He was already living across the hall from Florence the day we moved in in 1961. He never spoke to us kids and us kids never spoke to him but we knew to be respectful and silent as he came and went.
Later when Florence got sick, I bumped into him more. We started giving each other a slight nod at some point, but mostly it was still the Lower East Side gaze we all do from the corner of our eye, letting the person know “I-see-you-I-still-don’t-talk-to-you."
I was spending yet another sunny day unburying Florence’s life from all the papers she kept. Hit a wall, took a break, got 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 to the lobby door. He pointed to a newly-posted death notice.
And then, for the first time, after not a word in fifty years - not a single word - we talked.
“Hannah’s brother?” he asked.
No it was Shia on the third floor who died.
Well, Shia had to be late 70's because he and his wife were younger than my parents.
"70's? That's young. I'm 91."
And after fifty years, and after our very first words, I finally got to meet Hyman.
He takes care of himself. Sure, his nephew out on Long Island keeps an eye on him. And sure, 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 asked?
”Yeah. I got captured in France. Was a POW in Germany. Stalag 11B." After the war, all the guys would get together. He doesn’t go to the reunions anymore. "Most of these guys have checked out,” he said.
I reached down to help him get his cart up the five scattered steps to the lobby door - the same steps we needed two maintenance guys to get Florence in and out of the building.
"Nah. I got a system. I'm still pretty strong!" and before I knew it, he had bump-bump-bumped the big cart up each step.
The blond mommy and her little blond boy, dressed like Robin Hood, were coming out of the building. When I was growing up I could count on three fingers all the blond people in the neighborhood. Now it's normal.
Seeing the kid, Hyman lit 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 pulled out a $1 bill (25 cents in my day) and stuffed it in the little boy's hand. "Here! For Halloween!"
The mommy turned to her boy “What do you say?"
"Thank you!" Robin Hood answered promptly and he and Hyman grinned at each other before the kid and the mommy headed out to Sherwood Forest or maybe the Avenue A bus.
Hyman turned back to me. "I'm going on a cruise."
The nephew out on Long Island taking you some place warm? I asked.
“Nah.” A mischievous twinkle in his eye. "Guess where?! Europe! I'm flying into Rome and then taking a cruise all over Europe. Athens."
With your nephew? I asked.
"No. By myself."
I looked so shocked he got this big grin and I saw the young soldier who got grit and guts and verve and survived a POW camp.
"People see an old man alone, they're very helpful,” he said with a shrug but still with that wicked fun twinkle "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."
Both of us waiting for the old elevator, the day whirled around me with light and sun and crisp air and coffee and old newspapers and piles of paper and death notices and scattered steps and little boys in Robin Hood outfits and dollar bills appearing out of nowhere and a person’s life I had lived next to for years and years and years and finally met.
The elevator arrived. The old doors took their usual time to open.
"Gotta do this. This trip is my last hurrah. Then I'll go quietly,” Hyman said. And with that, he bump-bump-bumped his big laundry cart into the elevator.
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.