Death came to 222 more than once during my lifetime. After all, it was a building of over 100 apartments divided into two sides. There were two apartments on the ground floor, entered from the lobby; both of these were on the east side of the building. I only remember one passing clearly.
I was probably around ten. It was awful, the smell. The person who died I did not know; a part of apartment life in New York City. I remember coming down in the elevator and being confronted by what I would later learn was the odor of a lonely death.
When you entered the lobby from the street there were staircases on either side by the facing wall that went up. On the west side of the building, my side (apartments E,F,G, and H) there was a large fan standing on the top visible step. It was blowing the smell from the second floor into the lobby, and, I guess out the front door. I would have put the fan in the apartment doorway and opened all the windows, particularly if there was one to the rear courtyard.
The doormen and elevator operators knew everyone of course and could have shared information, but probably not with us kids.
The smell lasted for several days; a nauseating reminder of the event. I was too young, I think, to get the picture. I never knew my grandparents, who all died before I was aware of them or before I was born; so, I never experienced what might have been the typical gateway to understanding this stage of life.
I had a similar experience of not knowing the neighbor who died in my suburban life many years later.
Janet Place in North Woodmere was very different from 222 on West 83rd Street, houses not apartments, a block of maybe fifteen, big trees. In total we lived there about 25 years. I remember only two deaths on the block. One was our next door neighbor. The other was two houses down from us.
We saw the ambulance and the police cars. It happened just two doors down, and we didn’t even know a name to use to offer our condolences. After more than five years on the street, our neighbor was anonymous.
That was a Long Island-style tragedy. The death of a neighbor and you don’t even know his name. People came and went all week. We all knew the address, but not the name.
It was a street where privacy was treasured. We knew the people on either side, and the ones across the street and the ones with kids who played in the yard (a little), but the others were virtually invisible. An occasional “good morning” was possible, a nod or a smile, perhaps a wave as we drove by, but never more than those perfunctory greetings.
The reaction of one of our children was truly frightening: seeing the police cars and the ambulance, she, age 3, said, “Somebody died.” Just like that. She didn’t know the name either, but I bet she knew the neighbor’s smile. All the neighbors were pleasant with the children, a little less distant than from the adults. We allowed the children to intrude on our privacy.
Hurricane Gloria brought darkness to one side of the street, but not the other. We shared our freezer space with the ones we knew, but didn’t see anyone else to whom the offer could be made. They were invisible, as they chose to be.
When we first moved here, I thought winter was the cause. Everyone was indoors most of the time, but even in the spring there was a shade drawn between neighbors who should know one another better, if for no other reason than protection from a hostile world where little children speak of death.
We were not unfriendly or unneighborly, and I’m sure they were not either, just invisible. It was a Long Island syndrome. Perhaps the anonymity of the city is contagious, or was it brought here when the first city folk moved east to the suburbs?
It was shameful. I had not realized the shame of it until that person died, two doors down the street. I lived on for almost seven years, and we didn’t know his name.
He had recently stopped and asked if I wanted a lawn tool that would otherwise go to the garbage men. I took it, gratefully, from his garage, but never knew his name. Another neighbor was no help, didn’t even know there had been a death; knew the family’s last name but nothing more.
I cannot speak for, or about, all of my neighbors, and certainly not for Long Islanders (no one person can), but it is a shame and an embarrassment that this situation persisted.
At 222 the anonymity was a result of sheer numbers. I knew all the kids, we went to the same school, and their parents too. I knew the neighbors on our floor. Together these two groups added up to nine families.
Only a few less than on that Long Island street. When I think back, I realize that when people died in that building, unless they were part of one of those families, I never knew.
My wife and children canvassed for the American Cancer Society on our street. It is a very interesting experience, asking neighbors you don’t know for donations. After the exchange of receipt for cash, invisibility takes over again.
I am saved just a little from embarrassment of all this by learning that we were not at all unique. A friend told me she asked her husband about the residents of the house three doors down from her, only to find out that they had sold the house and moved, 18 months earlier.
But this was Long Island, suburbia, where my kids learned to live peacefully, without fear, among friends. The same Long Island where someone can die two doors down, and you don’t even know his name.
And I don’t suppose West 83rd Street has changed much. There’s a bigger building across the street with more potential for not knowing your neighbors. Lots of missed opportunities in elevators I am sure. Would be nice if the world changed.
*Silhouette credit to Creazilla.