THE HIGH SIGN
I am standing on my roof, next to a couch, when a motorcyclist passes by. It is 7:42 p.m. Another day, at 6:38 a.m., I hear him flying up a street two blocks north of me. It sounds like he is driving right across the park at 4:02 a.m. Sometimes I hear him at 1:30 a.m. Last night, I heard the motorcycle for three hours straight, circling my block, like it was on a racetrack. Maybe these are all just echoes. It can sound so far away at times, too, that he may not even be from Brooklyn.
It is the beginning of November. I am not sure how I am going to enjoy this month. It will be getting very cold. My neighbors are quiet except for the one next door. She screams at her cat all day. Sometimes she is quiet on the weekend. If she isn't, I can walk to the park. I can go to a couple coffee shops. I can ride my bike.
The only people I see from my window are a young couple who live on their fourth floor, and who cook in a kitchen much nicer than mine. I have not seen them have people over yet, though, which is strange since they are young, but I look forward to seeing the kind of company they keep. Even if they have friends over for a movie, that would still be nice.
I wake up early, eat cereal, and sometimes go outside to buy a cup of coffee. If I do, I go to the bakery across the street. If it is the weekend, I might also buy a bagel, or a chocolate Danish. This morning I spilled coffee all over the register, though, so I will not be going back for a few weeks.
A storm is coming, and there are less people on the street. They have all gone home or found better things to do indoors. There is a heavy smell of smoke in the air.
A short gust of wind, then calm, then rain. My neighbor in the room next door goes to her door, and begins stamping her feet, and, I think, whispering.
To get to the train from my apartment I go down my narrow staircase. The staircase is too narrow.
Outside, I have to make a right and walk two blocks north. The rows of buildings on either side of me are quiet. A large amount is under construction. At certain early hours, workers are coming and going with big pipes, and wood, and some of them are already laughing with each other.
The different groups of people here: those who have recently moved here, who seem confused and idle; students, who are generally thin, pale, and polite; the people who have raised families here, many are from Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, maybe El Salvador. Of these, some do not speak English, but they are harder to discover. There are also many children here. Many of them push their own strollers.
I went to a sandwich shop today and ate lunch. They did not serve breakfast. Then I did some shopping. At the register, I heard someone say, “That’s a lot of eggs!” Whenever I go into the drug store it seems that everyone is buying hand lotion and tissues, like me.
Fog comes in at night, I hear ambulance sirens, now and then cars honk. The people on the street hunch like old folks, or crooks.
The noises here at different times of the day: At 5:45 a.m., there is general hum outside that continues until 7:30 a.m. Then there is some light music coming from first-floor windows, constant, shrill strumming and singing that I do not understand, as well as the sound of loud buses, voices on the phone, the occasional store owner sweeping a sidewalk, or throwing garbage bags on it, trucks hissing or honking, people calling out to each other, yelling and laughing, and all of this continues more or less the same way, through the day and the evening, until around 8:30 p.m.
For two days I looked out my window. On one day, I did not speak to anyone, except to ask for a notary at the bank, and to recite the label on a can of beans in the grocery store.
The walls in my apartment are thin, and the distance between my neighbor and me is small. When the storm began today I heard my neighbor dragging furniture and slamming the door shut, which shook my apartment each time, screaming for a while, and walking into different rooms. She must not know I can hear her. When she arrives home, first I hear her gasping for air, and then she smacks her lips, which she does to call for her cat. Then there is silence—the cat may be on the roof or eating something it found. At night, I can hear it scratch against my bedroom wall.
My neighbor is a friendly woman, middle aged, with a mother and son who live with her. I found this out my second afternoon here. A very old lady climbed the stairs, moaning on each step while her grandson hurried her from the top. The son and mother rarely speak in the apartment, especially if the television is running, which plays the news: an anchor says words in a very serious way.
Sometimes there are loud, quick knocks at my door. My neighbor asks me if my apartment has running gas, and if she can use my oven to bake a meal. Whenever this happens I stand very still and pretend no one is home, or if I open the door I tell her that I already have a roast in the oven. And yet I see garbage bags left outside her door sometimes, with empty meat trays inside them. Yesterday she tried selling me her television in front of her son, I think to punish him.
The apartment units of this building begin on the second floor and there are six in all. The people on the second floor are students, who smoke inside their apartment, every day, and strum electric guitars. In the other apartment, there is a man who does not look at me when I say hello, every weekday morning, and is usually alongside his small dog, which is always shivering, or licking its nose. All of the tenants on the third floor are quiet and sober, and I rarely notice them entering and leaving. I call my room my apartment, even though it is just a room.
