“My Neighbors are Dying Around Me” Club

When we first moved into our building in Fort Lee, NJ, just on the other side of the infamous George Washington Bridge, it was because my cousin had recruited us here. She had a gorgeous apartment in the building and had twin boys the same age as my daughter. The family connection (and more affordable real estate) convinced us to cross over the bridge from upper Manhattan.

While my cousin moved a few miles down the road two years ago into a new house, we are still here. We find ourselves in a transitioning city, with new high-rises jutting up in front of our Manhattan skyline views, new outdoor shopping areas equipped with a luxury movie theater (whatever that means). I welcome our neighborhood’s positive transformation (higher real estate values) but have not expected the building’s own metamorphosis.

When we moved in, we quickly realized aside from my cousin and me, there were only two other “young” families in our 22-story building. Many of the residents had been there from the building’s erection in the 1970s and had raised their own families here. At first, I thought nothing of it; I got along well with octogenarians. They thought my children were adorable and polite and were grateful for the new life and energy infiltrating the building. They said we reminded them of their younger years and would get nostalgic, showing off wallet sized photos of grandchildren.

My building has a social committee which organizes wine and cheese nights before the monthly board meetings as well as BBQs for the summer bookend holidays, afternoon tea and cookies on spring Sundays and ice cream socials in July. Initially, we went to all of the events, but we soon came to feel a bit like animals in the zoo – “Ooh, the little kids are here…” and we were there to be observed, plucked, cooed with and I felt very judged. My husband told me I was being hypersensitive (as usual). I continued to be kind and polite to all my neighbors, but my social event attendance dwindled.

Within a few months of living here, I came down to check the mail and noticed a portrait in a silver frame on the front desk of the doorman; there was a single rose in a bud vase accompanying the photo. There was a second frame with a piece of a paper with printed memorial information for deceased. When I saw it, I became flooded with emotion. It was the man who always wore his fancy tennis whites, full of energy. Just last week he had been flirting with his wife in the lobby, her in a matching tennis skirt. They were so active, and now he’s dead.

“He was 84,” the doorman reminds me.

“But he was in such great shape,” I sound defeated.

This was the first of many such framed portrait/eulogies accompanied by floral still-lives I saw when I came down to collect mail or go out the front door. It went from utterly depressing to “who now?” matter of factly because it seemed to happen monthly.

In my building, in the summer at our rooftop pool is when we get the most face time with our neighbors. I watch them do their laps in the pool, swim cap and goggles sucked onto their bodies or else I see them reading a book in the shade. I watch the age grace their bodies, unable to fight time; each summer a reminder they made it another year. Last year Fred sat on the roof telling me he needed a new kidney. He told anyone who would listen – and possibly donate – that he only had a year to live if he didn’t get a new kidney. I haven’t seen Fred at the pool this year, but I haven’t seen his portrait at the front desk either.

Living here has been a constant reminder of something I never forget; time moves faster and faster as the years pass. I’ve lived here almost five years now and this summer there were ten children in the pool at the same time and two babies in strollers waiting their turn. The neighborhood is getting a new life, sleek modern buildings join our landscape, ritzy stores open on a street which lay abandoned for three decades, and bright green grass now fills the previously yellow dried out patches. Meanwhile, the neighbors who have committed a life to this hood are dying out before they have a chance to revel in its rebirth.

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