New York Echoes
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Twenty-two short stories that will lift your spirits or break your heart, written to celebrate the author's return to New York City after 40 years in exile.
“Hi, I’m Caroline Kramer,” she said to the older woman in the elevator of their West Side apartment building.
“Sandra Siegel,” the woman replied, nodding, somewhat taken aback by the introduction. She held a little white-haired dog in her arms. Caroline petted it and exclaimed how beautiful it was.
“Her name is Betsy,” Sandra Siegel said.
“She’s absolutely gorgeous,” Caroline said, letting the dog lick her fingers.
As a general rule, few people in Manhattan introduced themselves in elevators. The lady with the dog was short-haired, graying, wearing slacks, sneakers, and a sweatshirt, the usual dress for a Central Park dog walk in early fall.
When the elevator reached the lobby floor, Sandra Siegel let Betsy down and snapped on its leash. Then she nodded an acknowledgement and hurried away with Betsy in tow through the lobby to the street.
Later when Jules came home from work and they were having a glass of white wine before dinner, Caroline told him what she had done.
“Brave girl,” Jules snickered, helping himself to a handful of nuts and washing it down with a deep sip of the wine.
“I felt good about it,” Caroline said. “I think it’s awful that people don’t communicate in New York apartments. Our elevator bank is a good place to display neighborliness. We lived too much in isolation in these apartment buildings in New York. After all, we do live under one roof.”
“I suppose you’re right,” Jules acknowledged. He was a dyed-in-the-wool New Yorker, having been brought up in Brooklyn, migrating to Manhattan in the early nineties. He was vice president of a media company, married to Caroline five years now, but still postponing having a family. Caroline was from Hempstead, Long Island, a freelance copywriter who worked at home. They had bought the one-bedroom co-op on the fifteenth floor of a twenty-floor pre-war building.
“Why not, Jules?” she said, as if convincing herself. “I go up and down the same elevator bank and often meet the same people. It doesn’t hurt to be friendly, which is different than becoming fast friends. Why shouldn’t we at the very least introduce ourselves? And she had a cute little pooch with her.”
“And you fussed over her dog?”
“Her name was Betsy and she was beautiful.”
“No dogs for us, baby. Ties you down and you have to worry about kennels when you go away.”
“I’m not tempted, but it was a cute dog and the lady was very proud of her.”
“Cheers,” he said, lifting his glass. “May she and her canine have nothing but happiness.”
They clicked glasses and drank.
Caroline acknowledged that she was one of those people who were naturally friendly. She liked to engage people in conversations, make eye contact, offer smiles. On buses she talked to people and knew she had the kind of face that invited openness. She had the look of a compassionate person and with her open, white-teethed smile; round, cherubic, naturally rouged cheeks; and large, blue eyes, she made others feel comfortable.
“You’re you,” he said, reaching for her hand, caressing it and bringing it up to his lips. “I adore you.”
“I know it’s the right thing to do, to break this pattern of isolation. It startles people. They’re not used to it.”
“That’s for sure,” he said, agreeing. “I guess we New Yorkers are wary of intimacy in our apartment culture.”
“I’m not talking about intimacy, just common friendliness.”
“Maybe when you’re surrounded by crowds everywhere you go, people welcome privacy. Like now. You and me. Cozy, intimate and, above all, private. Delicious, quiet time.” He bent over and kissed her.
“That doesn’t mean people can’t be neighborly when they venture out. Say hello on the elevator.”
“Also,” he added. “They may be too self-absorbed in their daily business. Like me. Sometimes I start thinking about the office the minute I close the door.”
“You can still offer a smile and a kind word. You don’t have to be bosom buddies. Just a good neighbor.”
“As long as they’re not nosy neighbors.”
“There is a big difference between nosy neighbors and good neighbors. They don’t have to be intimate friends.”
“We have plenty of those,” he said. “And people who are important to us on the job. And relatives, and old school chums. What I’m saying is that we have enough people on our ‘known to’ list.”
