Where the Heart Is

A small, recurring cast of characters works the lobby of the Greystone Hotel, my home. Behind the bulletproof glass are Joey (exhausted, balding, night school), Julia (curly, vociferous, lipsticky), Andrei (cheekboned, curt, blonde), and a surly short Hispanic woman in her 20s, whose name I have never heard. Behind a cheap table in the corner is a security guard, reading a Bible and guarding a notebook. Like a peevish comet, the owner of the building rarely orbits in; her facility, perhaps, brings out the worst in her, and I have really only encountered her pissed as hell. Lately she is absent, and waves of positive energy that are brave enough to venture into the lobby are not as quickly quashed. The building was going condo; which meant great changes were afoot; giant prospectuses were stuffed into mailslots; a new era beckoned, promising hardship for many helpless residents; but somewhere along the line inertia, muse of time, must have intervened, and I imagine some businessman in some office relenting, shrugging, in the face of some final Greystonian straw. Score one for tenacious decay. The owner has been defeated by the owned.

The lobby is not beautiful. A spectacularly boring picture of the building in its heyday (where the Hotel surely still exists, nostalgically) hung on the wall, pretending to be decor, but has been removed (the paint is lighter, yearning, where it used to be). A pot of plastic flowers stands on an Ionic dais and is moved to various seeming midpoints of invisible trajectories on the checkered floor. A sign reads “VISITORS MUST SIG IN;” I swear that missing “N” haunts me day and night. At 4 AM, after the garbage truck departs noisily, and while its honking and heaving fades into lonely quiet echoes, I dream abysses between “M” and “O.”

Most residents, like me, try to move through the lobby as quickly as possible, but some linger, and seem to enjoy it. There is one man who wears a giant gold medal around his neck, strung on a red-white-and-blue ribbon. He has liminal predilections, for instance: he leans near the door, or brings a chair into the windblown, cramped space between inner and outer doors, or stands just outside the door on the garbage-strewn sidewalk, looking longingly back inside. He adores rain-slickers, and is often impervious to water, even on the clearest days. He once ran the marathon. I know this because there is an explanatory card, also, hanging around his neck, in a plastic holder, which I have skimmed. (We could all use such cards?) He and I had absolutely no communication for six or seven years, though I saw him constantly; now, we are beginning to exchange smiles, and I have no idea what that means, or why it has happened. Some small random tenderness. It makes me feel cheaply good about myself to smile at him, and then I walk on to my destination, usually some heartless corporate chain.

To describe another regular: some eight years ago, I was in the elevator when a blonde woman in her fifties entered. Immediately the compartment reeked of scotch. It was around 11 AM. This was, I believe, the first occasion I really noticed her. She looked at me very intently, up and mostly down. “You’re an actor, right?” I applied New York Behavior Rule #1 and said nothing. “Yup. I knew it,” she continued, undeterred, “all the cute ones are actors.” It was a curious compliment, but we haven’t spoken since, and ever the jonesing approval-addict I catch myself, these days, wondering if she still thinks I’m cute. The other day, this same woman was standing at the bulletproof window, talking very loudly to Joey, with a different message. “You look terrible,” she kind of bellowed, pausing for a moment; then she said “I’m sorry” and began walking away towards the door. Joey said something through the muting window; it might have been a question; she turned back and yelled tautologically, proudly, “Because you look terrible!” She pushed the doors open, exiting the Greystone with a triumphal flourish (difficult to do). Promptly, my elevator door shut and I began to ascend. Joey was left alone, with no door.

One of the truly memorable regulars (for me) was an elderly man who sat near the door, in a corner, on a threadbare armchair (now disappeared, in an attempt to drive the elderly characters from the lobby and make the building more “presentable”). He never seemed to move. But one day, mysteriously, he was just there in the doorway, blocking my exit, and before I could summon a swift youthful refusal, he asked if I would do him a favor. He wanted me to walk him to his barber’s appointment, on Amsterdam. He had three or four hairs on his head. I stared at them and at his spotted scalp while he clutched my hand tightly in his cold hand and stood there and—as other busy normal people passed by—I started to wonder when we would begin to walk. But in a minute I realized he was walking. It was curiously intimate. Most of it was stillness and preparation, clenched breaths, but every so often he gave himself over to a passionate iota of motion. It was a harrowing, mindblowing five minutes until we were out on the sidewalk and fully thirty minutes more until we reached Amsterdam (normally a 15 second effort). I had no idea it was possible to walk that slow; Einsteinian dilemmas lurked; at that suspended speed, how could you tell if you were going forwards or backwards? I remember succumbing to fits of rage and eerie oases of calm and it was like being drawn into a black hole, maybe, while trying to hide the fact that your body is imploding.

