After 23 years, we are leaving our third floor apartment on Degraw Street in Park Slope, Brooklyn — move out date is February 1, 2012. Our landlord, who is elderly and ill and has become legally blind, is selling the building, and has very generously given us a reasonable time to vacate. The almost 4-month window (we found out he was selling in October) is both positive and negative: positive because it’s giving me time to reflect and reminisce, and negative because it’s giving me lots of time to reflect and reminisce.
2 — Neighbors
Al lived on the first floor and Millie and Jimmy lived on the second. All were elderly, Italian, and life-long Brooklyn-ites. Al’s wife Mary had passed away a few years before, and Jimmy was Millie’s brother-in-law (her husband, Tex, and his wife, whose name I never knew, had passed away as well, and so they’d decided to join forces). Jimmy often stood at the front gate in his overcoat, just watching things. Millie was somehow related to our landlord and his sister, Angie, who lived a few doors down. Al had lived on the first floor for … I don’t remember how long now. He’d raised a son and a daughter there, both of whom had moved to New Jersey. Millie was blind, and every hour we’d hear her talking clock, which she kept in the room beneath our bedroom, tell the hour, accompanied by a synthesized chime. Since we still didn’t have our own clock, Millie’s clock and the clock tower we could see from the kitchen window (it was the Williamsburgh Bank Building, we learned, though it seemed mostly unoccupied but for dentists’ offices) were enough to keep us awake and apprised of time.
I must’ve met Al the day we moved in, but I didn’t really start talking to him until I ran into him at the Key Food on Fifth Avenue, a few weeks later. He was a short, lithe man with some teeth missing and dark splotches near his temples. He wore the kind of horn-rimmed glasses that Groucho Marx wore in his later years — he looked a little like Groucho in his later years, in fact — and a gray tweed golf cap whenever he went out. We walked home from the store together, and when we got back to the building he said, “Cup o’ coffee?”
“Sure,” I said, and followed him into his apartment.
I sat down at the short side of his gray Formica kitchen table, and he set a glass Pyrex stove pot percolator on a burner and turned the knob. The stove clicked three times before the blue flame appeared. In front of his kitchen window hung a macrame planter with a dead plant tendrilling down.
“My wife made that planter,” he said. “She always made things. But since she died, I never remember to water the plant. Whaddaya like in your coffee?”
He moved the sugar bowl that sat on the table in front of me, and took a bottle of milk with a rubber spout from the fridge and set it down next to the sugar bowl.
“I like to keep my milk in his bottle,” he said. “I use it over and over. Keeps the smells from the other food from gettin’ in the milk, you know?”
“That’s a good idea,” I said, and mentally made a note to buy a large size V-8 the next time I went to the store — V-8 because I figured it most closely resembled the shape of Al’s bottle. I liked the idea of keeping milk in a bottle — it seemed old-fashioned, also practical (because of the smells).
I could hear a talk radio program in the background; he probably had a radio on in his living room. I asked him what he was listening to.
“Oh, just some nonsense. WABC. I don’t really listen. It’s just somethin’ to keep things from bein’ too quiet, you know? Would you like somethin’ to eat? I can fry you a filet if you’re hungry.”
He opened his refrigerator and took out a fish filet, wrapped in white paper and stored in a clear Glad bag labeled with the date, in black marker. I wasn’t sure what to do — decline, and offend him somehow, or accept, and take up his time.
“I would love one,” I said, “if it doesn’t take up too much of your time.”
He made a face — furrowed brow, downturned mouth — shook his head and said, “No time at all! No time at all . . . I’m grateful for the company. Can I call you ‘Sharon’?”
“Sure,” I said. “Can I call you Al?”
“Hey — you can call me anything,” Al announced, in a grand way, with one hand on his chest, “just don’t call me late for supper!”
I laughed. My dad used to say that.