Even with the window closed I recognize the voice of Mrs. Klein. I am sitting at my desk, still in a robe although it is late afternoon, waiting for my wife to come home. I open my window and see below me in the building's entranceway two women facing each other, one white and the other black. The black woman, a Jamaican, is Mrs. Klein's caretaker; Mrs. Klein stands before her, shrieking at her in German. Mrs. Klein's Alzheimer's Disease has grown steadily worse since the death of her husband a few months ago; she now requires care around the clock. I know the details because my next door neighbor on the fifth floor, Marya Klein, is the sister of Dr. Klein, the man who died. She tells me about the deteriorating condition of her sister-in-law.
Marya, like her brother and sister-in-law, is a Jew who escaped Hitler. She is a painter, at eighty, one still very active, but not up to the recent strain of her brother's chaotic estate and her sister-in-law's increasing madness. She confides in my wife, who is seven months' pregnant, and of whom Marya is very fond; she calls my wife "an angel." She tells us Mrs. Klein is becoming increasingly violent, irrational and incontinent; that Mrs. Klein's daughter (Marya's niece), who was troubled before her father's death, has after it become quite dangerous, and has repeatedly abused her mother; that the daughter is now forbidden by court order from seeing her mother and even from entering the building (if we see her we are to call the police); that, among other disgraces, the family dog bit Mrs. Klein several times, so severely it had to be put to sleep, which caused more rage from the daughter, who favored the dog (she claimed it was not the family dog but hers alone); and worst of all, that Mrs. Klein often escapes from her caretakers and gets lost, Marya fears that one day she will disappear completely. We are aware of this last problem on our own, because on several recent occasions Mrs. Klein has gotten loose in the building, has come to the fifth floor and pounded on our door, thinking she is on her own floor, the seventh. She cries and pleads in German to be let in. The first time it happened she pounded for a while and then went away; that is, my wife and I, sitting at dinner, listened to her pounding and did not answer the door. This was a long and leaden moment. Sin, which is often tedious, demands a particular kind of endurance when one has a partner. W e sat in silence and looked at each other and then avoided looking at each other until the racket in the hall had passed, the knowledge too explicit between us that we didn't want to deal with the troubled Mrs. Klein. But when it happened a second time my wife went out and spoke kindly to her and took her upstairs. I remember listening with a tremendous relief to my wife in the hall, as she spoke softly to Mrs. Klein; I heard mingled with my wife's words Mrs. Klein's half-sobbed, undecipherable German (the sound carrying down to me through the apartment's long corridor), and hearing this, the woman's desperate need and my wife's kindness to her, I took the kindness as kindness to myself and was soothed by it. Later, when Mrs. Klein returned, crying and pounding again, and I was home alone, this feeling came back to me, a very palpable thing, of having been loved by my wife, a mysterious genesis of erosion surrounding this woman who had always been a stranger to us. And so this time I escorted her home myself. I guided her by her elbow; she did not resist but only mumbled to herself in German and cried while we waited for the elevator. I tried to say things that would soothe her, fearing some outbreak, but she was quiet. Inside the elevator we both stood looking straight ahead, the way people do in elevators, with a rigid sanity, our only connection my hand on her arm. Her skin, even at the elbow, was soft not at all the scaly, dry skin I had expected when I'd reached for her.
Today she is standing in the entranceway below my window shouting at the Jamaican woman, angered apparently because she does not want to go inside the building, where it seems they had been headed, but back out to the street. As she shouts she gestures to the left, down 110th Street toward Broadway. I lean out and watch, my hands balled up on the rough concrete of the window ledge. A French woman who lives below me also leans out; the back of her head seems to jut out from among the bricks. I am aware of myself as the disturbed neighbor (a look on my face as I lean out the window), but I am not disturbed, merely tense. It is 4:30 on a humid day in spring, I've been trying in a half-hearted way to work, outside the daylight is failing, and soon my pregnant wife will be home. Tomorrow, I have to go and do a job in an office, which I dread. I want no commitments. Even this distant observation of the troubles of the woman in the passageway threatens to entangle me. I want to believe that the caretaker, without my involvement, can do just what the name of her position implies: take care of things, and of me absorb the shock of this woman and bring her safely home. It occurs to me that I would like the same guarantee made for my wife, that her "outburst" will be properly handled, and that she will be returned in good order, sound, safe, intact.
