This was our old apartment in Brooklyn, courtesy of Googlemaps. We lived there for two years in the mid-aughts. We shared the two-story upper level with a roommate, a friend of a friend from college.
It was the most beautiful apartment I’d ever lived in. Long elegant windows, wide marble fireplaces, original pier mirrors and crown moldings from the turn of the century… we’d have friends over and they’d walk in and gaze up at the twelve-foot ceilings like “What the FUCK???”
We’d gotten lucky. We paid very little rent because the owner lived beneath us and was picky about his tenants. Most of the owners in the ‘hood had lived there over thirty years. They were hanging on to their buildings with white knuckles through the neighborhood’s rapid gentrification.
Our landlord also owned the adjacent brownstone, which was as lovingly kept and stunning as ours. A man named Willie occupied the lower two levels with his dog. He was around seventy years old, and was a fixture in the neighborhood.
I wrote a story about Willie and published it on my old website on August 4, 2005. I had initially intended to write about my abysmal habit of being late to everything and Willie’s role in that. But then, the story changed itself.
I know it’s a little awkward to have this as my last note before the holidays. It’s not exactly merry. But I dunno. I get melancholy around this time of year. And I think about Willie a lot.
Merry Christmas. See you in 2019.
DEAD MAN’S SOUP.
A while ago I asked you to remind me to tell you about my neighbor Willie. He sat on his front stoop every day with his dog and chatted with people as they walked by. Neighbors mostly, but he was friendly to everyone. So was his dog.
And somehow, everyone except me knew what he was saying.
Two years ago, Willie survived a bout of cancer of the esophagus that had taken a portion of his tongue. He ate through a feeding tube in his tummy. Most of his words came out sounding like scoops of mashed potatoes; all mush, not a lot of shape. He spoke through his nose mostly, and he required a bit of pantomime to get his points across.
Talking with him put me freakishly on edge. I’m chronically late for everything, and Willie was always on his stoop, and I couldn’t just blow by and act like he wasn’t there… and so most times I would stand there with my face all corrugated in frustration, straining to translate his nasal expulsions while my nerves pulled tighter and tighter…
Jump forward to yesterday. I was ravenous and I knew we had nothing in the house to eat, but I didn’t have the cash to blow on some bullshitty crap from any of the overpriced bodegas in staggering distance (not another lunch of cheddar Soy Crisps, please)… so I scoured the fridge and the freezer with the “I’ll eat anything, even the frozen fucking peas” kind of fever… and I found two tupperware containers filled with chunky, brownish, ominous-looking material.
Each had a strip of masking tape on the top with scrawled writing. One read “Turkey Neckbone Soup”, and the other “W. Bro. Pigfeet Soup.”
Our roommate was a vegetarian. None of us cooked ancillary animal parts. And whose handwriting was that?
Then I remembered.
About four months ago, Willie’s apartment had caught on fire.
He’d been microwaving some meatloaf and he heard a bang. He grabbed his dog and got the hell out of there. By the time the firetrucks arrived, his entire first floor was in flames.
The neighbors above him were not home, and their apartment was not damaged. But Willie lost everything. His extensive stack of blues records was one huge melted pile of black. All his furniture was eaten through with black. His lamps, his telephone, his TV, everything had melted from the heat. Every bit of glass in the room had turned to liquid. What took seventy years to accumulate was annihilated in less than twenty minutes.
And anything that might have been salvaged was damaged either from the hydrant water or from the firemen smashing through (they had to gouge open up all the walls afterwards to make sure nothing was still burning inside).
Afterwards, we took photos for the insurance people while Willie climbed around his wreckage, pulling charred objects aside to reveal more charred objects. He tried to open his freezer but it was fused shut. We had to pry it open with the help of another neighbor.
Inside, all of his food was completely intact. The ice had protected even the plastic of the tupperware.
Willie asked us to hang onto everything for him until he could come back for it. We said okay and stashed the food in our freezer. That night Willie slept on a cot in his basement, water dripping all around him. We saw him through his window on our way home from dinner. He had a small battery-powered light next to him.
The landlord suggested Willie find somewhere else to stay, but Willie refused. He slept on the cot at night, and during the day he sat on his stoop with his dog. One morning I was rushing off to work and I passed him, saying, “I’m so sorry about your apartment, Willie… when do they think you can move back in?”
“Never,” he said.
That I understood perfectly.
About two weeks later, contractors were hired to re-assemble the interiors of the old brownstone. Willie moved to a nearby hotel with some clothes donated by the neighbors.
Last month I came home to find the landlord outside our apartment, crying. Willie had gone to the hospital the day before, and had died that morning. Complications with his feeding tube. The hole in his tummy had partially healed.
He had starved to death.
Turkey neckbone soup.
I defrosted it in the microwave.
The first bite almost made me gag. More the thought of it than anything… the word “neckbone” caught in a loop in my head.
The second bite was easier.
The third was spicy and rich, almost cajun.
I ate the whole thing.