Not long after the Librarian and I moved to the Upper East Side, I developed a problem with my neck. It was one of those weird, slept-on-it wrong kind of things; the problem occasionally recurs, and I still haven’t figured out what causes it. But that first appearance came at absolutely the worst time: our tiny apartment was crammed with boxes that needed unpacking and furniture that needed arranging. Plus, I had used all my vacation time for the move, and was just starting out telecommuting for work and could not afford to risk falling behind on any deadlines.
I love New York, and I was overjoyed to be a Manhattanite, but in those first weeks, I felt pressured and overwhelmed, and I was in too much pain to enjoy my new city. I was depressed, and I slept a lot. The Librarian and I had shorthand for my bouts with depression – we called it my malaise, stretching out the word in a languid drawl, as if by joking about it, as if by making it sound like I was a Victorian lady who took to her bed at the slightest provocation, we could make it go away.
I was somewhere between malaise and actually taking to my bed the day my neighbor across the hall had a stroke. I had met Mildred a few times, because our apartment doors were facing, and she always left hers wide open when she was cooking or ironing. I’d stop and chat with her when I could, usually about impersonal things like the weather or what she was cooking. She gave me some information about the building and the neighborhood. But I didn’t really know her, and I didn’t know she had been in the hospital and had been brought home the night before Donald came looking for her.
Every block in New York City has its share of crazy, but I am positive that East 89th between Second and Third had more than its fair share. And Donald, I soon learned, was the mayor of crazy on 89th Street. He was born in the building two up from ours, and Mildred had been a kind of grandma to him. He patrolled the stoops up and down the block, looking for handouts and odd jobs. He drank a lot, he probably did drugs, but he was a reader and a good talker, and he was honest and kind. Donald was a rambling, shambling mess, and the Librarian and I grew quite fond of him. We often gave him a buck or two or ten, and he always paid us back – never in cash, mind you, but always with strange, unexpected gifts: a picture frame, a paperweight, French jam, bottles of pear nectar, a ceramic jewelry box, an impressively vile bottle of wine, a collection of six Stella beer glasses. He adored us and looked out for us, but he never got our names right – to Donald, I was Terry and Terence was Pat. Like I said. Donald was a mess.
But I didn’t know any of this the morning Donald woke me, pounding on my door and Mildred’s, shouting her name. Through the peephole, I saw only a rambling shambling mess of a black man, and I tiptoed back to my bed. I was in an Advil haze, and my chin rested approximately on my collarbone: I was not going to be much help. It was not so much “I don’t want to get involved” as it was an inability to process all the details of the situation, but I am probably splitting hairs. I was shy and uncertain, not confident, afraid of doing or saying the wrong thing. But Donald’s calls to Mildred, begging her to open the door, became more frantic. Still, I hesitated, listening for too long inside my door before I finally opened it and asked Donald how I could help.
Donald did not want to come into my apartment, which was okay with me because I wasn’t sure I should let him into my apartment. We both kept apologizing — he because a blind man could see I was not well and me because I have this nervous tic that makes me end every damn sentence with “sorry” when I’m unsure of myself. Donald used my phone, in the hallway, to call Mildred, but got no answer. He was growing hysterical: he could not get in her apartment, and he was sure something was wrong, but he did not want to call 911 until he knew what was wrong. He kept tugging at his wild hair, hopping from foot to foot. Donald was a mess.
Somewhere in all this, I remembered that the apartments shared a fire escape along the front window. Donald scrambled past me, over all the boxes and furniture, and climbed out, shouting back an apology for the footprints he left on my sill. Very luckily, her windows were unlocked, but even before Donald went in, he could see that her bed was empty – the whole street probably heard him screaming to me to call 911 once he saw the empty bed.
Donald had found her curled on the floor, halfway in her tiny bathroom, barely conscious and unable to speak, and he held her hand and talked to her until the paramedics arrived. Mildred’s eyes were glassy, wet, and she showed no sign of understanding Donald’s urgent words: “Stay with me, girl, you’re strong now, come on back to me now, that’s my girl, stay with me.”
The doors to both apartments stood wide open, and I sat on Mildred’s kitchen floor with my phone in my lap, grateful that all that was really wrong with me was an annoying pain in my neck. It made me sad to remember all the times I’d hurried into my apartment instead of chatting with her. I could have learned more about her in those few chats we did have, if I had asked the right questions, possibly enough to understand or even share the desperate affection Donald showed her.
The three paramedics were complete knuckledraggers (or as my cousin’s husband would say, windowlickers). They complained and fussed about the smell as if bodily functions, or malfunctions, were completely foreign to them. They were careless and rough when they handled her, letting her nightgown fall open, treating her as if she were already just a body. They bickered over who would carry her down the one flight of stairs to the street. One spent more time asking me about my neck than he spent taking care of Mildred. It was Donald who remembered to gather all her medications, who found the discharge papers from the night before, who thought to hunt for phone numbers, so they could notify her son.
