The Social Worker

The holiday party held annually in the lobby of my building took place yesterday and provided an excellent opportunity to observe the changing demographic of the building. More young people are moving in, particularly young people starting families. There are two Jennifers, each with a newborn baby and a shy, kind-eyed husband. This is all good, in a bittersweet way. It is desirable to have young people about, and it is best if a co-op is occupied one hundred percent by owners but as I wrote last year, the disappearance of the old people makes me one of the old people.

I went down to the lobby with my neighbor Michael who knows more of the neighbors than I ever will. “That’s ‘cause you work,” he told me, which was, until recently, true. “I’m around all the time.” It is also because Michael, as the saying goes, could charm a dog off a meat truck.

For example, I introduced myself to a neighbor I thought was new to the building and learned she has lived here for two years, that she has a cool job in the music industry, and that she bathes her cat every day with some allergen-killing shampoo. She is a cute, chipper young woman with the sturdy, compact build of a gymnast because, as I later learned, she spent two decades performing gymnastics.

She had vaulted over to the hors d’oeuvres when Michael and I were approached by someone who was new to the building. He told us his apartment number. Michael, who goes to every open house the building holds and has the blueprints of the whole place locked in his memory, informed me, “That’s the old Melman place.”

Ooooooh.” I turned and tried to get an impression of the new guy: dark hair, dark eyes, dark shirt, black jeans, an unplaceable accent. “Mr. and Mrs. Melman. They died within a day of each other. She died and then he died the next day.”

My new neighbor looked distressed.

“No, it’s romantic,” I assured him. “They were married for like 70 years. They were like Cathy and Heathcliff.”

“If Cathy and Heathcliff were two short old Jewish people,” Michael added. “So, what do you do for a living?”

This was unusually blunt: for the party, for Michael, for the stage of the conversation we were in. But yet, there was something about the new guy that solicited a demand for an explanation. Who was he?

“I’m a social worker,” he said.

“Oh? Where?”

“In a clinic. In New Jersey.”

“Long commute.”

“I have a car.”

Oh, do you? Michael and I nodded and withheld the unasked questions. Among them:   How can a social worker afford a car andthe old Melman place, a two-bedroom on the top floor? And Do you live there alone? And God, the place must be pristine! The same tenants for 50 years and then newly renovated! And What is your accent? And Why are you pretending to be a social worker?And “in New Jersey”Could you possibly be less specific? AndWhy is the aura of intrigue about you as palpable as fog? And Can we go see your apartment? Now?

We are all dying to get into one another’s apartments. The units named after the first dozen letters of the alphabets all have unique layouts: the studios, the compact one-bedrooms, the wastefully large one-bedrooms and the highly coveted two-bedrooms. The units named after the next dozen letters of the alphabet, on the other side of the lobby, follow the same patterns, only flipped. Even if your apartment is exactly the same as that of your neighbor, even, if, oh, say you were to lock yourself out of your apartment when the door slams shut behind you on your way to take out the recycling and you have to cajole the woman downstairs into letting you cross through her apartment and climb out her window onto the fire escape so you can break into your own apartment through the living room window, you would still pause and marvel at what she had done with the space, how she had met the challenges of the literal nooks and crannies that all the apartments have. It is a pre-war building filled with the quirks and perks of the time: built-in bookcases, high archways, deep closets, meandering hallways, foyers, occasionally, a raised dining area just off the kitchen.

The Gymnast bounded back and we introduced her to the Social Worker. I added, after some preliminary chatting, “He bought the old Melman place.”

“Oh! They died within a day of each other!” she told him pertly.

“Did they die in the apartment?” he asked, understandably apprehensive at the party line on his new place.

“No.” I then realized I had no idea. Mrs. Melman had been in the hospital, but who knew about Mr.?  Ambulances are a routine sight outside the building.  When we ask “Who is it?” of a neighbor watching the EMS workers unload the gurney onto the sidewalk, the answer is usually given by apartment number, as in “Who is it?” “5N.” “At least, I . . . don’t think so.”

“Um, I um . . . cheese . . . right back . . .”

The Social Worker headed toward the refreshment table.

“That guy is not a social worker,” I said.

“I was thinking the same thing,” said the Gymnast. “There’s something just, like — ”

“He’s a spy, obviously.” I’ve been reading a lot of Alan Furst’s novels recently. “But not a very good one. Because spies should try to blend in more. Like those Russians in New Jersey.”  (New Jersey!)  “There’s nothing about him that says ‘social worker.’ What everything about him says is ‘international man of mystery.’”

As it happened, when I left the party, the international man of mystery joined me in the elevator and carefully asked me to repeat my apartment number.

“I’ve been thinking about having a gathering,” he said. “In my apartment.”

“Oh!” I was pleased that one of the young people would consider inviting me to a gathering, that I was not yet manifestly one of the old people; pleased, also, that I would get to see the old Melman place. “That would be nice.”

Only later did I realize – he never said what kind of “gathering.”

First published Monday, December 20, 2010

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