“Still, it would be nice to know our neighbors.”
“Our circle is wide enough as it is. We have barely enough time for further obligations.”
“You have a point,” Caroline acknowledged, wondering how the conversation had reached this strange territory. “But you never know when you need a neighbor. After all, we do live in the same house. We share services, utilities, and doormen.”
“Who can forget doormen?”
“They deserve our acknowledgement. They’re always ready with a smile and a few words of greeting.”
“Especially around Christmastime, and remember, we only own shares in the building. This is a co-op in case you forgot. With a board that has to approve everyone and keep the riffraff out.”
“Snob,” she said playfully. “As for me, I am an egalitarian and from now on, I plan to introduce myself to the neighbors on our elevator bank as a start.”
“I think you are undertaking a noble venture,” he said. “And I’d be flattered if a beautiful, open-faced charmer like yourself said hello to me on the elevator.”
She started to introduce herself to those who came up and down with her on the elevator. Not many remembered her name, and more than once someone asked her, “What was your name again?”
She was, however, determined to remember theirs so that she could greet them by their first names whenever she met them again. There was Bob Rainey, who got on at the tenth floor, a thin-faced elderly man with a pencil thin moustache. Mary Schwartz lived on an upper floor, a youngish woman with flaming red hair. And Benjamin Agronsky, who got on at eight, a preppy-looking man in his thirties in pinstripes and button-down, white shirts and thick-soled brown shoes. Paisley McGuire, a young, Irish-looking girl with creamy skin and dark curly hair, got on at floor five. Caroline liked the idea of saying hello by name although the extent of the conversation was mostly about the weather. She did not encourage any further intimacy.
There were four apartments on each floor. One of the tenants of the four, she assumed, lived in another city and came to New York seldom. Another was a secretive bachelor named Sheldon whom she knew by sight, although he always turned away when they waited for an elevator and never even grunted an acknowledgement. The fourth apartment was occupied by a woman named Anne Myers who lived alone and apparently traveled a great deal. Anne was the only other tenant on the floor who received home delivery of the New York Times. Caroline had had only one brief conversation with her.
“I travel a great deal,” the woman said. “It’s a bother to cancel the Times every time I go away. Could you please not let them pile up? You know, just in case. We don’t want people to know when I’m not home.”
Caroline consented, since the trash bin was close to her own apartment. When two Times lay in front of her apartment, Caroline dutifully threw them away, always knowing when the Myers woman was home because the Times was not on the floor in front of her apartment.
“Why doesn’t she cancel them when she goes away?” Jules asked.
“I don’t mind,” she countered.
Because she worked at home, she spent more time coming up and down the elevator, at times to shop, at other times when the weather was good, to take a break by walking in Central Park, sometimes watching the dancing roller skaters or observing the rowboats glide through the water or sitting on a bench by the pond and watching the hobbyists sailing their power-operated little sailboats.
One day as she worked she got a call from the woman who introduced herself as Sandra Siegel.
“Remember me?” the woman asked pleasantly. “Sandra Siegel, the woman with the little white dog.”
“Betsy,” Caroline said. “How could I forget?”
“I took a chance, hoping you were home.”
“I work at home, freelance,” Caroline responded, thinking the woman might invite her to tea.
“I hate to bother you,” Sandra Siegel said. “I have a favor. You see, I twisted my ankle and can’t take Betsy for her walk. And Sam, our doorman, is off on vacation. He’s the only one I can trust to walk her. So I’m in a bit of a jam. The dear little girl needs to go out. It’s her regular routine. I hate to ask. It would be just this once. Could you take her? I’d be so grateful. I’m sure I’ll be better by tomorrow.”
“You mean now?” Caroline asked.
“Say in a half hour, if you could. I really hate to ask. But you see my dilemma.”
Caroline contemplated the request. She was about ready for a break, and there was no pressing time factor.
“I really hate to ask,” the woman said yet again.
