Who are you? He asked me in a perplexed but flirtatious voice.
Who are you? I asked the older man who had been waiting outside my apartment door when I came home from night classes at The New School.
My long brown hair was up in a ponytail; I wore a thin cotton summer dress, not too revealing which wasn’t usual for me, and brown platform sandals. That summer of Sam, no girl wanted to stand out or look anything like a potential victim. It was hot; it had been hot for weeks and my apartment lacked air conditioning. But I was young and didn’t feel heat like most people did. No matter how fast I walked and I walked like I was dodging bullets because maybe I was, I never sweated.
The man’s suit jacket was off as was his tie. His thin white shirt glistened from sweat. “Let me in,” he said.
I looked at him, confused. “Why?”
You’re one of Reba’s girls. I can tell. You have that sweet school girl look.
Oh, her. She retired down to Florida last year. Sorry, don’t know anything about her. I live here now.
I wasn’t sure if I should say that last part but didn’t know what else to say. Nobody had schooled me in the art of telling men that I wasn’t what they thought I was, in this particular situation or others.
Sure you are. I can always tell who Reba’s girls are.
I was getting angry. I wanted to go in; it had been a long day. I worked in a store in Queens, prime Sam country and the temperature had hit 90 long before noon. My nose was stuffed; I needed a shower.
He put on his glasses and examined me from head to toe.
â€œEven if you’re not one of Reba’s girls; you must have sublet the apartment from her. She’d never give it up. Reba’s too smart to give up a rent controlled Fifth Avenue apartment.
â€œLook, sir,â€� I said, emphasizing the sirâ€”a title I would never use in real life. â€œThis isnâ€™t quite Fifth Avenue, just off it, and the apartment’s no longer rent controlled. It’s stabilized and my husband and I live here now.
I was wearing a wedding ring though I wasnâ€™t married anymore. Anything to make me look unavailable; anything to ward off the evil that ran through New York that hotter than hell summer. I waved the ring in his face.
My husband should be home any minute and he’s the jealous type. Lying didn’t come naturally to me, but lying about men was something that did come easily that summer. I had put on my street face; the one that could turn men into stone, and he looked at me with a little less arrogance.
Nobody lived in the apartment right next to mine then, and a crazy psychiatrist with hair that stuck out all over his body and a look that could frighten Sam and frightened me lived in the other apartment on the first floor. The man who lived above me walked into the building.
â€œOh honey, you’re home, I screamed to my perplexed, older WASP neighbor. He had recently been listed as one of Manhattan’s ten most eligible bachelors. Frankly I thought he was gay because he was always smiling when he saw me and was usually with another man that I thought was his lover and the reason for the smile. Boys and men and anything in between had been smiling at me since I was sixteen. There was something about his smile that almost engaged me. It was more real; more something, than most males. But I did think that he was gay, and I wasn’t the short haired male with Docksider shoes on, type.
My neighbor, Roger, began to understand, stopped heading for the stairs, and came over. He kissed me, a wet passionate icky one that I forced myself to endure.
â€œHoney, this man thinks that I’m one of Reba’s girls. You know the madam that lived here before us.
Roger was a bit tipsy. He put his arm around me, and said in his lazy WASPY voice so different than my fast somewhere in the North East one; “honey, I keep telling you we should put a sign on the door, Reba doesn’t live here anymore.
Oh Roger, I keep telling you that’s so classless. People will learn eventually.
I unlocked my door; Roger followed me in. As I closed the door, the man said;
I don’t believe you. Reba would never give up this apartment. You two don’t look like you belong together. Is he your appointment?
I almost lost it. I’m not one of Reba’s girls. We’ve been living here for a year and seven months almost to the day. And Roger and I are very happy. Aren’t we sweetie?
I knew that was overkill but couldn’t stop myself.
The man handed me his card.
If you ever change your mind.
He was a vice president of an oil company. Years later he would become world famous in some now forgotten scandal.
Okay Roger, I said, you deserve a drink for saving me. God, just thank god it was you and not, the shrink, or Al or that useless cab driver. Al smoked cigars and looked almost old enough to be Roger’s father.
