Our parents moved to the block the same summer. Both of us were born that year. Our mothers would have passed each other in the street, with baby carriages and bags from The International, the A&P or Jefferson Market, where they took things off high shelves with a grabbing stick and you could have a charge account and bicycle delivery.
We would have crossed paths at the playground or on the spongy green hills installed later for older kids. In high school, I’d see him walking his dog. I knew his name but not much else. I think I saw him at a party one night. I didn’t know that he had become good friends with two of my friends from my old school.
At around age 9 or 10, or younger, children want to sell things outside. A friend and I sold our own art. We tied drawings to the railings like they did in Washington Square Park. Later, I sold books with my downstairs neighbor. Space was always tight in an apartment. Stock was easy to come by.
Maybe we got the stoop sale idea from the kids next door. Or they got the idea from us. The boy from next door remembers the barker-like calls of his business partner, a girl I knew, briefly, not deeply. Maybe a summer friendship. One summer.
You’d be aware of people and then they would disappear.
There was a convent down the street, and a Catholic Church around the corner and a Catholic school with the kids in uniform. But I went to a different school, further away. Sometimes I felt like I was not from my neighborhood.
I knew another girl around the corner, who later became a make-up artist and I saw her working at the Bobbie Brown counter in John Lewis, in London. I’m not sure how we figured it out. The accents maybe. I had totally forgotten about that and about her until just now, writing this.
Because memory is strange.
This morning, I remembered a story I wrote after college, when I was living in a crumbling, badly maintained Village tenement, where the upstairs neighbor’s sink flooded because the “not technically a plumber” guy who had fitted new pipes had put them in backwards or done something that an actual plumber would never have done. Just a friend of the super, or some guy he knew. The glistening bulge of wet ceiling, a smell of damp, a rust colored stain. Later there was some issue with a rotted widow frame and water came spraying into our bedroom.
I wrote about disasters, people being confined by ivy over the windows or fear.
Our next door neighbor in the post-college apartment was an opera singer with a milky cast over one eye. She lived alone. We liked her but we never went into each others’ apartments, just stood in our doorways chatting from time to time. I’d peer into the disorganized gloom of her place and wonder what it would be like to stay in such a dark place for so long. She had only air shaft windows. There were people with rent control in our building paying rents like $83. How could you ever afford to move? Feet first.
I worked at Da Silvano’s making espresso and cashiering. One night Maurice Sendak came in and I got to hold his American Express Card.
I wrote a story about a woman whose apartment is gutted by fire and it is like a ritual cleansing. I wasn’t sure where the idea had come from. This morning I realize that it was based not just on the fire in the apartment building next door when I was 10, but on the discovery made afterwards.
I ask my new/old friend if he remembers the fire. He asks if I remember Joseph Feldman, who had a bump on his head and had stolen thousands of books from the library?
I said I thought I did but only in conjunction with the fire. There had been flooding and the books had been discovered.
He’s not sure about the connection with the fire.
I remember all of us from the two buildings standing out in the street watching flames shooting out of the window. The girl I knew from his building was worried about her cat. Everyone is speculating on how the fire started. Drugs were involved. People are saying things like, Aren’t New Yorkers good in a crisis. People always saying we weren’t friendly, but if your building is on fire I will make you some coffee. And then the fire is out and in a couple of weeks everything is back to normal.
I found this clipping from The Daily News. It confirms both of our stories, not the bump, per se, but the books, the revelation. I like the tidy, mid-century jocularity of it, the snappy, one-liners. I also find the declassified police report of the mobster who lived in the same building. His low IQ, his gonorrhea, all typed up, some lines blacked out, now a matter of public record. Surely the Mafia boss—like the iron curtain émigré filmmaker who lived in townhouse on the other side of us and used to buy our pictures with unusual coins, fifty-cent pieces and Susan B. Anthony dollars—would have been a customer at some point, before he was gunned down, as New York Magazine had predicted, not in front of his house, but out in Brooklyn.
Imagine what I would know by now if I had really seen and understood everything I saw.