In the brief interval before her consent, she thought of Jules and determined not to mention it, since it would provoke his “I told you so’s.” She snickered to herself, deciding that to accept was still in the realm of good neighboring.
The woman lived on the twelfth floor, and she opened the door leaning on a cane and handed Caroline Betsy and the leash after first planting a big kiss on the dog’s snout.
“She likes the walk that goes to the baseball field. That gives her the greatest sniffing pleasure.” She handed Caroline a plastic glove. “She makes such tiny little bitsy poopies.”
It was a nice day and Caroline actually enjoyed watching the little dog sniff about, and disposing of her little bitsy poops was hardly a chore. In a half hour she was back to the grateful Sandra Siegel, who expressed her heartfelt thanks.
“You are a real princess,” she said. “I’m eternally grateful.”
She did not include this little episode in her and Jules’s review of their day and she felt quite comfortable with her good deed, even when it repeated itself the next day, and the next.
“The doctor said I should be better in a week or so. I am so grateful.”
After the first few times, it became a kind of routine, and she didn’t mind it as long as the weather stayed good. Besides, it didn’t take much more than a half hour out of her day. Still, she didn’t tell Jules.
As part of her regular regimen, she would often take a break in the afternoon and go down to the Starbucks a half a block away and get a Frappuccino, a sort of gift she gave herself before going back to work. Usually she sat alone, thought about the work she was doing, then after draining the concoction she went back up to her apartment.
One day, a voice intruded. She was sitting at a table by herself staring into space, tranced out on her work.
“You’re Carol, am I right?”
“Caroline,” she corrected.
She looked up and saw Bob Rainey, whom she recognized by his pencil-thin moustache.
“You’re Bob Rainey,” Caroline said.
“May I join you?” Rainey said.
They chatted amiably as she sipped her Frappuccino. Rainey was nursing a large-sized coffee.
“Not a very good day for me,” he said suddenly. She studied his face, which seemed to mirror his announcement suggesting internal pain. “I never come here, but you see, Lila is moving out as we speak. I didn’t want to be there.” He swallowed hard and his face seemed to grow ashen. “Eighteen years together,” he shook his head. “Not a very happy day.”
“Sorry to hear that.”
“Problem is my wife won’t give me a divorce. That means I can’t marry Lila.” He shook his head. “Can I blame her? She wants stability. But, you see, my wife is determined to extract her pound of flesh. No divorce, no Lila. Can you blame her?”
It seemed a question directed at Caroline.
“I suppose not,” Caroline shrugged, sipping her frothy drink.
“Lila was a wonderful companion, but you see, there is no legal future for her. That’s what she wants. A ring around the finger. Who can blame her?”
Inadvertently Caroline reached for her ring and traced its smooth surface.
“I understand. I’m very happily married.”
“Lucky girl,” he snickered. “Lucky guy. My wife was a monster. My life was a hell until I met Lila. She was a saint, that woman, but after all, you can’t live on hope alone. She wants to be Mrs. Bob Rainey, not a mistress. She’s a traditional girl. I can’t blame her.”
He looked at his watch.
“She should be out by three. Her sister is helping her pack. We agreed, no long goodbyes. Frankly it’s a lot better not to be there, don’t you think?”
“A lot better, I’m sure.”
“I’m devastated,” Bob Rainey said. She watched his eyes grow moist. He wiped away a tear that slid down the side of his cheek.
“Frankly, I don’t know how I’m going to get through the day.” He sighed. “And the night which will be worse. It will be a mighty cold bed.”
Caroline wondered whether he was dishing out a seduction line, but then, seeing the man’s pain, decided that it wasn’t. Besides, he was elderly and too broken up to pursue such a line. Poor guy, she thought. She looked at her watch.
“Gotta go, Bob. Keep your chin up. Life goes on.”
“Wonderful talking with you, Carol,” he said.
“Caroline,” she corrected patiently.
“Oh yes. I’m so sorry.”
She smiled and shook his proffered hand.
“Thanks. It’s been very comforting talking to you.”