The cab driver had been born in the building; well, in a hospital I assumed, but close enough. He lived in an apartment two floors over Roger’s, and was famous for bringing in garbage to the building. Stacks and stacks of garbage: Newspapers; magazines; empty boxes; half-filled ones; anything metal. Once I passed his apartment when the door was open, and went into shock. I’m not the neatest person in America but his apartment defined the word Collyer Brothers. I had lived in tenements in The East Village with my boyfriend, and had never seen one that sickening. They had all been very clean. Unless I lived in them; I wasn’t exactly a natural housekeeper. Though I aspired to be.
I passed the cab driver’s apartment while on my way to sleep with a local TV talk show host who lived in the larger apartment next door. He would talk about me to his shrink on the show. My ex-husband, who wasn’t working would call and tell me all about the show. It was kind of flattering as he never said anything bad about me. Quite the opposite actually.
Megan lived above Roger. Periodically she would turn the gas on and try to end her life. She always managed to try just before a delivery was scheduled, and just after the piano player she liked to think was her boyfriend dumped her. She was really in love with Roger, and whenever there was a break-in, in the building or a New York Times was missing from an apartment door, she would tell the super that I had done it.
He would laugh as he knew I had separation ideation problems over The New York Times. I was clueless when it came to housekeeping but I liked having company over so it would always look good.
Roger accepted the drink. When I had moved in my father, the almost tea toler, took me to a liquor store and insisted that he buy me a full bar worth of liquor. It was the proper thing to do in 1976 when most people drank hard liquor and smoked. My family, except for me was perfect. Fun, sociable and never smoked nor drank.
I poured Roger a glass of Stoli from a bottle in my ancient almost ice box freezer. It was gross and had to be defrosted every three months with tons of boiling water. After that summer, I bought a new refrigerator. That would have been sad had it not been so necessary, because I had to take out the wooden Pullman doors. When you walked into my apartment, you walked straight into the kitchen and saw the refrigerator, sink, and ancient stove with an oven that seemed not to have been cleaned since Reba had first moved in. I bought a new convection oven, and never used the real one.
Roger asked where I got the Hunter Ceiling Fans as he had never seen them in the city before.
The Bowery, near where I got the butcher block table and chairs.
I walked through the kitchen, past the huge archway into the giant studio, and went to a silver case on the coffee table filled with joints. Years before, while seeing Jane Fonda in Klute, coming home from work, (yes like Reba’s girls), going to sit at the kitchen table with her legs up, and smoking a joint, I thought a woman who could offer people joints and who seemed so satisfied with her own life was the height of feminist sex appeal.
Though Roger was in his late 40’s, he would occasionally buy drugs from the super, who was the building dealer. It was much cleaner that way, and you never felt like you were doing anything illegal. The Rockefeller laws had gone into effect the year before but it didn’t affect people like us. The Rockefeller’s lived across the street, but I never saw them. I must have passed famous people each day but I could have bumped into Woody Allen in a phone booth and not noticed.
They were my streets and the only place I could get lost in thought was while walking, so I walked everywhere, in all seasons. That summer I had promised my parents I wouldn’t walk much by myself at night, and would take cabs everywhere.
All my girlfriends had long brunette hair, and we all felt vulnerable. While we sat at my kitchen table, Roger asked me what if felt like to be a young, brunette girl in the city I’m not going to stop going out. I have to wear my hair up; it’s too hot not to. No girls been killed in Manhattan and I work in one of my parents stores in Queens, and they wouldn’t let me work past six. It’ss just a summer job. I’m going to visit my college roommate in Geneva for six weeks in late summer, and fall/
Roger and I talked through the night and then didn’t socialize again for twelve more years. Just before I left for Europe there was a black out with much looting. My sister lived on West 72nd, and it was very rowdy. People threw beer cans at the apartments all night, and I spent the night on the phone talking to her.
The next day my best friend Shelby and I hit the Second Avenue Upper East Side bars about noon. They were afraid of food going bad, and both food and drink were on the house. It felt like a snow day in the summer; we didn’t think about the neighborhoods that had been looted; we didn’t think about much but ourselves and the boys we were dating. We forgot to feel scared about Sam that day. Like most people we staggered home somewhere around midnight Al’s next door neighbor, Mrs. Herrick, passed out in the tiny elevator. She did that often.
While I was in Bern, Sam was captured, and Elvis died. I couldn’t really care about that old fat man, but Son of Sam. My god, he looked familiar. He wasn’t; just had a look.