Death

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.

JHS Typing

JHS 44, the William J. O’Shea Junior High School was, looking back, an interesting place.  Attending there was filled with fun and fear, learning and “loving”, trying and typing.  That last one was required.

I clearly remember a room full of typewriters, a teacher’s desk and blackboard at the front and nothing else.  I was twelve or thirteen.  There were boys and girls in the class.  The machines were basic manual, maybe Royal or Smith Corona.  When the keys got stuck you had to unstick them yourself.  Handling the ribbon made your fingers blacken with ink.

All of that might be completely unknown or at least alien to many readers.

Having looked through my copy of our yearbook, INKLINGS for 1963, I found neither a photo nor mention of typing class.

We developed a skill which helped all the way through college, “touch typing”.  Today that skill is “keyboarding”.  People of my generation are good keyboarders because the QWERTY keyboard is still the standard.  Through the Commodore 64 and the early Apples I owned I used my touch typing abilities.  I worked for an insurance company as a typist, briefly, and when I worked at NYU’s College of Dentistry I learned keypunching and verifying of computer punch cards (something else many of you will have to look up).  These latter skills were applied to my effort to calculate statistics for my Master’s Thesis in 1976.

My dad’s machine of choice, once electric was available and for as long as I can remember, was the IBM Model A. The first one was gray and the second one was green.  The machines, including the smith corona portable I once had, were all maintained by Mr. Osner in his typewriter repair shop, Osner Business Machines located at 393  Amsterdam Avenue, between 78th and 79th Streets.

When mom had TB, circa 1950, dad cranked out dime novels, one a night on his manual typewriter.  I’ve never seen one of his novels, would love to.  He wrote under the pseudonym Harold Kane.  So far, the Library of Congress and none of the old booksellers I’ve tried have anything in their collections.

Dad typed with four fingers, two index fingers for letters, numbers and shifts and thumbs for the space bar.  How he typed so fast, I don’t know.

When I was later tested, as to typing speed and accuracy, for some job, I tested at 55 words per minute with rarely an error.  At least one of my children types at almost twice that speed.

The study in 9E which later became my bedroom had housed the typewriter and a file cabinet, a desk and a studio couch (perhaps a day bed).  Dad’s workspace was moved into the dining room when I took over the study as my room and the dining room table moved into the living room.  The study always had the aroma of dad’s smoking because it was such a small room.  The smoking eventually helped kill him and no doubt contributed with my own smoking to my lung disease.

Today, almost 60 years later, I still use that skill taught at the William J. O’Shea Junior High School and I am thankful.