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.
* * * * * * * * *
It got to be a regular thing: I’d open the foyer door, Al would appear in the doorway of his kitchen and say, “Cup o’ coffee, Sharon?” If I had some free time I’d take him up on his offer, and sometimes even if I didn’t I’d take him up anyway. I knew he was lonely and wanted someone to talk to. I knew someday I might be that way, too.
“Oh, excuse me, Sharon,” he’d usually say as I walked in. “Lemme go put a shirt on.”
It wasn’t like he was shirtless; most times he had on a white Hanes v-neck undershirt (during the summer he wore a tank). By “shirt” he meant a light, short-sleeved sports shirt — the kind our dads would throw on when they had to make a run to the hardware store in the summer.
Back in the kitchen he’d finish buttoning up, set the glass percolator on the burner, and ask, “Frankfu’ter?” I’d say yes, and he’d quickly fill a pot with water and throw two hot dogs in.
“So, what’s new, Sharon?”
“Nothin’ much, Al.”
Actually, by the time I was down there regularly there was a lot going on: I was doing one-on-one tutorials with Allen Ginsberg as part of my MFA/poetry studies at Brooklyn College, Carl and I were having problems (and would soon split, after almost five years together), and my dad had been diagnosed with bladder cancer back in Chicago.
“You seem sad, Sharon.”
“Yeah, Al, I am. Sad and tired. There’s too much going on.”
“You know what the best thing for that is? Just sit and talk foolishness. Don’t think about your problems — just talk foolishness for a while. Did I ever tell you about the time I went to a nudist colony? My friend Armand — I told you about him; most brilliant guy I ever knew. Oh, I’m tellin’ you — he had more degrees than a thermometer. So Armand says to me one day, ‘Why doncha come with me on a picnic?’ I thought: a picnic? Hey, I like the outdoors, you know? So, we get there, and he says, ‘Al, you’re gonna have to drop your clothes off over there . . . it’s a nudist colony.’ Nudist colony? Well, I was there, you know . . . I couldn’t just leave ’cause he drove me there . . . so, I had to drop my clothes!”
“Well, how was it?”
“It wasn’t bad. It wasn’t half bad. After an hour, you just get used to it, you know? Only problem was, I kept worryin’ about my wallet, ’cause you can’t keep your wallet with you — where you gonna put it? ”
I laughed. “But you had a good time?”
He furrowed his brow in a definitive way and nodded. “Oh, yeah. Armand knew how to live. I mean, it wasn’t Carroll Street, but I had a good time.”
Al had grown up on Carroll Street, four blocks away, in the ’20’s. He loved to talk about Park Slope back then.
“A girl never had to be afraid of walkin’ down the avenues then. You know why? The mafia. Oh, they kept the streets safe. They knew who was who, and who didn’t belong where. You didn’t dare cross 5th Avenue if you had no business crossin’ 5th Avenue. You know what I mean? Because between them and the cops, everybody knew their place. I lost count of how many times I got cracked across the head by the cops when I was a kid, for bein’ where I was wasn’t supposed to be. Police brutality? Gimme a break. There was no police brutality then. Cop said you weren’t supposed to be there, you got outta there! And even while you were gettin’ outta there, sometimes they’d crack you ‘cross the head anyway, just for good measure. Listen, you could be drunk as a lord on the avenue when I was a kid, and you didn’t have to worry about someone robbin’ you, ’cause the cops and the mafia took care of the neighborhood. You know?”
Al was good friends with our landlord, Nick, and took the Union Street bus over to 7th Avenue almost every day to hang out in Nick’s office on Carroll Street, behind Manufacturer’s Hanover bank (now Chase). Nick had been an accountant with Met Life for years, but at some point he and a partner, Fred, took off on their own and rented a second floor office on Carroll just off 7th Avenue — F&P Accounting, they called themselves. For a few years, before TurboTax, Nick did my taxes.
(You think that’s weird, my landlord doing my taxes? It is. But Nick had a very different, very special relationship with his tenants. Keep reading.)
Al would always report when he’d seen Nick, and that Nick had said to say hi. After Carl moved out, and my college friend Marianne moved in, Al would always say, “Nick said to say hi to the girls.”
Around 1994, Al was diagnosed with some kind of cancer. He never told me exactly what the diagnosis was, but from the change in his attitude I knew he wouldn’t live much longer. One day he asked me what was a good wine in the $50 range.
“You’re askin’ me?” I said. “I don’t know nothin’ ’bout no wines.”
“Well, what kind do you like? What’s your favorite?”
I knew he was angling to buy me a bottle of wine, but I didn’t want him to spend his money on that. I had a better idea.
“You know, why don’t you just buy me dinner? I would love to have dinner with you, maybe at Aunt Suzie’s. You like that place?”
I figured we’d go there, and I’d pass my credit card to the server on my way to the restroom, and treat Al.
“Okay, you got a deal. But Dave won’t get jealous, will he?” (My future husband, David, had moved in 1992.)
“Well, he’ll just have to deal with it,” I said. “Besides, do you see a diamond ring on my finger?!”
Al was a little angry that I fooled him, but I didn’t care. He was my first friend in Brooklyn, the first member of the family that I somehow managed to create around me, and buying him dinner was the very least I could do for him. He died in 1995, in his sleep, around 2 a.m. I knew because the next morning there was a squad car in front of the house, and the next day his son and daughter-in-law came by to begin cleaning out his apartment.
Years later, while visiting my mother, she handed me a letter Al had written to her after my father died:
You don’t know me, but I live in the same house as your daughter. No, we have different apartments. I’m sorry to hear about Mr. Mesmer. He must have been a heck of a guy, from what I hear from Sharon. Mrs. Mesmer, I am not one to send Mass cards. My wife always was the card sender. I hope you won’t feel offended if instead of a card I am sending you this. Please get a nice frame for his picture. I’m sure you have a frame but it’s the least I could do for someone I’ve never met. I’ve often wanted to write to him, but Sharon didn’t give me an address. Sharon is a wonderful girl — we all love her and share her grief. I won’t go on any longer, Mrs. Mesmer. I’ll close. I hope what I did has not offended you. Please accept my deepest sympathy.
Al — Sharon’s first floor neighbor”
Next: Kitchen Window