Hometown Mysteries

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.

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About Mark Alpert

Contributing editor at Scientific American and author of science thrillers: Final Theory (2008), The Omega Theory (2011), Extinction (2013), The Furies (2014), The Six (2015), The Orion Plan (2016), The Siege (2016), and The Silence (2017). His latest thriller, The Coming Storm (St. Martin's Press, 2019), is a cautionary tale about climate change, genetic engineering, and Donald Trump. His website: www.markalpert.com

7 thoughts on “Hometown Mysteries

  1. I have a feeling Grace is the kind of person who always finds something at which to be irritated. Irritated at herself for not leaving 10 minutes earlier. Irritated that her assigned work couldn’t be completed last night. Irritated that her husband got the shower first and took too long. Irritated that the elevator was so slow and slower still when more people got on. Irritated that her feeble neighbors can live on less and be happier. Irritated that she works so hard yet hasn’t reached the job status, the fitness level, or the life organization that she believes would finally give her happiness. I’m starting to feel sorry for Grace.

    A big kudos to your daughter for helping out! At 16, I was too egocentric to think about volunteering for M-on-W.

    Now I have a Bobby McGee earworm stuck in my head.

    • I think you nailed it, Priscilla. Folks like Grace have holes inside them. I think of the rudeness coming from their mouths as echoes of that.

  2. I read either an article or a book several years ago about how writers write (holey socks, imagine THAT!) about their own generations and their own ages. The young squires and ladies write about the cool stuff, the middle-agers write the regrets of their life, and the seniors write about golden ponds and stuff. Is this profiling or racist ageism or what?

    My wife and I now live in government-subsidized government housing for seniors, and I wouldn’t write about a golden pond for anything. I keep the explosions and the foot chases and the wars going. A few years ago, I decided to keep all those going in an effort to explore the horrors and terrors of cryptid creatures and animals that roam the countrysides and the streets if America, without them turning into then-she-ran-screaming-from-the-monster stories.

    But I enjoy exploring characters like Grace and mixing them into my stories because I just have never been able to figure out why certain people have certain things stuck up in certain orifices. I watched the movie Enemy of the State last night. In all of the foot chases and gun-threats and stuff, I would have loved to have seen a crotchety middle-ager stomping out of her apartment, just get hacked enough that when two bad guys chasing the good guy down the hall push her, that she trips the Canadian just enough that he crashes through the window at the end of the hall and does a screaming 18-story head dive into the side of a truck, the driver of which is arguing with a pedestrian about who has the right of way.

    Those are the lovely moments that I try to fit the mundane, angry, or spiffy people into my story.

    They deserve their one-shot at retaliation against the bad guys. That, I think, takes away the profiling and ageism. So watch out bad guys. Someone you mistreat may take you out in an accidental–or not so accidental–way.

    Got it?

  3. Fascinating city vignette, Mark. And as other have said, kudos to your daughter for her empathy at an early age. She’ll never be a “Grace.”

  4. Interesting post, Mark. I think you should work it into a story. A few years ago, my husband and I had some remodeling work done on our home. We stayed in a hotel a couple of nights. (Strange to stay in a hotel in one’s hometown.) Being a writer, I envisioned what it would be like for a stranger to stay here. What would they think of the town? How would they view things? Opened up some fascinating possibilities for a story. (Which I’ve yet to write.)

  5. There are resentful Graces where ever you are. When I was a teen, my dad was on the emergency call list for Meals on Wheels. He’d drive in the weather too bad for the regular drivers. It was slightly icy with mist coming down, but he and I took off with our car full of food. Walking up icy porches to old homes with several meals was scary, but after delivering our last meal, we came to a dead stop at a red light on Main Street, and the car started sliding sideways. Dad thought it was a grand adventure; me, not so much.

  6. What a great way to spend time with your daughter! Kudos to her for taking up the effort. Think of the lessons she’s learning about people. And we elders keep thinking today’s kids are only in it for themselves.

    As for Graces of the world. How ironic this one didn’t show any! You have to love ’em and hope one day they’ll see the errors of their ways. If not, they do make interesting extras in horror stories.

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