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The old lady, the barefoot man, the French couple: my neighbors in New York City

Last week I wrote a post about anonymity in New York, the other side of this story of no one knowing you here. How we lose our references, how we are no longer who we were. Interestingly enough, in the same week, a curious fact happened – and this fact made me think about my neighbors and what I know about them.

You see, I live in an old New York building, known as a prewar, that is, a building that was built between 1900 and 1939. We don’t have an elevator, but we have plenty of space. We don’t have a big company running the building anymore like we did before – and, incredible as it may seem, we have more attention here than there. I never forget the day on delivered boxes from more than 10 apartments disappeared in our previous building and the administration did what? Nothing. They demonstrated neither sympathy nor concern. “If you have ordered something, it is your responsibility.” In New York, people don’t care.

And we also have fewer neighbors. If in the old building, a construction from the 80’s, there were about 60 apartments, in the current, there are only 11. Three on the ground floor and two on each next floor, until the sixth. Yes, there is no elevator, and yes, there are people living on the sixth floor. New Yorkers are used to stairs. I don’t think I would get used to it, since I was already losing my breath – and the excitement with whatever was the offer – when visiting apartments on higher floors. Returning to the neighbors, I had no contact with almost anyone in the previous building. It took almost two years to get to know the face of the young man who lived in the apartment next to ours. I remember we always heard him arriving at night, and the doors were so close that I was always scared, thinking someone was trying to get into our house. There was also a very nice lady who lived downstairs. The first time I met her at the elevator, she was super sweet and nice and asked me which apartment I lived in. Then, I was surprised when she, a few minutes later, went upstairs, knocked on my door and said, “Come and have some coffee anytime.” I thanked her, met her a few more times and never visit her to have that coffee. Also, we had a super scandalous neighbor upstairs. Shoot the first underwear who has never dealt with a neighbor like this … lol!

Now, going back to my current building … it took me about three months to meet some neighbor. It happened in the most unusual situation possible. I had gone to the gym and left my cell phone at home. When I arrived, disheveled and sweaty, I tried to open the door of my apartment and who said that it opened? “What am I going to do now?” There was no way I could call my husband or a locksmith. I knocked the door at the apartment below mine. The neighbor, a very friendly American woman, with a very nice baby and a dog that was bigger than me, opened the door. The idea was to try to climb the fire escape since it was summer and my bedroom window was open. Trying in vain: the ladder was too high. While she tried to help me with what to do, she kept talking. She told me that her husband had gone out to get the car after he had had a mini panic attack when he thought their car had been stolen. He had only confused the street where the car was parked. Men … As for my apartment, well, I had to go to the third floor, knock on the door of another neighbor and go down the fire escape. It was an adventure. The ladder is steep and tight. And I did not even have my cell phone to save that moment! I must point out, of course, the readiness with which the old lady from 3B answered my request. Think about it: a girl in gym clothes, whom you have never seen in your life, shows up at your door at 11 AM wanting to come into your house and jump out the window. I could not help but notice how dark was the apartment, which had black curtains closed on a beautiful sunny day.

It turned out that the couple with the baby moved a few weeks later. They were replaced by a French couple – a fact I discovered on a Saturday afternoon, by chance, when the guy was cleaning the backyard  (their apartment on the ground floor has a private backyard) while listening to something that might have been a French radio … Of course, they may be Canadians, too. We have heard the accent and concluded that they are foreigners, like us. Oh, and their baby is born; we heard her crying at night sometimes and today we hear her cute laughs. On some summer Sundays, they promoted lunches in the backyard that seemed to be a delight. They received several friends and made us a little nervous to keep the door of the building open for their visitors. The lack of collective sense, at this time, is quite irritating. You know, as a Brazilian, we are suspicious, we are used to live with a locked door and we already imagined that anyone who is passing by could take the opportunity to get into the building and steal something.

