By Mark Alpert
This summer my 16-year-old daughter volunteered to deliver meals to homebound senior citizens in our neighborhood (the Upper West Side of Manhattan). She usually does the route with her best friend — it’s a two-person job, because there are so many meals to deliver — but her friend was on vacation this week, so a few days ago my daughter asked me if I wanted to come along with her. I said yes, of course.
And the experience was an eye-opener. Although I’ve lived on the Upper West Side for most of my life — 32 of my 57 years — it turns out that I don’t know the neighborhood very well. Because the apartment prices and rents are so high here, I’d always assumed that the great majority of the residents range from comfortably well-off to appallingly wealthy. There aren’t any big housing projects on the West Side between 66th and 96th Streets, and most of the buildings are either glitzy high-rises or stately brownstones. What I failed to realize was that you can’t judge a building by its facade. You have to go inside and walk the hallways and ride the elevators to get a truer picture of the neighborhood’s diversity.
The church where the meals are prepared and packaged is on the corner of 86th Street and West End Avenue. The volunteers delivering the meals are assigned to routes that are identified by the names of popular musicians — the Springsteen route, the Madonna route, the Marley route, etc. (I’m not sure why.) On the day that I accompanied my daughter, she was assigned to the Joplin route. Because she studied piano for several years, she’d assumed that the musician being referenced was Scott Joplin, but I argued it was more likely to be Janis Joplin. She didn’t know who Janis Joplin was, so I proceeded to fill this woeful gap in her musical knowledge by belting out snatches of “Piece of My Heart” and “Me and Bobby McGee.” It was very embarrassing for her.
The Joplin route took us to several West Side buildings between 86th and 90th Streets. I pushed a shopping cart loaded with two big insulated bags, a blue bag filled with cold meals and a red bag filled with hot ones. My daughter carried the list of senior citizens and their addresses. Luckily, some of the apartment buildings we visited had more than one meal recipient, and that reduced the amount of walking we had to do. The concentration of seniors in certain buildings was no accident; landlords in New York City can get various government subsidies by reserving a certain percentage of their apartments for senior citizens and/or low-income residents, who generally pay much lower rents than the market-rate tenants.
This strategy helps to keep New York affordable for seniors on fixed incomes, but I discovered that it also triggers occasional flare-ups of class conflict. While delivering meals in one of the mixed-income buildings, my daughter and I had to squeeze into a slow, crowded elevator car filled with exasperated yuppies. A young upwardly mobile woman, obviously one of the building’s market-rate tenants (whom I will call Grace, for no real reason), stood in the corner of the car with her laptop open, trying to get a few extra seconds of work done on her way to the office. (Or maybe she was doing something else on the computer, I really don’t know.) Grace’s boyfriend or husband stood in the opposite corner, looking equally annoyed. I was very polite as I maneuvered the shopping cart into the elevator, but I don’t think anyone appreciated my courtesy. The elevator stopped again on the way down to the lobby, and an elderly woman stepped into the car. Grace let out an irritated sigh; I ignored it, but my daughter stared at her, amazed by Grace’s rudeness. Grace stared back at her and said, very loudly, like a challenge, “What?”
I was oblivious to the exchange, staring straight ahead, still trying to be polite. (For a writer, I’m an incredibly unobservant person.) I heard the rude “What?” but I thought Grace was addressing her boyfriend/husband, directing her irritation at him. Once we were out of the building, though, my daughter explained what had happened. As we continued delivering meals, we tried to figure out why Grace had focused her anger at us. Was it because we were helping the low-income seniors in her building? And perhaps Grace resented the fact that she paid the market rent (probably about $3,000 a month for a one-bedroom apartment) and yet she had to rub shoulders with much poorer people who paid a small fraction of that rent for the same amount of space?
I didn’t fully understand it, but it was interesting. It’s one of the mysteries of my hometown, where millions of people are crammed onto a small island and spend most of their days ignoring, resenting, helping, and amusing one another.
Maybe I’ll work it into a novel.