It seems to me now that my life as a true New Yorker began that day, when I realized I didn’t want to be a stereotypical New Yorker. Mildred spent the next few months in and out of the hospital, and the Librarian and I checked in on her as often as we could, and gave her son, who lived in Virginia, regular updates. She never made a full recovery, but I was able to get to know her better before she died.
Today, seven years later and three thousand miles west, unpacked boxes, paramedics, and kind neighbors reminded me of my New York morning with Donald and Mildred. There was a hit-and-run accident on the corner this morning, almost right in front of the house.
The sound of the impact was unmistakable, and it was close – I was sure someone had hit one of cars in the Pilot’s driveway. His house sits at the top of a hill, one house in from a T-shaped intersection. My writing room faces the other way; I can only see a bit of street from the window, but it was enough – when I heard the crash, I jumped up in time to watch a black Toyota 4Runner squeal past. The tires squealed again and again as it rocketed around each twist of the hill down to the main road.
I hurried downstairs and outside. Shards of black plastic and shattered glass littered the street. A white Prius hunched a few yards shy of the stop-sign line; tire tracks snaked impossible lines around the car. I hesitated at the end of the driveway: a small crowd was gathered around the Prius, and I was barefoot and wearing, essentially, my pajamas. A dark-haired woman in a white T-shirt was leaning into the Prius’ window, and I could hear her talking gently to the driver: Tell me where it hurts, please stay still, we’re getting help. When the dark-haired woman stood up straight and asked the others if they’d called 911 yet, she appeared to be pregnant. A guy in flip-flops and a gray-blue baseball cap was already on the phone; he told her, “I got it.”
I stood and watched these strangers who are now my neighbors. They had the ease and familiarity of a small community. And I was back behind the door on 89th Street, back in the high school cafeteria, shy and uncertain, not confident. Afraid of doing or saying the wrong thing. But it really did seem like they all “got it.” They had called 911. They were keeping the injured driver safe, immobile, and calm. Someone, I overheard, was even chasing after the 4Runner. I was an unshowered distracted mess and there was nothing for me to do.
So, I went back inside, refilled my tea mug, and returned to my writing room.
And couldn’t write.
The writing has been going remarkably well since I arrived, mostly because I’m hiding from the chaos around me. And because I came out here to be a writer, dammit, and a writer writes and is not distracted by every hummingbird that flits by her window and a writer does not stare vapidly out the window at the greenbrown mountains for minutes on end and a writer most certainly does not lose two or more hours a day cooking all the amazing stuff she finds at the farmers’ market.
For the two weeks I’ve been in California, and more so now that the Pilot is back at work, I’ve been battling that bee-in-a-bottle feeling that often precedes my malaise. I’m vaguely manic, knowing that as soon as I slow down or stop, I could be overwhelmed by everything I have to do, by the enormity of what I’ve already done, by the fresh grief of what I’ve given up to do this. I flit from room to room, from box to box, from story to story, starting things, finishing nothing.
And so I write. I start new stories I may never finish. I grow the novel I may never finish. And I fill the hummingbird feeders and I dig in the garden and I swim in the pool and I wander the farmers’ market and I cook and yes, dammit, I let my mind go blank and I stare and I stare and I stare at those beautiful mountains. A writer writes, even when she isn’t gripping a pen or tapping a keyboard.
The chaos in me is enough to hide from, but the chaos around me is even worse. Before we arrived from the roadtrip, the Pilot had not been home for ten weeks; he figures he’s been home maybe a dozen days in the last eight months. It’s part of our agreement that I will help get his house in order, but honestly, that could be a full time job. Looking around his cluttered little house, I constantly have to remind myself that one man lives here, not a family of badgers.
I’ve carved out my own little space in my writing room, and I am comfortable and happy, and so far, productive, up here. Everything in here is mine, even if the home around it is not.
But some of my things are missing. More on this in another post, probably, of course, but it’s enough for now to say that I hired the worst movers in the history of movers. They arrived three days later than scheduled, which meant I cut the roadtip short unnecessarily. The crew in New Haven yanked the fixed shelves out of my big beautiful expensive bookcases. (This same crew broke the coffee table and tried to convince me they were taking it apart because it would travel better packed into boxes.) They must have played rugby with my boxes, or used them as a stage for a piano-playing elephant, or it doesn’t really matter, because every single box had something smashed or cracked or damaged in it. This is downright impressive when you consider that a full 75% of my boxes contained nothing but books.
