Matador Review

A Quarterly Missive of Alternative Concern

ARLENE SCHULMAN


"The Sewing Lesson"


            Things, you know, just things, from arguments to pots of noodles sometimes come to a rolling boil among my Manhattan neighbors in my own almost century-old apartment building sitting solidly north of the George Washington Bridge and just before the hills of Riverdale in the Bronx, with its mixture of random and eccentric folks living next door, above and below, and across from one another. We're a resilient collection of public school teachers and office workers who follow the same routine year after year, plus one police officer I've never met, a firefighter who quickly climbs stairs as if he smells smoke, a retired security guard living below me who yells obscenities at his television and at mine, a heavily mascaraed woman who sells clothes from her apartment and who sashays into the elevator under a hurricane of perfume and makeup,  a gray haired older man with a gray mustache who administers EKGs from a gray suitcase, some I haven't figured out yet and some I'm not sure I want to, including a married couple who argue loudly in the hallway, and an astrologer who happens to live next door to me and who has never been able to predict my comings and goings.

            We are white, Dominican, African-American, Jewish, Polish, Midwestern, from New Jersey and the other three boroughs. No one here is from Staten Island. We complain and gripe and commiserate because this is what New Yorkers do. Our menu of complaints begin and end with that damn barking dog in the alleyway, dirty hallways that haven't been washed in weeks, missing mail and missing packages, an elevator that misses floors, and why isn't the super at home at noon when there's no hot water? Neighbors in our part of town complain about birds chirping too loudly but they can't be heard from my apartment windows so I can't complain.

            But one cold and wintry morning when a light drizzle of rain began to caramelize on the front steps of our building, a bunch of stragglers sat in the lobby, abandoned and simmering side by side on a brown metal radiator cover where some of us lie in wait for our mail carrier. They rested quietly, waiting with a dollop of expectancy and rinsed clean of any obvious flaws.

            While they seemed to have a handle on their fate, most were taken in by one neighbor in our haute six-story apartment house, a woman with tortoise shell eyeglasses who captured them in the nick of time and before they could be considered officially abandoned.

            When I found these pots and pans downstairs, I knew it was true. After so many months of plotting about relocating to South America, Gregg and Bob were moving out of their fourth floor apartment where they had lived for almost a decade.


After so many months of plotting about relocating to South America, Gregg and Bob were moving out of their fourth floor apartment where they had lived for almost a decade.


            These two were a couple in contrasts and only they know the threads that keep them together. Even the astrologer couldn't decipher them. It was only later, when part of Gregg's coarse shingle of simmering anger was peeled away, that I discovered I could forgive him for his conspiracy theories. Bob was the one who let us in.

            Bob was an Italian from Brooklyn with salt and pepper hair and wire rimmed glasses who wore a uniform of loafers, denim jeans, and colorful buttoned down shirts which were easy to spot spinning around in the dryers of our laundry room. He had majored in fashion design at the Fashion Institute of Technology, knew his way around any sewing machine, and was, even to the most casual observer, obsessively compulsive.  Every stray Kleenex and discarded candy wrapper was picked up in the elevator, lobby, and off of the sidewalk. He tidied up the ledge where stray mail was tossed and organized these envelopes into size order.  Stray pebbles of detergent were wiped down from washing machines and lint was carefully picked from the dryers. We knew when he was around—and when he wasn't. Bob would take the tip of his cotton hanky and wipe smudges from the lobby windows; he adjusted newspapers after their delivery so that they sat in the lobby's vestibule in alphabetical order; he straightened out everything hanging in my home, including my hair. While in mid-sentence, Bob's eyes would wander toward a framed vintage print of a farmer and his wife hanging behind my head and interrupt himself—"I can't stand this any longer this is crooked." He would straighten it with his thumb and forefinger, tilting it ever so gently to put the universe back in order.

            Gregg wasn't the type to notice these things, or didn't care. Rarely smiling, dressed in a tan trenchcoat, polished shoes and a neatly knotted tie, he rushed to and from his job teaching English to adults in a midtown trade school, always with a cigarette and three opinions on the same subject. He was once married and had two sons before he met Bob. Firmly built and pockmarked with metal-framed glasses, Gregg wore a forced sort of friendliness, as if he were rushing off to see someone else. Both seemed to have an escape hatch: Bob owned a studio in Forest Hills that he rented out and Gregg owned an apartment with a terrace somewhere in Florida.

