My neighbor’s keepers

Have you ever had a day like this on your Philly block?

7 minute read
Clouds and sun at home. (Photo by Alaina Johns.)
Clouds and sun at home. (Photo by Alaina Johns.)

At home on my small block in South Philly, I don’t pay much attention when people bang on doors. Last year, one of my neighbors threw her boyfriend out and he slammed his fist on her front door for ten minutes, until her brother, who lives across from me, yelled at him to knock it off.

Last Tuesday, the pounding on my other neighbor's door started around 2pm. I already had earplugs in because of the beeping, scraping, shouting din of the crew putting our new sewer in, so it was just one more noise to ignore. Then my doorbell rang.

There were two 40-something strangers on my stoop in the hot sun: a man and a woman.

“We’re so sorry to disturb you,” the woman said. “But we’re wondering if you’ve seen Richard today? Have you heard anything next door?”

“No,” I said, raising my voice over the excavator working 10 feet away. “But it’s hard to hear anything these days.”

I felt guilty. Not only had I not seen Richard today; I actually hadn’t known his name was Richard. Our longest interaction was the time I got home late, just as a taxi was dropping him off, wearing a rumpled suit and carrying a large bag.

“Welcome home,” I said, as we unlocked our doors next to each other. He gave me a cold sideways look and went inside. I can often hear his TV through the wall at night.

Lately, an ordinary day on my block is hard enough. (Photo by Alaina Johns.)
Lately, an ordinary day on my block is hard enough. (Photo by Alaina Johns.)

Other neighbors, I know. Like Nan, across the street. She adopted a surly Havanese named Molly (“Mahh-lee”). A license plate on Nan’s white Oldsmobile read “Molly and Me.” Molly and my dog are friends, and Nan and I met almost every day. A petite woman about 70 years old, her perfectly coiffed short hair was deep maroon, and she lived in pink lipstick.

“You call me if you ever need anything,” Nan insisted.

She died suddenly in February. Cancer. My friend Deana, whose house is beside Nan’s, texted me. We walked together on a rainy morning to the viewing at an old South Philly church. Terry and Jen, a married couple who live down the block, were also there. They adopted Molly.

Richard stepped up, too. He took on the two scruffy cats that lived on Nan’s porch, installing a little insulated house for them by his stoop. They moved right in. I appreciate what he did for Nan’s cats.

The strangers at my door looking for Richard were Sherry and Rob: his coworkers. He hadn’t come to work that day. He missed an important meeting. He wasn’t answering his phone. He wasn’t answering the door.

I invited them inside and led them out my back door, where they could access the cement alley and the back of Richard’s house.

Rob reached over the rickety gate and unfastened it. He knocked on Richard’s back door, and put his face to the kitchen window, hands cupping the glass around his eyes.

“Now see, there’s a banana on the counter,” he reported. “I see his jacket hanging up. And his glasses are on the counter. He wouldn’t go anywhere without his glasses, would he?”

I texted Deana. She sent Terry’s phone number. I left him a message.

By that time, Sherry had called their employer’s travel agent and confirmed that Richard wasn’t out of town. He did have an emergency contact there: his sister. Sherry called her, but she couldn’t help from wherever she was.

“What do you think we should do?” Sherry asked me.

“I would make some other calls,” I said.

“But we don’t know who else we can call.”

“I think you should call 911.”

Lately, an ordinary day on my block is hard enough. (Photo by Alaina Johns.)
Lately, an ordinary day on my block is hard enough. (Photo by Alaina Johns.)

I invited them to sit in my living room, but they went back outside. I walked out to them a little while later.

“They’re gonna send somebody out, but likely not for awhile,” Rob said, fiddling with his sunglasses. His voice was a little shaky. “They don’t sound too worried. Probably pretty routine.” I invited them in again, but they wanted to wait for the police outside. They got beverages in Styrofoam cups from a nearby restaurant and forgot them on my stoop. The excavator ground on.

I tried to go back to work.

My doorbell rang again. A firefighter. I showed him out the back, and then the police officer who followed. The officer didn't greet me. He just stepped in when I opened the door, and walked through my house. I offered to get him something to help climb over the alley wall to Richard's back door. He ignored me, upended a big plastic trashcan, stood on that, and boosted himself over.

Out front, there was a brief siren, and then a small swarm of police officers and firefighters. A gaggle of contractors building a garage down the block stopped and stared. The sewer workers had finally turned off their machines and gone home.

“60-year-old male. Wellness check,” I heard a cop say. A younger officer stood on Richard’s stoop. He read a text message and smiled. A firefighter managed to crack a front window, climbed in, and opened the door for a small crowd of officers. A few moments later they came out and stood chatting comfortably on the muddy gravel. Richard’s door was open and I saw his mail on the floor, where it had come in through the slot a few hours earlier.

Sherry touched an officer’s elbow. “Did you find anything?”

“He’s deceased,” the cop said.

“Oh my god,” Sherry said, hands flying to her mouth.

A few minutes later, Richard’s neighbor on the other side, Rick, came down the street with his hands full of groceries.

“Everything okay?” he asked me mildly.

I tried to think what to say.

“Richard died,” was all that came out.

WHAT?” Rick said. “Richard DIED?” He went pale and he stared at me with wide, watery blue eyes. His bags hit the ground and he grasped my stoop railing with both hands and hung there, his forehead against his knuckles. “First Nan, and now Richard?”

“Do you want to sit down?” I asked helplessly.

Lately, an ordinary day on my block is hard enough. (Photo by Alaina Johns.)
Lately, an ordinary day on my block is hard enough. (Photo by Alaina Johns.)

I texted my roommates, and then Terry called me back, hurrying to give me Jen’s number. I interrupted him as politely as I could.

After an hour or so, a police van backed into our torn-up street as far as it could go, and a small team of officers opened the back and pulled an empty body bag out.

“This is such bullshit,” one said as he passed me, picking his way through the rutted gravel. Another carried a Dunkin’ Donuts iced coffee into the house.

Meanwhile, my roommate appeared on the block, but got waylaid by Rachel, who lives across the street, hovers at her screen door, and misses nothing. “Oh, it’s just awful,” Rachel was saying. On a clear day, her voice probably reaches the Schuylkill.

I waved my roommate inside before the cops came out. She picked her way past the gaping police van—a big black-and-white beetle trying to fly away.

“They’re getting the body now,” I said, shutting the door behind her. “I didn’t want it to startle you.” She shuddered.

We sat on our couch and talked about the day. We pretended not to listen to the heavy footfalls down the stairs on the other side of the wall.

We left a sliver of the front curtain open. Only enough to know that the officers, puffing with the limp, weighty bag over the uneven gravel, were gone.

I opened the door again and looked at our block. Jen was passing across the street, on her way home from work. She stopped and looked at Richard’s house and her face crumpled.

“Are you okay?” she called to me.

“Yeah,” I said, eyes prickling. I shrugged, lifting my palms.

“Tell us if you need anything,” she said, starting to cry.

“You too,” I answered.

Life (especially life on a small Philly block) is full of surprising color, homelike insults, and strange intimacies. But whether or not it happens on your own street, death seems like a lonely, undignified thing—no matter how long we pretend otherwise, ignoring the pounding on the door.

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