Keep the Change ~ 3rd Street, Albany, 1968

“Oh, it’s’a Friday already? Come in, come in,” Mrs Dargenti would say most weeks. The old Italian lady would invite me across her threshold and fish a buck and a half out of a gold-clasped change purse each week for her daily newspaper.

I can still smell the pungent bouquet of garlic, oregano, basil and olive oil, with a hint of what I’d someday learn was anise. From the living room walls, four generations of strangers, captured in First Communion piety or Wedding Day solemnity, intimately stared across the entry at me.

The living room furniture glistened under plastic coverings, preserved like Wednesday’s leftover lasagna, protected from time and tipped wine. I imagined everything inside was like it always had been, except now the sounds of Papa and the kids were replaced by the voices of Jerry Vale, Dominico Medugno and lonely sighs in italia.

Across the street in the three-story walk-up, six families lived (twelve, if you wanted to be accurate as a census), the hallways cloaked me in darkness while the air choked me in its closeness, redolent of boiled cabbage, piss, weed and something more felt than seen or smelled.

If anyone opened the doors to you, it’d usually be as far as the chain lock would allow. If that lock was off, you weren’t invited past the threshold.

“Whachoo want?” any resident younger than fifty would say if anyone even answered the door. I’d tell them I was collecting for the newspaper delivery. Inevitably, they’d say to come back later, tomorrow, next week, when no one would answer my knock.

But if Mrs. Symonds, the matriarch of the family answered, sometimes she’d open the door enough for me to see inside, where a dingy sheet covered the sagging sofa. A pair of mismatched sheets hung from curtain rods on the two front windows, providing a modicum of privacy from without.
Within, however, there was no such thing. Four rooms and a bathroom left little space to fit the grandmother, her son, her daughters and her daughters’ children.

If Mrs. Symonds paid, it would be apologetically for two of the four weeks she owed, and it would be with three crumpled singles she’d pull from her stained housecoat. I’d eat the balance of the other two weeks, cutting another three bucks into my earnings for the month.

I really didn’t want to go back into the building. The soundtrack from the other three flats, sometimes say James Brown and others maybe Marvin Gaye, never drowned out the backbeat of the looped percussive bang of my heart when I climbed to the second floor. Not after a guy I’d never seen before stepped out of the shadows by the stairs and cut a memory into my chest.

Later, when my connection to newspapers was to fill them with words instead of delivering them, I drove along my old paper route. There, the home that once preserved its past still stood. It now sported an out of character, unpainted front step of cast concrete, it’s aluminum railing canted to the left. Lengths of stained green vinyl siding sagged or flapped from its sides.

Across the street, a vacant lot stretched like a glass-strewn grave where the other house stood. If it was a fire or some stillborn plan for a new building that brought it down, I’ll never know.

The truth is, despite an effort to preserve some hazy, idealized past or merely survive the present, the future can be as cold as that thin blade, as hot as the desperation and anger crouched behind locked doors and beneath staircases and as inevitable as the fact you may be able to go home again, but home may not be there to greet you. Especially not with a buck and a half. Forget any ten-cent tip.

In retrospect, you can keep your change.

Don’t know why or from where I wrote this. Just started scribbling in pencil on a notebook page. Maybe Inspiration has run its course in my life. These days, it feels like that housecoat pocket of Mrs. Symonods.

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