“Albany!!! You’re kidding, right???”
That’s what friends would say to me (and, if I’m to be a reliable narrator, even strangers) when I’d casually remark that I was moving to Albany. This was then followed by the perceptive, incredulous: “ You mean you’re leaving New York???” Having been born in New York City—and never having resided anywhere else during the past sixty-plus years (except for two years in Puerto Rico, courtesy of the Draft)—I had not realized that such a move might be fraught with peril, like being excommunicated by The Church or Shunned within the community. This was brought home to me on a more intimate level on a sweltering August afternoon three years ago as I sat with a writer- friend on a pier in Greenpoint, Brooklyn-- our feet dangling over the East River, the Isle of Manhattan just across the water, shimmering in the heated air like a chimera: the Holy Grail, the Temple Mount, the Fountain of Youth. My friend—let’s call him ‘S’—who was then living in Stuyvesant Town, a complex of 12-story apartment buildings lining the shore on the Manhattan side, turned a furrowed brow to me at his side, and said: “”Why??. You can’t be serious? Albany??”
In response, I muttered the usual clichés: the streets, the trains too crowded (although I drove everywhere); everything’s too expensive (although I had a decent pension as a retiree from the NYPD, and made good money as a lawyer for the Legal Aid Society); and old people (except the rich) are prey on the streets of the City. Some truth to that last one (although the only time I was mugged was in Night Court while standing in front of a Criminal Court Judge when my client clocked me). And I must admit that residing in the co-op apartment Rose and I owned in a nice pre-War Art-Deco building in toney Jackson Heights, Queens, had some drawbacks. It wasn’t like being a renter, which is what me and mine had been all our lives. There were eighty other apartments in that building, all occupied, most by owners with whom my financial future was entangled—that is, if any defaulted on their mortgage or stopped paying their ‘maintenance’ assessment (as high as $1,100 monthly in desirable Jackson Heights), we would all be up shit’s creek, on the hook for the shortfall in the form of ‘special assessments’. Noisy, party-giving, musical instrument-playing neighbors could be a curse, but we were fortunate. A young couple with a baby and a big, gentle Siamese pussycat lived to our right (more about Sammy the Cat later); to our left, an elderly Chinese couple who spoke no English but whose undying gratitude we earned when I climbed agilely out my window onto their fire-escape and through their window to let them in when they’d locked themselves out. They periodically visited China, and always brought back a box of special pastries for us (execrable stuff, but I consumed them, as I remember).
I remember the old man vividly. He’d been stricken with ‘Lou Gehrig’s disease’ (ALS), which progressed rapidly. Day after day I’d see him walking around the block, and as the disease spread he would fall, topple like a felled tree to the sidewalk. He’d accept help getting to his feet, then shrug off the helping hands with a wordless, fixed smile, and continue his journey. After awhile, he did his laps on the vast, marble-floored lobby of our building on the arm of his wife, she nodding with equally fixed smile to the neighbors they encountered. Then one day they were gone, gone back to China we heard.
(Next, Inside the Mind of an Ex-Pat)...