I had many expectations for my first apartment. Relaxed. Spacious. Inviting. But in all of my plans for this, my first independent living quarters, I never gave a thought to whom I wanted as my neighbors.
The building that became this first home of mine alone, in the heart of Davenport, Iowa, was once a very nice apartment complex - Hard wood floors, fireplaces in every unit. The spacious units contained seven rooms that stretched the length of the building. But somewhere over the last century the building has fallen from its former grandeur. the fireplaces have been sealed. The hard wood is marred and warped, providing entrances for any number of unwanted visitors. The once grand floor plan has been walled into smaller three room units, with drywall clumsily filling once elaborate doorways.
I was immediately attracted to the building by the outer facade. A beautiful sandstone brick building. Once inside, the high ceilings and hard wood floors gave me the effect of dignity that I was searching for. This place had character! A beautiful picture window looked out over...well, it looked out at the ramshackle duplex across the street. But it was still a great aspect of the apartment. I conveniently avoided making eye contact with the cracks below the baseboards and awkward window, waist high next to the bathtub. Or the bizarre window in the hallway that opened into the interior of the building - an empty shaft, three stories high, with windows from all the other apartments peering into the nothingness. These issues were part of the charm of the place.
Moving in on August 1st, I soon learned that another charm of the apartment was the lack of air conditioning. I had grown up without A/C, so I thought 'No big deal!'. but it became a big deal when then nights stayed a balmy 92. Laying on my futon wearing naught but my underwear and a disdain for humidity, I decided that being anywhere but in my trendy new apartment would be better than this slow saute that I was being subjected to.
As I walked out of the complex, book in hand, my intention was simple: enjoy the night breeze on the front porch until my body was too tired to care about my sauna of an apartment. When I reached the porch, however, I came upon my downstairs neighbor and a few of his...associates.
"Aw, hey neighbuh! You live upstairs, right? I saw you movin' in last week - You'z gotsome stuff!"
A little uneasy by his observations about my "stuff", I replied with a non committal “mmmhmm”.
I sat on the stone ledge of the porch and began to leaf through my novel. Neighbor, as I would come to know him by, resumed his conversation with the gentlemen on the stairs.
I sat there for a few moments, but was unable to concentrate on the page before me. I instead began to listen to the conversation unfolding below.
Neighbor sat at the top of the steps with a tallboy of Steel Reserve™ malt liquor and a joint, postulating on the current political crisis. He was older than me, probably in his mid-forties. He had a shaved head, Oakley knock-off sunglasses, and the hints of age on his face - if he wasn't that old, he had experienced forty years of wear and tear.
A polyester short sleeved dress shirt, unbuttoned, was draped across his wiry frame. His baggy cargo shorts were smeared with an unidentifiable greasy residue. The neighbor rocked and swayed with a spastic lack of rhythm as he leaned in toward his congregation, the fervor in his voice increasing. The young men were listening intently to his words, nodding in agreement and ever so often interjecting with a word or two of impassioned sentiment. Without knowing the topic of their boisterous exchange, this meeting could have been interpreted as the incipient sparks of a revolutionary movement.
But in reality, it was nothing more than a few guys complaining about the eternal problems of the U.S. Government.
As time went on, I became acclimated to the weather patterns of my apartment. I learned the character of the old unit, strategically placing fans to accentuate the cross breezes in the summer and cranking open the steam radiators to full capacity in the winters. I soon learned to stay clear of the radiator units in the winter time, as even a glancing connection to the brass could result in severe burns. The whistle of the radiators steam release valve became a sound that lulled me to sleep on winter nights, and drowned out the skittering of mice seeking sanctuary in my walls and across my hardwood floors.
Sometimes I'd see Neighbor as I drove away from the apartment in the morning. He'd be strolling toward the sandstone building, clad in an ankle length steel gray fur coat and wool fedora. He was strolling down the broken sidewalk with the most carefree ease, his Steel Reserve™ in one hand, cigarette in the other, navigating the ice and snow without any indication he'd even noticed its presence.
He always made me wonder if he had a job. It didn't matter what time it was, what day I was out, or the season of the year – I'd see Neighbor on the porch, on the street, around the community. Whatever his income source, he always had a smile on his face, right below those knock off Oakley's, obscured by an aluminum can or the slight sepia tone of the smoke of a blunt.
Although I am a skinny, unassuming white boy who grew up in an ethnically monochromatic farm town in southeast Iowa, I felt oddly at home in this antiquated apartment settled in an area notorious for shootings, drug transaction, and over-bassed low riders at any hour of the night. Friends who lived in “safer” parts of town were forced to enter the complex through Neighbor's haze and sermonizing, they'd always great me with a relieved sense of accomplishment, as if they'd traversed through a tribulation worthy of tears and hugs. The harrowed expressions of my guests always made me chuckle, and affirmed my belief that these people who lived around me were exactly that – people. They were not the caricatures of ghetto's and rap videos, narratives created by a narrow view of culture fed to me as a youth.
One Sunday morning that particularly enforced the confidence I carried I stepped out into the sunshine, and there was Neighbor, with two men enjoying their sacrament. The two gentlemen, upon seeing me, quickly made their pot scarce. But Neighbor, at this sign of attempted deception, simply let out a laugh.
“Aw, man! Yo'all ain't got nothin' to worry about! Is's Neighbuh!” He said to his attentive listeners, then turned to me and, with an outstretched hand offered, “Neighbuh, you want some of this?”
“I'm trying to quit, but thank you.” I replied graciously. I chuckled as I walked to my car, amazed by the confidence that man had just had in me. In retrospect, I realize that not only was he sending me a message of faith, but he was also using me as a way to send a clear message to his acolytes. Neighbor was in control of the situation, and while you were smoking on his porch, there was nothing to worry about.
This level of self-certainty in his ability to keep things cool gave me a similar confidence while living in that building. While I never had to utilize it, I always felt like I could rely on Neighbor's assistance. If a tussle arose, or if I needed credibility in that often times ominous neighborhood, he was the man I would go to.
I have since moved out of that old sandstone complex. My new place is surrounded by quaint cottages with neatly trimmed lawns and sculpted shrubs. I don't know many of my neighbors, and the ones I've met are much less endearing then Neighbor. They keep to themselves, avoid eye contact as we pass in the hall, as if they are afraid of inconveniencing me with the emotional connection that might be exchanged. And not surprising, I don't feel near as secure in this new place as I did back in the old apartment.
I saw him the other day as I was passing through the old neighborhood. I almost stopped to attempt to reconnect with Neighbor, but I resisted. I think I was afraid that my memory of our relationship and the appreciation I felt toward this anomalous man would not be reciprocated, and I'd rather retain the pleasant memories I had of our transient interactions than chance the reality that Neighbor had no memories of our forced proximity and bore no kind reminiscence as I did.
So I drove on by. And neighbor lives on, Steel Reserve™ in one hand, joint in the other.