He has lived across the hall from Florence since the day in 1961 we moved in. He never spoke to us kids and we kids never spoke to him but everybody knew everything and we knew to be respectful and silent as he came and went.
Later when Florence got sick, I bumped into him more, a slight nod at some point started, but mostly it was the Lower East Side perusing we all do as we gaze from the corner of our eyes, letting the person know "I see you I still don't talk to you."
Today, a day of unburying my mother's life from all the papers she kept, I go get a cafe con leche from the Dominican place that used to be the Giorgianni Brother's market. I needed to cry and caffeine makes it go faster.
There he was pushing his shopping cart full of laundry. I let him know it's Shia on the 3rd floor who died. Not Hannah's brother. How old he asks? Well, Shia had to be late 70's because he and his wife were younger than my parents. "70's?" he asks? "That's young. I'm 91."
And then we talked. Fifty years not a word, today we talked.
He takes care of himself. The Vet Administration gave him home aides but what for. He has LifeLine. "Just like having a person there." Still, the Vet Administration's been great to him. Full disability.
World War II I ask?
"Yeah. I got captured in France. Was a POW in Germany. Stalag 11B." After, he used to get together with the other guys at these reunions but he doesn't go anymore. "Most of these guys have checked out."
I try to help him get his cart up the five scattered steps between the courtyard and the elevator, the same steps we needed 2 maintenance guys to get Florence in and out of the building. "Nah. I got a system. I'm still pretty strong!" and bump, bump bump the big cart pops up each step.
The blond mommy and her little blond boy came out of the elevator. When I was growing up I could count on 3 fingers all the blonds in the neighborhood. Now it's just normal. The little boy is dressed like Robin Hood.
Hyman lights up like a Ferris Wheel at night. "whatcha got there, huh!?" and then in the time honored Lower East Side act of loving family, he pulls out a $1 bill and stuffed it in the little boy's hand. "Here! for Halloween!" and the time honor response from the mommy, "What do you say?" "Thank you!" and they skip out.
Hyman tells me, "I'm going on a cruise." I think well maybe the nephew out on Long Island is going to take him some place warm. A mischievous twinkle in his eye, he says, "Guess where?!" Obviously I am wrong about the Caribbean.
"Europe! I'm flying into Rome and then taking a cruise all over Europe. Athens." With your nephew? I ask. "No. By myself." I look so shocked he gets this big grin and I see a young soldier who got grit and guts and verve.
Then a shrug. "People see an old man alone, they're very helpful." but still that wicked fun twinkle.
He says, "I told them, don't give me no 6 months from now deal because I don't know if I'm going to be around then. Gimme something now."
There's light and sun and crisp air and coffee and old newspapers and scribbled notes and doors and landings and scattered steps and elevators and little boys in Robin Hood outfits and dollar bills appearing out of nowhere.
And then he says "Gotta do this. This trip is my last hurrah. Then I'll go quietly."
MY PRIVATE CONEY presents IT WAS HER NEW YORK, the short stories that accompany the work-in-progress video and photo collection of the same name (myprivateconey.com - media link - IT WAS HER NEW YORK). The stories and the media explore the tender rubble that holds both my mother, Florence's and New York's soul as one disappears into old age and the other into gentrification. All are real observations and/or experiences with very little tall-tale telling.
Except when it makes the story better.
Please visit myprivateconey.com for additional information and sample works.