Right now, for Mrs. Klein at least, the issue is in question. Even if she is quieted, it seems to be a matter of time before some catastrophe befalls her. Not long ago I saw her wandering alone on Broadway near a produce market where I was shopping, and a group of boys for no reason except their flawless instinct for cruelty picked up a bunch of grapes and began throwing them at her. It was a barrage of grapes, probably four or five of them struck her at once. She turned, and seeing nothing at first that explained what had happened to her, merely looked confused. Then the boys ran off, and Mrs. Klein let out a piercing scream; she stood and shook her arms at them and cursed them. Gott- damn were the only words I understood. And then she darted off, up Broadway and away from the market, leaving me wondering whether I should go after her and take her home, or, really, knowing that I should do this and would not, afraid that if I were to interfere with her I would not only be inconvenienced, but she would scream and shout at me. So I stood there, and she disappeared. She hadn't seen me.
The two women stand below, framed in the entranceway by the descending walls of the building: Mrs. Klein, mad and visibly spiteful, jumps and shouts and gestures with her arms; the caretaker is firm, resolved to contain her although perhaps not fully equipped to do it. Out by the curb, our part-time doorman sits on a kitchen chair and watches; he will not interfere. He is an older, timid man who speaks Spanish and not very much English; he has before him a fight between a woman who shouts in German and her caretaker who responds in a kind of lilting and rounded Jamaican English, and for him there is probably not on all of 110th Street a language sufficient to address the problem. He sits quietly. He is small and spry, perhaps fifty-five or sixty years old, with a neat mustache and thick glasses that make him look a bit like a bird. He glances quickly from side to side as a bird does. People pass and he pretends, as they do, that nothing is happening, although before them a woman with Alzheimer's Disease shouts and waves her fists at her caretaker. She moves frantically to the left and to the right, trying to get past, but the caretaker continually blocks her way. Finally they struggle. Mrs. Klein shouts again and then, at last, strikes her caretaker, one punch on the left arm, followed by a kind of pause and evaluation for both of them (the caretaker doesn't react), then another punch (again no reaction, very little time has passed) and finally a very strong blow to the caretaker's chest, which has both the sound of a smack (skin on skin) and a real thud, like a barrel being struck, something giving way, the displacement of air, a pop.
Above, although I don't realize it at first, I am shocked by what I have just seen: an old woman punching a younger one, punching her with a fist, hard, I clearly saw it and very clearly heard it, even five stories above; in the moments after it I realize that a kind of law has been broken in plain daylight, or a number of laws, that a woman should make a fist and punch, rather than use an open hand, that it should be a thin old woman besides, striking a far younger, more robust one, and most of all that an absurd violence has erupted in the passageway, a place as familiar to me as my own living room. And then another law, one that makes 110th Street livable, also is broken: although I don't know German I can tell that what Mrs. Klein says next has to do with the caretaker's race…schwartzer.
After this she tries again to go around the caretaker and out to the sidewalk, but now with less energy; she has for the moment lost the edge of rage she had before she struck. Yet she will not give up. She tries two more times. The caretaker stops her. Mrs. Klein gestures repeatedly toward Broadway. There is something she wants. The caretaker's patience is at its limit: time to go home, she says in a strained singsong, as if to a difficult child. Nein, nein, Mrs. Klein answers, angry again. The caretaker stretches her arms to keep Mrs. Klein from getting past and so leaves herself vulnerable to a sharp slap in the face. It makes a terrible sound and reminds me of seeing a child struck. The caretaker reaches for her face to rub the spot where she's been hit, while Mrs. Klein yet again tries to dash around her; the caretaker blocks her way, there is more shouting and threatening, they grapple, all in a few moments.