            In this city of vertical living and people moving up, out, and on, Gregg and Bob arrived long after elderly twin sisters with a fondness for beige—from their hair, cats eye eyeglass frames, shoes, scarves, and handbags (Bob shuddered at this matchy-matchy business)—roamed the hallways, and at least a decade after the last tin of cat food had been placed by little old ladies who fed local strays on their way to Good Shepherd Church and again after their lunch at the Capital Diner (these women had moved into nursing homes and cemeteries), and long after apartments in my building stored cocaine and guns in the wild days of uptown New York City in the 1980s and '90s.

            I can't remember how Gregg, Bob, and I met but given the nature of apartment living it was likely in one of two places: the laundry room where we all washed but not all dried or the elevator because, living on the top floor, I met everyone on their way up or on their way down as we gripped the sides of an elevator cab shaky enough to stir martinis.

            Their two-bedroom apartment on the fourth floor was an eclectic mix of fortunate finds from the street and heavy dark furniture. It was very much Grey Gardens-like but with more light and no cats or raccoons, a fake fur blanket in the bedroom sewn by Bob and with their small second bedroom converted into an office. It was a miracle that any plants survived since both chain-smoked unfiltered cigarettes. The neighbors above complained bitterly, insisting that clothes hanging in their closets smelled like cigarette smoke and that the stench brought them chest pains.

            "It's my apartment," Gregg said blithely, blowing smoke to the right of me, after I ever not so gently coughed after announcing that I had bronchitis. I wondered what his lungs looked liked, stifling a second cough.

            Their kitchen cabinets sported a lovely gold patina that reminded me of rustic Italian homes and ancient frescos. It turned out to be tobacco smoke.

            Red peppers hung from a wooden cabinet while cans and boxes of spices and accouterments that I couldn't pronounce overflowed from another. A pot or pan was always on the stove, gently stirred or swirled as Gregg held out a communal spoon for a taste of nicely sautéed sausages or stir-fried vegetables. The freezer and refrigerator were as full as mine was empty and they shopped daily for fresh produce in local supermarkets, green markets, and Arthur Avenue in the Bronx. Gregg and Bob dropped off sumptuous homemade desserts to neighbors, occasionally leaving a plastic bag of treats on apartment door handles for them. I missed these because I was rarely home or maybe they had been pilfered. But no one fessed up and I found no crumbs.

            Gregg connected everyone in one giant wheel of conspiracy whose subjects included peppers and how they were raised, our neighbors and how they were raised, the poor who would always be poor, our local elected officials who would always be corrupt, the city government and how corrupt it was, and how poorly the building was run. It was best to let Gregg speak and then gently, or not so gently as if armed with a spear, change the subject. On the subject of his neighbors upstairs, he could be merciless.

            "It's my apartment and I'll do as I please," and he did.

            Gregg and Bob could not tolerate—and in all fairness, many people can't—the stomping outbursts of running feet coming from children living upstairs. If they had to live with these staccato bursts that sounded like hammering over their heads, then the neighbors would have to live with their smoking. Bob, many times over, told me how he confronted the mother of the toddler who lived with her and her parents, a lovely, quiet couple from the Dominican Republic. The wife always offered a shy hello while her more gregarious husband gallantly held the front door open with a flourish as he dragged that gray EKG kit behind him. Bob stomped up the stairs, rang their doorbell, and when the moon faced daughter answered, he practically spit in her face.

            "And I called her a whore for raising a child without a father," he said proudly.

            "And what did she do?" I asked, even though I knew the answer.

            "She slammed the door in my face."

            I would have, too.

            Gregg and Bob complained to the landlord's managing agent for more than a year until he installed a new floor over the old one to block the sound. It was of little help. What the neighbors really could have used was carpeting but ironically, the fibers would have captured the odor of cigarette smoke. The back and forth continued: the neighbors complained bitterly of cigarette smoke and Gregg and Bob lobbed back complaints about the grandson running back and forth above them.

            "How is that going to solve anything?" I asked Bob each time he told me the story.

            "She shouldn't have had any children," he launched back bitterly.

            "The son is autistic," I explained, "so it's a little different because he can't express himself through words."

            A couple of years later, Bob came up to me in the laundry room, triumphant that he had this all figured out.

            "Did you know? The kid downstairs is autistic," he said. "The footsteps aren't all that bad."


***

"My brother has Alzheimer's," he would say each time, "and my father had it, too.  I hope this doesn't happen to me."


