First it was the chain stores. Dunkin’ Donuts bought out Sal’s. But that was happening to mom-and-pop stores across the country. Not ideal, but what do you expect nowadays? Then it was the people who swooped in and claimed to save the diner on the corner from closing. Now the only pierogies I can get are filled with avocado and salmon and some kind of berry I can’t pronounce.
I bathed in Manhattan’s raindrops like Audrey Hepburn as she kissed George Peppard at the end of Breakfast at Tiffany’s. As I stepped backward onto the curb, I looked up and found that I was tasting the metallic condensation from an air conditioner. The thought of heavy metal poisoning would have sent me running any other day. But, today I was moving into my first Manhattan apartment, the one I had doodled to pass the time in math class since the third grade.
I hopscotched in and dragged my luggage up the stairs. The excitement that stole two nights of sleep from me was reimbursed when I twisted my doorknob. Some of the grease came off on my hands, but it was nothing a little Murphy’s Oil couldn’t fix. My lack of sleep returned, however, when I began to hallucinate a plump, furry man wearing only white boxers. Maybe if I shut my eyes three times he would disappear?
The first blink, he stopped in his tracks. We shared a look that injected me with the same weight I always thought I’d feel when I saw “the one.” But instead of whimsy, it was fear and disgust. I started to feel something in the back of my throat before the second blink. He picked something out of his teeth. As a matter of fact, it may have been a tooth because it looked like he was short on those. The third blink, he went to sit in his Barcalounger that was frayed with love.
“Ahem.” I cleared my throat from outside the door. He got up and stepped over a few volumes of encyclopedias to get to his record player. I knocked on the door frame.
He lifted the needle and shooed me away with a pudgy hand. I was going to have to swallow my germaphobia and walk into this Smithsonian of clutter.
My windpipe was clogged with the smell of onion, sauerkraut, and cigars. His apartment—my apartment—was layered with decades. A table blanketed with white floral linen sat next to a salmon midcentury couch on top of an oriental rug. The Depression glass that my grandparents ate off of lived in the same cabinet as the 1970s Tupperware that my parents still used. Every item was beautiful, but lost in the endless pile of stuff. At the heart of this antique shop was the half-naked man sipping his tea and listening to a Petula Clark record. He took a big gulp of his tea. Even though he was the one technically trespassing my apartment, I took the step of addressing the china elephant figurine in the room.
“My name is Linda Takahashi. I am supposed to be moving into this apartment. My lease starts today.”
He leaned back into his chair, which kicked the foot stand up. Poor guy, I thought. His mind was going faster than the elastic on his waistband. I prodded him further along.
“And you are . . . ?”
Nothing. I tried to break down the details.
“Did anyone tell you about this? Did they evict you?”
He shut his eyes and absorbed Petula. Maybe he didn’t speak English. Charades-like motions began to follow my words.
“Listen, I moved here for law school. Maybe I can help you. But, we’ve got to settle when you’re moving out of this apartment because I’m paying for it—”
On the top of his lungs he then started belting, “The lights are much brighter there! You can forget all your troubles, forget all your cares and go . . .”
He looked at me in anticipation to duet with him. As he continued, I tried to stop him.
“Hey. Hey. HEY! Would you turn that off? We have a serious issue here.”
He sang louder. I yelled louder.
“Okay, I was trying to be nice before, but I had a really long day, and I was so excited to unpack my beautiful goose-down feather bed, but now I’m gonna have to go on hotwire unless you want to make room for me, but OH WAIT! YOU CAN’T! Because there isn’t even a spot for me to sit down and talk to you about this!”
He stayed stoic and lifted a stack of newspapers off the barrel chair next to him.
“Thank you.” I said, exasperated. I sat down and applied pressure to my swollen eyelids.
“I’m not moving.”
I pressed my face with stiffer firmness.
“I’ve lived here fifty years. They can’t kick me out because some fancy Chinese girl wants to be Marlo Thomas.”
“Exactly,” he said.
“What? And I’m Japanese. That’s very offensive.”
