September 8, 2012 by Paula Reed Nancarrow
In 1978, I graduated from St. Bonaventure University in upstate New York. And in the fall I moved out to Minneapolis so that I could go to graduate school at the University of Minnesota. I was twenty-two. I wanted adventure.
I had decided on the University of Minnesota for three reasons. One, they gave me a Bush Fellowship. Two, it was the farthest school from home that had accepted me. Three, I wanted to be Mary Tyler Moore. I wanted to live in the attic of a historic house in Kenwood with an eccentric Scandinavian caretaker and a wisecracking Jewish girlfriend. I wanted to throw my hat up in the air at the IDS building. I wanted to ditch the boyfriend who had never appreciated me. I wanted to make it after all.
I could not afford to live in in Kenwood. I could not even afford to live in the classy new high rise Mary moved into after the historic house in Kenwood. I’m talking about Riverside Plaza. Cedar Square. Over half of Cedar Square is now subsidized housing, but in 1978, a year after Mary Tyler Moore went off the air, I could not afford to live there.
Instead I got a studio apartment on Clinton, a block off Franklin. It had a Murphy bed – do they still have those? – and a gas stove, which I had never seen before. I had never shopped in a co-op before. I had never cooked fresh broccoli. I had never seen – or tried to decipher – a bus schedule. I was from a very small town. The Mini Apple was as much urban adventure as I could handle.
The caretaker for my apartment was a man, and he wasn’t Scandinavian. His name was Mike. He was a recovering alcoholic whose hands shook with palsy – a nice but frail old guy I guessed was in his seventies. “He’s the right guy for the job,” the landlord told me. “There’s never any trouble on my properties.” When Mike handed me the keys he said I had a neighbor down the hall about my own age – she and I should have a lot in common. Her name was Brenda.
“Is she a student?” I asked.
“Could be.” Mike said.
I thought I’d introduce myself in the hall, coming or going, sometime over the weekend, but Brenda never seemed to leave her apartment. That first week of September was hot and humid – in the nineties all week. She must have an air conditioner. Lucky her. I insisted on cooking anyway, because that’s what Mary would have done. It wasn’t till the oven went out and I couldn’t figure out how to relight the pilot that I actually met Brenda. And figured out what she did for a living – or had, that is, until she’d gotten knocked up.
I thought she was maybe five months pregnant, but she told me seven. Her face was pasty, Pillsbury-doughboy like pasty, and her hair was a frizzy, dirty blonde. There were exactly two pieces of furniture in the dark room, not including the TV – a bare mattress and a wooden chair. A man was on the mattress and a man was on the chair, and there was a damp smell and a rerun on the TV. No a/c. The man on the chair had a tattoo on his arm I had seen somewhere else. On an underpass or something. I explained that my pilot light had gone out. “Leroy can fix that for you, can’t you Leroy?” said my neighbor. Leroy had the tattoo.
“You got a boyfriend?” Leroy asked me on our way down the hall.
“Yes,” I lied. “Yes, I do.”
After that I kept my own pilot lit. And I didn’t see Brenda for another month and a half. Actually even then I didn’t see her. I heard her. It was the second week in October. There was another woman staying with her. And someone came banging on the door about ten that night, superhuman high on something, and very pissed off.
“Open this door you bitch! You open that door and give her up or I swear I’ll knock this fucking door down!”
“Get out of here Leroy. She wants to keep her other eye.”
He began to slam on the door, hard, with his shoulder. It was a pretty solid door. But he was slamming pretty hard. What if this is all just bluff? If I call the police, I thought, I might make the landlord mad. There’s never any trouble on his properties. But if I call the caretaker – my God, what if it’s not a bluff? What’s that old guy going to do?
So I hesitated. Probably no more than a minute – though it felt like a long time. Long enough to think of Kitty Genovese. Long enough for the door to give way.
There were screams, and more yelling – “You come home bitch. You get you the fuck on home. ” A push, and a shove, and the crazy rattle of someone tumbling down the back stairs. Then I heard Mike’s voice, low and steady. You’d never guess a man whose hands shook like that could have such a steady voice.
Leave the ladies alone. And get out of here before I call the police.
And Leroy left.
The landlord moved Brenda out at the end of the month. In his own truck. He was helpful, but firm. There wasn’t ever any trouble on his properties. I wish I could say what happened to her friend, but I don’t know. It was Brenda who was pushed down the stairs. Outside of a few bruises, she was OK. The baby was born two weeks early. Mike went over for a visit.
“She’s got spunk,” Mike said. “She’s gonna make it after all.”
Told at the Grand Story Slam at Kieran’s, July 17, 2012.