Tuesday, September 3, 2013

The Precipice

Florence's fire escape

In early days, before Florence leaned out this window to guide me across Columbia, there was a man who came to polish the floors in my parents' attempt to keep the house splinter free.

Sam.  He was a vet, of what I don't know except that he came from the Bowery and when he came, he ruled until he left behind a house spic and span and floors that were walkable.

One day, I was little, like four or five, I came home to pee.  That's what I did when I had to pee. Go home.  The bathrooms in the park across the street weren't always open and when they were the bathroom lady yelled a lot.  

But Sam had just finished polishing the floors, including the floor that started at the front door and traveled all the way to the bathroom.  And he wasn't having anyone, including a desperate little girl, disturb the results of his efforts. 

Despite being terrified of heights, Florence walked across the fire escape and knocked on Mrs. Harlick's window.

I don't remember the order of things, but even after successfully coaxing me into her apartment, I refused to use their bathroom.  And even with my mother teetering on the fire escape, I refused to step out over Columbia Street and inch my way back into familiar walls.   Instead, I returned to the stairwell and sat and waited until Sam decreed it was ok to open the door.

Looking at that fire escape recently, exactly the same as it had been 50 years ago, all I could wonder was what hell was she thinking?  Except that her kid needed to pee and though she didn't have it in her to tell Sam to fuck off, she did have it in her to step onto the precipice.


ADDENDUM:  FROM MY SISTER LOUISE:   I believe Sam had been a sailor, that is, worked on a ship.  He was tall and thin.  He had white hair and a red face.  I guess he was an alcoholic.  I think F used to give him beer.  (It was customary to give moving men alcohol as well.  Weird.)  I don't remember if he came once a week or every other week.  "Cleaning man" was the standard phrase I knew and it was only much later that I found out that everyone else had a "cleaning lady."