“Well I think you’re offensive coming in here and demanding that I leave.” He laughed with a bitter vengeance and reached for a wooden rectangular box. My grandpa had one just like it and gave one to each of his grandkids. Inside were rows of cigars. He picked one and stuck it in his mouth.
“First it was the chain stores. Dunkin’ Donuts bought out Sal’s. But that was happening to mom-and-pop stores across the country. Not ideal, but what do you expect nowadays?”
He opened a drawer next to him and pulled out a liter Ziploc bag filled with matchboxes. He reached in and picked one with a naked lady on it. He struck the match and lit his stogie.
“Then it was the people who swooped in and claimed to save the diner on the corner from closing. Now the only pierogies I can get are filled with avocado and salmon and some kind of berry I can’t pronounce.”
I tried to understand where he was coming from.
“I’m sorry. That must have been really hard,” but, my second-hand sympathy was cut off.
“Then it was the Berkowitzs, the Franks, the Kaplans, the Schiffmans.” He puffed. He was unravelling like a ball of yarn being chased by a kitten. But, he spoke with such detachment. Like he had prepared his monologue for years.
“And now there’s only me left. Rose is gone. I can go live with my kids in Chicago; I would love to be with my grandchildren, don’t get me wrong. But it should be my choice. This has been my home. I watched the record store move to tapes then CDs then back to records. I worked in the candy shop before there was a legal working age. I played baseball in the streets with my pals until supper.
“I saw the Dodgers and the Giants play before they moved to California. It broke my heart when I had to start rooting for the Yankees. I saw race riots and victory parades. I watched Hollywood steal our entertainment. I’ve never left the country. I never wanted to. My parents gave up everything to bring me here and I never ever took that for granted. Unlike your generation. You move to New York because you see it in the movies, because it’s convenient, because you get your fancy jobs. So where are we supposed to move? Why are we supposed to move?”
If he was trying to play me, he had made me a game of poker. I felt bad about this situation and painfully uncomfortable. I hate that I had to kick him out, mainly because this is not my job, but I can’t put my life on hold to help him keep his, right? He tapped his ashes into a corned beef can then sniffed and sat in silence. It was my turn, and I tried to piece together some sort of support.
“I’m really sorry,” I put my hand on his and he drew it back.
I continued and tried to organize the logistics, “I wish there was something I could do . . .
I’m sorry, can you at least tell me your name?”
He took a while. Finally, he huffed, “Kovacs.”
I repeated, “Kovacs. Well it’s nice to meet you, Kovacs.” I was talking to him like Mister Rogers. “Now, maybe we can start by tidying this place up so packing will be easier. You lucked out, I am a very efficient folder.” I started to pick up stray papers and blankets off of the floor.
“Then, I can help you find where you’re gonna stay tonight.”
“Where I’m gonna stay tonight? I’m staying here.”
I sighed. “Kovacs. I’m sorry. But we have to start looking at things realistically. Why don’t we start by dividing things into garbage, donations, and what you want to keep? Or maybe we organize it by time period. Or color. I don’t know, you have so many things. There are so many different ways to organize.”
I found a cardboard box filled with files and emptied it out. He squinted as he watched my reflection in the mirror in front of him.
“Are you having fun, sweetheart?”
“Is this your first time?”
“I’m sorry, my first time doing what?”
“Throwing innocent people out on the streets. You seem to have the routine down.”
I was trying to let his words bounce off me and not seep in. He was just trying to get a rise out of me. I kneeled down.
“I’m just trying to get things moving. Kovacs, this will be for the best in the end. You can move in with your kids in Chicago and you won’t be so lonely.”
I got up and started to place trinkets that decorated a buffet into the box. I had never seen so many tiny angels. There must have been at least two dozen. Some had wings, some had halos. Wooden, china, silver, plastic, the man had them all.
“Hey! What are you doing with those?” he shouted at me.
I put my hands in the air that held a cherub playing the flute, “What, do you want to keep one?”
A layer of anger peeled off of his skin.
