He wears a hat. Always a hat. Usually something athletic—baseball cap, generic tuque, you get the idea. And, as I learned yesterday down in the laundry room, he sports several tattoos. Before, he would always push a stroller around. A tough guy with a soft heart.
I’m not sure how we became friendly. Usually I keep neighbors at flagpole’s length…not because I’m antisocial or anything; I generally like people in the casual sense. Nothing makes me happier than carrying a visitor’s bag down the stairs at Penn Station or exchanging knowing smiles with MTA riders when a wild-eyed man starts urinating or preaching his gospel. But neighborly amity requires sustained obligations, attention to detail, sometimes even courtship. A joke with the random fella on the street puts a smile on my face. Not so with an emotionally needy neighbor demanding daily greetings and pleasantries.
But even apartment curmudgeons can be turned on occasion. Trying to think of how we “met” is like trying to remember your first thought as a child. You recall notable moments, but there’s no starting point. There is no Big Bang. If pressed, I would point to the time last year when I was briefly unemployed and lingeringly despondent. I went outside to move my car from one cleaning zone to another. He was rolling the baby carriage back and forth, lulling his son to sleep.
“I almost didn’t recognize you with that thing,” he smirked, tracing his finger across his upper lip. Why would he? I’d just shaved off my beard leaving only an AMBER alert-triggering pornstache in place. In recent years, at times of personal crisis, I’ve begun to add or subtract facial hair in hopeful anticipation of more substantive change. The stache lasted no more than a week, having sufficiently disturbed friends, family, and total strangers.
Or maybe it was the time I’d jogged back from the gym, encountering him and his older kid in the elevator. He greeted me with a “Fitness Hello,” a jokey relic from Soviet times. “See,” he pointed in the direction of my sweat-drenched muscle shirt, “Uncle came from the gym.” High on endorphin, I smiled and nodded, winking at the boy like the Marlboro Man from his billboard ad.
So accustomed had I become to our customary half-smile and nod that this had become the most rewarding relationship I’ve had in my building. It was comfortable, it was easy, it made no demands, established no expectations. For all I knew he’d sneak out to rig back alley cockfights in between fathering and grocery shopping. For all he knew, all that sweat was earned getting chased by homeowners after burglaries. We didn’t care. We were two men with two lives and that look said everything we needed to say.
Until last night. It was laundry time for both of us–me with my decade-old green bag bearing weeks’ worth of worn clothes and he with his black garbage bag with assorted baby stuff. I’d had a couple of drinks and wasn’t really ready for a conversation. But in close quarters, finally brought together by the common mandate of a mundane task, we couldn’t just nod and salute each other as we stuffed our loads into the centrifuge. The relationship had to grow.
We spoke of faulty laundry machines, useless supers, and stupid neighbors. He offered most of the judgments as I nodded my head. Soon I learned that my building friend was one of those strong-headed Russian types used to offering expert opinions on most matters. Loading my colors to the brim, I tangoed with the card reader until it stopped displaying an error message. My sacrifice of a super-wash cycle did not go unnoticed by my buddy. “Without super-wash, it comes out dirty,” he offered. I agreed but shrugged innocently, happy just to get the cycle going. We parted ways again, our respective attire safely in the hands of laundry automatons.
Somewhat embarrassed by this extended interaction, I tried to time my return to the laundry room during the 10-minute window afforded by his super-wash add-on. But my sluggish separation of heavy and light fabrics and careful deliberation on the dryer-friendliness of never-before-dried articles forced an inevitable reunion with my nameless compatriot. I winced and turned my back, hoping he wouldn’t reengage. He had other plans.
“What do you do?” My least favorite question.
“Work in an office for someone?”
I nodded. When I explained what my non-profit does he seemed to understand, or pretended to fast-track the small talk. Out of politeness, I asked him what he does. Something about a business…and investment banking during the day at HSBC…lawyer by training, in Russia. My friend proceeded to detail various schemes by moneyed Russians and Chinese to wash their cash through his bank and how his initiatives foiled them every time. I tuned out for a bit.
“…so I told my boss, I told him, that’s the only way to deal with Russians…make them answer with their money.”
He chucked his load in the dryer without my meticulous dryer analysis and left me to my task. “Send some clients my way,” he smirked, walking out.
I sighed and thought of all our anonymous highlights: the elevator, the baby walking, the ironic mustache. We still didn’t know each other’s names but everything would be different now. Now I knew this guy. Now he knew me. The mystery was gone.