            When Bob returned from visiting his brother in Brooklyn, which was a couple of times a month, he packed our elevator with bags of fruits and vegetables.

            "My brother has Alzheimer's," he would say each time, "and my father had it, too.  I hope this doesn't happen to me."


            I hoped it wouldn't, either.

            My favorite story, though, was one Gregg told me with uncharacteristic humor. Traveling to Florida for a few days, he rode out the winds and rains of a hurricane in his/their apartment minus electricity. With no power to recharge his cell phone and wanting to alert Bob that he was fine, he walked around the streets looking for a payphone. Finally, he found one, lying on its side.

            "It had a dial tone," he recounted. "So I lay on the ground next to the phone and called Bob."

            They broke up once and I'm not sure why. I didn't ask. The astrologer told me that Bob, who was 65 and change, had been laid off from his job selling carpets, and unable to find work. So he stayed home and puttered around the house, shopping and cooking and stopping by the local barbershop to exchange gossip and pleasantries. His puttering led him to salacious conversations with other men on their computer. His partner found out and ended the relationship. It was a slow ending, Bob travelling back and forth to his apartment in Queens three times a day carrying suitcases filled with his belongings. Gregg was the stoic one.

            "Well, this is how it is and that's that," he said firmly, meaning there was to be no discussion. And then suddenly, there was Bob in the elevator again and they both seemed happier. The building resumed its pattern of cleanliness. They spoke about moving to Uruguay, where same sex marriage, marijuana, and abortion are legal and where the president drives his own car. It just seemed so—far away and well, who moves to Uruguay?

            So while they contemplated moving, I contemplated sewing a blouse from scratch. If I were better at it, you would say it's an inherited gene. Auntie Esther, a great-aunt on my mother's side, sewed piecework in sweatshops in midtown's Garment District after she and the rest of the Greek Jews moved to the Kingsbridge section of the Bronx in the 1940s. She had an old cranky Singer machine and when she was in her eighties and housebound after falling and breaking her hip, I had a revelation. Maybe she could sew a blouse for me! Cotton material in hand, we cut a pattern together but by this time her glasses and vision were both foggy. Stitches were clumsy and uneven and we both grew frustrated when the neckline of the blouse plunged where it shouldn't. We didn't have to say anything. She returned to watching reruns of Gunsmoke on her old color TV with rabbit ears, with the sound turned up so loudly you'd think there was a shootout in the lobby of her building.

            My mother sewed our kitchen curtains when we lived in Brooklyn, cheery cotton curtain fashioned from flowery Vera fabric. And I sewed in high school, making cotton flowery jumpers from Simplicity sewing patterns. By this time, we had moved to Long Island and we were miles from shopping, museums, and just about everything else. I spent many hours sewing these jumpers, including one made of blue calico flowers with wavy seams and balls of stray threads underneath, as if a herd of cats had discovered a new hobby. No photos were ever taken of me in these custom made outfits and your guess is as good as mine as to which landfill they're decomposing in.

            A few years ago, owning my own sewing machine seemed like a great idea. My mother's green Sears sewing machine had long been donated to the Salvation Army and Auntie Esther's vintage and unruly machine was donated, along with a plaque commemorating its owner, to Kehila Kedosha Janina, a synagogue on Broome Street that my aunt's family helped found in the early 1900s. My purchase, a mid-priced plastic one from Singer, came in a cardboard box. I ordered expensive white cotton fabric illustrated with the outline of dogs from a store located in Sweden.

            I knocked on Bob's door.

            "Hey, can you help me?"  I asked. "I'd like to sew a blouse but I don't know the first thing about how to begin."

            Bob grabbed his keys and came right upstairs. He oohed and aahed and sorted out patterns and pins.

            "First, you must wash and iron the fabric," he instructed.

            Done.

            He came up again for our second lesson, demonstrating how to thread the machine, including the bobbin; how to replace the sewing machine needles; how to adjust stitches and work a hem; that basting was not just for turkeys; how to draw my own pattern; and measuring and adding interfacing. It was a masterclass tutorial. Seam allowance, stitch, trim, baste, and dart expanded my vocabulary. Bob's glasses perched on top of his head while an array of colorful pins stuck out of his mouth.

            I lay on my wooden living room floor staring at the ceiling as he measured the pattern around me. A younger version of Bob had returned, the 20-something student who learned to sew on his mother's sewing machine and he was lost in the whirl of the machine and scissors and thread.


I lay on my wooden living room floor staring at the ceiling as he measured the pattern around me.


