Opal Mills is a cantankerous octogenarian who's inhabited the apartment below mine since at least the Reagan administration. As far as I can tell, the building has been remodeled around her existence multiple times over, fusing her decor, noises, and even her smell into the very soul of the brick and timber that make up the walls of the structure.
Long before I met Opal, before I'd even moved into apartment 5, her presence bellowed at me in alpha-numeric form. Pulling up to the parking lot, a small metal sign was planted in the frozen ground. On the aluminum was reflective vinyl, coldly pronouncing,
RESERVED FOR APARTMENT 4. VIOLATORS WILL BE TOWED.
There were no other signs in the lot. No similar reservations for units 3, 5, or 6. Only this singular privileged position. As I approached the building, I noticed a lone piece of lawn furniture sitting next to the door. Upon closer inspection, I found an address label applied neatly to the top of the chair. It was the type of label you receive complimentary for donating to the World Wildlife Fund or the Salesian Missions. Next to an ambiguous floral pattern, in Times New Roman, was a name, address, and phone number. The label shared an apartment number with the aluminum placard. The name?
Knit Like a Grandma, Swear like a Sailor
We inspected the apartment, approved of the ambiance, and signed the lease. In conversation with our landlord, I mentioned the peculiar tendencies of our sub-level neighbor to label everything in sight. He replied with a sigh.
“Yeah, she has trouble walking, so she insists that no one park in that spot. She only leaves the apartment a couple times a week, but I wouldn't worry about it. She can't enforce the sign. But if possible, try to park somewhere else. I've explained to her that she can't have people towed, but she keeps tryin' anyway.”
I shrugged, made a mental note to comply, and began unloading boxes.
A few weeks later, I pulled into the lot. It was around seven at night, and I had to leave again early in the morning, so I parked in the spot directly in front of the sidewalk. The sign met my license plate, ringing dully as I walked briskly toward the brick building. As I entered the building and began my ascent to domestic reprieve, my ears were greeted with a sound to which I was unaccustomed. From somewhere above me, a cadence of profanity flowed from a geriatric mouth. The denunciation flowed with a lyrical coarseness, like Mrs. Miller in a meat grinder. I rounded the corner on the first landing, and realized that the flurry of epithets was coming from apartment 4. The door was ajar, held fast by the three inch security chain moored to the frame. As I glanced through the crack, I saw faded linoleum and yellow pleather chairs. Beyond the chairs, I saw a crouched frame, leaning on a matte gray walker for support. From the stooped body that inhabited apartment 4 came more slurs and insults than I've heard in any barroom or mechanics shop.
The voice trailed off as I continued up the stairs to my door. I glanced warily out the window off and on for the next few hours, but saw no tow-truck arrive. In the morning, I was relieved to find my car in the exact same place I'd found it.
Smells Like Teen Spirit, Circa 1947
Over the course of the seasons, I came to know Opal through other interactions. Crossing her path on the way out the door, I'd find her sitting in her self-claimed and labeled chair. She'd wail from her chair,
“Don't let that door latch! Prop it open, like I had it. If you don't, I'll never get back in. I'll be out here all night. I can't handle that door on my own, you know. I fell the other week – It almost did me in! I can't handle much more of that...”
I'd prop the door and be on my way. I never really knew what to say to the woman's distressful tales. I'd smile, gesture to the door, and murmur something about having a good day. One day, I met her in the hallway, on the way down for a morning walk with Ellie. She bemoaned the presence of the boisterous canine with exacerbated emotion,
“Oh no! I can't handle falling down again! Don't let him jump on me, I'll topple right over! I just need to get to my apartment. No, you go ahead and go, I'll hold on here. Don't try to help, you just go on...”
Her voice kept going as I hurried out the door. While I was certainly sensitive to her fears of falling, it seemed a little extreme to be that shaken by a dog. Ellie wasn't even jumping.
Just a few month ago, I pulled into the driveway to find another car in the coveted Apartment 4 space. I knew I'd hear her venomous cursing as I passed her door, as I'd heard so many times before. As I made my way to the first landing, I was greeted, not by an auditory assault, but by an olfactory offensive.
