Spring has come to New York City. Today I found a few bedraggled crocuses blooming beneath a light mulch of trash. Daffodils are up in Inwood Park. People are out with dogs and strollers. The Dominican baseball teams are reving up for the spring season. These Dominicans take their baseball seriously.
All this makes me feel as though I am living in a small town, not a neighborhood in Manhattan where the population density is north of 51,500 people per square mile. Not a “neighborhood” the size of a medium city squished into the geographic footprint of a village. And one in which most of my neighbors speak a foreign language.
This creates a schizophrenic sense of intimacy within anonymity. I’ve become familiar with the quirks and habits of total strangers simply because I live on top of them.
The man in the next building, for example, who barks like a dog when he sneezes. Or the singer who does dramatic trilling voice exercises. At first I though she was just a really bad singer until I heard her practicing seriously for…something.
In the morning, the smell of coffee wafts through the apartment halls along with the banging of doors as people go to work. On holidays, each floor is a cornucopia of cooking odors, presumably from family or ethnic traditions.
This is surprisingly pleasant. It feels like village life without the obligation to bring cookies to your neighbors or volunteer with the soccer mom’s club.
Mary lives across the hall. She’s one of the holdout Irish in this mostly Latino neighborhood.
“Oh, bless me,” she says when I take my baby grandson out for a walk. “How’s the babe? Fine? Oh, isn’t he a little lamb. It’s a fine day. Have a lovely walk.”
And she is gone in a whirl of cart and groceries.
Mary and Barb from upstairs visit each other a lot. Barb grew up not far from here and raised her own four children in the neighborhood. “I was 18 before I ever saw a black person or a Hispanic. Can you imagine? I lived in Manhattan, but I never left the neighborhood. Everything we needed was right here.”
Barb’s own grandkids visit each weekend. And her cats patter percussively above my head.
A couple weeks ago, I was taking the garbage to the basement early in the morning. Ogi, the super, was there. He lives in the basement with his hardworking wife, Daniella, and their two kids, whom I have only seen in passing.
Ogi is serious and eager to please with a deeply furrowed brow. Daniella is outspoken, ample, goodhearted. He emigrated from Serbia a few years ago; she is Serbian, too, but was born here.
This morning, Ogi is talkative. He tells me he will get his degree in environmental engineering next year. “I got an engineering degree in Serbia, but only half the credits were accepted. So I go to the City University. It’s cheap.
“As soon as I get my degree, I’m leaving,” he says. “It’s a jungle here. I see these people going out to work every day. Every day, it’s a battle. I don’t know how they do it. We’ll go to Texas. I hear there are jobs there.”
Their sons stay with the grandparents in upstate New York during the week. “It’s nice there. They love it–they have a yard and their cousins are nearby. They don’t like to come back here. I understand.”
“It must be hard to be separated from your kids,” I say.
“It’s very hard,” he says.
Kind of a poignant lesson in human grace and dignity, no?
Despite the crush and variety of people in this place, I’ve heard fewer arguments here than I did in the village I used to live in. I’ll admit, that surprised me.
I’ve walked from the subway late at night and early in the morning, and it’s just…a neighborhood. Full of people living their lives. Nobody wanting to mess with me.
In the next post, I’ll tell you why I’m really living in an apartment in New York City.