She went back up to her apartment, dismissing Bob Rainey and his dilemma from her mind. But she remembered it later when she and Jules had their usual before-dinner aperitif and she told him about it. At times she either cooked simple meals or they ordered in or went to a neighborhood restaurant.
“Are we supposed to shed tears?” Jules said.
“I guess he needed to confide in someone,” Caroline said.
“So you lent him your ears.”
“Nothing wrong with giving comfort by listening.”
“Save it all for me. I’m a glutton for comfort.”
He smiled and patted her cheek.
“He’s a real nice guy, Jules,” Caroline said. “Maybe we can invite him in for dinner sometime?”
“We’re not therapists. You have no obligation to comfort him.”
“Just being neighborly,” she sighed, on the verge of telling him about her daily walks with Betsy, but quickly retreating.
She was into the second week of walking Sandra Siegal’s dog when she bumped into Mary Schwartz, who was sitting on a park bench behind which Betsy was sniffing. They had brief eye contact and it was unavoidable for either of them to deny recognition.
“I’m Caroline Kramer from the building.”
“Oh yes, I remember. But I don’t recall a dog.”
“It’s Sandra Siegel’s”
“One of the other tenants. Hurt her ankle. I’m being a good neighbor.”
She had picked up some of Betsy’s poop offerings and flung them into a trash basket.
“I’ve been laid off,” Mary said. “They’re dumping all the oldies. Anyone over fifty. They deny it, of course, but it’s apparent as the nose on your face. I’ve been sitting here figuring out ways to really hurt them, the bastards.”
“I can’t imagine how devastating it would be,” Caroline said.
“I worked for this advertising agency for nearly twenty years. I thought I was the resident expert on media, especially the new media, you know cable, the Internet, etcetera etcetera. Sons of bitches. I trained this little rat and now she’s taken over.”
“I’m sure something else will turn up,” Caroline said.
“They want the sweet young things, I’m afraid. I’m neither sweet nor young.”
“I wish you luck,” Caroline said, starting to lead Betsy away. Then she thought of something and came back.
“My husband’s a vice president of a company in the media business. I’ll talk to him if that’s okay?”
“Why not?” Mary muttered. “You never know.”
She picked up the mail and brought the dog back to Sandra Siegel, who came to the door without a cane. She picked up Betsy, kissed her on the snout and talked baby talk to her as the dog licked her face.
“I think I can hack it now, Caroline. I can’t begin to thank you. You’ve been great.”
“That’s what neighbors are for.”
Caroline felt good about it. After all, it didn’t take much time. Betsy was an obedient dog. It generated good feelings. She supposed she could tell Jules about it now. Jules came in at his usual hour carrying a bottle of champagne with a ribbon around it and a card.
“The doorman gave it to me. It says, ‘Thanks a million from Sandra Siegel,'” Jules said. “Who the hell is Sandra Siegel and why is she thanking you?”
“For walking her dog,” Caroline admitted. “She’s a tenant and twisted her ankle.”
“Part of your good neighbor campaign?”
She held up the champagne bottle he had given her.
“Good fellowship and good cheer,” she said. “And this.” She handed him an invitation to a dinner party from Mr. and Mrs. Benjamin Agronsky. “The ninth floor Agronskys,” Caroline said, winking. “You see what happens when you open up to them? People are hungry for companionship.”
“Couple of days. Short notice,” he commented, reading the invitation.
“It’s the thought that counts,” she said.
“I haven’t really been against the idea,” he said. “Only wary of involvement.”
“I like the idea of involvement with people. After all, I work alone all day. It’s nice to have friends to chat with.”
“Like that guy with the girlfriend.”
“Like him, and today I talked with another neighbor who just lost her job. I told him what you did and maybe you might see her.” Caroline explained her credentials. “She says companies look askance when you’re over fifty, no matter what your expertise.”
In a comic mime, he looked around him as if he were checking for spies and he put a finger over his lips.
“Don’t ask. Don’t tell.”
“It’s not fair.”
“Neither is life.”
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