” I buzzed 3C, but got no response. “Are you sure she’s home?”

     “I don’t know where else she could be,” Carol said, drumming her fingers nervously on the desk. “We had a meeting with a new client today. There’s no way she’d miss it.”

     “She might be taking a nap.”

      I pressed the intercom buzzer again, holding it long enough to rouse the deepest sleeper, but still there was no reply. “She could be in the shower,” I suggested, trying to sound optimistic, but by this time I was as worried as Carol. I gave the buzzer one last thirty second-long push. To avoid looking at Carol while we waited for a call that wasn’t coming, I pretended to adjust the settings on my walkie-talkie before finally calling the super. “John, can you come up to the lobby, please?”

     John got the spare keys, and he and Carol went up to 3C where they found Teri Peters dead on the bathroom floor.

     The EMTs were first on the scene. They quickly confirmed the super’s diagnosis. Ms. Peters had been beyond their help for many hours. When the police arrived a few minutes later, I directed them to 3C. “3C,” said the sergeant, sounding disappointed. “So it isn’t Esther?”

     Esther, the old woman in 15C, has been terrorizing the local precinct for years. In her pre-Alzheimer’s days, she was a community activist who was—even by the standards of the Upper West Side—a loudmouthed, pain-in-the-ass busybody. The super told me that in the old days she was always on the phone to her councilwoman or assemblyman or the Manhattan borough president’s office to complain about dog shit on the sidewalk, or a fruit vendor’s umbrella being too big, or a bank’s sign being too bright. But now that her ability to make a nuisance of herself has been constrained by her diminishing mental capacity, she limits herself to calling the police—usually to complain about the opera singer across the street. The baritone in question moved away more than a year ago, but she insists she can still hear him. “How would you like it,” she demanded of me one morning, “if you had to listen to Der Vogelfanger bin ich ja all night?”

     A police car double-parked in front of most buildings would probably cause the residents arriving home from work a little anxiety. They’d likely ask the doorman in a concerned tone: “Is everything all right?”  But thanks to Esther, a police car in front of The Fenwick Arms is such a common sight that nobody imagined something terrible might really have happened. To the contrary, when the tenants started pouring in around six o’clock, some of them came in cracking jokes.

     “Give ‘em Hell, Esther.”

     “So they finally caught up with you.”

     “You didn’t tell them what apartment I live in, did you?”

     I had to ruin the mood by saying in my most somber mortician’s tone, “There’s been a death in the building.” Because I’ve only been working here a month, I never knew if the particular tenant to whom I was breaking the news had been a friend of the deceased. If I’d known what kind of relationship each tenant had had with Ms. Peters, I could have adjusted my delivery accordingly, and I could have braced myself for the more emotional responses.

     In my role as Death’s messenger I experienced the full range of reactions: Mr. 12D, who, like most of the tenants, didn’t know 3C, offered polite expressions of regret; Mrs. 9E got a little choked up once I confirmed that 3C was indeed “the heavyset woman with short, gray hair who did something in advertising;” a hysterical 6A collapsed theatrically onto the couch and howled, “She was a young woman!”

     To describe 3C as young might be an overstatement. She was probably in her mid-fifties. She was also, as 9E politely put it, “heavyset.” I learned from Carol that Ms. Peters had taken medication for some kind of heart ailment and last month her doctor had rebuked her for not losing weight.

     This news was an uncomfortable reminder of a conversation I had had with 3C. One afternoon last week she had come into the building and said in mock-horror, “I have terrible news: The Hot & Crusty is now selling Carvel ice cream.”

     “Sounds like good news to me,” I said.

      “That’s not a temptation I need,” she said, making a gesture that indicated her ample physique.

     “Don’t give up one of life’s great pleasure for the sake of vanity.”

     I don’t know if she took my advice. I’d feel awful if the fat and cholesterol in that one butterscotch chocolate sundae that I might have persuaded her to eat was what caused her heart to give out. On the other hand, if her heart was already damaged beyond repair, I’m glad my suggestion might have brought a little happiness to her last days on Earth.

     As the news spread throughout the building, people—mostly older tenants—started coming down to the lobby for the latest updates. Carol was still here and she’d been joined by some of her co-workers. They were talking to Mrs. 9E about 3C’s sister in Philadelphia. Esther couldn’t remember Ms. Peters, but was otherwise surprisingly lucid as she sat on the couch commiserating with 11B. I was telling 4C, Mr. 3B, Mrs. 14C, and 11C everything I knew when I noticed 16B approaching us from the elevator. When she saw who I was talking to she hesitated for a second, but her curiosity was greater than her hatred of 4C, and so she crept into our little huddle.

