once upon a time, there were three old ladies in my building that were a part of my mundane every day world in some way or another. all of them felt so familiar. i have no idea why.
the somewhat senile lady down the hall and her poodle are still there along with her niece/daughter/charge, although now there is a buppie couple across the hall from her with a small yappy dog, too. they moved into one of the newly renovated totally tricked out condo-like apartments that keep popping up when they boot someone else out of the building. so now, there's a lot of barking and scratching at the door that's happening in stereo at that end of the hall and i can't tell which dog is which unless i go over there and i don't want to go over there. i feel for her, in her twilight years, wandering through her gigantic apartment in her housecoat with her loyal dog at her ankles, wondering when her husband of more than 45 years is coming back from his errands. and he passed away several years ago. at least she has her niece.
and then there was mercedes, the lady in the window, the one who was always cooking something and always passing some of it through those child proof bars. dulce de leche, arroz con pollo, yicama, totones, bread pudding, empanadas, a beefy ox tail bone. delicious stuff. many was the day when i would head out the door and hit the subway with good food in my hand and my mouth because i passed her open window on the way out of the building. God, i loved her. she was like one of my aunts or my play momma or something. she put this coppery red rinse in her hair and she wore red lipstick and everyone congregated around her window -- the kids, the thugs, the fix-it guys. always giving my male friends the once over, giving my clothes the once over, giving me the once over -- and the third degree, in this really sweet way. i always baked her a cake on her birthday every year, and sometimes soups and stews which impressed her because she thought i was way too young and pretty to know how to cook. "you kids nowadays," she'd say. (*sigh...*) when i had some corporate wedding gig and they let me have flowers at the end of the night because they were just going to throw them away anyway, i would bring an extra bouquet just for her. oh, yes. this old lady had my heart.
well, they got her some months ago. it seems that she'd had tenants in her palatial three-bedroom apartment for the entire time that she'd lived in the building -- more than 25 years. she could stay and fight them in court or take a check and leave. she chose the latter. and why not? she already owned a house in the dominican republic and spent the cold months there taking care of her mother. i don't know why i'm still here, she mused when i came to say goodbye and take a picture of us. after she explained everything, she said that maybe she'd find love if she went home. a real boyfriend! how adorable was this little old lady, sitting at her kitchen table with me, totally independent and happy and surrounded by a big and loving family, and yet longing for a special someone. that conversation stayed with me for a long time.
it still feels wierd, to leave the building everyday and not yell at her window with what little spanish i know. for a long time, my body would shift in that direction automatically as soon as i swung the door open. and then i just felt a profound sadness shroud me for a little while as i would begin my day. would there ever be another little old lady to make mofungo just for me?
she's been gone since late last summer. i miss her every single day.
the third little old lady is shrouded in some mystery. what's apparent is that she's a tough old hide. she stood up to the building owners, their lawyers, the drug dealers that tried to do business in the lobby, and anything else that gets in her way. she likes me very much. i have no idea why. her apartment is directly across from the lady who is gone, so as i make my exit, i turn to the left now, to acknowledge her or at least to see if she is there. and she almost always is. someone is always standing at her window, drinking coffee and chatting. her apartment is cavernous and unlike mercedes, she never had boarders and she pays her rent on time, so they can't get rid of her. she has a yappy little dog too -- what is it with these annoying pesky noisemakers and why do they run to me? -- some sort of a chihuahua that attacks my ankles when i check my mail.
the thing is, she only speaks to me in spanish. she insists on it. i'm starting to wonder if she speaks any english at all. i understand what she's saying but it takes me ten minutes to make a sentence. i always have the appropriate greeting ready, though -- the old jews and all their many languages in that building on 86th street taught me that much -- and whenever i answer her, she's amused and somewhat impressed. and of course, that sends me running for my spanish phrase book. my trying to chat with her with what little spanish i know seems to make her happy. she tells me that my accent is strong and that if i learn spanish, no one would believe that i'm an american. she says i don't look american, anyway. she says that about my friend, too. actually, everyone says that about him. they think he's from scandanavia, from germany, maybe. anyplace but jersey. i told her the truth but she didn't believe me. then again, neither did mercedes.
maybe i feel so much for the ladies because i'm thinking, there but for the grace of God go i someday. i'm too much of a southerner to grow old here. i want old age to find me deep in the bowels of a swamp on a Sea Island, in a sturdy wide house up off the ground and near the water -- surrounded by gators, wild boar and indigo -- independent, in my right mind, eating fruits and vegetables from my own gardens and perfectly capable of taking care of myself. and still baking those pound cakes...