When I was wide-eyed and dewy, I lived in a ramshackle apartment building on West 22nd Street. Chelsea was just becoming Chelsea. There was Big Cup, the psychedelically painted coffee shop full of tasty gay boys and Rice Krispies Treats. There was the fabulous Salvation Army thrift store on Eighth Avenue. There was the scary, transient-filled, rundown Hotel Allerton. There were the elderly people staring into space from their park benches and wheelchairs around the Penn South Houses, and the wind whistling along shuttered, nearly deserted Ninth Avenue at night. There was the closet-sized clothing store run by enthusiastic drag queens, where I bought a silver minidress so I could be the 6 Train for Halloween. (I attached a 6 logo, bits of garbage and rubber rats to the dress, an indication that this was a lifetime ago; today, the subways are an order of magnitude cleaner, and the silver miniskirt might fit only if I wore it on my head.)
I lived in that Chelsea apartment for almost five years. I’d never lived by myself before; my new life thrilled me. I worked late at a magazine I loved; spent weekends going to poetry slams and drinking swimming-pool-sized cups of coffee at Limbo, my favorite cafe on Avenue A. I lived in Apartment 3-G, just like the attractive young career gals in the ancient, eponymous newspaper comic. Like them, I dated a variety of interesting young men. I even had my own Professor Papagoras, the avuncular, bearded, barrel-chested Hemingway-look-alike who dispensed wisdom and fixed problems. My Professor Papagoras was my building superintendent, Santos. When I dropped the air conditioner out of my window down into the airshaft (please, don’t ask) his first question was not “Are you a moron?” but “Are you hurt?” He retiled the bathroom floor when he didn’t have to. He wouldn’t let me change a light bulb myself. He hugged my parents when they visited.
One night, I went to dinner with girlfriends at a pasta place near my office. I have this huge food allergy (guess where this story is going) and asked, as is my wont, whether the pesto had walnuts in it. The waitress gave a snooty little huff and said, “Pesto is made with pine nuts.” (Yes, unless you opt to pad your pesto with walnuts, which are way cheaper than pine nuts, the restaurant equivalent of cutting cocaine with baby formula.) I had about five bites of my putatively-walnut-free pesto, but it tasted weird, so I drank more wine instead. By the time I got home, 45 minutes later, I was having trouble breathing. I called my dad. “Did you eat nuts?” he asked. “No,” I said. Then, “Maybe.”
“Give yourself both doses in your Epi-kit and call 911,” he said.
“I can’t remember the number for 911!” I answered. My brain, with its silly reliance on oxygen, was not working anymore.
“Get out of your apartment, get in the elevator, and knock on Santos’s door. He’ll know what to do.”
Without hanging up the phone, I staggered to the elevator. Luckily, it was still waiting at my floor from when I’d gotten home minutes earlier. I made it downstairs, knocked on Santos’s door. Unbeknownst to me, the syringe of epinephrine was still hanging from my arm. (This was before there were EpiPens; people with anaphylactic allergies carried hypodermics in little red kits, and dinosaurs roamed the earth.) Just as the door swung open, my feeling of panic went away. So did the sensation of not being able to breathe. I suddenly felt safe, flooded with warmth, comfortable. I thought, “Ohmigod, I’m going to be so embarrassed for bothering Santos.” That’s when I passed out. Santos’s older daughter caught me just before I hit the floor.
Apparently lots of things happened then. Santos called 911. His younger daughter ran to St. Vincent’s hospital, a dozen blocks away, for reinforcements in case no one came quickly enough from 911. Someone covered me with a blanket. I was really lucky; paramedics (who can do invasive procedures, unlike emergency medical technicians) were dispatched to my building. By the time they arrived, I was gray, barely breathing. They intubated me and brought me to St. Vincent’s.
I woke up hours later with the tube still in my throat. It bugged me. What was it? I kept writing the word “Phlegm?” on my hand, but the nurses only understood the first letter: “P? P? You need to pee?” Finally someone brought me a pen and paper, and I wrote “Phlegm in my throat?” When my parents arrived, wild-eyed with fear, the ER docs told them they knew I’d suffered no brain damage when I correctly spelled “phlegm.”
I spent a couple of days in the hospital. Then I got out. Then I thanked Santos and his family profusely. For years, I baked cookies on the anniversary of my near-death for the paramedics of St Vincent’s. After a while, I met Jonathan. (Santos approved, despite Jonathan’s shoulder-length black curls and Doc Marten boots.) I moved to San Francisco with Jonathan. Jonathan and I got married. We came back to New York, moved to the East Village, had kids.
Last week, Jonathan and I were in Chelsea for a gallery opening. (I say that so casually, as if it’s something we do regularly.) Because it was a beautiful night and we had a babysitter, we strolled for a while, heading eastward and downtown. “Let’s walk on my old block,” I suggested.
It was unrecognizable. It was a movie set. My old building had a fancy new awning, gleaming brass nameplate and buzzers, new doors. Peering in, I saw the lobby had been completely redone. And then I saw Santos out of the corner of my eye. I started banging on the glass.
Santos peered at us, knitting his heavy brows. He didn’t recognize us. I’d visited once since moving back to New York, but that was before Josie’s birth, maybe six or seven years ago. Suddenly clarity dawned; Santos’s eyes widened. He buzzed us in. He gave me a huge hug. He looked great; he’d been ill when I moved out, but he’d had back surgery, lost weight, walked much more easily. “And is this your dad?” he asked me, indicating Jonathan. (Hee!) He meant it. When he’d last seen Jonathan, Jonathan looked like a young punk; now my husband was gray-haired and distinguished. He asked how my actual dad was; I told him he’d died. Santos looked stricken. “He was such a nice man. He was so funny.”
We talked about our families. Santos’s younger daughter Lisa, who was a teenager when I left, now had a 3-year-old son. She hugged me while her little boy looked at me shyly. She’d become a nurse. “Because of you,” she said. “Seeing you almost die made me sure of what I wanted to do with my life.” Jonathan showed them the pictures of Josie and Maxine that he keeps on his iPod. Santos and Lisa were entranced (or pretended really well).
Without them, I’d never have lived to have kids. I’d never have met Jonathan. Without me, Lisa might have gone on to a different career, one she might have liked less, or more. The flick of a switch or a random electrical connection or the arbitrary location of a certain ambulance were the reason I was intubated on the floor of my lobby; if I’d had to wait until I was in an emergency room, my airway would have closed completely. The elevator was on my floor, waiting, when I’d lurched out of my apartment. If I’d had to wait after pushing the call button… you get the idea.
I love that New York is a city full of randomness. Glass-half-empty people think this means you could get mugged or hit by a wayward Thanksgiving Day Parade balloon at any moment. But I think it means you get wonderful moments of connection, the possibility of small miracles every day. I love raising my kids in the East Village because it feels like a village. I found community in New York City as a 20-something going to music shows and smoky bars and I found community in New York City as a (gulp) 40-year-old, PTA-meeting-attending mother of two. Neighborhoods change, but Santos is still here. And I am, too.
Write to Marjorie at firstname.lastname@example.org.