     I had witnessed my first battle in this long-running war a few days earlier when one of the passenger elevators was broken.  4C had been waiting for the one working passenger car with her two dachshunds. Dogs are only allowed in the service car, but Carmelo was using it to pick up the garbage and 4C didn’t want to wait. 16B walked into the building still sweating from her jog around the reservoir. “You know you’re supposed to take the service elevator,” she snapped. The elevator door opened and 4C said, “Fine. Go ahead. I’ll wait.” While the elevator carried 16B upward, 4C stood there fuming. After the elevator reached 16, it began its descent to the lobby. But first it stopped on 15. And then 14. And then 13. “Can you believe her,” cried 4C. “She pressed every floor.”

     4C was telling us about the last time she’d seen Ms. Peters when she spied her old nemesis. She turned violently toward 16B and looked like she was about to say something nasty, but she held her tongue, and a cease-fire was silently declared to allow both sides to mourn the dead, or at least catch up on the gossip. “Anyway,” 4C continued, “I was talking to her in the laundry room just the other day and I noticed her color was terrible.”

     When two men pushing a gurney showed up a little after ten o’clock, the few tenants still hanging around the lobby returned to their apartments.  Whether out of respect or superstition, no one wanted to be around when the body was taken away.

     A few minutes after the super took the men from the medical examiner’s office up to 3C, the sergeant returned to pick up his disgruntled rookie. “If Esther should have some kind of accident, maybe fall down the elevator shaft,” he said as he got into the elevator. “I can promise you there’d be no investigation. Think about it.”

                                                                         ***

     11A has returned from walking his dog. “One day last year when my daughter had a broken leg,” he says, “Teri had the driver from her car service drop us off at Amanda’s school.”

     “Everyone seemed to like her a lot.”   

     All evening I’ve been hearing about small acts of kindness performed by 3C for her neighbors. Mrs. 14D mentioned that Teri had hired her son as a summer intern and then wrote a letter of recommendation that helped him get into NYU Business School. 3B told me that Teri had been so helpful when his family sat shiva after his wife died.  

     11A says goodnight and gets in the elevator. As the door slides shut, Paddy, the night doorman, enters the lobby. I’m telling him about 3C when the service car opens and the cops, the super, and the morgue guys, pushing the polyethylene-enshrouded remains of Teri Peters, pile out of the elevator.

     After the M.E.’s van drives away, I ask John and Paddy how many times they’ve been through this before. “Findin’ the body, ya mean?” asks John. “Once every couple of years.” The two Irishmen between them have almost fifty years working in this and other buildings, so “once every couple of years” adds up to a lot of corpses.

      “It happens to everyone if they work in a building long enough,” adds Paddy, who, in addition to this job, is the super of a small building on the East Side. “I remember the worst one I ever seen. It was in my building. The silly cunt hung himself.” Paddy grimaces at the memory. “Around his mouth was all dark, like, from the blood not circulatin’. The tongue hangin’ out of his head.  And the shit.”

     “What about 8C?” John reminds him. “With the diabetes. Christ the smell! She must’ve been dead a week.”

     As John and Paddy reminisce about the dead tenants they’ve found over the years, I notice that the particulars of the deaths are vivid in their memories, but the details of the lives of the deceased tenants are a lot hazier. “The old fella in 10B,” Paddy is saying. “Or was it 11B? You know the one I mean. He always wore a hat.”

     But John can’t remember him.

     And that’s probably for the best. If you have to suffer the posthumous indignity of being found naked and befouled by the porter or super, you can take solace in the fact that, while the image of your humiliating demise might stay with him till his dying day, any memory of you as a person will likely be buried under the memories of the lives and deaths of other tenants. All that will be left is, “He always wore a hat.”

     And it won’t be any different with the neighbors. 3C is the talk of the building tonight, but 4C and 16B will be screaming at each other within a few days because one of them is hogging the washing machines or some other nonsense. And Esther, who has already forgotten 3C, will keep calling the police until she’s put in a nursing home, or until the day the sergeant gets the call he’s been hoping for.

     Those tenants mourning in the lobby earlier may not grieve too deeply or for very long, but they will at least postpone Teri Peter’s relegation to the ash heap of Fenwick Arms history. The majority of the tenants, however, won’t even have the opportunity to forget her.

     A Lincoln Town Car pulls into the space that was vacated by the M.E.’s van. I rush out to open the car door, but 2C is asleep in the backseat. I hold the door open while the driver resuscitates the exhausted young banker. 2C struggles out of the car and drags himself into the building. He nods at John and Paddy on his way to the elevator. With no ambulance or police car out front, and no crowd in the lobby, 2C has no way of knowing about today’s tragedy, and we don’t bother to tell him. He’ll be getting up in a few hours to return to his desk at Deutsche Bank or Morgan Stanley for another sixteen-hour day, oblivious to the death of a woman whose life for the last three years had been separated from his own by a few inches of wood and plaster.

 

      

 

     

     

     

     

      

     

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