In my building, the walls are thick enough that you can’t hear your neighbors. Mostly I know them by the things they leave out on the trash heap, and in the lobby, to give away. Today, I found three cordial glasses, but could not bring myself to take the decades’ worth of birthday cards.
In fact, not too long after I moved here, I started taking pictures of the books tenants left out in a sort of informal circulating library. Biographies of Churchill; copies of Our Crowd; books in German and Italian and Spanish; CDs with names like Oy, Baby! for the Jewish youngster; dated dictionaries and SAT prep books. I put these on Instagram with the hash tag #uwsstory because everyone would know that was shorthand for certain New York cliches, and it allowed me to pretend it didn’t all make me want to cry.
Here is what people know about the neighborhood: old Jews, and slightly younger left-wing cranks, and left-wing intellectuals, and shrinks, and Woody Allen, and bad crime in the 70s and 80s. Now, chain stores and youngish people who enjoy all-you-can-drink brunches have replaced most of the bookstores, the cranks, certainly the crime. When people learn you live here, they either ask or wonder why or, if they are from New York, they assume there is some reason – that you have family there, or a cheap apartment. It rarely occurs to anyone that you might like it.
Personally, I do. I love it. It is not remotely cool. But it is home. I love the wide streets with their golden light and the unpleasant people who go to every reading at Barnes and Noble. I love that you see the same characters over and over but there is total anonymity. You see acquaintances when they visit their psychiatrists; sometimes you run into them.
I live on the avenue of the Upper West Side most closely associated with the Jews who fled the Nazis in the 1930s and 40s. The neighborhood used to be known for its panopoly of kosher restaurants and cafes like the Éclair, where people would speak German while eating Viennese-style pastries. Isaac Bashevis Singer, who lived a block away, ate at the same dairy restaurant every day. The earliest monument to victims of the Holocaust is in nearby Riverside Park, and its awkward wording seems to tell a tale of committees and competing factions. Later, there were singles bars and lurid crimes, and also restaurants with exposed brick walls and yuppies.
Now, there are very few of these residents left — yuppie or refugee — and the restaurants are a thing of the past. A woman of a hundred and five recently died in my building. You sometimes see elderly people come into the café adjoining Zabar’s with their nurses at the coffee hour, and while it’s a pale shadow of the bakeries the neighborhood once boasted, I like to think that is why the café still stocks such recherché specialties as prune danish and crumb cake.
For something that inhibits creativity, depression inspires a lot of metaphors. You can read about it likened to a vine-covered house or a black dog or a dreary balloon, or see it portrayed as a lowering cloud. Maybe because it’s a state so characterized by its lacks — of joy, of fun, of perspective, of energy, of hope, of self-love, of memory — people are eager to imbue it with substance.
When it hit me — in the abrupt way it does when you’ve forgotten to take your meds — I was on the 1 train. It was like being deluged by a tidal wave — no, make that a wave of slush from a passing taxi. The drear was powerful and immediately exhausting. I told myself it would pass. We all have our tricks. When things aren’t too bad, I can sometimes get myself to the Riverside dog run. The best thing to do is to help someone else, like at the church on the corner, although this is easier to say when you’re not in the grip of it. When the prospect of dressing or bathing seems beyond contemplation, when keeping yourself from others seems like one of the few good things you can manage, the energy required to communicate is daunting.
On this day, I wasn’t that far gone. I looked for a way to take my mind off my troubles. I decided on something I’d been thinking of for a while: to go to the senior center and ask them to pair me with someone to visit regularly. I’d used to visit a woman, but a while ago she’d moved, or been moved, to a nursing home out of state, and since then I’d let it slide. There are a lot of elderly people in my neighborhood, and during the winter New Yorkers can feel particularly isolated.
En route, I stopped for a cup of coffee. While I was on line to pay, an old man came in and made a beeline for the single cashier. “I forgot my muffins!” he explained. And then, well, he sort of light-switched. All of a sudden he was furious. “YOU DID IT AGAIN!” he screamed. “YOU STUPID MORON! YOU PUT MY MUFFINS IN A SEPARATE BAG AND I FORGOT THEM!”
