Stoop Sitters

It’s one of those nights in New York when the world is a wind tunnel. It’s the coldest night of the year, again. And January has just begun.

Two people sit huddled on a stoop, parkas covering their body, fannies frozen against the cold cement. With their pointy hoods, they look like druids. They smoke in silence, sitting motionless night after night, hour after hour. They look homeless; all that’s missing is a tin cup.

These are my neighbors. They are not destitute. They live across the street in a brownstone, paying enough rent on their apartment to cover the mortgage on a McMansion in Dallas.

Nine p.m. I’m headed out the door, cursing myself when I’ve forgotten something and turn back up the stairs to retrieve it; taking out the trash; talking through my to-do list. They sit so still; I don’t notice them. For most of the year the view across the street is obstructed by trees.

It’s not until I stand on the sidewalk and close the gate behind me that I notice them. Camouflaged in the doorway, only the pale of their faces betray their presence. Their heads turn to watch me like I am a tennis ball and they are court-side spectators.

They never say a word to each other. I am the entertainment, and so are you.

Don’t get me wrong, I like hanging out on my stoop, especially in the spring, but not for hours everyday, and not on days when the weatherman is working overtime.

I’ve contemplated asking why, what are they looking for? But my imagination makes them more interesting.

We’ve met once. At a matinee house party across the street that assembled most of my middle-aged neighbors, I found the couple stationed out back, smoking on the patio. In the brief encounter they managed to ask what I did for a living immediately after I introduced myself. They couldn’t even get a comment on the occasion before jumping the question.

I didn’t ask what they do.

I sometimes see him walking to the cornershop for the morning paper. He wears white sneakers, faded jeans, and a white t-shirt. At best his name is Bob, he is from Toe Jam, Ohio. He vacations in Orlando. He looks like an American tourist abroad, or with a short-sleeve white shirt and tie, a Mormon missionary. He might remark that a work of art is interesting.

The most interesting thing about them is their nicotine habit. Behavioral studies have shown smokers to be sensation and thrill seekers. Maybe their taste for tobacco is a tip-off to gambling like high rollers or outlaw motorcycle gang affiliations.

They have no kids. Maybe they tried and they couldn’t, or didn’t want to deal with the responsibilities and disturb their routine.

They’ve been together eight years; maybe they meet at work, or on eHarmony. I can’t picture intense passion, soap opera betrayals, or vein popping arguments. They don’t cook, they order in. The 30-minute after-dinner passeggiata made without descending their front steps, marks the highlight of their evening.

They go out to dinner once a week, and repair to bed before 11. They watch American Idol together; they watch a lot of tv. Their limited music collection includes Billy Joel standards and assorted greatest hits collections of the Steve Miller band variety.

Their hair is the same sandy color. They have an undefined heritage that might simply be called American, or mutt. They are distinguished by being so indistinguishable.

They sit wistfully watching the lives of others, living through people passing by.

Who are they watching?

The guy two doors down who fixed-up his Ford F-350 Super Duty Diesel V8 4x4 pickup every chance he got. Once that project was complete, he bought a motorcycle and now works on that. With two vehicles to his name, he takes the subway.

This might explain his near ownership of the parking spot directly in front of my house.

Mrs. Phipps lives in the house with the railings painted in the green, red, and black colors of the Pan-African flag. She quit smoking after her husband of 50 years died; I didn’t see her much after that. But she recently quit quitting and now I see her more than anyone else on the block.

The bald guy who drives the pea-green vessel from 1972 now considered a classic car, the same model and color my grandfather once drove. Luck finds him a perpetual parking spot on my block even though his ride could store a baby-grand piano in its trunk with enough room left over for the bench.

Should I decide to have a car, I live in the right place.

The plump woman who lives in subsidized housing two blocks up the street. She’ll ask you for a cigarette or a dollar in the “Are we there yet?” whine of a 12-year-old girl. When she finds a smoke she parks herself on the closest stoop and lights up. She wears white pajama pants peppered with Minnie Mouse motifs like a preppie’s lobster printed khakis.

