The People in My Building

for Marylouise Burke

The people in my building live alone
in studio apartments. Six floors, one
elevator, a basement full of roaches
where I met Diane folding laundry.
She told me that our building used to be
owned by a hospital trustee who rented
exclusively to nurses. One by one
they married off and moved away to live.
A few are left: Theresa in 6D
who comes home at noon in surgical scrubs
to walk her blind schnauzer; Jane in 2F
who receives all those queensize catalogs.
Diane handed me her number.
I called and got St. Vincent’s Hospital.

A tall old lady on the third floor
sold everything to move in with her son
in Colorado, where she could breathe the air.
She used to be a Radio City Rockette—
showed me black and white glossies to prove it.
I bought her air conditioner, her blender
and one pair of long nylon stockings.
The small, mustachioed man on the sixth floor
has a mutt named Lady, a Vietnam Vet
sticker on his door, a tiny Puerto Rican
boyfriend who sometimes wears a dress,
turns tricks on Gansevoort Street, and when
he forgets his keys, we see him climbing
past our windows up the fire escape.

I only hear the gay couple next door
when one of them is shouting from the bathroom.
They talk like married people, which they are.
Ruth, the widow on the other side,
would press her ear to her kitchen wall
each night, and pounded if she heard
Johnny Carson on my television.
We all hated her, and then she died—
she’d been dead for days, the firemen said.
You can know your building if you’re interested
in sadness. Good things probably happen
but they don’t seem to make it through
the walls. Sometimes in the elevator
we’ll stand together, breathing in silence.

:: Douglas Goetsch, in Third Coast (spring 2003)

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