The three of us on line were shocked. The teenage cashier didn’t look up. She continued to scan another customer’s groceries.
“Don’t talk to her that way!” I said when the initial stupefaction had worn off. But he was too far-gone in rage to notice me.
“YOU DO IT ON PURPOSE!” he was screaming now. “YOU DO IT OVER AND OVER AGAIN AND YOU KNOW WHAT THAT IS? IT’S ELDER ABUSE! AND I’M GOING TO SUE YOU! I’M GOING TO SUE YOU FOR ELDER ABUSE!”
He was really worked up now, face red, veins throbbing.
“The only one being abusive here is you!” I said. “Please leave!”
Once again he ignored me.
“ELDER ABUSE!” he was screaming over and over.
He moved forward menacingly and the man ahead of me leaned away.
“THAT’S ELDER ABUSE, TOO!” he shouted. “YOU JUST ASSAULTED A SENIOR! I’M GOING TO SUE YOU!”
“Sir, please get ahold of yourself,” I said severely. I didn’t know why no one else was saying anything; presumably because he was either senile or deranged. Or because he was paying no attention. He left, glaring at us all the way up the escalator. I made a point of shaking my head at him. I was more than a little disappointed to have been accused of elder abuse.
“I’m sorry he spoke to you that way,” I said to the checkout girl when it was my turn. She smiled faintly. “I don’t take it personally,” she said.
I have to say, after that I felt just fine.
Another treasure from the lobby: Short Chic: The everything-you-need-to-know fashion guide for every woman under 5’4″ could have come from the apartments of literally half my neighbors. But now it’s mine.
Then one Sunday, I was walking down the street, enjoying the warm weather and the city’s relative emptiness — a lot of people had gone away for the long weekend — when I saw someone who looked familiar, an old man on a bench outside an empty asphalt playground. How did I know that face?
It came to me all of a sudden. It was the old man I had seen some months ago in the supermarket, yelling at the cashier and accusing all and sundry of elder abuse. Back then, his face had been contorted with impotent rage and the terror of senility.
Now, as I stared at him, arrested, he met my eyes. “Can I have a few pennies?” he said. “A few pennies for a pineapple?”
A lot of thoughts went through my head. First and foremost, that a pineapple would cost several hundred pennies. Second, that maybe he was living in the past, when pineapple had been much cheaper — but even then, when a few pennies went further, a pineapple still would have been something of a luxury. And third, that rarely in this life are we given so clear a chance to redress a wrong.
And I felt I had wronged that old man in our last encounter; had I not rebuked and glared at him at the supermarket? Had I not failed to recognize the signs of dementia and treated him with the entitlement of youth? Yes. I had to make amends.
“I’ll buy you a pineapple!” I said rashly.
His response was not what I had hoped. In point of fact, he looked at me owlishly. The look was not wholly innocent of cunning.
“A sweet one,” he said.
“On it,” I replied, for some reason both winking and shooting a finger at him like it was a pistol, an action that was in equal parts insinuating and menacing.
I didn’t know where I’d find the pineapple, but I was going to get it. As I peered around for a market or a fruit stand, song lyrics ran through my head:
If you brought me diamonds,
If you brought me pearls,
If you brought me roses
Like some other gents
Might bring to other girls,
It couldn’t please me more
Than the gift I see;
A pineapple for me.
Maybe he knew the words. After a few blocks, I found a sleazy urban supermarket. My heart leapt when I saw the Dole pineapples sitting regally in their bin, and to my delight, I found one that was slightly perfumed and gave a bit when I pressed its base for ripeness. I bore it out in triumph.
I walked a full block before it occurred to me that maybe a whole pineapple wasn’t really the most practical gift for an old man sitting without any visible implements on a park bench. Well, maybe he wanted it for later. But could such a man safely handle a knife? What would be better, surely, was one of those Styrofoam flats of prepared, fresh pineapple. I’d need to find a market for that.
