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Scott Korb | Longreads | May 2020 | 18 minutes (4,490 words)
Our time is nearly up, but we’ve been living in our building on East 19th Street, in New York City, for more than a decade. It’s six stories, 24 units, built in 1920. A walkup. To arrive home we walk up to the fifth floor. The stone stairs grow smoother and more slippery as you descend, because more people over the years have trod the lower steps; that is, fewer people have had to climb so high as us. On the way down one has felt inclined, landing-by-landing, to step more gingerly, to grip the bannister — until these days, when we try not to touch anything or anyone outside the apartment, or when we wipe those things down before we do. Our lives will be this way until we leave, because, again, our time is nearly up.
The roof is off limits and armed with an air-raid siren that would make the dog howl.
The paint in the stairwell, a light, creamy green, bubbles and sometimes flakes off in chunks, sometimes peels, exposing paint and plaster from decades ago. For most of the time we’ve lived here, on the wall just above the landing as you ascend between the third and fourth floors, the paint was cracked and had folded itself to form the shape of a woman, nude, from beneath the breasts to just below the hips, somehow including a navel. I suspected I was the only one in the building to see her, and I was too embarrassed to alert my wife.
Not long after we moved in, in 2009, before we were married, I painted the lower half of one wall in our kitchen a clean and deep red, which now matches several striped hand towels and the new teapot. (We’ve continued making improvements.) The same day I painted in the kitchen, I also covered a wall in the living room a bright, flat blue, though we could tell right away that was a mistake — to live in a lesser Mondrian — and I repainted the wall in white just as soon as the blue was dry. For now, there’s a pair of bright red paintings, the work of a friend, centered on that wall above the blue sleeper-sofa. We’ll soon take them down. The kitchen table we use today once belonged to a woman I briefly dated and was friends with off and on for years, though I don’t recall exactly why or when I came to own the table. (My memory is not what it once was.) I seem to remember its being offered, and then loading it into a U-Haul truck beneath her loft in SoHo the same day I helped another woman move to Inwood, in Manhattan’s northern reaches, before returning home to Brooklyn late that night. Together, that other woman and I must have carried the table up to my apartment before settling in for a few hours on my mattress. This is how we lived.
The kitchen table is an antique, and for a time, in several apartments (including this one on 19th Street), I used it as an office desk. Hanging above the table these days is a bookshelf that once belonged to a couple of radical publishers, relatives of a friend who, in 2016, organized an estate sale in the couple’s warreny West Village apartment, advertising “art, furniture, lamps, tableware, a multitude of unusual curios, loads of books (especially cookbooks).” The day we left with the bookshelf and hung it on our wall we also carried away cookbooks by Molly O’Neill and Joyce Chen. Our other kitchen bookshelf once belonged to two men whose apartment we rented on 29th Street, also on the East Side, near the hospital where our son was born. This apartment had deep blue carpeting and a balcony, a pass-through from the kitchen to where we ate, and when we lived there we also owned a guinea pig. When we arrived where we live now — with the dog who came with me, the cat who came with my wife, and before our son — we posted on Craigslist an advertisement putting the guinea pig up for adoption: “Free to a good home. Full set-up.” As it grew and ate more hay, the rodent had become too messy; my wife was allergic. So after some emails, one afternoon two girls came from the Upper West Side with their mother, who insisted we take her daughters’ twenty dollars before they carried him away with his cage, which I must have lugged down the stairs and loaded into their hatchback.
Over the years, many people have come and gone from our building on 19th Street. During the pandemic, the building has more or less emptied out — some, no doubt, for good. Who knows who’ll return? And yet, throughout our tenure, mostly we’ve complained — to each other and the more durable neighbors — about the turnover, which for a spate about five years ago, involved renovations to apartments in the lower floors that turned one-bedrooms into two- and two-bedrooms into three-. More bedrooms make apartments easier to share with other college students, which has been at the root of our grumbling: Our landlord’s fostering of transience. Dorm-life. (How soon we forget.) Even so, we twice wandered into these renovations, always on the lookout in New York for a little more room, but it never made sense when we considered the deal we’ve always had: our overall space isn’t much and the bathroom’s a puzzle, but there are two bedrooms and our rent remains below what the market will bear, for now, in the neighborhood.