Our building still has a few characters. There is the man with gray hair that smokes and every day comes downstairs to quench his addiction – after all, smoking is not allowed inside the building. He is the barefoot man, as he leaves his apartment, goes down the stairs and stands on the outside steps of the building, barefoot. Barefoot. Such a sight makes me shiver, for I can imagine how much dust and hair stick to the soles of his feet – not to mention the contact with the feces from pigeons, which leave their marks in various corners – including on the steps where he stands, swallowing his cigarette, while reading the newspaper. I have no idea if he is married, if he has children or if he lives alone. But he always greets with a good morning or a hello. In our building, there is also the funky girl who lives in one of the studios on the ground floor. She has a very cute puppy – a fact that intrigues me, after all, we were not allowed to have a pet – listen to Hare Krishna music and light incense. I saw her a few times when she’s taking her pet outside. I was already forgetting the handsome. I met him the other day when I was leaving early for the gym and he was certainly going to work. Dressed in a suit, all cute, with a delicious perfume that I could smell, he opened the door for me and wished “good morning” with good humor. I remember thinking about how the guy should be happy – after all, it’s not so common to find New Yorkers in such a good mood on a Tuesday morning. There is also the neighbor from the other studio, which watches TV with loud volume. The front window of his studio is facing the street and below is the place where are located the four containers for the tenants put the garbage. It may not seem like it, but eleven apartments produce a lot of waste. So much waste that everyone used to pile up a lot of garbage there – rising to the window of the poor neighbor who, disgusted, left a note in his window. The message was simple: do not pile up your trash, I live here. Fair. Since then, no one else has did that.

And there is also the old lady, from the title of the post. The one I left last. The one who opened the door for me to exit her window and enter my apartment that was not opening at all. As soon as we moved in, she ended up meeting us at the entrance to the building. Very kind, she took my hand, welcomed me and said that she loved to live here. This I remembered well afterwards, of course. I remember that I breathed a sigh of relief when I heard her say it and concluded: we chose our new home well. After all, if an old person was happy living there, it meant she had peace and quiet, which I also want it in a home. Four months later, this same lady was the protagonist of an episode that I will never forget. It was a summer night, my mother and my sister were here visiting us. My mother was washing the dishes – look at the irony, it took me several months to use my dishwasher – my husband was taking care of the pizza leftovers that we had ordered for dinner and my sister and I were checking the pictures we took that day. It was late, around 11 pm. Suddenly, my sister nudges me and points to the door. That lady had come into my house. We didn’t use to lock the door until the time before bed. Very frightened – and without remembering who she was exactly – I asked what was happening. She replied that she heard voices. “Um, we’re talking too loud,” I thought, and, in fact, we were laughing and talking, and I answered quickly – and bothered with such boldness, “Well, you could have knocked on the door, hum?” I was frightened, after all, a strange person had entered my apartment. I felt fear, I confess, but she was helpless. She asked where the other people were. My husband offered her some pizza. We followed a sequence of quick dialogues – while my mother, who doesn’t speak English, looked at everything smiling, not understanding anything. We decided to ask the lady where she lived. She didn’t know. She didn’t remember. She suddenly realized that she had got lost on her mind. It was when I remembered that she was the lady from 3B. My husband followed her to her apartment, where her sister was waiting for her, very uncomfortable and impatient – and without seeming to be worried that the lady was going through pajamas by herself at that time of the night. We concluded that the old lady had a problem. Alzheimer’s, maybe. We felt bad. We were pitiful and in the end we were relieved that our door was unlocked and she had entered our house. Who knows where she might have gone and what could have happened to her …

One year later, around the same time, Thiago and I were watching another episode of Narcos. Suddenly, someone knocks on our door. I got scared. It was too late, we did not know anyone in the building who had the intimacy to knock on our door at that time. The knocks continue. I was afraid. I say to Thiago: don’t open, look who it is. Yes, it was the lady, again. I also looked through the peephole and saw her in her pajamas when I heard someone calling her from above: “You live in 3B.” Confused, she didn’t even know if, to get to 3B, she should go down or up. The voice guides her and says she has to go upstairs. And there she was. Maybe she tried to come into our apartment again, but our door was now locked.

I started to think about how many things happened in the last year: how many discoveries, how many changes, how many people came into my life, how many came out, how many hassles I had, how many joys, how many plans, how many defeats, how many achievements. And I felt grateful for each of those things …

No, this is not my house, but could it be … how many lives, how many stories, how many joys and how many sorrows hide behind those doors?

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