“He vas careful driver. Not even vunce he lost vun sheep in my willage. That vas how it vas before the var.”
Stories, stories, stories: Mrs. Serafima Ayupova Titomir was always in the middle of some story, real or fancied, bright and strange, embroidered on the plain muslin truth, perhaps for her own amusement but, more often, dictated by feverish guardian angels.
“She izz a crrrrazy,” explained my landlady, Mrs. Vara Pulaski, with a rusty Iron Curtain accent that no longer sounded foreign to me, so typical was it on Saint Marks Place. “Myselv. Myselv, I have also known these peepples who have vent to the doctors for to cure. But the Titomira.” Shaking her babushka-ed and dyed brown curls with grave exasperation, she made a universal gesture: circled her temple with a forefinger.
And, after all, it was Mrs. Pulaski I had to please. I never knew when she was going to shuffle through Tompkins Square Park, white logo shopping bags from the Polish butcher in each meaty hand, and surprise me, monitoring my sweeping or how generously I had been disinfecting the entry since bums had started to urinate against our metal outside door. But, instead of doubling up on Pine-Sol, my thrifty employer wanted me to exert myself in other ways.
“Stay in the front, Ivan, in the veek ven you see them come. Svear a little. The God. He is good. He vill forgive you.”
Although I nodded, I could already see the conflict between her priorities and my classwork at Cooper Union. Instead, on payday, as if I had nothing better to do than wait for strangers planning to piss on our stoop or in the flower pots, I went to Vartan and Zoltan’s Famous Electric on Avenue A and dickered for low-cost spotlights. Who wants to pee in full view of Pig’s Knuckles Bar & Grill (“Restrooms only for customers!”), in front of a whole brigade of Harleys and under the pitiless glare of 900 watts, when a lone tree pit in the park offers more anonymity?
Zoltan would give me a good price, I knew, because his shadier dealings were being scrutinized by the Ninth Precinct, who had been observing too many customers suspiciously sniffing and wiping their noses exiting, all smiles, and very few bearing brown paper bags. Predictably, Mrs. Pulaski approved my efforts, seeing my hard-earned wages diverted into capital improvements. Of course, my landlady made me pay for it all.
Mrs. Titomir’s reaction was another matter.
I came home from midterms one sharp late-autumn evening to find her fiddling with the metal cage protecting one of my bulbs. Her gray hair was so thick you could view an eclipse through it and it was always a mess, as if her tireless angels had been doing just that.
“Var!” she was promising our stoop and empty flower boxes. “This vill start another var!”
I was hoping one of the neighbors would stop by to lend moral support, or that maybe some of the Hell’s Angels, socializing at Pig’s Knuckles across the street, would investigate. But no. In a rare moment in this city of over seven million souls, I was alone. Sure I could have turned a deaf ear or pretended I didn’t understand. But my lighting arrangements and peace of mind were at stake — not to mention my grades. The derelicts and their busy bladders regularly coating our street door loomed on one side. On the other, Mrs. Pulaski’s expectations of me, her modern-day Janus.
“Hello, Mrs. Titomir,” I said in what I hoped would be a neutral tone. Make nice, Ivan, my Ukrainian grandmother used to counsel me. Everybody likes nice. At that moment, I would have given anything for her ghost to appear as my stand-in. Mrs. Titomir probably would have preferred this encounter, too, I suspected, given her kinship with the invisible.
Oh, she and I: wrong from the start. Three days after I was hired as Mrs. Pulaski’s on-site super for these twin tenements, I ran into Mrs. Titomir as I wheeled out garbage on a dolly.
“Turkey!” she screamed.
What could I say? Dumbfounded, I said nothing, which infuriated her.
“Turkey!” she repeated, taking direct aim into my face with her rage.
“Yes,” I returned pleasantly, trying anew.
“You do?” she asked, her mouth round with horror.
Perplexed, I righted the dolly carefully and pointedly stood next to it, not behind. “What is it about turkey?”
She threw me a look clearly reserved for American nincompoops, shaded nicely between contempt and pity. “Turkeys,” she spat, “cause var!”
