I don’t think I do enough for my neighbors. I don’t mean this in a general, worldly sense- like I don’t donate to enough Kickstarters or advocate on behalf on some crises at home or abroad- I mean, I don’t think I do enough for my actual neighbors. My husband Dan and I have three neighbors that we consistently interact with from our basement apartment. Two of the three are old ladies. One is named Martha, who lives above us, and the other one is Chino’s mom. Chino’s mom lives with her son in the modest red brick house on the right with a statue of a rearing white horse in the front window.
Chino’s a thin guy, Puerto Rican. He’s always nice to us. Whenever Chino sees us, he says, “Hi Neighbor!” even from across the street. We know he doesn’t know our names, although we’ve lived here for two years. When we first moved in, Chino proudly proclaimed that this block was the best in the area: we had the best neighbors, we had the safest street. It’s pretty true; even the massive gang shooting that happened last fall took place at the main intersection a couple blocks down, not actually on our block. People are always coming in and out of Chino’s house; that seemed suspicious at first, but over the years, we realized he has a lot of family around here. We feel protected by Chino. When the street cleaners come, and there’s a cop car on the corner waiting to give out tickets, Chino throws pebbles at our front door to wake us up. He knows everyone’s car, and could clear the whole block if he wanted. Chino broke into my apartment last summer when I locked myself out. He knew how to pop the window, and showed me that my window was unlocked in the first place. I guess that should have scared me, but it didn’t. Stuff like that doesn’t happen on our block, probably because of him.
Martha is the nosy neighbor of our street. She volunteers at a no-kill cat shelter so we talk about cats when we see each other: cats up for adoption, cats in the alley, my cats, her cats. We also talk about her small plot of fenced in tulips that the kids on the block ravage every spring- she hates that. Otherwise, – I’ve heard – she can be a gossip, and that she’s gossiped about me before! Mainly about not picking up garbage on our patio (the kids on the block are always throwing their chip bags down there). I don’t take any offense though. She sweeps my patio clean, and gets angry with the rental company on our behalf.
Chino’s mom was the one who told me Martha was gossiping about me- they don’t like each other, but you wouldn’t guess it by the way they talk on the sidewalk. Chino’s mom comes out of her house for daily walks except when it’s freezing. She’s had a lot of medical problems, and the cold bothers her bones. About three weeks ago, in Chicago’s version of April, she slipped on some ice and fell on her face because someone didn’t salt outside of their house. Terrible for that to happen to a fragile, old woman! Her face had a big black mark on it like she had gotten punched. I felt bad, so I bought her some daffodils and gave them to Chino to give to his mom. She really liked them and kissed me on the cheek as a thank you. I try to do things for her because she’s my favorite neighbor. Like the first Christmas Dan and I lived on the street, I left a bag of cookies behind their fence for them. Chino’s mom told me later that they thought it was something dangerous, like a bomb. But they enjoyed them anyway.
Yesterday I was leaving for work and she came outside. We stopped to chat. Later I would text my boss and tell her I was running late because I got caught up with a neighbor. I would play her off like somewhat of a nuisance. It was unfair of me to do that. I really like talking to Chino’s mom. She asked me, “How’s your mom?” because last year, when Dan and I got married, my mom was going through chemo. Chino’s mom was outside with her granddaughter and they watched Dan and I take pictures on the sidewalk by Martha’s tulips. She still talks about how her granddaughter wanted to get married after seeing my pink wedding dress.
I tell Chino’s mom, “She’s doing really well. Her hair’s growing back. It’s curly now! It didn’t used to be curly; it used to be stick straight. And it’s grey- she hates it grey. She’s thinking about getting it dyed.” Chino’s mom listens intently, squinting at me. I think she needs glasses. She tells me my mom should get the dye without ammonia. Then she lists the people she knows that have cancer, including her sister, who was just in the hospital.
“My sister was bleeding and they let her go! Now she’s at home- she shouldn’t be, but they told her to go.”
“That’s awful. I hope she gets better. You never know, the treatments are getting really good now.”
“I hope so! So much cancer. I don’t know what it is!”
I look down the street, not looking at anything in particular, the way you do when you’re talking on it, like you’re looking for something to talk about. “I don’t know either. Maybe the water, or the food we’re eating? Who knows…well I have to get to work. Have a great day!”
It’s easy to talk to my neighbors in a way that makes important things sound mundane. We all know what’s going on when we’re having these conversations. We care about each other’s lives, but voyeuristically, unsure about when to get close, or even if we can. I remember when Chino’s grandmother died the first year we lived there. I came home from work, and it was about 7 pm and dark. There were family members sitting on the stoop of Chino’s house, and milling around the concrete slab outside their door. Their house was the hive in the middle of the block. I unlocked my front gate and made eye contact with a woman, maybe one of Chino’s mom’s daughters. At the time I wasn’t quite sure what was going on, so I said, “So you guys are having a party, huh?” as a half-attempt at a joke or a way to find out what was happening. The daughter looked back at me hard and said, “Yea. A party.” I felt like an outsider- not of their family, but of the whole neighborhood. I rushed inside and locked the door.
I didn’t give Chino’s mom anything for her loss. I should have, but I felt ashamed to intervene in any way after that. It wasn’t until about 2 months later, when I saw her on the sidewalk that we talked about her mother. She was wearing her usual clothing: a nurse’s smock with watercolor flowers, denim scrubs and a heavy black hoodie. She looked haggard.
“How’s it going?” I said.
“Oh you know… the same.” She had a strained, closed lipped smile.
“I was sorry to hear about your mom.”
“That’s ok. Yea, me too. She died, it was time.”
“Well, we’re thinking of you guys. Let me know if you need anything.”
I planted some pink and white begonias in a small pot that summer, and gave them to her as an apology I never said out loud.
By the end of June, Dan and I will have to move out of our place. We found out that our landlord wants to sell our apartment. It is somewhat of a relief to me because I won’t have to tell my neighbors the truth, which is that we were going to move anyway. Living in a basement for two years is enough time without light, especially during bitter, dark, and dank Chicago winters. Dan and I have spent some time talking about places to move in Chicago. We are excited about a new place; at the same time, isn’t that what people like us do? Move away because we can? I keep avoiding telling Chino’s mom. I feel badly that we’ll leave her and the block. I have grown attached, and part of me doesn’t want to leave. Maybe if we stayed, found a place nearby, we could all learn each other’s names.
“Your husband said you’re moving!” Chino’s mom says as I come out from my front door. I look up at her through the black iron bars of our fence and inwardly sigh. So much for keeping that secret.
“Yea, they’re selling the place!”
“Awww. I don’t want you to move,” she says, making a sad face.
“I know! We don’t want to leave either, but living in the basement…”
“Yea, it’s tough. I don’t blame you.”
“Well if you hear of anything, let us know!”
“Ok, I will” And she walks off down the street for her daily stroll.
I watch her go. When I do move away, Chino’s mom might remember me and say, “That girl who lived next door? Her mom had cancer during her wedding. Sad. She had a beautiful pink dress too! My granddaughter wanted to get married after she saw that dress!” I’ll remember Chino’s mom wearing fuchsia lipstick and dangling red earrings and squinting like Yoda. She walked a little like him too; every warm day, up and down the block. Talking to everyone.
Alyssa Grace Sorresso is a creative nonfiction writer living in Chicago, who loves telling stories out loud. She holds a master’s in applied theater from the Central School of Speech and Drama in London. You can visit both sides of her life at tactlessgrace.com and alyssasorresso.com.