I can’t start itemizing the broken and damaged things, lest my malaise gets the better of me. But the worst of it is that two boxes are missing. One box has knickknacks, mostly candleholders and vases, all purely of sentimental value. The other box, oh heartbreak, the other box is all books, containing almost my entire William Trevor collection. Of my 29 Trevor books (27 by him, two about him), most of which are rare and/or out of print, only After Rain and Elizabeth Alone are here with me. I cannot overstate the heartbreak of this, if those boxes are not found.
And so this morning, back at my desk with my fresh mug of tea, I looked at the empty shelf where Trevor should be. I could hear sirens approaching; I could hear the neighbors talking on the street, waiting with the Prius driver. I looked at the mountains. I looked at pile of unpacked boxes and remembered Donald clambering over boxes to get to Mildred.
Chaos or not, heartbreak or not, malaise or not, I am extraordinarily blessed and would do well to remember it more often.
I changed my pajamas for more appropriate clothes and went back outside. There was a bigger crowd on the sidewalk by the Prius. The dark-haired lady in the white shirt was still talking to the driver, and a man had joined her by the car. As soon as I saw him, cradling a very tiny baby to his chest, I realized why this woman looked pregnant: this was the couple in the corner house across the street, who brought their newborn home just Monday. Flip-flops was off his cell phone, and he smiled and waved to me as I approached. I had seen him before, too, the day the movers came, walking his two little yappy dogs. Introductions went around, accounts of the accident were exchanged and pieced together, nasty things were said about the driver of the 4Runner.
The first police car arrived moments after I returned, and just like when I opened the door in New York, things started happening fast. Two more police cars arrived, and then a cop on a motorcycle (sadly, he looked like neither Ponch nor Jon), and then two ambulances and a fire truck. All of the officers were friendly and efficient, all dark tans and white teeth, and they were armed right up to those white teeth. The cops sorted out quickly who they needed to talk to, which was Flip-flops. He had been out on his front lawn when it happened, directly across from the intersection, and was the only one who saw the impact.
Frantic honking made us all turn to look down the hill: the black 4Runner pulled up behind the first police car, in front of the Pilot’s driveway. A silver BMW, still honking, zipped around the 4Runner and blocked him in. The driver of the BMW was a stout woman with a triumphant smile: she had followed the 4Runner down to the main road, harassed him in the 7-11 parking lot, and herded him back to the scene of the accident.
The police surrounded the 4Runner. The entire driver’s side was smashed in and streaked with white. Still friendly, still efficient, the cops helped the driver out of his huge car. He needed the help – from where we were all gathered, it was impossible to tell if he was drunk or if he was in shock, but he could barely walk. The cops sat him on the curb, right outside the Pilot’s house, and started asking him questions.
As I stood with the neighbors, waiting my turn to tell what I’d seen, I realized the cops had pulled a neat trick. They had gathered us in a bundle between the two damaged vehicles, where we could be seen and could see what was going on, but where we would neither get in the way of the paramedics swarming the Prius nor interfere with the cops questioning the hit-and-run driver.
The driver of the Prius was a middle-aged woman; the paramedics put her in a neck brace and onto a body board. She appeared to be able to answer all of their questions; I saw her wiggle her fingers and flex her feet for them. Her car had been hit very hard, and the airbags had deployed. I hope she will be all right; I was not able to get an assessment of her condition from any of the officers I spoke with.
The driver of the 4Runner was an old guy, tall and lanky, with thin, messy silver hair. His navy T-shirt and white shorts seemed too big for his wiry frame. He sat on the curb, with his legs crossed at the knee, all odd angles, but very comfortable, very casual. Infuriatingly calm, like he was chilling at a block party, enjoying the sun. The cops played a neat trick on him, too: by being very casual and friendly with him, they kept him calm and kept him talking. He insisted that he had not been drinking, and that he wasn’t on any medications, but he failed the follow-my-finger eye test, repeatedly, so the cops were keeping him distracted until more officers arrived to conduct a field sobriety test.
One of the cops had a civilian with him, a school psychologist on a ride-along, and after a while, he and I and 4Runner were the only non-cops left on the scene. The psychologist and I chatted a bit, about the weather, about the community, about his work with kids and the police. He was a big man, and he had that slow, calm, confidence that all high school psychologists need but very few possess. That kind of calmness used to bring out all of my nervous tics – not that long ago, talking to this man would have made me run at the mouth, ending every sentence with “sorry.” Instead, I listened, I watched, and I let his calmness infect me, and we had an easy, gentle conversation.
When the field sobriety test cops arrived, I went back inside. I had heard the police talking; 4Runner was going to jail regardless of the sobriety test results. The little information I had to offer had already been collected; I had collected enough to get me writing again.
I don’t know what it will take to make me a true Californian any more than I can know what it will take to make me feel at home again, anywhere. It is very likely that I will remain a New Yorker who happens to live in California; right now, even that level of self-acceptance would be a comfort.
But I’ve only been here two weeks. I have some time yet to figure it all out.