Sunday, April 13, 2008

strange neighbor

Roger Williams Park in Providence is the second largest mid-city park in the country after New York's Central Park. It was also laid out by the same landscape designer so it's very elegant and wild at the same time. There are serpentine lakes with many bridges, a Japanese garden, a boathouse, a zoo, and even a small amusement park with a beautiful antique carousel right by the water. At least that's the way it used to be but perhaps it's all been turned into condos since then. Garth (full name - Garth Cold Nose Strong Heart) and I spent many hours and many miles exploring its paths.

We lived at the end of Bartlett Ave. in an old Victorian tenement house on the second floor.. a big apartment with a front parlor, middle parlor, dining room, 2 bedrooms and screened verandah. There were lots of windows overlooking the park. We slept in the front tower since it was like being in the middle of a forest glade with the lake just across the way and the Temple to Music across the water. The kitchen and dining area we used were at the opposite end in another tower. It was nice.

The thing about living in apartments though, is that sometimes you wind up having neighbors who may be a little on the strange side and one of them moved into the place above ours at the end of a winter. At first she appeared to be very normal and so much so that we wondered what she was doing living in our building rather than a bungalow in the suburbs.

There had already been some odd characters in and out of the other apartments including one family who'd lived downstairs for a few months the previous summer. Fights had been raging at all hours but one day the guy stayed home and played 'Stayin' Alive' over and over at top volume for 10 hours straight followed by taking an aluminum baseball bat to all the windows, furniture and anyone who didn't get out of his way. Then he jumped in the family car and tore off down the road at full speed until he was stopped by a tree. The rest of them moved that night.

Anyway, back to the new third floor neighbor. We learned she'd moved out of the bungalow she'd shared with her husband and young daughter and that she worked as a secretary at a local college. During the week the little girl lived with her mother and everything was as quiet as you'd expect but when Friday afternoons rolled around dad came by on his scooter to take the girl off for the weekend. Mom, wearing her usual Mrs. Cleaver outfit, would wave good-bye but once they were safely out of sight she'd gallop upstairs and change into hot pants and halter. Like clockwork, within five minutes she'd be back downstairs waiting for 'the boys'. I do mean boys.

Now this lady was at least 40 and probably more but it seemed that while working at the school she'd developed a taste for much younger men.. and not just one in particular. She liked all of them and preferably in groups. Sometimes several carloads would park outside and all the guys would troop upstairs carrying beer, snacks and goodness knows what and partying would ensue until they either got tired or had to go home to their parents.

It came to be time for the 4th of July fireworks display that happened close to the Temple to Music every year and we invited our family over for a picnic dinner on the lawn outside our place before the show. Naturally, we weren't out there alone since lots of people came from further up the street so they'd be there for the fireworks too. Unbeknownst to us Mrs Hotpants had visitors of her own and just as everyone was eating, talking, laughing and playing (lots of kids) we heard terrific shrieks coming from above. Everybody stopped what they'd been doing and looked up at the third floor windows to see two guys holding a naked Mrs. HP. outside her window and kind of jiggling her up and down. It was a show nobody had expected.

Maybe she wasn't as anonymous as she'd imagined and maybe someone had made a phone call but the end result was that she was gone a few days later.The house was quiet again for a long time after that. People are strange, aren't they?

Sunday, April 6, 2008

first trip to the City

It was round about 1971, when we were living in a big loft in Montreal, that a couple from NYC came to stay for several weeks. Russell had stolen his girlfriend Barbara from her very wealthy Manhattan parents and the fact she was an only child made this even more significant. Barbara was good company but pretty quiet in our bohemian surroundings. Russell was a different story. He was boisterous, funny as hell and hardly ever slept. My first clue he was a bit different was the fact he'd sit in a chair near the kitchen area all night long smoking cigarettes and drinking whisky with the cannister vacuum cleaner hose in one hand ready to hit the switch at the first glimpse of a cockroach. Since we lived on the fourth floor with bars on the other three there were a few of them around. I wasn't familiar with speed at the time but meeting Russell gave me a lesson in chemical dependency I've never forgotten.

They left Montreal a few weeks later when Barbara's parents agreed to condone the relationship. That would have been the end of the matter for us but for the fact they called several months later and invited me to NY as their Gentile guest for Passover. My son was very young but his father and the other people in the loft urged me to go since I was the only one among them who'd never been to the City. Thus, I found myself on a plane heading south a few days later. The flight was due to land at LaGuardia, one of the smallest of the NY airports, and getting there involved flying directly between the skyscrapers of NY. It was a brief but remarkable experience and when the plane landed on what appeared to be a large dock right on Flushing Bay I knew I wasn't in Canada anymore. That doesn't mean I wasn't familiar with other world class cities since by then I'd spent several years in Europe and the cities there aren't to be sneezed at ..but they're old and they're beautiful as they are. I know huge buildings are everywhere now but not so much at that time and who on earth could imagine tearing down the Louvre to put up the head office of an insurance company? (Don't answer that.)

Russell met me and took me on a whirlwind tour of the City in one of the Lincolns belonging to his new in-laws. We actually stood on the plaza of the World Trade Center but, try as I might, I simply can't draw that. Suffice it to say those buildings were huge; the North Tower had opened just a few months before and the South Tower was ready but not yet occupied. As I looked up and up and up I suddenly got very dizzy and started to topple backward. I would have fallen if he hadn't caught me and I explained that although I'd done some climbing and had even stood at the top of the Eiffel Tower, I seemed to be experiencing some serious vertigo.

By then it was getting close to dinnertime and we drove to one of the older apartment houses close to Central Park and left the car for one of the doormen to park. I knew the apartment would be nice but I hadn't been expecting a two story penthouse 29 floors up in one of New York's landmark residences. It was obvious Barbara's parents were more than just rich - they were super rich. I don't remember much about them or the dinner other than the fact that they were nice, the surroundings were large and luxurious and the servants quiet and efficient.

After dinner Russell asked if I'd like to go out to the terrace (yes, the terrace..not the balcony) to look at the Empire State Building and the skyline across Central Park. As we stood at the railing he suddenly picked me up and held me at arm's length over empty space and said, "What do you think would happen if I dropped you now?" His eyes were glassy and his grin was typical of a speed freak rictus. I was too terrified to think of anything other than I would never see my son or my parents again. I begged him to not let go. I begged him to bring me back. After a few minutes he did. I don't recall much about the rest of the visit but was never so happy to be home as I was the next day.

That was all a long time ago now but the memory has stayed at a very deep level. It was later, much later, when I really did start thinking about Russells's question and although I've never come up with an answer it's a question we all need to ask ourselves. Maybe we just need to keep in mind we can die at any time. Perhaps we need to live our lives in such a way that we will have no regrets about its ending. This isn't always possible but what is possible is to try.

This morning I remembered a favorite Joni Mitchell song and these words came to mind:
We are stardust,
We are golden.