“Assalamma laykum”, he says as he saunters into the elevator, his gait askew, his voice low and gravelly as if his throat is home to a million little rocks. His jaw moves in a circular motion like he’s chewing on something, except he’s not. His grey, crooked teeth, while sparse, are bared through his slack lips. His blue eyes, wide and unblinking slightly bulge out of their sockets from behind his over-sized wire-rimmed glasses. I automatically begin breathing through my mouth and with a polite smile, mumble “wa alaykum salaam”, still confused as to why this middle-aged white man chooses to greet me this way, a greeting I’m used to sharing with other Muslims. I intuit that he’s trying to make me comfortable. Perhaps he can sense my discomfort, my unease in his presence.
This, and ‘hi’ and ‘can I help you with that?’ are the only words I’ve heard him say. His hair is usually disheveled, flat and stringy as if it hardly if ever gets washed. His uniform is almost always a pair of dirty jeans that are too big for his slender frame, so big that they drag on the floor and as a result are tattered and hole-ridden. A white t-shirt, usually stained and out of shape with the sleeves cut off, displays a smattering of blotchy and faded green tattoos. In the summer, he’ll often go topless forcing me to avert my gaze more quickly than usual before I catch a glimpse of his pale, doughy gut. He wears the same pair of formerly white sneakers that are splitting at the front seams, covered with grime, unrecognizable to the point that they look like worn dense fabric covering his feet.
I think about what the inside of his apartment must look like. I wonder what kind of drugs he’s on or if he’s physically ill. He seems lucid enough, not like the rambling derelicts I regularly encounter on the N train. He has an apartment so that’s saying something. He offers to help me up the stairs in front of our building whenever he sees me with a shopping cart full of groceries or a swollen bag of laundry or the stroller with my infant son inside. But I always politely decline. I fear something may rub off.
She likes to tell me how much my older son looks like me. “That’s aaall you,” she laughs. Her greetings always come off as heartfelt, exuberant. “Hiii, how are youuu?” she sings when we pass each other in the hallway. Her voice has a grandmotherly lilt to it, a voice of someone whose lived for generations. It feels sincere, although I think she may be overdoing it out of some underlying self-consciousness. She’s petite, much thinner than I am — I weigh 110 pounds most days — and constantly has a cigarette dangling from two fingers at her sides. When it’s lit, she sheepishly apologizes for the smell.
Her slick pixie cut and narrow, bird-like features make her look young despite the fact she has very few teeth in her mouth. Because of this she usually smiles with her eyes, small and dark brown. Her grown daughter looks nothing like her. She’s tall and robust, her expression stuck in a perpetual grimace like the pinched face of a bulldog. Her honeyed complexion stands in contrast to her mother’s almond-colored skin. The only similarities between the two is the short hair, which she keeps dyed a bright maroon.
When it’s warm, they often sit in the benches in front of our building, smoking cigarettes. The mother wears perforated rubber clogs with socks, cropped leggings and a fitted v-neck t-shirt. She’s nearly flat-chested and has the build of a tweenage girl. Her daughter favors cheap, colorful maxi dresses that cling to her sturdy, slighty bugling frame, the cleavage of her large breasts too apparent to ignore. Her young son is light-skinned and chubby like her although I rarely see him, except on those sunny days when her and her mother smoke on the benches while he rides his scooter precariously across the cement courtyard.
The daughter is almost always on her cell phone, arguing with someone or rehashing an argument she had with someone and whenever I walk past her door, I often hear her angry scolds. When she sees me, she gives me a distant yet friendly ‘hello’, lest I think she is devoid of anything pleasant. She reminds me of the tough black girls I went to elementary school with, the ones who always got into fights, the ones that bullied you and you went out of your way to avoid. She’s less inclined to make small talk and I’m glad she doesn’t because she scares me a little.
It’s probably three o’clock in the morning. The walls are so thin and even though there’s a narrow hallway in between the wall and our bedroom door, I can hear him. He sounds angry even though I know he’s not. He’s having a normal conversation about normal things but he’s yelling, then laughing, then yelling again, his thunderous voice interrupting my sleep momentarily before the monotony makes me drift off again.