            We walked around the neighborhood one Sunday, when weekends are awash with peddlers selling their wares on 207th Street from blankets as if we lived in Algiers.

            "You know, I bought a machine from one of these guys for $15," he said.

            "How would you know that it worked?"

            "Because. I know sewing machines. All it needed was a needle. But someone didn't want to be bothered."

            I still tell that story to people who wonder how safe this outdoor merchandise is.

            "Well, my neighbor…" I begin.

            Bob was in and out of my apartment, cutting, sewing, and fitting the dog blouse.

            "This is how you cut the material," he would say. "Slowly, slowly."

            The blouse was finally done and Bob smoothed it over my waist and hips.

            "Looks great. When are you going to wear it?"

            The pattern of dogs sketched in black on white cotton fabric had looked so charming on curtains and a chair on the fabric shop's website.

            "Maybe when the weather gets warmer," I said, putting it back in my closet.

            The sewing lessons ended.

            Bob and I didn't see each other as often and when we did, like two old lovers avoiding the subject, we spoke about the weather, moving to Uruguay, Alzheimer's, and cooking. About a year later, I decided to make another blouse. Bob came right up upstairs again.

            The farmer and his wife were crooked again. He didn't adjust the frame. Or my hair.

            Bob looked thinner, his leather belt cinched so tightly around his waist so that it almost stretched to his back. His breath smelled as if he were decaying from the inside out.

            The sewing machine sat on my desk, waiting for the hands of this master tailor.

            "How do you thread it?" he asked, looking puzzled.

            I pulled out the bobbin and the thread and made a halfhearted attempt to teach the sewing lesson. And then I stopped because he couldn't thread the machine or even find the start button.


I pulled out the bobbin and the thread and made a halfhearted attempt to teach the sewing lesson. And then I stopped because he couldn't thread the machine or even find the start button.


            "You know. This isn't a good time," I lamely offered. "I've got to get to work so let's save this for another time."

            When I saw him again, Bob sat on the bench in our laundry room, staring at someone else's spinning laundry.

            "Is that my laundry in the dryer?" he asked.

            I peeked into the dryer window, just as another neighbor walked in to pick up her load of dingy white towels.

            "Oh!" he jumped up. " I guess this isn't mine."

            A few weeks later, my doorbell rang. It was Bob.

            "Oh, I didn't realize that this is your apartment," he said, looking confused.

            What he had dreaded most had crept up on him. He announced that he was taking medication to help forestall the loss of his memory. Sometimes I wondered if he remembered to take it.

            The elevator door opened on the fourth floor as I traveled downstairs.

            "Don't tell anyone," Bob said in a conspiratorial whisper. "But we're moving to Uruguay. It's important that no one knows."

            We all knew. He had forgotten that he told all of us. No one really believed it would happen, even after they started giving away furniture to Gregg's recently married son. We never saw a moving van and there was no going-away party and no knock at the door to say goodbye.

            Gregg deposited 12 pairs of his finely polished dress shoes on the lobby radiator, which Bob arranged by color and style. Their Anolon pots and pans and covers replaced the shoes after neighbors, presumably with the same size feet, grabbed them. I rode down in the elevator and there they were, three tall piles of expensive pots and pans, cleaned and polished. Bob exited from the elevator as I struggled to carry them up.

            "Oh, great. You've got them," he said, taking a tier of pots from my hands. "What apartment are you in again?"

            Then he looked at me. He couldn't remember my name.

            Since Gregg and Bob moved away, the building looks shabbier. They've been gone since the fall of last year and I still look for them in the elevator, in the lobby, and in front of the building planting bright flowers in now empty tree pits.

            The astrologer next door wonders if we will ever see them again. In this circular life of our city, we've got a new elevator and mail carrier, and new neighbors, including one who walks a hobbling hound dog with bad breath. Trash blows all over the courtyard. Sometimes I pick up the stray tissues and candy wrappers and arrange the mail. The temperature is warmer and I wear the dog blouse. My grilled Swiss cheese with scallions on rye tastes better in my new/old frying pan. My sewing machine is back in the closet. My hair is a little messier.

            But I don't think we'll see them ever again.

*Names have been changed.


Arlene Schulman is a writer, photographer, and filmmaker living in New York City whose work focuses on the people of the city. Her writing can be found on ArlenesScratchPaper.com and her short documentary films at ArleneSchulman123 on YouTube. Her Instagram account is arlenesbodega. She hates peas and lima beans.