A Citizen Gone with the Wind.
Issue No. 5 - Autumn 2018.
Like many a co-op owner, I got in when the getting was good: my dad, fond of the expression, “buy land, ‘cause God ain’t making more of it,” acquired the place in the seventies for the price of today’s chicken coop. There was a catch: the previous tenant, an isolated octogenarian, had slumped to the floor, dead, remaining undiscovered until body fluids soaked the floorboards. But Dad girded his loins and got to work fixing up the place. A Southerner from North Carolina, he epitomized a certain ante-bellum possessiveness about land, identical to that of Scarlet O’ Hara in the moments before the lengthy film version of Gone With The Wind goes to intermission. On her knees, pulling a scrawny turnip from the earth after the burning of Atlanta, she howls that she’ll “never be hungry again!” And promises to lie, steal, and cheat to make sure. She’s finally learned her Irish father’s lesson, namely that land is “the only thing” worth “fightin’ for, dyin’ for.” My father loved those scenes—as he proudly told me, he’d seen the film over forty-four times.
Alas, the octogenarian whose remains sank into the floorboards was part of a dwindling community of low-to-moderate income Upper West Siders, now as disappeared as the mom-and-pop stores that used to line Broadway, only to be replaced in the nineties by folks who were willing to fight about land. Those older tenants looked after each other, but they all dropped away: the Columbia University librarian, whose doorway opened upon wall-to-wall books, and always left the house short of breath—I could hear her panting out by the elevator. In her eighties, she succumbed to a heart attack. She’d instructed a young colleague to sell or give away all her knick-knacks, furniture and books; she had no living relatives. I met the colleague on the second day of this White Elephant sale, two days after her death. Closing the door of her apartment behind him, he was pale with exhaustion, his hair disheveled.
“It’s a feeding frenzy,” he said. Like the odd curios in her apartment, the apartment market itself was heating up. But the great changes had not yet occurred.
Back in the early nineties, the elevator always smelled of cabbage, a comforting aroma exuded by the culinary efforts of a Polish mother and daughter living on the eighth floor. The mother had braved two world wars and escaped with her daughter in utero, but had been so badly beaten by Nazis during the pregnancy that the daughter, when she was born, sustained hands with missing and overly large digits, a tremulous gait, and severely diminished eyesight. After a post-war escape that took them to India just as the country was celebrating independence from Great Britain, they found themselves in New York, on the top floor of our building in an apartment overlooking what was then the Columbia University School of Social Work. They lived quietly, regaling me with these and other stories when they invited me to dinner, as they did from time to time. The mother provided five or six courses that began with olives, moved through unidentifiable, but creamy, hors d’oeuvres, roast chicken or pork, and large cakes. The daughter worked for the local post office, the mother concocting meat and cabbage dishes, daily. Once, when the mother was taking dishes to the kitchen, the daughter, then in her late fifties, complained that several times her mother had berated her for coming home late, after six, from work.
“Is it so bad that I want a little time to myself?” she asked. I assured her she was well within her rights.
Their neighbor, an ancient Chinese man with Alzheimer’s disease, was forced by members of his gigantic extended family to walk up and down the eight flights of the building daily, despite his groaning protests.
“Exercise!” said his cheerful wife, by way of explanation, whenever I chanced upon the two of them, the wife, cousin, or daughter a step above him, patting his hand and murmuring encouragingly, the old man bowing, pulling in the opposite direction, like a child trying to get his mother to let go.
A neighbor I often met in the elevator reeked of grain alcohol. Lean, elegant but threadbare, he was often seen loping along Broadway, a transistor radio held to his ear.
“Well, how are you this evening?” he always asked, in a courtly manner. I had to lean close to push the button for my floor; the pungent aroma of Glenfiddich, or something very like it, was almost enough to enhance my mood on our short elevator trip.
I always said I was fine, and asked how he was—although the answer seemed obvious. He sighed, as if perplexed.
“They’ve got me going to meetings! Well! Meetings! Whether they should have abortions. Whether not. They want my opinion.” He shrugged. “I say yes, I say no.”