As I step outside, I notice a line of elderly neighbors making their way down the sidewalk, very, very slowly. Maurice, my friend two stoops down, is bent over a walker, and glances up at me. We have history, and he shows me that toothy grin sometimes to let me know, he knows I know he’s up to something. Bea, the who-knows-how-old mom of eight kids is right behind him, leaning on her trusty cane. Most days she’s perched next to her steps, so everyone who passes gets a little piece of her day. Her youngest son Shane is with her, out front playing sergeant major of the troop. He’s old by any standard.
“Hey,” I yell, “ok if I join the parade?”
“Sure,” almost in unison. Everyone stops. Maurice keeps staring at me, smiling even broader.
Shane pipes in, “Did you know, they’re having a giant yoga exhibition today over in Manhattan?”
“Nooo,” I respond in mock astonishment. Then I begin to do yoga stretches, accentuating them for comic relief. When I look down the block, Abdullah is walking toward me, smiling at my animated gestures. He’s another one who should be right behind Maurice in our little geriatric parade. He wears a hard lived 85 years on his sleeve, but to his credit has twins, seven years old! He’s a walking fertility miracle! Abdullah’s still too far away to hear, so I get behind Maurice, punch him the arm, and say, “Ok, I’m in, let’s go!”
Lately, we’ve been having folks from Manhattan move onto the block. There’s a cute little café just opened up around the corner, and the new organic deli has those fancy vegetable chips, and an assortment of Gelato’s in the frozen section. Expensive fare for Bedford Stuyvesant. We even have a new C train, and weirdly it’s on time more often than not. It brings a little sadness to me, maybe because I don’t like change, and because I know folks like Maurice and Bea, Abdullah, and others like Ruth, won’t be around very much longer. They’re all characters, in their own nonconformist way. One of the reasons Bed Stuy has grown on me is because it’s easy to be a character here. When character meets character, you get normal, so who’s going to notice? Ruth told me that she moved onto the block in 1968, and then bought her place in 84’ for 38k. Today it’s worth 1.8 million. Her husband died a few years back, and we see each other when we move our cars for alternate side of the street parking,or at the block association meetings. She’s been hinting about relocating to South Carolina. That makes me sad, too.
What’s happening on my street is happening in a lot of places in New York City. It’s going on as real estate opportunists gobble up blighted tenements in older run down sections, and renovate, placing higher rent there. It’s the larger story of New York since it’s founding by the Dutch back in the 1600’s. It will always change to reinvent itself.
But real change happens up close and personal. It’s about people who have lived, raised kids, worked hard and gone to bed under the thoughtful eye of a caring neighbor. Who hear guns shots, but still think they’re a million miles away. Who notice the drug dealers drifting in from more dangerous sections, and say a prayer. Then watch another U-Haul truck in front of a renovated Brownstone, unloading trendy furniture and potted plants. They’re tempted to let the pile from their dog stay in the middle of the sidewalk, just a small protest for what they see as a changing of the guard.(They must be, I nearly walked into a Great Dane’s business the other day.)
People like Maurice and Ruth, Bea and others will die or move away. They’re legacy forgotten, and their voices contained to the memories of those who knew them. Others will take their place on the block. Yet, I for one will not forget the times we chatted on the stoop, worked hard on clean up days, and especially my friend Maurice.
Did I tell you about Maurice? He got banged up one day from diving into the gutter to avoid a hard charging yellow cab. (Another sign of change) There he was sitting head down, forlorn and lonely looking in his usual spot on the stoop. “Hey Maurice, what’s up?” When he looked at me, I saw scrapes all over his face and head, and alligator tears rolling down his cheeks.
“Hold it right there!” I ran up to the kitchen and sliced a piece of pumpkin bread, buttered it; and carried it down in a napkin. “Hey, when I’m sad I like to eat.” His face lit up, and for a couple moments, all was well in the world. We sat together in silence, but something else happened. Here two men from completely different cultures, upbringings, social and economical backgrounds held vigil over a piece of pumpkin bread. One character, reaching out to another character, and finding normal feels pretty human, and pretty darn good.
Thankfully, that’s one thing that will never change.