Opal's door was thrown wide. I could see her entire kitchen, resplendent with nicknacks, inspirational plaques from the seventies, and her bent skeleton in the doorway. The smell that wafted from her dwelling was a mixture of several odors. Some of them were once intended for pleasure, but all had since turned, creating a rancid combination of baby powder, eau de Phyllis Diller, and a scent that can only be described as coming from a shut-in that owns too many cats. Not only had Opal not been out for a few days, evidently she had not opened a window since the Armstrong walked on the moon.
She locked eyes with me on the stairs. Her drawn-on eyebrows sat motionless, frozen in a raised position, looking slightly frightened, but also inquisitive. I wondered if she'd chosen that emotional expression when applying the faux-brows, or if it'd happened incidentally. Perhaps she'd painted them on for The Price is Right, and now was committed to this eternal surprise. Her skin seemed as if it'd been draped loosely over her structure, after sitting in a heap for ages. The crevasses of her wrinkles mirrored that of a piece of abandoned fruit in the autumnal sun. It melted away from her hands and arms, appearing to be dripping from her body as we spoke.
“Do you know who's red car that is? My daughter is coming to pick me up, but I can't make it past that sidewalk! I fell once earlier this year. If I fall again, I'm done for! You need to figure out who's car that is! I'll have it towed...”
“I don't know whose car that is. I'm sorry, I can't help. I think you could probably get around the car...I know you need to get by, maybe they'll move soon. Sorry again...” This time I trailed off as I continued up the stairs to my domicile.
While empathetic toward the elderly woman, I was also slightly miffed at her brazen sense of entitlement. She must think that simply because she has trouble getting around, no one should ever park in that spot. When someone does park in that spot, she expects everyone to drop what they are doing, call the President of the United States of America, and declare a national state of emergency. Not only that, but she also feels the need to share more details about her life than ever necessary in an attempt to draw empathy and action.
I am sure that I sound like an insensitive jerk, but, in my opinion, she is completely overstepping her bounds. If she'd created a sign that stated,
TEN MINUTE PARKING. PLEASE KEEP THIS SPACE FREE FOR LOADING AND UNLOADING ONLY.
PLEASE REFRAIN FROM PARKING BETWEEN THE HOURS OF 8AM AND 6PM.
I could live with the concession of not parking in the spot. But there is no reason that I should have to park down the street rather than in my parking lot. I refuse to acquiesce to her heinous demands. It's the principle of the matter.
Equal Opportunity Parking
One day I had parked in the taboo space overnight, fully intending to remove my car before 8am. In my mind, there was no way that this woman would be leaving the building before me. For good measure, I stopped my car a few feet from the sidewalk, allowing ample room for the most feeble of pedestrians.
When I strolled out the door, treading briskly toward my car, I was enraged by what I saw. Someone, in an attempt to send a message, had taken the sign, and placed it haphazardly on my windshield. The act was simple, but I was furious that someone would take a metal sign and chance damaging my car, to convey a senseless and unfounded message. Irritated by the gesture, I flung the sign across the yard. For good measure, I jerked the post that normally housed the sign from its home beside the sidewalk, and pitched it into the yard as well. Enough was enough. I was not going to stand the nonsense any longer.
I am not overly protective of my vehicles. I do not spend hours polishing the paint of my Toyota. I rarely even have my car washed. But that is my prerogative, and that does not give anyone else the right to abuse my transportation.
A few weeks later, the sign had been returned to its home. But this time, a new message was on the aluminum placard. Two sheets of loose-leaf, wide-ruled paper, were taped to the sign with sepia masking tape. The rag-tag message was scrawled in black marker, bubble letters shaded carelessly to drive home the message:
PLEASE DO NOT BLOCK THE SIDEWALK. THANK YOU.
And that is all it took. A simply 'thank you'. I haven't had the slightest desire to park there since the advent of the new sign. I've even parked on the road, a block away from my building, rather than taking that spot. A little compromise and appreciation goes a long way.
I cannot say that I handled this situation the most admirable way possible, but it's hard to confront a woman who is four times your age, especially when she's cursing like Bobby Knight on April 5th. But in the end, I learned a great deal about respect, compromise, and giving. Now, when I am stopped dead by the pungent presence of Opal, I pause, listen to her, and offer some suggestions to help relieve her anxiety. My consolations generally fall on deaf ears, but when you're talking to someone that old, it's to be expected.
The names in this essay have been changed to protect the curmudgeonly. No old ladies were harmed in the making of this post.