I was wrong about my next-door neighbor. She is not a friendly woman. She is barely respectful. She sold me a metro card with no money on it, and leaves the roof entrance door open at all hours so her cat can wander in and out. This morning, I opened my door and the cat ran right inside. I didn’t know what I could do, other than to grab it and carry it out myself. Instead I waited in my doorway, panicking over the idea that this cat may never leave my apartment, and that I would have to start taking care of it. I watched the cat sniff my kitchen cabinets for three minutes. “He’s looking for mice,” my neighbor said, laughing. I don’t remember how or when she appeared, but one second her head is poking into my apartment, then the next thing she is walking inside my kitchen, still in her nightgown, and taking her cat away.
I was also wrong about the television, which is not watched by the grandmother and son but by my neighbors on the third floor.
I walked into the laundromat across the street, past a massage chair at the entrance, toward the far end of the store, where people were tossing big bags of clothes onto a rack and tagging them. When I left it was raining, lightly, and the streets, which were busy when I first walked out, were now looking empty, and there was, again, a strong smell of smoke in the air. It reminded me that I should never hang my clothes outside to dry, or grow plants, because they will only get dirty or attract bugs.
The shelf I am building is taking shape now. As time passes here, time is passing in the challenges of a slapdash carpenter. I look up and read descriptions on how to properly drive a screw into drywall; the shelf is getting there, I am buying all the correct items to mount it, and the days pass. I am getting the feeling that once I put this shelf on my wall I will feel very proud, more than I would if I made a healthy dinner. This morning, for example, I only drank two glasses of milk and measured where the studs should stand behind the wall. I lost track of time. This afternoon, I marked exactly where I would mount the shelf. I am worried that the studs might be aluminum.
Sometimes I can see a few buildings that I do not recognize. But the view itself, which never changes, has become boring. The streets, too, filled with people, always seem the same. I feel like I am beginning to see the same people, even, every day. It is almost a nervous feeling—although nervous isn’t the right word. Suspicious, but that might also be too strong. This may all be because I am still unfamiliar with many street names.
Yesterday I walked a little way out of my neighborhood, far enough that it started to feel new. I walked down a street filled with factories that were open, covered with graffiti or scrub brush, with fences, rusted and bent, and then a row of meat trucks parked behind piles of spare tires. I have never actually seen a factory in use.
The park is a large established area in my neighborhood almost the measure of two avenue blocks in length. I looked up the history of the park. It was constructed in 1896. I usually avoid walking through it during the night, but sometimes, when I am in a hurry, I do. The last time I did a man rolled off a bench, tired, and the other night I saw a man and woman yelling, but then two joggers passed by and suddenly the argument did not seem as serious as I first thought. The park is not too large, you will always be in view of the street and cars. The surrounding trees are far apart and thin.
I am thinking about a strange series of events. On the day of the storm somebody spilled their trash at the entrance of my building, which was a mixture of pet hair, potato peelings, and paper, but, in that combination, looked like something else entirely. For two days it stayed there, getting moved around slightly, and pushed against the wall. Then most of it disappeared. Today I was coming down the stairwell and saw my next-door neighbor throwing the remaining contents into a bag, methodically breaking larger clumps of it into smaller pieces. Some of the paper was left over, but the rest of it she took away in her bag, upstairs, into her apartment.
The mailboxes in my building have their own personalities: the ones that have names; if they have been written over with ink or pencil; if there is any mark at all. Mine is at the center of the whole group. It’s much cleaner, too, and I managed to fit my first and last, when others had to abbreviate one or the other. A person named “T.Q. Rundt” used to live in my apartment.
I have been seeing more of the young couple. It is relaxing to me before I go to bed to look outside, and see their lights on; they are usually staying up past me, talking on the couch or watering a row of plants along their window. I do this until I decide to read a book.
When I make a little progress in a book I am glad to leave it for a few days at a time and just think about it. Right now I am reading about a man who for ten years followed red-tail hawks around Staten Island. I had no idea red-tail hawks were in Staten Island. The book is dense with different descriptions of the same landscape. I am trying to make sense of the whole thing, it is demanding. I have noticed that it is taking me an unusually long time to read this book and every time I try to remember something about it everything else feels out of order.
