It’s always happy for me to find another musician-writer in my travels around the virtual village. And I love the different ways that we stumble into relationships that we might not choose if we were given that option. So it’s my pleasure today to share a piece of Margaret’s story with you here.
I can’t remember the first time I met Paul, but I remember the first time I smelled him. He and the landlady were out on the stoop, chatting loudly in their thick Boston accents. It was summer, and the tiny windows that open onto the sidewalk in my garden-level studio were open. As I peeked out in hopes of a glance at the new tenant, the smell of cigarettes wafted past the curtains. I backed away without getting a good look, disappointed to know that my upstairs neighbor was, as the locals would say, “a smok-ah”.
Paul was an old friend of my landlady, who had a habit of renting to friends and family who turned out to be averse to rent-paying. Paul was a longshoreman who had worked for decades on the Boston docks. One afternoon, as a means of explaining why he was home in the middle of the day, he told me that he had injured his arm and was on disability. We chatted a lot that first summer. He was always quick with a gruff laugh, or with a smile that revealed his many missing teeth. He made it clear that he would look out for me, and after my apartment was broken into that fall, he took extra care to look out for my stuff too.
Other than that first night, I rarely detected a smell of cigarettes. Occasionally he’d have a ladyfriend over who liked to smoke, and whose cackle was even raspier than his. Every winter he would escape the New England chill for six weeks visiting his daughter in Florida. As far as I know, she never visited him.
It was rumored Paul used to drink and do drugs, and he would often take long walks downtown to clear his head. Aside from walking and the lady-friend, I never knew much about Paul’s social life and recreation. We didn’t get too personal. Sometimes he’d tell me stories about Southie. I’d only been there about five years, and he had a longer memory full of the gossip which is like currency in insular neighborhoods. The weather, parking on the street, and what was going on in the building were about as deep as we got.
Unfortunately, what was going on in the building was often a contentious issue. A feud had developed between him and the woman in the unit above his, the heaviness and frequency of her footsteps being the crux of the conflict. When our landlady decided to sell the house, Paul panicked. He was losing his ally, as well as the enabler of his unique rent-paying habits. He had no use for the new owners, a couple from out-of-state, and he didn’t even know them yet.
We were both on pins and needles about the landlords, and I was relieved to find a nice young woman in the foyer early one morning, dropping off our new rental agreements. As we were making small talk, Paul’s door opened and he shuffled halfway out in his underwear, castigating us for waking him up with our voices.
I tried to smooth things over a bit with some of our banter. He shrugged and shut himself behind the door. After the woman departed, nonplussed, I wanted to bang on his door and shake him by the shoulders for having been rude to someone who has so much leverage over him. But who was I? Just the girl downstairs. I’d never had to knock on his door before. I let it go.
Paul stopped spending much time at the apartment. When he did, he occupied himself with hollering at other tenants. He never once had an ill-word for me, and I guiltily joked to my friends that I knew he would warn me if he decided to burn the house down.
The way our walk-up is arranged, you can hear everything from the stairwell. The night he and the second-floor tenant finally had their blowout I stood at bottom of the stairs and didn’t miss a word. At their volume I could have heard them from inside my apartment too.
Paul pounded on her door shouting “I can always hear you stomping around! Why can’t you be quiet!”
“You live in an apartment in the city! You can’t expect to never hear the person above you!” came the logical retort. Paul went on raging, insisting that since our previous landlady had moved out the resident had become deliberately louder. I cringed. But the worst was yet to come. A few hours later I heard more pounding, this time closer to my unit. It was the police, responding to a complaint about his behavior.
Throughout all of this I never went upstairs. That shames me, but I can’t imagine what I would have done to be of any help. I don’t think I saw Paul again after that night. A letter was taped to the front door about a month later, and though I never saw the contents it could only have been his eviction letter.
About a year later I ran into our landlady’s granddaughter near the bus stop, and she told me that Paul was in Florida, dying of cancer. I’d been at that bus stop with Paul, one summer night, on my way back from rehearsal. I was sitting on the bus looking at my opera score when Paul boarded after one of his nighttime walks. He saw me and shuffled over to plop down in the seat next to me.
It was like the entire bus held its breath: a ragged guy encroaching on a petite woman half his age? How confused they must have been, to see us talk and laugh for the rest of the ride, and get off the bus together by the coffee shop. We must have made quite a sight, the townie and the transplant, ambling down the sidewalk, bound by friendship, into the night.
Margaret is a religion teacher by day and singer by night. She blogs from Boston on spirituality, Scripture, family, performing, politics and whatever else crosses her mind. Recently diagnosed with Crohn’s disease, Margaret writes frequently about navigating new relationships with food and with her body. Blog: felicemifa.wordpress.com. Twitter: www.twitter.com/margaretfelice Facebook. www.facebook.com/FeliceMiFa