After my suburban childhood, dense city neighborhoods seemed magical. On a summer’s day, with every window open, the barrier between indoors and out seemed barely to exist. I could hear people talking as they passed on the sidewalk below, or called to each other in the house across the alley. I could hear their children playing in the alleys and tiny yards.
On a quiet morning, it didn’t seem possible that dozens, even hundreds of people lived within a hundred yards of my apartment. I took to walking down the packed streets canyoned with triple-decker houses on both sides. One summer’s day, I had wandered halfway down a long block when I suddenly realized that parked on practically every porch, gazing impassively at me, was an elderly lady in a housecoat. I was too self-conscious to smile and take a bow, but that’s what I should have done. Probably they would not have smiled back, but you never know.
I didn’t live in either of these:
Or any of these:
These buildings look prosperous – monumental, even. It’s hard to believe they were built as tenements and not as the cherished homes of hipsters, the professoriate, and ambitious technologists. The ones I knew, in Dorchester, Somerville, and Medford – places that had not yet been gentrified — were already almost 100 years old. In addition, the buildings I lived in had only small porches, instead of these impressive, airy tiers. Altogether, my neighborhoods looked sturdy and worn, a bit beat-up. Sturdy, tired, and likely to stand for another 100 years.
Soon after my 35th birthday, I moved into the top floor of a triple-decker. My intended roommate had bailed on me, so I moved in alone. I’d never lived on a top floor before, and thought nothing of it when I signed the lease. The stairs were not a problem; I’d trudge up them now, but in those years they posed no difficulty.
After an exhausting moving day, I unpacked the bare minimum, threaded my way through stacks of boxes, and collapsed into bed. I woke up when I heard someone walking purposefully through the apartment. It was a man, I had no doubt, and he walked as if he owned the place.
Every footfall had a bright distinctiveness that was more real than reality, and his steps seemed vividly close. I was terrified as I heard them calmly, relentlessly approaching my bedroom door.
I thought of screaming, but I didn’t. I think I was too terrified to scream. I couldn’t call for help; the only telephone was in the kitchen, and telephone service had not yet been activated. Cell phones had not yet been invented.
I grabbed the lamp I had unpacked, and stood poised beside my bedroom door. I listened for the final steps, but they never came. They fell silent.
I waited and waited. Surely I would hear him breathing, or shifting his weight. He would cough, or sigh. Something would give him away. But for long minutes there was nothing.
Finally I flung open my bedroom door and stared into hallway. Through the streetlight streaming through the windows I could see that no one was there.
I stood motionless for another ten minutes to hear if he had only slipped around the corner. Finally I knew I was alone. I turned on every light, examined every inch of the apartment, tested the doors and windows and locks. No one had ever been in that apartment with me. No one physically real.
I’ve never been more afraid in my life. If I’d had a cell phone, I would have called the police. I think. But maybe I knew that, really, no one was there. Just as I didn’t scream, maybe I wouldn’t have called.
He never came again, and no roommate ever mentioned any experience remotely like mine.
Not long after this happened, I told a friend.
“He was checking you out,” she said, “and letting you know whose place it is.”
Several years later, I was unexpectedly at home on a weekday. It was midmorning, and I was sitting at the kitchen table. Someone athletic and light of foot ran up the back stairs and paused on the other side of the back door. I jumped up, scraping the chair across the floor, and the intruder scampered down the stairs as quickly as he had come. I told the landlord, who repaired the lock at the bottom of the stairs.
Those footsteps were unmistakably real.
Has an experience like this troubled you? I am playing with fire, a bit, as I dwell on this history long enough to write about it. Even after all these years, it disturbs me to remember it. If you are like that, too, well, here’s something from the Book of Common Prayer:
Almighty and merciful God, in your goodness keep us, we pray, from all things that may hurt us, that we, being ready both in mind and body, may accomplish with free hearts those things which belong to your purpose; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
Part 1 of this series is here.
Part 3 of this series is here.
October 29, 2020 COVID-19 Infections and Deaths