We often run into each other in the lobby on our way to the fifth floor. “I’mma steal your kids!” is his opening line, and I laugh as we segue into a short conversation about nothing. He has a deep south Brooklyn accent and a curled, ironic smile spread across his face while making jokes about anything and everything in his boisterous and jovial way. He’s well over six feet tall, with ultra-black smooth skin, perfect white teeth and the stocky build of a former quarterback. His taut, rounded belly is one of the few marks of advanced age, the other being an imperceptible line of silver stubble along his upper lip. His presence is young and upbeat as if life has had little effect on him.
His door is directly across from mine and because of this I know more about him than the others. I’m told his mother, who passed away decades ago, was just like him — big, black and loud. He’s a bachelor, never married, but never short on women. He’s a baseball coach now, but for years worked as a correctional officer. He complains to me one day about how high his rent is, laughing the entire time, but I feel bad for him because I know my elderly in-laws pay half of what he pays, even though we live in the same building.
I’ve watched from the peephole on several occasions young girls beating down his door only to be met with no answer. Once, a visibly disturbed young woman dragged a concrete slab repeatedly up and down his door, leaving jagged while lines in the brown paint, while screaming expletives at the top of her lungs and the kind of raw insults that only a woman scorned can come up with. Afterwards, she began to kick the door violently, thrusting her entire body towards one leg, causing mine to quiver, until she broke the aluminum door knocker clean off.
She has good taste in music. Rock, R&B, Disco, Hip Hop, Pop — she doesn’t discriminate. I’m washing the dishes one afternoon and the sleepy melody of America’s “A Horse With No Name” floats into the kitchen, followed by TLC’s “Creep”, the definitive jam of my childhood. Songs by The Fugees, George Michael, Culture Club, Aerosmith, Alicia Bridges and Luther Vandross seep through the walls at top volume every now and then. There’s too much mixed in for it to be a curated Pandora channel. It’s so eclectic, it makes me wonder even more about the woman in 5E.
She’s elusive and rarely makes her presence known except for when her place sounds like a full-blown party, or when we happen to leave our apartments at the same time. During one of those moments I watch her walk down the hall to the incinerator with a small trashbag, barefoot. Her door is decorated with blue butterfly stickers and large blue butterflies made out of wire and mesh that my kids like to touch on our way to the elevator. Our encounters are brief and awkward. Once, she got my mail by accident. She knocked on my door and quickly informed me of the mailman’s error while handing me a package containing my new Warby Parker glasses. Breaking through the polite exchange was a sense of unease. She seemed jittery, wanting the interaction to end as quickly as possible. Sometimes she wears a long, obvious wig, other times not, her close shaven head in harsh contrast to the former. She’s never without heavy false lashes that weigh down her eyelids making her appear sleep-deprived. Her dark brown skin has a perpetual oily, almost sweaty sheen to it, as if she’s always hot.
Last winter when our gas went out, it all finally made sense. When it became apparent that we would be without working ovens for a while, the building’s management held regular meetings in the main lobby where residents could ask questions and get the latest updates on when things would be back to normal. I managed to glean from the posted announcements what I needed to know about the outage, but one evening decided to go one of these meetings in hopes of getting another free hotplate. As I leave, the woman from 5E is already walking towards the elevator.
She’s swaying, heavy-footed and languid. Inside the elevator the smell stings my nose, antiseptic and overwhelming. She acknowledges my presence by commenting on the situation, not really talking to me but rather at me, about the incompetence of the building managers, the slow response of the gas company, the negligence of the city towards working class people, etc, etc. I nod and make noises in agreement. During the meeting she adds her two cents, criticisms that add little if any value and asking questions everyone already knows the answers to. She repeats herself, saying the same thing in different iterations, dragging her words along. Her hands are distractedly flailing from her wrists as she speaks, I’m guessing in an effort to appear more coherent than she actually is. I start to think maybe she’s drunk when she’s playing all that music. Maybe she doesn’t have good taste after all.
This is my classroom.