TO THE GIRL IN THE WHITE COAT
TALKING ON HER CELL PHONE ON THE PATIO:
PLEASE KEEP YOUR VOICE DOWN.
THE SOUND FILLS UP THE YARDS
ON 84TH STREET – WE CAN HEAR YOUR
ENTIRE CONVERSATION, WITH THE
The green magic marker note included no closing benediction—“Thanks,” “Yours truly,” “Regards.” It was taped on the vestibule wall above the five mailbox slots, one for each apartment and a fifth for our landlord, who lives in Westchester County.
I knew exactly whom it referred to. There were only four “girls” in our building. Only two of them were single and would have been talking outside on their cell phones, and only one would have been outside in the first place, since she smokes and lives with her mother and has a loud voice. (Smoking and pets are not allowed in our building because we have vented/forced air, and you can hear and smell your neighbor. We did enjoy the company of a pet slug once, but it was a second grade project that died after a few months in a 64-ounce Pepsi bottle.) The girl has an American mother and French father, apparently was raised in Guadeloupe and not too long ago sailed around the world for nine months.
The note that was left for her is the way many in New York communicate. Through anonymous rants taped on doors or placed under windshield wipers, like one I saw the other day near West End Avenue on the south side of the street: “Your car alarm kept me awake all night! Fuck you, motherfucker! Go back to New Jersey!” Scud missives launched from a kitchen table and landing on the eyeballs of the unsuspecting with a kill radius of one—more if there are passengers in the SUV headed back through the Lincoln Tunnel. Or they are messages from one party to another about moving in too loudly, or having sex too loudly, or whatever-it-might-be-“too-loudly,” as if a city of eight million could tone it down a bit at any given point in time.
Last night I came back from a birthday party for a classmate of Teak, who joined twenty other first-graders for indoor soccer and then the requisite pizza and ice cream cake. It had snowed almost two feet the other day, so while he played the mountain goat along the drifts and piles of shoveled snow against the parked cars on West 84th, I shuffled along next to him, waiting for him to sink through the drifts to his mid-thigh, both of us laughing when he did. He would shriek and his dimples became shadows in the canary glow of streetlamps. After three blocks and almost twenty minutes, we had crossed West End and were headed toward Riverside Drive, which is about forty feet beyond our brownstone. Groups of Jewish men and women and children—black coats, yarmulkes and crushed velvet headbands set against the brilliant snow—walked east, toward us. They were in pairs or in threes, all coming from a small synagogue two doors down from us. One woman in her 30s held the arm of a man about the same age. He limped, his left leg wooden as if his trousers concealed a brace. Her voice carried as they walked past, “…it’s not easy, is it?” An old couple was trailed by a second lady and a boy of about nine. The boy ran after the young woman and man with a limp. The old man’s voice was raspy but not loud enough for his wife. “Whaaat?!” she squawked in a familiar way as though an aged sister to a brother. He repeated the question in the same informational tone, yet with a little more volume.
Earlier and three blocks away, the main office for an assisted-living center and visiting nurse service on Broadway between 85th and 86th, flanked by a Jamba Juice, dry cleaners and wireless phone store on one side, and a pizza parlor, and Tasti D-lite store on the other, became its late afternoon hive of activity. A man with pale skin and week-old white whiskers sits on a Siamese standpipe and stares at the yellow cabs streaking downtown. The wet whoosh of melted snow under the cabs’ tires echoes off the façade. A behemoth of a dark-skinned man hobbles while holding a mahogany cane that he pokes at the sidewalk like he’s snuffing out ants. His prolific chin undulates beneath his mouth as he shouts to a friend three feet away, “Yeah, yeah, yeah! I know: he all good! He all good! Yeah—I know’d that he did that!” They smile and then laugh.
Soon after moving in to our apartment in late 2007, almost every weekday morning my sons and I would see a woman with auburn hair walking her two auburn longhaired dachshunds. The three boys squealed at the sight, and this frightened the dogs. She’d give me a Scud stare. Through the months and now more than two years, all five of us have seen each other at least three times each school week.
The boys still titter. The dogs bob along at the ends of their leashes with ears flopping side to side and up and down like twin grass skirts. The woman and I exchange smiles and continue our opposite diurnal paths down West 84th Street.