“Keep one?! What are you planning to do with the rest of them?”
He zipped over to me and yanked the cardboard box out of my hands. He trifled through its insides.
“Hey, what are you…? There’s a lot of good stuff in here. This is worth a lot of money. God, you can’t even tell what’s good. You know what, get out of here. I can handle it.”
I took the box back, “Well it’s not really your apartment to throw me out of anymore,” I snatched the crystal mother angel out of his hand.
“You can pick one of these and the rest are going out. Then we are moving on to those . . .” I pointed to a box of magazines. My hope depressed when I saw two more three-foot stacks of them against the wall. I could tell by the size of them that they were old LIFE magazines. I looked at the box filled with angels.
“This is my private property.”
“This is illegal.”
“Pick one or they’re all getting dumped out the window.”
“Oh, tough girl thinks she’s gonna be a lawyer. Well you’re gonna need a lot more than that. I don’t know what they taught you in prep school, but this is the real world and here you can’t—”
I picked up a wooden angel with no face and chucked it out the window. I heard it swoosh and then it knocking against the pavement. Kovacs’ thick head followed its departure.
He clutched onto the box and tried to pry it out of my hands. My fingers were straining to keep the box and the power. As we were struggling to play the world’s saddest game of tug-of-war, his hands slipped. All his weight had been in his hands and his balance went with him, tumbling into the library of magazines. I somersaulted backwards with the box and smashed into the record player.
“NOOOOO!” he screamed. He ran over as quickly as his elderly legs allowed.
“I’m okay,” I assured him as I spit out some dust.
“Not YOU, the angels!”
Kovacs fell to his knees and desperately looked through the pieces of ceramic, china, and crystal. Some of the silver, plastic, and wooden figurines were intact.
“Where’s Sylvia?” he panted.
Sylvia? I’m lucky I was not murdered yet. The man was nuts.
“Do you mean to tell me that you named all of these angels?”
“She had a pink and green flower crown . . .”
His eyes were drawn to my hand, which I now saw had a tiny shard stuck in it. Unfortunately for him and for me, it was colored baby pink and green. I looked at him with deep regret. He returned my apologies with pulling the shard out of my hand.
“OW! Mother of—” Blood gushed out of my hand.
“Are you crazy?” I screamed at him. I got up and tried to find something to stop the bleeding. The cheese and tea cloths strewn about the living room would probably not be sanitary so I got some toilet paper from the bathroom. When I walked back, his pale face looked as though it had lost more blood than me.
I was worried I might get bachi, what my grandma calls bad karma. What if he haunted me for years to come in this apartment? I worried I had gone too far. Maybe I should have gone to someone for help. This wasn’t my job and my behavior clearly articulated that. I sat next to him.
He turned away like a wounded stubborn child. He managed to scan every bit of the apartment that I wasn’t in. His eyes wandered to his liquor table which held bottles that looked aged enough to disinfect my wound. He studied each framed photograph that crowded the mantle. If he could have reached it, he would have grazed his hands along the crown molding that had kept him safe for fifty years.
As I watched him hold on to the piece of Sylvia that he extracted from my hand, I knew he would not haunt me in this apartment. He loved it too much. Every inch was for him to blame and thank.
I had to stay in an Airbnb for a week, but I came back every day to help him organize and pack. There wasn’t much for us to say, but I learned about who he was. His name was not Kovacs. He loved Jackie Gleason. He was actually quite handsome in his prime. I got in contact with his daughter who was very grateful for my help. She had been trying to get him to move closer to family for years. Kovacs would grab the phone and go and talk about me in his bedroom.
“She’s not who you think she is. Stop encouraging her and giving her the satisfaction,” I heard through his walls.
He did manage to make me potato pancakes after a few strenuous hours of bubble wrapping one day which I decided to interpret as a thank you. He plopped a blue and white plate that looked like it was stolen out of a Greek restaurant in front of me. He scooped a spoonful of sour cream and apple sauce then smacked it on top of my latkes.
“Oh, I’m actually lactose intolerant.”