When we first moved into our building, in our early 30s, there was a mother and two boys on the third floor. On Fridays, the boys’ father would appear and the mother would be free until he dropped them off again on Sunday. The boys must now be teenagers. I have no idea what she ever did with her alone-time. There was also a world-weary writer named Tom across the hall, who kept fit at the nearby city rec center and whom we liked quite a lot to talk to briefly, and who liked our son when he was just learning to walk. Tom was encouraged to vacate by the landlord’s offer of a buy-out, and we don’t know where he’s gone, but we miss Tom. The longtime tenant in 12A — we’re triskaidekaphobic in our building — was keeping his rent-controlled place as a second home, living there less than half the year, which the eviction notice taped face-down to his door said was against the law. Over time the legal notice grew worn and folded and ragged from all us curious neighbors. Now the tenant doesn’t live there at all. At the moment, no one does.
There was John, a military vet; we don’t know what branch. He was old, but we don’t know how old. No family that we could tell. John seemed to like me, called me guy, fella, or a word like that, when we met at the front door or mailboxes. For a few years we had the business card of a social worker under a magnet on the refrigerator; she had been knocking at John’s door one day and was about to give up when I took her card and said I’d call her in an emergency. Who knows who buzzed her in. John lived in apartment 5 and rarely left and seemed not to clean. Our building’s super affixed a plastic air deodorizer atop the doorframe of the apartment that I suppose John never noticed — one indignity spared — since, unlike those of us who come from the upper floors, he had no occasion to view his apartment door from above. He also had a crooked spine, which kept him constantly looking down. We knew, because of gossip, that over the years John spent time in the Veterans Affairs hospital on 23rd Street, and one of those times he didn’t come back. His mail piled up, was bundled with a rubber band and set on a ledge in the vestibule, and eventually that disappeared, too. We removed the social worker’s card from under the magnet probably around then.
This was a few years after Superstorm Sandy, in October 2012, when the building seemed to shift on its foundation and went dark for a few days along with everything else in our neighborhood and so many others downtown. From the backyard, where the trash goes, today you can see through the seam between our building and the neighboring one. It may always have been like that, but we only noticed after the violence of the storm. For the days the lights and the boiler were out, we bathed our son, who was a year-and-a-half then, with water heated on the range, like in the old days, and made daily trips from 19th Street to a hotel on 42nd Street, where the power worked. We charged our phones and our laptops, read the news and watched the bar television, had lunches and beers, and when we got home, after the baths, my wife and I played DVDs and ate all the food we could from the thawing freezer, before it went bad. Then we had the idea to make up plates of Bolognese for John and another older, single man on the third floor named Lloyd, which, looking back, is the only time we’ve had this idea.
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Like with John, Lloyd and I got along. He’s among those people who’ve left, who may be among the dead. We never had conversations and he never gave me a nickname, but he appreciated when I stepped aside to offer my place in line at the local grocery chain, and we nodded or greeted each other on the street, when he rode by on his bike or returned home with a bag from Petland. Yet most everything about Lloyd remained mysterious. He sometimes seemed very old and unkempt, but he also displayed occasional vigor. He had good days and bad days, like any of us, yet with Lloyd the bad days always seemed to be leading somewhere worse, part of a decline, until a few days later he’d be robust again, his hair smoothed, or he’d shaved.
One Sunday, in an autumn that now seems very long ago, a couple perhaps a generation older than me shoved a rotten mattress around the banister at the bottom of the stairs in our building; they were headed to the back yard. This mattress was Lloyd’s. His door apparently still open, he was shuffling upstairs. I’d come home with lunch from the new LA-styled taqueria on 3rd Avenue, and meeting the couple on my way in, they were resting, debating, in silence, the best way to proceed down the steps, out to the trash.