I contemplate asking her for a dollar in the same earnest whine a nanosecond before she does, thinking it will cancel out her pleas like the anticipatory sound waves of noise canceling headphones.

The movie people who live next door keep a black SUV idling for hours in the fire hydrant spot across the street. Their carbon footprint approaches Al Gore’s. I read an interview in the paper where they claim to slum it on the subway with the rest of the straphanging hoi polloi.

The most Hollywood thing about them hides their garbage. We have green Rubbermaid cans with sun-faded covers lined up at the side of the stoop. They have a custom built teak bin that encloses their containers in a glove of exotic wood.

I’ve never seen and Ira and his wife walking apart. He wears jean shorts even in January, she a fanny pack. Their house is known for the creepy mannequin that stands in the entrance. In an email sent through the block’s mailing list he describes it as a signpost: “Sylvia, the pink-faced, life-size mannequin in my doorway.”

Southpaw sits just around the corner. The walk from the nearest subway stop to the venue follows a path directly down my street. Whatever band is on the bill that evening draws their fans out of the woodwork—rockabilly greasers, aging indie rockers. After one show, dreadlocked hippies set up a tank of nitrous oxide beside the recording studio on my block. The couple that owns it stood watching in bemusement with tattooed arms crossed.

Five nights a week like clockwork the maître d from the Italian restaurant on the corner hobbles up the block after his shift carrying a white plastic bag with takeout inside. He looks drained of life like he was fired, mugged, and dumped on the same day.

He lost his job for good last week. Overnight the restaurant turns into a Mexican cantina just in time for Cinco de Mayo.

Next to the restaurant is a basement recording studio. For $35 dollars an hour, your punk band can suck in the studio too. As evening falls, the band members can be spotted smoking outside between takes. They’re hard to see as their collective wardrobe creates a curtain of black that blends into the night. Outfitted in facemasks and nunchucks they could be ninjas.

Me. I’m in and out of the apartment. I’m gone by 7:20 a.m. and don’t get home until 7 p.m. if I’m lucky. If not, it’s 8 or 9 and I’m carrying my gym bag, dinner, and dry cleaning. I’m half dressed in work and gym clothes because I’m too tired to change after working out and then again five minutes later when I get home to shower.

I open the front gate and close it gently behind me so it doesn’t slam shut. I walk around the side of the stoop to check the mail, and then I trudge up the steps. I feel their eyes burning a hole through my back as I dig for the keys. I’m in.

I’d like to think this pastime has a higher purpose. Maybe one is a writer tackling some sort of yearlong quest that is popular in the publishing world, a year of living biblically, a year of living off the land. They pitch their agent on a year sitting on the stoop observing the minutia of life walking by. (It’s been much longer than a year though.)

I imagine the steps where they sit are now shaped into an ergonomic rendering of their rears, like old steps sandblasted from the marches of a million feet.

Possibly in recognition of these impressions, they have started using sitting pads, like the freebies offered at baseball games on promotional days.

They are committed.

Is it a penance?

A neighborhood watch unit maybe?

Bingo? I’ve heard of corporate buzzword bingo and other variations circulating on the Internet. The cards are printed out and played at staff meetings. Mark the buzzwords as they are heard or pop up on a PowerPoint: synergy, best practice, value-added…

Their version is Brownstone Bingo: twins in double-wide stroller, parallel parker smacking bumpers, Obama anything.

What if a guy in a chicken suit, juggling bananas while riding a unicycle passed by? Would all their effort (right word?) pay off? Would they have achieved the holy grail of stoop sitting?

Meanwhile, I’ve finished dinner, done the dishes, and am ready to leave the apartment an hour after coming home from work. I walk out the door feeling less encumbered.

They haven’t moved.

Do they wonder what I am doing, where I am going? Do I inspire a story?

I hope the real one is better than the imaginary.

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