At last, a large Puerto Rican woman who lives on the sixth floor and who cares for children comes out of the building, wheeling a stroller. She knows the two women and she tries to calm Mrs. Klein, who briefly weeps and then shouts again. The Puerto Rican woman takes Mrs. Klein's arms and pats them and rubs them; she is saying something kind in her rough voice. She too doesn't speak English very well and so her speech is more noises than words really, distinct vocal units conveying pure emotion. This is how she speaks to everyone, warmly, voluminously, even if they speak no Spanish. Her name is Mrs. Rivera, and she is a very large woman, an inch or perhaps two under six feet, with wiry gray hair and a rasping voice; seeing her I always think of the mountains, because she looks like a woman of the mountains, large and natural. She rubs Mrs. Klein's arms and embraces her. From above it looks like a Visitation scene, the greeting of two women on the verge of confinement; there are two pairs of female arms, of different shape and shade, entwining, making motions that replace language . . . The stroller sits unobtrusively among the three women, the baby quiet. The women reassure, assert, and move around each other, using the simplest syllables. The caretaker, in the presence of a third party, has relaxed and moved off to the side a bit. Above, I too am relieved by Mrs. Rivera and the sense that someone has arrived who will calm Mrs. Klein. So I am taken by surprise, as is the caretaker, when Mrs. Klein dashes out to the sidewalk and to the left, toward Broadway, out of sight. The caretaker goes after her. Mrs. Rivera walks slowly with her stroller out to the curb, cheerful looking, after all, she had done what she could, and talks there to the doorman. Suddenly the street has shifted back to normality. The two combatants are out of sight. Mrs. Rivera speaks to the doorman, as on any other day. They are probably talking about the weather: it is the first warm day and the doorman has put his chair out by the curb to get the breeze. He is not a doorman, really, just a man who lives on the block and who works part time sitting in the lobby of this building in the afternoons. The tenants pay him four dollars an hour; some call him Joe, and others, who speak Spanish, use what must be his real name, Jose…
After a few minutes the caretaker brings Mrs. Klein back. She looks defeated and exhausted, the way a very active child might look at the end of a long day. Mrs. Rivera speaks again to her, again touching her arms and reaching for her hands. And in this way the scene manages to come to an end: the caretaker brings Mrs. Klein inside, tearful, shocked, and impenetrably alone. Mrs. Rivera wheels off the stroller, containing the silent child, and the French woman withdraws her head from the fourth floor window. But from the fifth floor I watch long after it is quiet, gazing down at the street, taking in the smell of the spring's first hot day and the unusually thick feeling of the air. I am glad of the air, although I am not tempted actually to dress and go out and do the things dressed people do. I look at the people going by and at Joe out by the curb, sitting, his head swiveling back and forth as he also observes the people passing. My wife is due home soon. She may call before coming, she may not. She is pregnant. I feel as if everything is volatile, ready to break apart. For my wife's sense of well-being, I know I should be dressed when she arrives, and so I get dressed, without showering. I stick my head in the sink and run water through my hair and use the washcloth a bit and pull on a pair of pants and a shirt. Then I go back to my desk and wait. What I can't get out of my mind is the slap, the savageness of it, the awful sound, and the Jamaican woman's remarkable sacrifice of dignity for the sake of this lost old woman; I am also realizing that there were certain flawed but enduring human principles which guided Mrs. Klein, even madly: the caretaker is black, and her employee, and will not strike her in return. Mrs. Klein is mad but her madness is cunning, even criminal. As the slap replays in my mind, I think, Nazi.
The only other person who looked out, the French woman on the fourth floor, has two very tall mulatto daughters. She makes her living refinishing furniture. I have seen her through her kitchen window, which is across the air shaft from my kitchen window and below it, cleaning and repairing things around the house. I've also watched her teenage daughters, who use the kitchen a great deal at night. They are very tall and full in the body, almost plump; often they wear nothing but open robes and underpants. They've seen me, standing at my stove, which is by the window, cooking something or pretending to. We never acknowledge each other; sometimes one of them will walk over and close the curtain, sometimes not. We see each other on the elevator and greet each other politely; I do not say, I saw you the other night, fixing tea, brown-bellied, in blue panties. . . They look about nineteen and sixteen; they dress stylishly, with severe haircuts and much leather, I run into them once in a while when they are going out on dates with vain and awkward-looking boys. Alone, the girls seem very haughty; with boys, less so. My involvement is confined to their lives in the kitchen, mostly at night, the French mother has decorated it warmly, with baskets of fruit on the windowsill, wood block counters, etc. Everything is clean; whenever I see the French woman at work, repairing or cleaning, I compare her apartment unfavorably to my own, and her habits unfavorably to my own, because what I'm usually thinking of as I watch her work is my own work and how much difficulty I have doing it. The disparities I feel translate over to the objects in view, and these become the tangible expressions of a successful style, a way of living that seems much more at ease and productive than mine, I notice that her kitchen floor is nicer than ours, for instance, that the tiles are better, attractive black and white squares, old-fashioned looking in a reassuring way, pleasant and clean, as a home should be.