This took an additional eight blocks or so, and then I added another few minutes to the trip when I decided that, just to be safe, I should probably get a can of pineapple, too, in case the ones I’d found weren’t that sweet. (The cut-up one looked pretty pale and woody.)
By the time I got back to the bench, the old man was gone. He was nowhere in sight. I was intensely annoyed. Robbing me of my mitzvah! Leaving me with two pineapples plus a can of pineapple chunks in pure pineapple juice!
Everyone in New York knows Zabar’s, the delicatessen and specialty foods store so filled with older folks that navigating the aisles can easily take up an afternoon. But the café is where the real action is: lots of eccentrics and tourists and one homeless man who washes in the bathroom and eats for free.
One day, I was settled with my papers, my coffee, and a cheese Danish (from Zabar’s) at a bench on a Manhattan traffic island when someone sat down next to me. I glanced up and recognized a now-familiar face. It was the same elderly man. He was ubiquitous — or I was. I gave him a cautious nod of greeting.
“Hello,” he said, smiling warmly. “It’s a beautiful day!”
“Yes,” I agreed. He didn’t seem to recognize me.
We sat in silence for some time; I noticed he was glancing furtively at the front section of the newspaper, so I handed it to him. “I’ve finished, if you’d like it,” I said. “I just want to keep the crossword for later.”
“That’s very kind of you!” he said. “Are you sure? It does look interesting today.”
“Yes, there are some very interesting stories,” I agreed. “I recommend this piece on Russian Internet trolls.”
“Thank you!” he said. “I’ll read it! I was thinking that I would buy my own, and now I don’t have to!”
“It’s my pleasure!” I said.
“I’m sorry to interrupt, miss,” he said. “But may I ask if you are a writer?”
“I am!” I said. “How did you know?”
“You have a very observant air,” he said. “And your glasses make you look bookish! Also I write a bit myself. Do you like the work of Flannery O’Connor?”
“Very much,” I said.
“Me too. I ask because they have a peacock at the bird center right now, and I visited it this morning. And of course, that made me think of Flannery O’Connor’s peacocks.”
“I understand descendants of her flock still roam the grounds of her home in Georgia,” I said. “I’d love to visit the one at the bird center, although I believe they can be quite aggressive.”
“Yes, this one loves to eat plants! Someone visited carrying a house plant she’d just bought, and he attacked it!”
This went on for the better part of an hour. We discussed the neighborhood’s bookstores, the free summer program the Salvation Army runs for seniors, Caitlyn Jenner, and whether chimpanzees could indeed cook, given the chance. He was one of the nicest people I’ve ever met.
“It’s been lovely talking with such a kind young lady,” he said. “Perhaps I will put you in a story!” And then, at last, I learned his name: Jacob. We were headed to a jovial new stage in our acquaintanceship, I thought, until I told him my name.
“What? Fagin?” he said.
I repeated it.
And then there was the hardcover Modern Library War and Peace, with the inscription:
Because she is the only remaining bright light in a blacked out town.
Atlantic City 1942
When next I saw Jacob, it was in front of my childhood building, sitting on the steps. “Jacob!” I said.
He glared at me. “The cafeteria isn’t what it used to be!” he barked.
There are a few vestiges of the old neighborhood: the venerable appetizing store, and the linens shop, and the bra shop that specializes in the hard-to-fit and utilitarian. There’s a single Italian market that’s been around since the 40s, too. You find yourself collecting things like beads on a string. Patina comes to count for a lot. You can ignore a great deal if you try hard.
The next time I saw Jacob was on TV, because as it turned out, he was the host of a public access show. He was wearing a tie and interviewing a rabbi, who specialized in something called “Kabbalah Swimming.” The next time I ran into Jacob — at the Zabar’s café — I told him I had enjoyed his show. “You must come on as a guest,” he said politely. “We’re always looking for interesting people.”
I suppose what I’m trying to say is, it’s a very good place to be lonely.