Now today, on what had been a golden afternoon at school, I discovered I had somehow triggered yet another of her wartime nightmares. To her, perhaps these turkeys who had caused conflict in Eastern Europe had been resurrected in (or by) my spot lamps. How this had occurred was not as pressing an issue as getting her sturdy fists away from them.
New York City was bound to save me, if I only hung around long enough and, just then, Preshus, one of the motorcycle-fanciers on the block, strode out of Tompkins Square Park with her German shepherd, Open Mike, who was barking. Long-legged, she wore tight black pants that shimmered like wet pavement and lipstick inspired by stop signs.
Fortunately, Preshus’s hennaed head was untroubled by the social niceties that might have hog-tied, say, my more conventional suburban classmates. Her agenda was simple: she wanted to go into the bar but dogs were not allowed.
“Here,” said Preshus, extending a darkly tattooed right hand studded with rings, including a silver skull and two signs of the zodiac. Then she smoothly slipped the rawhide leash onto Mrs. Titomir’s arm with all the finesse and grace of Tiffany’s sales force.
“Hey!” yelled Mrs. Titomir in the direction of the black leather M.C. jacket with its hand-painted tribute: “1927 H-D — Hell on Wheels” emblazoned over a scuffed ad saluting somebody’s superior intake manifold.
“Hey, no geeve, pleeze!”
Open Mike yapped like a Greek chorus.
Arms akimbo, Preshus looked back from the far curb, her chin jutting towards the shepherd. “Not so loud!” she warned, “or he’ll bite.” Then she disappeared into Pig’s Knuckles.
“Better get him out of the light,” I suggested, my hushed tone hinting at things better left unsaid.
With stoic grace, my hardy neighbor shrugged, not unlike a martyr besieged by infidels. “In my Archangelsk,” she confided to her canine companion, “vee had the dogs.”
Open Mike, who had been gazing at the doorway where he had last seen Preshus, looked up at his gravelly-voiced guardian.
“Sit!” she directed. “Good doggy and vitt a golden coat. See? He is vun of the shmart.”
“Yes,” I agreed. “Very intelligent. Beautiful creature.”
“Krasivy,” she crooned, for once in happy accord. “Vee go, Nikita,” Mrs. Titomir informed Open Mike, heading towards the park. Obediently, he followed. “Right now,” she told an invisible entity, “to make air call.”
“Great,” I called out, waving bye-bye in case she turned at the corner. “Have a good time.”
A local wino passed me, keeping his matted head well down to avoid the glare of my security measures.
Pausing by a “No Parking” sign, Mrs. Titomir was loudly lecturing to the pooch, “Shmart boy, Nikita. To you, I tell the truth. And you will know how it vas in Europe before the var.”
Maybe the situation would reverse itself by tomorrow and I’d have to wrestle with the angels again. But I had witnessed oddities in the East Village and the reassuring thing about oddness is how often it’s inconsistent. There was a chance Mrs. Titomir would forget all about the spotlights. For a while anyway.
Open Mike, fidus Achates. Years before I left home for Cooper Union, dedicated to science and art, my parents had taught me to respect my elders. To protect small children and innocent animals. And here I was, at 21, standing by as a free-wheeling bike chick put man’s best friend into the protective custody of one of the neighborhood loonies.
What had I done? I watched from across the street, contemplating my next move.
Mrs. Titomir had taken a piece of crockery out of the huge gaudy tote bag she always carried and was filling it at an open hydrant. Open Mike watched as a bowl of cold water was set down in front of him. The thirsty dog lapped and lapped. When a small terrier nosed the dish, Open Mike shared his bounty.
The man who owned the terrier joined the party and tendered his thanks in Russian: Spasibo.
“Dobryy den,” she said, sunning him with an uncharacteristic smile.
I had never heard her say “good afternoon” before but suddenly it was. The best I’d seen in a while on Saint Marks Place.
Native New Yorker LindaAnn LoSchiavo is completing her second documentary film–on actress actress, Western star, and speakeasy hostess Texas Guinnan [1884 – 1933]. She also just starred in a documentary about Greenwich Village that will be screened in June 2017. To revive her spirits, she puts pen to paper. 101 Fiction, Hawaii Review, Ink & Letters, Metamorphose, Measure, Mused, Peacock Journal, Windhover, and Nous are recent credits.