We live in a white brick building, 19 stories tall (there is a 20th floor but no 13th), from the Kennedy administration. We are the second tenants of our apartment. Before we moved in, we met the homesteaders, an old couple, moving on to assisted living or Florida. The apartment occupies a corner; looking out one window, the wife could see, across the street and down the block, the brownstone in which she had grown up.
Younger tenants leave because of promotions, reproduction, or both. Years ago we had a friend our age, genial, single, Wall Street. We asked him once, before throwing a party, if we could store something in his refrigerator, and found it empty, almost showroom-floor clean, except for champagne and beer. Excellent man! Then he married and left for an even better job elsewhere, from which he annually sends us cards picturing his family and wishing us Season’s Greetings. But for city dwellers already fixed in life, the rent laws encourage stasis. The old leave to go to the nursing home or the grave.
The only departures that are accorded formal notice are those of the staff. The oldest doorman when I first moved in was Eddie, an Irishman, tall, competent, sometimes given to melancholy. He was dusting a breakfront that stood in the lobby several decorating schemes ago, when he said, “We used to have books the tenants could borrow. No more!” He spoke as if mourning the flight of the earls. When he retired, there was a party for him in the lobby, his domain. Soon after, as if life were work, he died. Vinnie, his most notable junior colleague, was Italian, ebullient, a Yankees fan, regularly greeting my wife with a great, joyous “Hi, doctor!” — and rightly, for she has a Ph.D. (New School for Social Research). But so he also greeted me (no school, for nothing) and everyone. He ran the easiest defense of a dissertation in the world. He died of diabetes; a notice in the mailroom announced a wake in the Bronx.
The passing of tenants — our neighbors — is more elusive. You see a face every, or every other, day, and then you don’t, preceded perhaps by seeing it altered for the worse. The first such change I noticed came upon an elderly man, with a habitually sweet expression, always dapper in a black suit and fedora. Then I saw him in the neighborhood supermarket, making repeated loops past the cash register, then back and past again, back and past. The checkout girl scolded him, he smiled on. Dementia. Soon he was gone. There was an older lady — lady was how you instinctively thought of her — bright-eyed, well spoken, well turned-out. The city removed a traffic sign that stood near our awning, but left a stub of the metal post sticking out of the sidewalk where everyone jaywalked across. Next thing the lady had a wheelchair and an attendant, which she kept for several years. Philosophical systems, wrote Henry Adams, especially those which justify God’s ways to man, must account for catastrophes worldwide and accidents in corners.
A dramatic departure happened on our floor years ago. An older woman and her middle-aged son lived together. He played the piano in an Italian restaurant in the neighborhood, which never had a single customer (if you are thinking money laundering, you are probably thinking right). Mother and son drank and fought, audibly. You’re drunk! You’re dead! Shut up! etc. Once they left a pot on the stove, which filled the hall with smoke, then firemen. One day there was yellow Keep Out tape across their door. They were heard no more.
Just the other day my wife came up in the elevator with three cops, in full uniform, pistols on hips. This looked more serious than shushing five kids in a modified one-bedroom who have invited 25 of their best friends over for a beer blast. (The cops hardly ever come for that; five kids to one apartment is how the building makes money.) Gossip supplied the explanation: An elderly mother and daughter had been found dead in their own apartment, after two weeks.
I inquired of the doorman (Moroccan-French). From his description, I could not picture them. You know a lot of faces in a 19/20-floor building, but not all. If they were there undiscovered for two weeks, evidently I wasn’t the only one who didn’t know them. Hadn’t their family missed them? Maybe they were their entire family. Hadn’t their friends? Maybe they met their friends once a month for lunch and an organ recital (my heart, my feet) and died in the gap.
At moments like this, whether we live in the city or the wide-open spaces, we dream of community. Nostalgists, romantics, anthropologists, communitarians, and op-ed writers making grist from all the above encourage the feeling. Jane Austen is everyone’s pet novelist — also a very great one, but we love her for her toyland villages and the costumed inhabitants. Think again. Living in those little communities can be like having a 24-hour anal probe. Everyone knows everyone else’s business and has known it for years, if not generations. The Reverend (later Father) Richard Neuhaus (d. 2009) was driving Will Herberg (d. 1977) through Brooklyn. They passed a Hasidic neighborhood. Isn’t it wonderful, Richard said, seeing old and young together? Herberg reproved him: You have no idea how rigid those communities are.
Pursuing happiness instead, we created a continent of runaways, whether we live in the badlands, with wild horses and opiates, or among the millions of the city, in buildings full of faced but nameless near-strangers. When we go, apart from family and friends, there will be a few words in the elevator or the mailroom, a few words from the doorman, then back to nods and talk of the weather. The day of our death will be, as Auden put it, a day when one did something slightly unusual.