Rumi is a small tabby cat who lives with my friend Suzanne. He is young and solemn and though we have met several times he was not too sure of me during our short time together last night and this morning. He clearly enjoys running water, leaping to the edge of the tub during my shower, and later to the kitchen sink.
I like Suzanne’s apartment, so different from any other I have known. It is on the ground floor. You enter from the street through a flimsy wooden door into a linoleum-floored hallway that leads you past and under the stairs to another flimsy wooden door, this one surrounded by a flurry of winter coats and boots. I let myself in and lock the door behind me – no bolt, just a little brass disc to turn as if this were a bathroom door.
Rumi greets me, small lonely cat.
Suzanne’s kitchen is as large as a house kitchen, larger than my kitchen at home. It has a back door that opens out into a long tangled rectangle of overgrown grass.
I close the blinds, and the ones at the other end of the apartment that look out onto the sidewalk. There are iron bars, but mostly there is only trust protecting this place. Suzanne has lived on this block for about 10 years, about half of that in this apartment, and I remind myself that there has never been any trouble.
When I first walked down 4th Avenue outside the subway station of Bay Ridge I felt out of my element. 4th Avenue is definitely the city before anyone takes an interest in it.
The newspapers outside the small dusty shops are in an Asian script. Small shopfront churches with “Iglesia” on their signs stand next to a beat-up laundromat, a store selling tires, a corner store with plastic jugs of detergent piled up in the window. They look like they have been there for years, with no one buying. The only sparkly store is the huge Rite Aid that looks like every other Rite Aid.
I thought this morning how normal and real people look here – the women getting soft and overweight after childbirth while a man with scabby sores around his ankles, just visible above his pant cuffs, sweeps the cigarette butts out of a round metal manhole cover, pressing his broom over and over the ridges to pull the butts out.
Some scrawny man goes up to him to chew the fat as I pass. They know each other. I feel like this neighborhood is real life and I have started to like it, sometimes preferring it to the prettier parts of town where everyone is 30 and dressed well even if they are not.
This afternoon I will visit with Ruth whom I have not seen for years. We met in 1975, college freshmen, and she was my first friend and most enjoyable friend since childhood, since the wasteland of friendship that was my teen years.
I was 17 and knew only the world of my family. Ruth was Jewish and from Philadelphia and showed me a million things I had not known before: you can make curtains out of sheets, modern dance, art museums, bagels, discount stores, Joni Mitchell, Yiddish.
I look at the young faces on the subway platform. They were not born when I was the 20-year-old on the platform. I do not feel old, and do not worry about age and yet it is a source of astonishment to think that, say, most people are younger than me now.
All day long I play along the line of age, feeling sometimes young and sometimes old – really feeling neither, grateful that there is still a spring in my step, learning not to take these things for granted, that they disappear on you.
Thinking as I put the little container of almond milk back in Suzanne’s refrigerator how one day I won’t come here anymore, one time will be the last time and this will become a memory. I heard myself speaking in the future about how I used to stay in my friend’s Bay Ridge apartment every month, something that is routine for me now.
Sometimes, standing at the kitchen sink at home, something I have done countless times, I think there will be a last time that I stand here, and it is hard though not impossible to imagine.
I have thought recently how endless my life in Armonk seemed – 10th, 11th, 12th grades, how it seemed a place and an experience impossible to escape – and it was only 3 years.