Thursday, October 22, 2009


I was on my way down to my garden to harvest my heirloom tomatoes for dinner recently when I ran into my downstairs neighbor, Pink. Pink is my landlord Big Guy's nine-year-old daughter from a now defunct relationship, so she's only my neighbor part-time. I took advantage of her presence to enlist her help with my tomatoes, and she happily tagged along, pointing out the red ones and wondering out loud which were too ripe to eat and should be left behind in the soil.

When we were done, she trudged up the stairs behind me, hands full of tomatoes, and politely asked if she could come in for a visit with Green Bean. Bean is my and Moustache's pet lovebird, and I like to use him as an excuse to invite the neighborhood kids up for visits. It's not his favorite activity, but I enjoy having them come in, pepper me with questions about him, and nervously allow him to perch on their shoulders (actually, I'm not sure who is more nervous when this happens).

After feeding him a few seeds, Pink and I settled into my kitchen so I could start working on dinner. I gave her a glass of cider and put her to work making tortillas, which she turned out to be a natural at. She talked to me about school, telling me the escapades her classmates get into, and asked if my students ever act in similar ways. When I told her that I'm not working at the moment, she told me she wished I could come teach at her school, but wisely advised me that the time to find a job there would have been over the summer; by now, a month into the school year, they had enough teachers.

It was only after we had been working for half an hour or so that she told me why she was having a rare midweek visit with her dad: her mom was in the hospital, giving birth to a new baby sister. Pink reported this casually, then burst into tears. Her mom wasn't due until two weeks later, and while she was excited about having a sister, she wasn't ready. She thought the baby should have waited until the due date. She wanted to be with her mom, but was also upset because when she called her aunt she could hear her mother crying out in pain in the background, and she was angry with the baby for putting her mom through this. I told her how great it is to have a sister, and shared stories of my friends' birthing experiences (not the graphic ones). I told her that I was sure the doctors knew what to do to make sure her mom and new baby sister were safe. After a while, her brother came up to tell her that dinner downstairs was ready, and Pink left with a tortilla in one hand and a cookie for later in the other. I continued solo with my tortillas.

When La Moustache and I moved in together, I gave up a charming, pricey little studio on one of the most desirable blocks in Brooklyn. I was half a block away from Prospect Park and dozens of amazing bakeries, restaurants and bars were close by. My street was lined with stately brownstones, and neighbors included famous writers, actors and politicians. We moved to a new neighborhood a few miles away, and were able to get a spacious apartment for much less than the two of us had been paying together for our studios. The downside is that nearby restaurants mostly serve fried chicken, the delis are devoid of organic milk, and the closest place to get a latte is a mile away. It was a difficult transition for me. I missed my warm croissants in the morning. At times, I felt out of place and intimidated being in the minority as a white person on the block.

Moustache and I gradually got to know our neighbors, who turned out to be kind and welcoming. When it was someone's birthday, we would come home to the offer of a celebratory glass of cognac. I took to spending a few minutes each evening when I returned home from work chatting with neighbors who congregated on my front porch; as time went on, the minutes stretched longer. We invited a few neighbors over for dinner a few months after we moved in, and La Moustache made his specialty, boeuf bourguignon. Midway through dinner, Big Guy expressed his appreciation and his happiness that we had moved in, finishing with the unintentionally humorous statement, “You two add a lot of color to the neighborhood.” He wolfed down two slices of my apple cake and asked for another one for the road so he could “really get into it”; this started a tradition of me baking him an apple cake each fall.

Big Guy and his brother Little Guy, a mechanic, took particular interest in La Moustache's purchase of a red convertible Chrysler LeBaron, and I started calling them the Car Fairies because of the way they magically fixed any issue that came up. If we ever forgot to move it to the other side of the street on cleaning day, they would take care of it for us. One morning, while backing out of the driveway, I hit the brick gate on my way out, and the driver's side mirror was left dangling by a few wires. At the end of the day I came home, showered, and by the time I came out to drive over to my friend's house I found the mirror reattached. When I started driving to school every day last year, I would drive home and park the LeBaron face-first in the driveway. An hour later, it would be facing the other way for easy exit (this may have been related to the earlier gate issue; they never said so, but my backing-out skills had proven to be weak). The LeBaron finally died last February, and Big Guy offered to loan us his BMW for emergencies. After a year of living here, I still missed the croissants, but it started to feel that the tradeoff was worth it.

An hour or so after Pink left, a timid knock came on my door. I opened it to find her smiling broadly with the news that her new baby sister had been born. I gave her a hug and told her she'll be a great sister. I didn't add that I'll miss her when I'm gone and am sad I won't hear stories about Pink's prowess as a big sister, but I think she knows.

Portrait of me and Bean by Pink

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