I will play music while I read but sometimes it distracts me. I try to line up what I am reading with a song, and I will pause for almost any length of time if I think I could imagine a scene to the appropriate section of a song, and sometimes I impress myself. Today it felt like I had directed a strange concerto in my head, which felt abstract and unreal, so much that I had to rewind the music and re-read the passage.
At the end of my corner tonight, two men were yelling at each other over a woman. One said to the other that he would slap him over and over until he could stop thinking about her. Across the corner, a woman, maybe the woman, yelled and cursed at both men, and then she walked in the opposite direction, still yelling, but this time at everyone around her—even the people in their houses, looking out their windows, not bothering anybody. What did I do?
From my roof, around 9:28 p.m., I look west at this tall church and, on its steeples, see a faint light casting shadows against the facade, making it look more like a castle, or an even older church.
Later in the night two or three people will sleep against the doors after burning something between their feet. There is no doubt in my mind something supernatural is afoot.
Just near the rooftop door is a bike, my bike, locked against the fourth floor bannister, because there is not enough room to keep it inside with me, which would be more reassuring, since I now have to check the bike every so often. Someone has been letting the air out of both tires.
The shelf project has not made progress. To make matters worse, I have to focus on my heating system, which stopped working overnight. I spoke with the superintendent, a woman with white hair, who nodded and agreed that it was a terrible time for something like this to happen, in November, and then nodded again and said that she did not have the tools to fix it, and that she would have to hire a real repairman. This worries me only a little, since I don’t think she wrote down my name or knows my phone number, or even my apartment number—all essential information to confirm an appointment.
Yesterday I took a walk after it snowed and saw: two small adults, maybe children, racing alongside each other with hoods over their heads, laughing, one of them hitting a piece of wood against parked cars; an old man pushing trash off the sidewalk with a cane; a mattress, couch, and two chairs all wrapped in plastic on a curb, with a sign that read “Do Not Take”; a stop light that lasted for nearly 200 seconds; a woman carrying heavy grocery bags; a fire hydrant, with car parked in front of it, and a policeman writing a ticket in front of that car; a large hair salon that was closed, its windows covered, with a paper taped to its door explaining unfortunate news, though I now forget what the details were; my next-door neighbor, who did not recognize me, even after I waved; a street called Locust Street.
Last Friday was the last time I went to a grocery store. I was paying for my bay leaves when the cashier walked into a back room and never returned. There was no sound coming from the room, and I could not see him. After ten minutes of waiting, I changed my mind about buying the bay leaves so I left them on the counter and walked outside. All of this I did loudly, hoping the cashier would hear me, wherever he was, and maybe call after me.
When I was outside I waited for a few more minutes to see if the cashier would come out, full of supplies, or with an absent-minded look across his face, but he never did. There was no one else inside the store. Then, without any sort of warning, all of the lights turned off, including the sign outside. The whole place became dark. Above the store, after this happened, I watched a man draw his blinds, slowly, like he was expecting all of this.
Later, on the street, I was thinking I should have called someone, since I could not make heads or tails of the events by myself. It was late out. Two men dressed in suits walked quickly past me, speaking quietly, no doubt discussing the sidewalk. They fell silent as they passed me. I had been smiling, accidentally, at them.
Recent dreams with bikes: I was about to take my bike to the library when a large bug, some kind of beetle, it was wet and hairy, blocked the stairwell and wheezed. Other bugs appeared, smaller ones, around the big beetle, and began falling down the stairwell. I knocked on my next-door neighbor’s door to tell her about the beetle—and the little ones, I think. This whole thing took place in my building’s stairwell.
On another night, I was searching for my bike in a parking lot. It was small, with languid people leaning against their cars. What sounded like a broken air conditioner pumping air was actually my bike. It had been fitted with a motor.
Yesterday I talked to my next-door neighbor at my door. She asked about using my oven again. Her cat appeared and hissed at me, but she refused to notice it. I stood there looking slightly shocked in front of my neighbor, who kept adjusting her pajamas every few seconds.
I have a long conversation with my superintendent with my door open. My heat has not been fixed, and there is a new smell in my air vent that I can’t place. Then a short, clean-shaven man comes in to look at the heating system, smelling like soap. His hair was still wet; he might have just showered.
Then the cat, which has been sitting in the stairwell the whole time, leaps into my apartment and scratches the superintendent’s pants. The cat looks at me as if I did it.
