My unusual household

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My unusual household
by Alison Barnet Contributor
Wednesday Dec 1, 2010

I read in the newspaper that the wall of a building on Braddock Park fell out, taking with it a man in his bed. Did he wonder why it became so light in his bedroom all of a sudden? Did he worry he’d forgotten to turn off the oven? Did he wonder, the way I would: Is it this house? This block? The whole South End? The end of the world?

If the front wall of my house on East Springfield Street fell out, exposing each of the floors and the people in them, this is what we’d see.

Under a steep flight of metal stairs outside is a little door that leads into the traditional landlady’s apartment. In the South End, it’s called the ground floor, not the basement. Peering in, we see a frail old woman, her unruly white hair sticking straight up, sitting on a dirty brocade couch next to an enormous collie. She’s playing Solitaire, smoking one of those new cigarettes called New Pretty Eve or Femme, and absent-mindedly feeding the dog Sammy handfuls of caramel corn from a bowl on the table. An open book by a French author-Colette, Gide, or Mauriac-lies facedown beside her. Nothing in the room is free of dog hairs, especially the caramel corn.

One floor up there’s me, dancing around in a sari and drinking from a large glass of German white wine. I’m singing along to "Surrealistic Pillow" on my stereo and hanging a psychedelic poster on the wall across from my landlady’s "signed Daubigny." My journal lies open on the mantel but soon I’ll put it away in one of the broken refrigerators, safe from prying eyes.

Above me, on the second floor, a little girl is jumping up and down on a cot, making the rusty springs screech. It annoys me, but maddens her foster mother. Madge, a large, coarse woman, shrieks at the child between tuberculosis-like coughing fits. Is it true she’s a City Hospital telephone operator? Grease hangs down from the kitchen ceiling pipes like hair, and, if it happens to be Friday, the whole building stinks of Madge’s fried fish.

It’s understandable that the virago’s husband prefers to sit out on the stoop. Mr. LoGuidice, who calls himself Guidy, is much too large a man for the bottom step, but it allows him to pretend to train Peanut, a Chihuahua, while stopping passersby to tell tall tales. He claims to be a graduate of Boston University and Boston College, a former football star at Northeastern, and a retired lawyer for the City of Boston, all of which is unlikely yet possible. He’s dressed in a gray suit and white shirt open at the collar to make room for the tumor on the back of his neck that I’m unfortunate enough to see whenever I look out my window.

The third floor is dingy-blue wallpaper, blue floorboards and woodwork the color of a "flesh" crayon. Big burlap bags overflow with strips of cloth, as though someone had become obsessed with the idea of braiding a rug but never got past the cutting stage. Who could it be? There seems to be no life on this floor. But wait! A basket on a rope steadily makes its way down the front of the house to the front yard. Dixie has bought a box of cookies for John, the mailman. When he gets to our house, he’ll reach up, catch the swinging basket, and yell, "Thank you, Mrs. Fairland!"

The top floor ceilings are so low it seems only a dwarf could live there, but a heavyset, middle-aged man in several ratty sweaters sits under a dim ceiling light studying an enormous concordance to the Bible. Two antiquated space heaters are turned up all the way, even though it’s unseasonably warm for spring.

It’s lucky that the front of the building is torn away because otherwise no one would ever be able to see into the top three floors. As a rule, the people who live there open their doors only a crack. Yours truly on the first floor, although cleaner, is also private.

If we went around to the back of the house and stood in the alley, we might catch Police Sergeant O’Sullivan, right off the night shift and still in uniform, walking his poodle Peppie and his cocker spaniel Pammie, waiting for me to get up and pass the windows in a flimsy nightgown. He often whistles up: "Good morning, Alison! There was a murder in the Public Gardens last night!"

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