He was situated with a fork in one hand, a knife in the other. He processed this.
I shook my head, “Never mind.”
Diarrhea might be better than more explanation.
He chewed with his mouth open because the potato pancakes were so hot. I cut mine carefully. He grabbed another spoonful of sour cream and the only sound in the room was chewing and swallowing. I took a shot.
“Was Sylvia your wife’s?”
He continued eating, “No.”
It was worth a shot, but it definitely missed.
“It was my sister’s,” he said.
He wiped his mouth with a paper towel. He handed me one.
“What was her name?” I asked.
He sighed, “You like the labels, huh?”
“Her name was Helga.”
Maybe that’s why he didn’t want to tell me.
“She was . . . different. Than the rest of us at least, my five other brother and sisters.”
“Are they . . .?”
He waited for me to finish the sentence.
“They’re dead. Except me and Helga.”
“Oh, I’m sorry to hear that.”
He smiled with his cheeks as a favor to me.
“She lives in Europe.”
“Oh! I just took a backpacking trip there before coming here.”
“I hate Europe.”
I ate more of my potato pancake.
“My sister moved there years ago. She said she didn’t want to be part of a country that would kill their own president or one that would send her son to a war we shouldn’t be fighting blah blah blah. She didn’t get it. She always thought she was better than the rest of us and was always looking for a way out. She drove my parents nuts, made them feel worthless.”
He took a sip of his coffee.
“Where in Europe?”
“She originally left for Paris, last I heard Vienna, but we haven’t spoken in years. She didn’t even come home when my mom or dad died or our brothers and sisters. Probably won’t come when I die. For all I know, she’s gone.”
And now Sylvia’s gone. I had ruined his one remembrance of his estranged sister. My stupid dream of living in the city.
“I’m sure she misses you,” I said.
With the help of his family, we ordered moving trucks and a plane ticket for him to O’Hare. After hailing him a cab and packing his carry-on into the trunk, I wasn’t sure what to do. I went in for a very mild hug which he rejected by crawling into the taxi. I pretended it wasn’t meant to be a hug. I watched the square taxi ride away and stopped trying to imagine what it must have felt like for him to leave the fire escapes and awnings. Or worst of all, seeing Manhattan shrink to the small island it was from LaGuardia.
After he was gone, I was finally able to move myself in. The minimalist style I put together from many sales and Pinterest boards came together. It was clean and simple and classic. Still, I rearranged my furniture, dishware, and pictures continuously to find the perfect layout.
About a year later, I had a friend come over for dinner and she screamed when she sat on my couch.
She lifted her butt off the cushion and picked up a tiny piece of china.
“Did you break something?” she asked.
“Not that I recall . . .” I analyzed the tiny shard and saw a stroke of green on it. I sniffed it to see if it smelled like sauerkraut.
“Are you okay, Linda?”
“I’m fine,” I answered before she finished the question.
I wasn’t sure if I should send the piece of Sylvia back to Kovacs. I wanted to call his daughter to see if we could send it to his sister in Europe and try to patch up their relationship before things got too late. I ended up compromising and sent it to Kovacs’ daughter in Chicago with a note suggesting that she help him get it to his sister.
Two weeks later, I received the same box back. There was no “Return to Sender” label on it, and I was sure I had the right address. I opened it and saw the piece of Sylvia lying in the same confetti bed I made for her safe departure. I had gotten too involved with Kovacs and meddled beyond what was appropriate.
As I broke down the box and got it the hell out of my apartment, I found a ripped note from a yellow legal pad. It was more yellow than ones you would find in Staples, probably because it had ripened since its purchase in 1983. I had picked up pages just like it when I helped Kovacs pack. On this piece of paper read, “Keep it safe for me on Orchard Street.”
That was the best I could do. As I watched my own favorite bakeries and boutiques close, I began to understand that Kovacs’ journey was one that every New Yorker would have to face. There are too many dreams that come to this island and they can’t all come true. Lucky for me, my dream was to move to New York. Until I fashion a greater goal, I have Sylvia to help me along the way.