Last night, after midnight, walking to my kitchen near the refrigerator, I stepped on something that quickly scurried and disappeared. My window was open and my trash bag lay torn across the floor, wet. I bent down to examine it: it smelled like the smell in my air vent. As I looked at it on the floor, two swift scratching noises came from my wall, then stopped, and right when that finished someone began knocking on my door, and at the same time some man started laughing and smacking his hands from outside my window, and then a car honked for a long time. He must have been standing in the middle of the street, obstructing traffic.
Tonight I heard footsteps on the other side of my wall, which were slow and delicate, and they continued so delicately that they could not have been footsteps: I do not know what they were. There was also heavy rain outside. Then, among the slow and delicate footsteps, I heard someone actually enter the apartment, and their footsteps were much louder, and then the other footsteps stopped.
Yesterday was warm: I rode my bike across the bridge and on my way back I took photos of a man sleeping on a river-facing bench. He had about four or five coats thrown over him, by other people playing a joke, I think. It didn’t seem like the coats belonged to him. I took a picture of one of the coats, a large windbreaker, that covered his whole body—only small tufts of his hair were showing from his head. Everything else was covered.
Not far away, two old men were fishing off the pier, which I didn't know was allowed, and pulling up live eels that flapped, quickly, unhooking them into a paper bag where they convulsed so violently that the bag kept tearing and breaking until they were put in a nylon backpack.
At the same time, a businessman was walking his dog. The dog kept sitting on the ground and refusing to walk, until finally it was dragged.
The man underneath the coats had woken up and started yelling at me. He was yelling so loud, at one point, that spit flew from his mouth. A group of people were watching this carefully, too. They were taking photos of the man yelling at me like this was common, or artistic. If someone had asked the man to stop, he would glance over at them, with a neutral expression on his face, and continue yelling, and he would get louder.
I went to speak to my next-door neighbor about the garbage bags outside her door. We stood in the stairwell, her cat was behind me, and she kept apologizing and speaking to her cat. Then her son appeared and began dragging the garbage bags inside the apartment, then she stopped talking altogether. The conversation died completely and nearly everything was silent except for the sound of her son dragging the bags, and he pulled them very slowly, back into their apartment. This whole situation lasted about six minutes, I don’t remember how we said goodbye.
My web browsing history today: movies containing the phrase “Hatching Egg” in their title; how to pronounce Suydam Street; tomorrow's weather; the name of a florist I met on a train, who asked me in a casual, impersonal tone if I had any money. He wore a handkerchief around his forehead and larger jeans with many things in his pockets. He sat next to me, his breath smelled when he told me his name, which began with a “juh” sound, and that he used to run a flower shop before it burned down. I didn't ask him about any of this, he told me out of the blue, and everyone else on the train was looking at us as if we were old friends. They all had their noses tucked behind their scarves
"Everybody's got a story!" he said to me.
I felt like I was included in "everybody," though he was looking away from me when he said this. I listened to him talk about his flower shop for a few more minutes. He kept mentioning that he always displayed stuffed animals around the shop, which I thought was an odd detail to repeat as often as he did. I didn’t even know him.
A repairman came to my apartment yesterday to fix the heat. He’d been working for fifty-six years, he told me, but he looked much younger than that. He knelt down, began fumbling inside the utility closet, where I store extra toilet paper, and kept saying, “These days, there isn’t much to do but flip a switch, or press a button, and everything comes down to mathematics.”
He looked inside my air vent that pumped a foul odor, which he said was not healthy, and I agreed, even though I never thought of smells in terms of my health. He stuck his arm inside the vent, directing a flashlight that he held in his mouth, and after some light grunting he took off his gloves and said it smelled like a mouse. With a grave face, he explained to me how mice navigate vents and walls, and pipes, threatening one another over scraps. After he left I opened the vent again and reached further inside with a straightened wire hanger. I drew from it a lump of wet hair, some of which fell on my floor. This was at dusk, and as the sky darkened, my apartment got warmer, and my lights became brighter, and the young couple next door watched a movie, sitting carefully at one end of their couch. The man, who has started growing a beard, wearing shorts and a t-shirt, watched in relative silence, rubbing his honey’s shoulder, squeezing her closer toward him, scratching her head. The television flashed; I assumed the volume was loud, too.
On another night it was later. It felt like I was the only one watching. She was yelling and he stood over her in the dark of their bedside, and something was about to happen. The lights of a police cruiser flashed and reflected against both our windows. He walked closer to his, noticing me at mine, as a policeman next to his cruiser parked below us shined flashlights into the dollar store. I looked at my neighbor and gave him the high sign.
Less people are around as the air gets colder and colder. It’s the last day of November and there will be more snow tomorrow, I hear.