A NOTE BEFORE READING: Today’s post and the two Wednesday posts that will follow it come from a memoir project: five Catalysts and five Constants. The project’s essays are all quite a bit longer than my usual posts, so I am going to share this one in three installments.
I should make one thing clear from the start: I don’t like Jack.
In fact, there have been times when I really have not liked Jack. And there have been times when my feelings for him have gone way beyond “really not liking.” His behavior and his firm inaction are unfathomable, and because he is nothing more than my landlord, I shouldn’t have to entertain feelings about him – ever. But, on occasion, I have had no choice.
Like that time my kitchen faucet essentially exploded at half past midnight, shooting water across the room. Thank God I had not gone to sleep yet, and thank God my neighbors weren’t sleeping too deeply. Though I didn’t know any one of them very well back then, they responded to my calls for “HELP!” Several of them bailed water out of my kitchen while another figured out how to turn off the flow to the entire building – the only way to end the potentially decapitating stream that was bursting out of the wall.
Jack’s got some messed-up pipes, I want to tell you.
And then there was that really scary time that my leg went through the deck/walkway outside my second-floor kitchen door. When I realized I couldn’t pull it out of the hole it had created, I yelled “HELP!” once again. Neighbors responded. Among them were a few who had become friends.
“Call 9-1-1!” I blurted out, realizing – for the first time in my life – that when you need 9-1-1, you know it. And although it should have been a relief to have the fire department arrive, I couldn’t help but feel even more vulnerable at that point. With five firemen surrounding me, I believed there was no way the deck would hold up. And when it collapsed, I’d still be stuck in the wood. My head cracked open on the pavement below.
But the deck didn’t give, and the firemen did get me out. They had to use an electric saw that I watched as it cut the wood just inches from my leg. By then, a crowd from the neighborhood had gathered. I was convinced after that evening that I would probably be a feature of “Show and Tell” in a few local classrooms the next morning.
Jack’s got some soft wood, I want to tell you.
About four months after the deck incident, I was in my living room with my Mom, who was visiting from Virginia. It was a typically hot October day in L.A., so we had the air conditioner running. (A window unit that came with the apartment; something that could probably get a nice chunk of change at the Antiques Roadshow.) Suddenly, there was a funky smell. I saw smoke coming out of the wall socket into which the air conditioner was plugged. I quickly turned off the unit and called the fire department. They arrived within minutes, checked it out and told me not to use the outlet again until an electrician could make the necessary repairs. I immediately called one, and he came over that afternoon.
The electrician replaced whatever needed to be replaced, and I wrote him a check. When I sent Jack my rent the following month, I enclosed the electrician’s receipt, deducted the cost, and explained my math in a note. The next week, I received a bill from Jack for the amount I had deducted. It stated that no repairs can be made without the landlord’s prior approval.
Jack’s got some strange wiring, I want to tell you.
But there’s one other thing about Jack that I cannot deny or overlook. He brought to this building the most amazing tenants. And he brought to this tenant the most amazing friends. It’s magic. It’s bigger than all of us. And it’s definitely not something that I made happen.
“I’m not a friendly neighbor,” I once confessed to my mother, some months after moving from my marriage into Jack’s building.
“That’s because you lived in New York,” she responded.
Maybe there was truth to her theory. For someone else. But I think, for me, the embracing of privacy came first. I think that the reason I chose New York – for college, and for the eleven years that would follow college – is that I craved the option of being anonymous. After growing up in a small town in Virginia, I didn’t want people to know me or to know my business. Sure, I always would have close friends, and they would know more about me than they probably cared to know, but I still guarded my privacy. And as a tenant, I cultivated it. Until…
“Hi, Katie!” Therese calls out through her first-floor living room window.
“Hi, Therese!” I respond, smiling, as I head to my car in the back lot.
(So much for Mom’s theory, I think. Therese lived in New York, too.)
But Mom’s New York theory was not disproved by Therese. It was disproved by Elizabeth, who had moved into the building several months earlier than Therese. Elizabeth, in her own inimitable style, introduced us all to each other. Elizabeth – who also had lived in New York, by the way – brought to Jack’s building her unique brand of Texan hospitality. She had an indefatigable ability to inspire us to pool our resources for a night of partying. Before we knew it, we all chipped in for a grill. And once we were fed, we gathered in her living room for party games. It became a weekend routine, and one that I welcomed. A nice way to relax and interact without going out.
I still didn’t feel particularly close to any of my individual neighbors, but I was enjoying the communion. It was good to become friendly with these people with whom I shared a roof – with whom I shared the pipes, the wood, and the wiring that were unique to Jack. We always had landlord stories to swap, that’s for sure. And Elizabeth seemed to have more of them than anyone.
Of course, where she was concerned, Jack did have a case. Whether we liked it or not, every eviction notice he ever posted on her door was issued validly. She always seemed to be behind on her rent as she pursued a career that might be worthy of her phenomenal singing voice. And I would miss that voice. I would miss hearing her hit every note perfectly, never requiring musical accompaniment.
And I would appreciate always what she had brought to the building.
The first Christmas season after she moved in, I taped a holiday card to her front door. “Dear Elizabeth,” I had written inside, “When I tell my friends about the new energy in my building, I always tell them that one person made it happen. She’s our building’s ‘Fraulein Maria.’ Because of her, there’s music in the house again. I thank you for that, and my only regret is that Jack bears no resemblance whatsoever to Christopher Plummer. Those are the breaks. Love, Katie.”
Remembering that note now, what strikes me is that when I referred to “friends,” I was thinking about the people I knew outside the building.
…But something would happen around the time Elizabeth moved. The bonds that had been created during loud parties and competitive party games would become stronger. Among a few of us, there would be more quiet, one-on-one moments. We would share problems, secrets, and dreams. We’d still have the larger gatherings on the stoop or around the grill, but something deeper than simple socializing among neighbors was emerging.
to be continued on August 31st.