I open the window again and lean out, looking down the sidewalk toward Broadway, watching for my wife. I see our superintendent talking to the super of the next building; I don't see anyone else I know until Mrs. Rivera returns with the stroller. Mrs. Rivera's husband is a waiter in the Italian restaurant around the corner, a fact which led Joe once to tell me that the Riveras were "rich." The husband made four hundred dollars a week in the restaurant, Joe said, and the wife took in children; they were rich. Joe's voice rose comically every time he said the word "rich." People say he is slow. He is not slow, but he does have a speech impediment, a stutter and a kind of stiffness around his mouth that makes it difficult to understand him in English and in Spanish also. He is from a family of twelve children: first his parents had nine boys (Joe is the last of them), and then finally a girl, and they decided that one girl with nine boys was "too hard" so they decided to have another baby, hoping for a girl; it was a girl. After that they had a last baby, also a girl. Twelve children. I try to picture my wife and I having twelve children. The only thing I can think of about having twelve children is that after the first few, the births must go quickly. If this were our twelfth child, I wouldn't be nearly so afraid; after all, what's one more? Joe, with eight older brothers, has thirty nieces and nephews, many of them older than he. He likes music, and often while he sits he plays guitar or listens to the radio. Otherwise he talks about cars with all the men who live on this street and seem to be around all day. Everyone owns a car: mid-sized American cars from the 1970s, Darts and Dusters and a few rumbling LTD's. They stand in groups over open hoods, conferring. To own a car on this block is to be part of an organization; all repairs, parts, parking problems, etc., can be addressed without ever actually driving the car away. For a while I had a sky blue 1963 Buick that I'd paid a hundred dollars for, an enormous automobile, an ocean liner. It attracted a lot of attention on 110th Street. Joe and my super each had wanted to buy it; the super owned a Volkswagen Beetle, a turquoise vintage model from the 1950s with a flat windshield, a car which he pointed out (going for the sympathy angle) wasn't big enough for his wife and his four children. Joe wanted it because he knew it was a bargain; he offered five hundred dollars. Neither of them bought the car, after all, as it was wrecked in an accident in Pennsylvania, being driven by a retarded boy (or a near-retarded boy, accounts differ), who is a friend of my wife's mother, the kind of woman who befriends people in need, brings them home and gives them things, like cars.
Still no wife. Around the corner from here stands a cathedral, the largest Gothic cathedral in the world. This street officially is named Cathedral Parkway, although not many people use that name anymore, they use its number: one hundred and tenth street. The building where we live rises around a narrow entranceway to form a shaft up which sounds from the street seem to travel with full clarity and volume. Right now, it is quiet. I rise and lean out again to look down the street, watching for my wife; at this late stage in her pregnancy she walks very slowly. She never waddles. She tells me she has to think about this as she's walking, and often she asks me, Am I waddling? No, I always say . . .
Across the street from here is an older, Gothic-looking building with a series of ornamental gargoyles hanging from the first-story facade. From my desk I get to see many of the people who come to look at the gargoyles, people with tripods and cameras to photograph them, couples who pause and point them out, one to the other, as if they are saying: You see these are the gargoyles I told you about . . .
What I am doing, watching all these people, these strangers, seems like an attempt to understand something outside myself, but it’s not just that. I am trying to discover something about myself as well. I think people are like bats, sending out sounds and placing themselves by the echo, except that for us the sound is our imagination, not the glorious imagination of the genius, but the everyday imagination all of us have: the imagination we need to be able to love one another. I watch, I see the couples across the street, pointing at the gargoyles, and I see the two superintendents, leaning against the brick; I see the doorman Joe, a small, shy man who loves music; I see a young woman in an open robe making tea in the late evening for her sister, who sits at the table behind her; they are talking. I see Mrs. Klein screaming with rage. And I see a black Jamaican nurse, Mrs. Klein’s savior, who was brought into this world like a savior, by a woman in agony, and finds herself now like a savior, reviled, spit at and slapped.