At the corner of Amsterdam, he pitied me. His appointment (the existence of which I began to disbelieve) was allegedly on 88th and Amsterdam, and while I gazed into the receding line of buildings and onrushing stream of cabs with horror, imagining the whole day spent, he said the magic words: he would be fine, he would make it from there. I sighed in relief, wished him well, gave him hearty farewells. But, he added: he just needed to know which way was downtown. At that point, for me, the mathematics of the situation collapsed. I could bear the absurdity no longer. Sensing his helplessness, I fled from him, a coward; but he persevered, bravely, in the sunshine. I stopped near Broadway and watched him walk a few inches. To tell the truth, he’s not been seen in the Greystone in some years.

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  1. Emily
    Posted April 26, 2007 at 11:35 am | Permalink

    The name of your hunched, grey-haired, medal-bearing neighbor is Alberto Arroyo (AKA “The Mayor of Central Park”). How could I possibly know this? I used to see him shuffling around the Reservoir on a regular basis. Check out this video link for a little more background: http://www.veoh.com/videos/v405385KJbZMayY
    So say hi to Alberto the next time you see him and appreciate the fact that you have a minor celebrity and local legend living in your midst. He may not be around for much longer.

  2. ACN
    Posted April 26, 2007 at 3:10 pm | Permalink

    I have a friend who lives in your building.

    Fortunately for you, she was not one of the neighbors you described.

  3. rednepentha
    Posted April 26, 2007 at 3:47 pm | Permalink

    what a wonderful cast of characters; it would make a cute sitcom.

    if your building goes condo, buy it if you get a good insiders price. it’ll be well worth it.

  4. Anonymous
    Posted April 26, 2007 at 4:22 pm | Permalink

    I remember a time when a strange woman told me I was cute. She was not reeking of scotch, but she was kind of falling off of her chair at an Ann Arbor coffee bar, and I think that she had facial hair under her heavy foundation and an adam’s apple. And I’m a girl, in case that makes any of this story better or worse. Frankly, I didn’t find it unpleasant, but the gender stuff still has me a little confused. So, compliment or no? I guess you just have to make an affirmative choice to see the bright side of these things.

    Your lobby sounds like my old Detroit office building’s lobby. I walk down from time to time to by individual packs of nuts and see memorable individuals hanging around the two couches and fake potted plants, listening to the sound system that plays Sinatra nonstop (in a 1920s building in 2007 – what gives?). Sometimes they talk to the security guards, and sometimes they just talk to themselves. Keeps me in touch with real life.

  5. Anonymous
    Posted April 26, 2007 at 7:13 pm | Permalink

    A bit off topic, but… Jeremy, do you purposely keep hinting (well, more than hinting) at where you live hoping that your blog readers will seek you out? It seems like you threw in the “my home” part as an after thought there as in another post, “Dispatches from New York” where you casually mention, in parentheses (“oh yeah, by the way”), “just a stone’s throw from my humble home on 91st Street on the West Side.” There is also the post about the festival taking place around your pillow on 91st Street in New York. Maybe I am just reading too much into it?

    -Anonymous, for fear of a restraining order and avoiding the men in white coats

  6. Anonymous
    Posted April 27, 2007 at 3:27 am | Permalink

    Well, I myself know now where he lives but I don’t plan to stalk him. I can always see him after his concert and he’s so nice to meet people. Jeremy, can I buy you coffee sometime? Promise,I am not one of those crazy rabid fans of yours.I don’t think they even exist.

    See you!

  7. samantha g.
    Posted April 27, 2007 at 7:21 pm | Permalink

    You mean to tell me I’ve been staked out in front of the wrong apartment building all these months? Sheesh. Well, time to take the “Kidnap Jeremy Denk” plot back to the drawing board. 😉

  8. Anonymous
    Posted April 30, 2007 at 11:17 pm | Permalink

    he,he! one time I passed by the 91st. and all the while I was convinced the building in front of Greystone was Jerjer’s. I don’t know, I am just hooked that he lives there. It has a doorman also and looked warm and cozy in the reception area. I always imagine a piano would fit there to greet the visitors. I still imagine now that one day I would see Jerjer sitting downstairs enjoying his coffee.

  9. Anonymous
    Posted April 30, 2007 at 11:23 pm | Permalink

    he,he! one time I passed by 91st. and all the while I was convinced the building in front of Greystone was Jerjer’s. I don’t know, I am just hooked that he lives there. It has a doorman also and looked warm and cozy in the reception area. I always imagine a piano would fit there to greet the visitors. I still imagine now that one day I would see Jerjer sitting downstairs enjoying his coffee.

  10. Posted July 22, 2007 at 5:05 am | Permalink

    hhhmmmmmm i might just possibly stalk … except that i’m on the other side of the country. but … if i ever visit my aunt in queens, you may find me wandering around your establishment. 😛

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