I wonder what my building smelled like 30 years ago.
Back then, Queens was still the most native-born of the five boroughs of New York City, and my neighborhood was rich with generations of Irish and Italian families. I imagine cabbage and red gravy wafting down the halls into my apartment.
But now it smells like curries, like chicken adobo, like rice and beans, like dishes I have never heard of from parts of the world I barely know. In three decades, we’ve had a change in population that is almost unimaginable in peacetime — now roughly half of the 2.5 million people here were foreign-born. Everyone rubs up against one another, all the time.
It’s amazing — Indians and Pakistanis shop at the same markets, Thais and Mexicans and Chinese work in the same restaurants. But let’s not be Pollyannas; not everyone always loves it. And I wonder who was here before, and why they’re not here anymore. For all the diversity in my building, I have to confess that I don’t often see, well, white people.
I walk around to smell what’s cooking. I take the stairs, and notice how the food smells different from floor to floor, but those aromas are the only things that connect me and my neighbors. The doors are always closed, heavy and black in our drab halls, and all the living goes on behind them.
On the day before Thanksgiving, though, I turned and saw bright splashes of color: Christmas decorations lining the second floor. I paused and smiled, happy to see someone bringing a little of their life outside of their door. Out came a woman, thin white curls on her head topping a pink muumuu, packing tape in hand and heading toward an enormous cardboard bear dressed as Santa.
We said hello, exchanged some pleasantries about how long we’ve lived in the building. Six years for me, decades for her. I said I admired her spirit. “Oh, we’re Christmas nuts!” Ann Marie exclaimed. [Note: Real names have been changed in this story.] “Me and all my neighbors here in our little corner,” she said, waving her hand in circles. “We do this every year, different decorations each year.” She pointed her chin toward her doorway, draped with yards of white tinsel. “Here, take a look. We’re all ready inside.”
She led me into her home, a little too small for all the things it contained, meticulously kempt and lived-in. I saw her tree, glittering, a side table pulled out and stocked like a bar. “I’m ready for tomorrow, making turkey and all that,” she said, pointing toward her table set for five. I looked at the plates and napkins, green and decorated with pine trees. “Are you sure you have the right china out?” I asked.
“For us, Thanksgiving is just the beginning of Christmas season!” she howled.
I asked her what she makes for Christmas dinner. “Eh, this year I might make a roast beef. I don’t know yet. We don’t have one thing we always make.” She paused. “Oh, except my mom always liked herring, that herring in cream sauce. We have that with raw onions,” she said, pronouncing “raw” like “roar,” hardcore New York style. “She liked that. It makes me go bleahh! But for New Year’s we always have ham or pork. That’s supposed to be good luck for the new year. That’s our tradition.”
“What tradition is that?” I asked.
“It’s Irish. Irish-Italian,” she said.
We talked some more, about traditions, about watching the children of friends grow up and about what it’s like to still be working. “Back when I was your age, we used to think you’d go to work for one company and stay there forever,” she said. “But that was a long time ago. The world is so different now,” she said, looking past me, down the empty, undecorated part of the hall. We smiled and said goodbye.
Two days later, on my way out, I saw Carlos the maintenance man sweeping with a jury-rigged dustpan, made by sawing a cooking oil container in half and bolting it to a broomstick. He’s a small man, face and skin wrinkled with age, but he moves quickly and talks even quicker, his voice jumping in quick staccato, highlighting his thick Peruvian accent.
“Did you have a good Thanksgiving, Carlos?”
“Oh yeah, amigo. I had dinner here in the building, upstairs with my friend. I bring my whole family. She likes them, my family. She’s very nice. We do this 15 years.”
“Oh, that’s great. Who’s your friend?”
“On the second floor. The fat lady, Ann Marie,” he said.