July 31, 2013 —
I remember a time when death was an anomaly in my life. A grandparent’s passing celebrated with an Irish wake and a funeral mass. Now it seems to haunt the everyday, wagging its finger like a told-you-so teacher.
Mario was hosing down the courtyard as I walked out of the lobby of our new apartment building in Brooklyn last week. Five nights had passed, many boxes had been emptied and a pantry filled since we made the move from Manhattan to the outer borough. Many more boxes waited to be emptied, for their treasures and trash to be sorted and put in their place. A brown stain washed down the sidewalk drain as Mario motioned to an open window on the upper floor. “He jump,” I heard him say to his companion in a hushed voice. I followed my dog’s lead straight ahead, not stopping to hear any more. Those two words were enough of a story I did not want to hear.
I do not yet know my neighbors except for a nodding acquaintance with a few who sat in judgment of our application to join this tenant co-operative on Eastern Parkway. We had left our handmade loft above the rough cobblestones of now-tiny Tribeca for this freshly renovated first-floor apartment in a large established co-operative in Brooklyn’s Prospect Heights—an area some referred to as “sketchy” just a few years ago. The building has a staff of handymen, doormen, a superintendent and various tradesmen. It is unlike any of the places we have lived as city-dwellers.
We considered our ages when we looked for a new home in the city. Well past retirement age, my husband is determined to keep working “forever.” He thinks of his small bar in the East Village as a public service more than a business. He knows that if he sells, within a few months it will be just like all the other places with high rents and higher prices. And so we have found a home in Brooklyn, where Mario will climb a ladder to install a smoke alarm and David or Ivan or Vitalij will do what is necessary to make our lives function smoothly. It’s not exactly assisted living, but it will do for now.
Our upstairs neighbor was an elderly man who had lost his wife a few years ago. I’m told his life was rich with culture, that his wife had danced on the Broadway stage. I am haunted by the thought of his desperate act. The day before he leaped from an open window to his death, he had called the handyman to fix a stubborn toilet. “He seemed fine,” is all the man could say, lowering his eyes. Who of us doesn’t seem fine most of the time? When asked, we answer “fine” as automatically as we ask another, “How are you?”
The man had lived in his apartment for 45 years, since before it was a co-op. The surrounding neighborhood had been designed as Brooklyn’s answer to Paris, with its wide tree-lined boulevards and twin landmarks of the public library and the Brooklyn Museum book-ending the grand Botanic Garden. But the city’s fiscal decline in the ’70s had left Brooklyn bereft of the kind of investment power that kept Manhattan prosperous.
Change is the only constant in a city like New York. It keeps popping up like Anthony Weiner on a smart-phone. Now, the neighborhood my elderly neighbor knew is populated by people with money in the bank and their whole lives ahead of them. And by people like us, looking for a little comfort as we grow older.