At the foot of the stairs, I made eye contact with the woman in the couple, then eyed the mattress, deciding whether to help, recalling a moment early in our relationship when my wife and I, alone, moved a dark brown couch down the narrow staircase leading from a Brooklyn studio I had for a year. There was yelling that day and we were still young.
Lloyd’s mattress was heavily stained: evidence of injury and illness, night sweats, incontinence, maybe violence. The mattress was torn along its side. Lloyd owned dogs, and perhaps some of the evidence was of them. But I’d also seen him bleeding from his shin after a fall on our stoop. I’d seen his shoulder dislocated under a tank top. There were moans sometimes from the apartment. Once, we heard him rattle his rear window and then call out in distress. “Don’t jump!” I said from two stories above, rattling our own window cage, looking down through the fire escape. My wife sensed I was overreacting. Back then, someone called 9-1-1 and a group of us from the building assembled outside Lloyd’s apartment, whispering, until the EMTs arrived to coax him out.
Moving the mattress would have taken only a few minutes. The hard work was already done by people older than me, who may or may not have been related to Lloyd. To help would have meant putting down a sack of warm tacos. To help would have meant embracing and lifting that mattress. Maybe rolling it down the back stairs into the yard, where I later saw it, spread out like a murder scene.
I did not help. Some social psychology and moral philosophy I’ve been reading lately has helped explain this away: with compassion, I’ve learned, the “tendency toward helping behavior is quite powerful, if the helpful action is ready at hand and not very costly.” Big if. Nonetheless, this moment is another thing from the hallway, like the nude, that I’ve found myself too embarrassed to tell my wife about.
Instead, I said, I’ve got the tacos.
Here is a question: How is it possible, and what does it mean, that I have been drawn to some chance cracks and drips of paint in the shape of a naked body, while at the same time disgusted, it seems, by some actual bodies in the building where I live? All this before we were all told — before it was, in some way, right — to be fearful of everyone (and someone like Lloyd, or John, to be very fearful, given their age and preconditions, of someone like me). It’s age, the passing of time and the crumbling of plaster, that formed the apparition of a young woman who lived, without aging, frozen between the third and fourth floors. Who knows how long she’d been there. It’s also age that formed the men who lived below us into who they had been, or were. (We simply don’t know. We assume.) And it must be age, too, I see, that’s made me increasingly aware and now wary of the aged, now vanishing, bodies below me in the building, to say nothing of the aging body below me in myself.
“Disgust,” says philosopher Martha Nussbaum, “is a strong aversion to aspects of the body that are seen as ‘animal reminders’ — that is, aspects of ourselves that remind us that we are mortal and animal. … The core idea in disgust is that of (potential) contamination through contact or ingestion: if I take in what is base, that debases me.” The action was ready at hand. The tacos would not have suffered one bit. My wife and son would have waited without knowing the difference. But the cost was simply too high, even then, even before the costs of touching, of being fewer than six feet apart, became the reason none of us could touch.
Speaking of animals, I miss the dog, who died a couple years ago now. We’d never done this before with a dog: my wife held her as I looked on, our son in the vet’s waiting room, while the chemicals were released, one by one, into her ankle. We all had taken the day off, and left her behind at the office and decided we could live without ashes. Arriving home today, when the key scratches the lock (my hands have a minor tremor), I still anticipate the jangle of her licenses and vaccination tags as she bangs the wall of the hallway on her way to greet me at the door. In the days after she died we told our son to stop playing with the collar, to hang it on his wall and leave it there. The light ringing sound he produced was creating ghosts.
I remember walking her down the dark stairwell and into the wet, leafy, dark streets in the evenings after Sandy. One winter morning, in a year either before or after the storm, I situated her between me and a man who’d found his way to the landing just beyond our door for a night’s sleep; in a crouch, I roused him by the foot, holding the dog by the leash, and said it was time to go.
The cat, who is also gone, scratched at her ear a few years ago and developed an infection that turned into a large, furless mass on the side of her head. It grew and shrunk week-by-week and grossed me out. I worried about bacteria. I sprayed where she bled. The vet had told us there was little he could do given her age — just as there was little to be done for the dog and her tumor — and so for those last years, the cat rubbed the growth against our feet in the evenings to relieve some irritation, and seemed, to me, humiliated. This is how we lived.
