While it was only around 70 degrees when my friend Roger and I rode the subway to Yankee Stadium to see our team play the Royals in the 1976 playoffs, the subway system itself always added between 10 and 20 degrees to any trip. But it was on that ride that I experienced one of my fondest moments of adolescence. And one of my fondest moments of living in New York.
A girl, about my age, skin like cocoa, and sporting a reluctant smile, was smashed up against Roger and me and the rest of us — all of us like the proverbial sardines, none of us holding onto anything; there was no need — and she was sweating. I was sweating. Roger was sweating. We were all… you get the picture. But the ride was a teen romance from start to finish. Heavy on imagination and light on action. It started at 86th Street in Manhattan and ended at 161st Street in the Bronx.
One of my least fond memories — and, yes, these vignettes are going somewhere — was not long before we moved from New York to Texas. We lived in a 4th floor walk-up brownstone, cooled and heated by a forced air system through which the neighbor above and below could hear each other fairly easily and with floors that were permeable by sound even if not by grace.
As the tenants on the top floor, we never had to bother with loud neighbors above but rather had to be aware of our noise and its effects on those below. Starting in late 2007, we had in succession three wonderful neighbors below us, who were the epitome of patience. The first was a family of four. The man was an actor, the wife a former Rockette and then Irish dance studio owner. Their son played the violin (and not so poorly), and their daughter, the piano. The only confrontation, if you could even call it that, was when I was putting together our boys’ bunk beds with a electric drill at around 10pm one school night in advance of my family moving from Massachusetts in a few days. My neighbor, having heard the noise through aforementioned forced air vents and tissue-thin floors, rang my doorbell.
I twisted free the deadbolt and opened the metal door and there was a handsome and obviously in-shape man in a white “wife-beater” t-shirt, with his hands on either side of my doorframe. His biceps introduced him.
“Hey, um,” he started. “My kids are trying to sleep”–I learned then both that there were kids living below us and that sounds could be heard–“and I wonder if you could hold off on the drilling until tomorrow?” I of course obliged, and Peter’s family and mine became quite amiable in our several years of living so closely together. You could say we became amiable because of living so closely together.
After the first three tenants came another.
He apparently told the broker he wanted “quiet,” but as Karen later described it–accurately–what he really wanted was silence. This, promised by a broker who knew that a family of five, including three growing boys, was living on the floor above. And, yes, the broker got paid for this. Our new tenant had lived in big cities before, but never in New York. For whatever reason, living in a dense urban environment didn’t suit him, at least not in this brownstone. He stayed less than a year and then moved to another apartment in New York, one in which, I trust, tenants were not allowed to procreate or walk on floors past 8pm. After him we had another tenant who we got along with favorably, until we moved.
And now I come to the point of this sermon.
Living in a dense environment teaches one a lot about oneself, and it foists upon us certain capacities. Capacities that none of us perfects, including the person typing this. God knows full well that as I have tried to write down a fearless moral inventory, my judgmental attitude toward others and its concomitant resentment are clear and present dangers to me. They are obstacles between me and God that I need to ask God to remove daily, because I often can’t see them clearly. I grew up in a small bedroom with a roommate (my younger brother) for 16 years. I learned not to run up and down the hall in our apartment over our neighbor below us. I also learned that if I was in the hall by the elevator and kicked the soccer ball past the goalie (said brother) and scored against the door of apartment 6D, that Mr. Gorman would be out momentarily to scold us. We had to calculate the risk-reward of my winning a soccer game over being chewed out by an old Irish guy with an attitude. I learned that Mrs. Ziffer, a Jewish lady in the apartment next to us and who had escaped from Poland to London in 1939, just in time to get bombed by the Nazis before moving to the States, always had candy. She became like a grandmother who was always a knock away. So when I went to college and shared a dorm room slightly smaller than my bedroom, it was no sweat. When I moved back to New York and had two roommates in an apartment, it was no sweat. When I rode the subway to work and sweated with the other commuters, it was no sweat.
But here in Kerrville, Texas–as elsewhere, especially in dense urban environments–we are told to stay home as much as possible due to the pandemic or, when venturing out we are asked to take precautions like social distancing, wearing masks, and using hand sanitizer, people on Facebook start posting copies of the Constitution and talking about individual rights.
Let me close with these words of Jesus from Luke 9:23. “If anyone would come after me, let him take up his cross daily and follow me, being ready upon my command to bring down that heavy cross on the head of any numbskull dumb enough to try and stop us. ‘GIT YER GUNS UP!’ ”
Wait. No. That doesn’t sound right. Better check me on that.
Eighty years ago, people were asked to “Go. Leave your home and fight. Be willing to die.” And so they went.
Today, people are asked to “Stay. Sit on your couch and watch Netflix. Be patient.”
And so we…