The other day I saw my old garbage-diving neighbor trimming the flowering plants in front of our apartment building. There used to be these tall leaning stalks with huge pink blossoms running up and down their entire length. The plants looked like something out of the Jurassic Age. I kind of liked their strange flowers, but she had gone and lopped them all off and cut the stalks to a nub. As I was returning from walking the dogs, I saw her there, wearing her oversize gloves, wielding a pair of huge shears, her face, as usual, closed off and resolute. I have decided that she must be one of the residents who have lived in this building since the beginning of the Jurassic Age, or for some thirty years or so anyway, when the building was maintained by a caring, resident owner—or so another old timer has told me about the place. Repairs were once made when you requested them, there was no pool with glaring sunlight bouncing into all courtyard-facing windows, and no barking dogs either (oh, my). Instead of a pool, the courtyard was an oasis of astroturf, always clean, green, and quiet. Now we have a management-company-non-performing-landlord-income-property situation, and the care of the building is really of no concern to them, so some of the old-time tenants have taken on this role. They can’t move for they’ll never find rent so cheap (we’re under rent control and they’re probably paying close to 1970’s-era rates), so they make the best of things by doing what they can. Hence, this lady, tiny as a pre-teen, hacking away at what I suppose she takes to be an unsightly mess. She must occupy her time somehow. Outside of that, her other job, it seems, is to wander the well-to-do neighborhood that stretches several blocks to the south of our tattered old building and inspect trash can after trash can, her small hands protected by oversize gardening gloves, pulling out whatever she can use. She finds quite a lot, judging from the over-stuffed red-and-black checkered suitcase she is pulling behind her whenever I see her just before trash day. I’ve passed her several times when walking the dogs, and I’ve said hello, but she either ignores me or gives me a cursory, unfocused look that I cannot read. More recently, I saw her peering down at me from the the building’s third-story landing, hands clutching the railings, giving me a look I can only describe as haunted.
I think about her and these other long-time residents every so often, of all the stories they can tell. I think of them as possible characters in a story, as retirees holding on for dear life while the forces of change crash in all around. There’s a lot to contend with: the recession, the technological revolution, the political divide, and so much more that makes them feel like flotsam in a churning sea. And yet they mattered once. They matter still.