We’ve counted ourselves among the durable neighbors, though in January we learned our lease would not be renewed. We live on the fifth floor. We’ve taught a child to walk up, have watched a dog pass on, and then ushered out the cat.
We’ve lasted while college kids moved in and out, and I resent them for being loud and being young. For sleeping around on strange mattresses belonging to strangers they met by swiping right, the way we met strangers through friends and asked their help to move a table, a whole apartment, before crashing together, and maybe seeing each other once, twice more. Maybe getting serious before later breaking up. Maybe getting serious and bringing pets together to live and die, having a kid, getting married. (That’s how we did it.) I see the apparition of youth, of sex, in the cracks in the wall; I was once her age. She’ll be here forever, I once thought, painted over and over again.
Along with the social psychology and moral philosophy I’ve been reading lately for comfort has been a 2013 essay by Zadie Smith, “Man Versus Corpse.” Smith opens the essay with an anecdote of riding the elevator one night to relieve the babysitter and encountering a charcoal drawing titled Nude Man from the Back Carrying a Corpse on His Shoulders in a book of Italian masterpieces she’s found discarded in the lobby of her New York building. Compared with the man — “an ideal back in which every muscle is delineated. His buttocks are vigorous, monumental” — the corpse is drawn like an apparition. And despite this, Smith proceeds with a thought experiment: “I tried to identify with the corpse.”
Her effort proves difficult, and what she does first is telling of the horror of being dead — she imagines being the man: “Oh, I can very easily imagine carrying a corpse!” The scene she envisions unfolds in post-apocalyptic terms we know from poems and novels and the movies — a wasteland, a highway — until Smith unloads the body. “And it’s child’s play,” she says, “to hear a neck bone crack as I lay the corpse — a little too forcefully — on the ground.”
The larger point of Smith’s essay is to get us to see that we (including her) are living far less urgently than we would if our future as corpses was more readily apparent. We’d also construct lives more “worthy of an adult,” she says, if we weren’t so easily tricked, somehow, into believing that what happens to others — “often brown, often poor” people, people who live in “a death-dealing place” — will not also happen to us. (“We,” she writes, “seem to come from a land where people, generally speaking, live.”) For Smith, then, our problem is really two-fold: we quail at the prospect of imagining our own selves as corpses, and we’re not mindful enough of the corpses that gather in the distance to prevent them from gathering there. “It’s argued that the gap between this local care and distant indifference is a natural instinct,” she writes, echoing the philosophers and psychologists on the universal difficulty of compassion and of imagining other people. “Natural or not,” she continues, “the indifference grows, until we approach a point at which the conceptual gap between the local and the distant corpse is almost as large as the one that exists between the living and the dead.”
Until now in my life there was almost no arguing with her on this point. But what of Lloyd? What of the growing thousands — disproportionately brown, poor — now all dying in this city of this one thing? What of all those other older people, seen as the most vulnerable?
What of the gap that was not at all conceptual, but real, the one that kept me from hefting a local mattress? What of the distance between the living and the living? All of us six feet apart.
To start, I must say, having walked across an abandoned Brooklyn Bridge on a weekend in April, that I’m far less confident in my own post-apocalyptic vigor and resilience than Smith seems to be in hers. Oh, I can very easily imagine carrying a corpse! She’s not disgusted at all!
But me? My cowardice when confronted with Lloyd’s mattress was almost certainly related to the traces of animal life in a living person that a brand new corpse would also bear: evidence of injury and illness, maybe violence. A dislocated shoulder. A bloodied leg. And what’s also true is that the thought that did not quite form before I registered Lloyd’s shuffles upstairs — signs of life! — was that he had, in fact, died. That he was dead. That I was witness to this couple carrying out what’s pleasantly known as bioremediation.
Before I knew it, Lloyd was first dead and then alive, a source of sorrow and then, suddenly — instantly — relief. But then there, in that mattress, with that couple, was the evidence that we were right to expect sorrow again now — a sorrow that already resided in me then, it seems.
