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

This post was originally written and published in 2017. We moved to another apartment this year.

Some days ago, I got myself thinking about my neighbors and what I know about them.

You know, I live in an old building in NYC, known as a prewar. We don’t have an elevator, but we have plenty of space. We don’t have a big management company taking care of the building anymore as we had at our previous apartment before – and, incredible as it may seem, we have more attention now. I never forget the day that boxes from more than 10 apartments disappeared in our previous building and the administration did nothing about it. “If you have ordered something, it is your responsibility.” In New York, people don’t care.

And we also have less neighbors. If in the old building, a construction from the ’80s, there were about 60 apartments, in the current, there are only 11. Three on the ground floor and two on each other floor. 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 apartment. 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, a few minutes later, she knocked on my door and said, “Come visit me to have some coffee anytime.” I thanked her, met her a few more times, but I’ve never visited her to have that coffee.

Now, going back to my current building … it took me about three months to meet some of the neighbors. It happened in the most unusual situation possible. I had gone to the gym and left my phone at home. When I arrived, messy and sweaty, I tried to open the door of my apartment, but I couldn’t open it. “What am I going to do now?” There was no way I could call my husband or a locksmith. I knocked on the door at the apartment below mine. The neighbor, a very friendly American woman, with a very cute 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. Well, it didn’t work: the ladder was too high. While she tried to help me figure out 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. Turns out he forgot 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 phone to capture that moment lol! I must point out, of course, how helpful was the old lady from 3B. 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 out a few weeks later. They were replaced by a French couple – a fact I discovered on a Saturday afternoon when the guy was cleaning the backyard while listening to something that seems like a French radio … Of course, they may be Canadians, too. We have heard the accent and we figured that they are foreigners, like us. Oh, and they had a baby; we heard her crying at night sometimes and today we hear her cute laughs. On some summer Sundays, they host lunches in the backyard that seemed to be a delight. They received several friends and made us a little nervous because they keep the door of the building open for their visitors. You know, we are Brazilians, so we always think about the possibility of someone take the opportunity to get into the building and steal something.

Our building still has some other characters. There is a man with gray hair that smokes and every day comes downstairs to feed 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. This freaks me out – I keep thinking 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 a 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 guy. I met him the other day when I was leaving early for the gym and he was certainly going to work. Wearing a suit, and a delicious perfume that I could smell, he opened the door for me and said a happy “good morning”.  I couldn’t help but think 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 done that.

And last, but not least, there is also the old lady. The one who opened the door for me to exit her window and enter my apartment when I couldn’t get in. As soon as we moved in, she ended up meeting us at the entrance of the building. She was so kind, she took my hand, welcomed me, and said that she loved to live here. This is a memory that I got afterward, of course. I remember that I thought: we made a great choice. After all, if an old person was happy living there, it meant she had peace and silence, which are things I also appreciate 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 and my mother and my sister were visiting us. My mother was washing the dishes – yep, it took me several months to use my dishwasher – my husband was taking care of the pizza leftovers that we had 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 got into our apartment. We didn’t use to lock the door until the time before bed. Very frightened – and without remembering exactly who she was – 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 angry about her bold attitude, “Well, you could have knocked on the door, hum?” I was frightened, after all, a strange person had entered my apartment. I was afraid, 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, angry 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 Netflix. 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 the apartment 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 left me, the problems I faced, the joys, the plans, the failures, the achievements. And I felt grateful for each of those things. How many lives and how many stories are hidden behind the NYC doors?

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