It began when we met Irene and her constant companion, her dog, Jaia. Irene claims to be 71 (she just had a birthday), has the curly red hair of a true Irish lass, and is either a 5th or 7th generation New Yorker, depending on what version of the story she tells. Irene is a woman you cannot NOT speak to. She is warm and inviting, sassy and spunky, and keeps you lingering on the sidewalk with story after story about the people on our block. She's told us of the tragic deaths of two of our landlord's relatives (one fell off a ladder outside our apartment, and the other was struck by a car on our corner); she's regaled us with stories of her close friendship with Billy Squier ("and his beautiful wife- she is just lovely"); and she has outed a neighbor ("he's a big queen, and he HATES those flowers out front of your building.")
Irene tends to repeat stories over and over, but we don't mind. Instead, we find ourselves almost enjoying showing Irene how very interested we are in the new Brazilian neighbor (some days she's Colombian), or in the life lessons Irene has to share ("You can do ANYTHING. Don't let anyone tell you otherwise.") Irene is the mascot of our block- everyone knows her, and she knows everyone- though maybe not by the correct name.
Two fellas who know of Irene are Ricky and Jimmy, whom I met at Strawberry Fields a couple of weeks ago.
Ricky and Jimmy are in their 70's, and have been together for over 40 years, which is also how long they've lived in our neighborhood. I met them when I heard a voice say, "Beagle, beagle," and looked over to see an elderly man sitting on a bench, making kissy sounds at Hank. Ricky is the quieter one, and sits with his arm around Jimmy, who does the talking. Jimmy, who dresses a little like James Dean would if he were still alive, told me that he used to rent an apartment from a woman on my block who'd killed her husband, though she was never charged for it. He told me one building on our block used to be full of prostitutes and criminals, and when it was renovated, dozens of guns were found in the courtyard. He told me that as a young man, he'd glanced into a window on our street and had seen a woman's lifeless body on a blood-soaked bed. (At this point in the story, Ricky leaned over and said, "that was on 74th.") As our conversation came to a close, I learned that the fellas are friends with Luigi, our landlord. I said, "Oh, then do you know Irene?" Ricky leaned over and said to Jimmy, "She's that know-it-all with the red hair and the dog."
We met our most recent "neighborhood historian" yesterday, on the sidewalk a few doors down. Once again, Hank brought us together, and we quickly learned from our new friend, Ms. Dana, that the frail man inside the apartment with the blaring TV was not doing well, and would probably pass soon. (Ms. Dana will not be attending the funeral, because "At my age, they happen all the time, and it's just too much.") She told us stories about sending her children to a Catholic school on the Upper East Side (she is Jewish), and that the nuns always liked her kids the best. She told us she loves dogs, but her son was so affected by the loss of his last pet, she couldn't bear to have another one. (She said she'd had a dog once, a shepherd, when she lived in Germany long ago, and another dog when they went to Switzerland. Put those pieces together, and tell me she doesn't have some incredible stories to tell.) Ms. Dana walked with us down the block a bit, aided by her cane with her name and address on it. Before we parted ways, she said she hates walking past "that bitch" down the block. I asked, "do you mean the woman with the visor?" Ms. Dana said, "Yes. You know she killed her husband."
Yes, our street is a regular Peyton Place. These people have lived here longer than many of us been alive, and I can't wait to hear what other stories they have to share. And you know, I won't feel bad listening to them talk about our neighbors, because think about it-- isn't today's history just gossip from a really long time ago?