So then, how large really is the gap between the living and the dead? There’s no question that my life is arranged around the other living beings in my life, and that thoughts of losing them grow increasingly more painful and disorienting as the circle of my concern narrows to include only those two people I most often share sacks of tacos with. The ones, these days, whose masks I wash. Indeed, Smith expands on this reality in another 2013 essay, “Joy.” “Sometimes joy multiplies itself dangerously,” she says.
“Children are the infamous example. Isn’t it bad enough that the beloved, with whom you have experienced genuine joy, will eventually be lost to you? Why add to this nightmare the child, whose loss, if it ever happened, would mean nothing less than your total annihilation?”
Here I think Smith and I are equally convinced that in this version of the apocalypse, we’d be reduced to nothing, resilient and vigorous no more. That our current plague seems mainly to let the children be has been its one source of relief.
But my own experiences watching those close to me die suggests, at the end, a kind of porousness between the two states. When beings die they’re said to slip away. My step-father did. So did the dog. And it often feels as I ease into middle age that now is when the slipping actually starts. Isn’t that the wrinkles? The hairline? The half-caf? The hemorrhoids?
Then there’s Lloyd, who, it seems, slipped away a little faster than me in the weeks we last saw each other, more obviously. Faster even than John ever did. And it must be the speed at which I watched him slip, and the further slippage he’s made evident in my unconscious between living and dying — proof that we always do both at the same time, and maybe ghosts are real — that makes his mattress so offensive to me.
Still, the truth is that no matter my fear, Lloyd’s mattress would not have contaminated or debased me. Not the way I’ve worried about every container I’ve brought in from the store through the spring, nor the tub containing margaritas I marched up from the taqueria our second week sheltered at home. Our own moment, the world’s fear — and my own — of catching now what’s been going around, disproves nothing of how I behaved back then.
To do what I did (what I did not do), that’s what’s truly mortifying. Or, mortifying — “causing death” — would seem like the right word if, in fact, my marching by with lunch, leaving those two older people with the dirty work, wasn’t just the result of a kind of magical thinking — disgust — that promises with fingers crossed to protect us from all the causes of dying.
Months after meeting the couple with Lloyd’s mattress, I returned to the building one morning with ice packs from the hardware store to find an industrial black trash bag — collapsed, deflated, tied off — propping open the door to the yard. At every landing was a dusting of rubble. The landlord had begun demolition and the interior strip-out of a corner apartment on the sixth floor. This apartment could easily be transformed from a two-bed into a three-bed; this is where it’s happened before in the building, up and down this northeast corner line. This is certainly what will happen to ours, someday, now that we’ve been asked to leave.
Later that morning, a man with two-by-fours over his shoulder marched past me as I carried down the recycling. Renovations would soon begin. With bags slumped at each landing and still more rubble, the person responsible for demolition seemed to be carrying on a one-man bucket-brigade, moving four or five loads to the landing just below, then repeating this pattern all the way down. This is how I would do it, too, I thought. A bit at a time.
This renovation project must have upset the building. Sliding bags along the stone floor at each landing did some minor damage; or maybe it was the two-by-fours, carried carelessly, that left the new marks. Maybe sledgehammers and crowbars shook the inner workings of the upper floors and loosened the plaster down the stairwell. Because among the dust and rubble that spilled from the bags, I noticed, were paint chips, one the size of a dime, which had fallen from the crotch of the woman on the wall.
It’d be easy, I thought, a little Krazy Glue. It would fit like a puzzle piece. We’ve continued making improvements. But imagine that: me on my knees, stooped low in the stairwell, a tube of adhesive in my fingers, pressing the wall with my thumb. There, I’d think.
That’s unthinkable. And plus, the construction created more peeling in a new crack along her inner thigh anyway. It’d be an uphill battle. Soon she’ll be unrecognizable. Or just gone.
* * *
Scott Korb directs the MFA in Writing Program at Pacific University. His books include The Faith Between Us, Life in Year One, and Light without Fire. He lives with his wife and son in Portland, Oregon.
Editor: Sari Botton