Monday, May 16, 2005

My colorful neighborhood

The color starts right at the sidewalk, with a crew of male layabouts who purport to be furniture-movers but who fritter away most afternoons at a formica table, drinking beer and chewing betel nuts and playing Chinese chess and making imperious demands of their womenfolk. The women are colorful in their own right -- and actually look capable of taking the men in a fair fight -- though they seem to believe that being hectored about is a natural state of affairs, as long as the hectoring results only in cooking and beer-fetching.

Then there's the dwarf who delivers canisters of gas. Gas canisters are big metal affairs, bulky and heavy, and to be frank I'm not sure that I would be capable of hauling one up five flights of stairs, though this dwarf does so uncomplainingly. You see this fellow throw a 16-kilo canister over his back and go marching upward, upward, his legs working like industrial machinery, and you find yourself bursting with admiration, thinking "Now there goes a man!"

If it's not the dwarf who brings your gas, it's likely to be the obese retarded man. He labors. He wheezes. He might drop dead in your kitchen and then you'll have a serious problem. When he's not delivering gas he's loitering at the magazine rack in the Seven-11, thumbing through mass-circulation publications as if they were the foulest pornography. He's the dwarf's brother, or so I'm told by a person in position to know. The obese man gives me a queasy feeling, like an indigestible chili dog. This reaction is not ennobling, but it is unavoidable.

Ah, my next-door neighbor. Another retarded person. She screams for her mother through the morning and screams out discontents in the middle of the night. Her trusty companion is a large, smelly dog with one tooth. When the woman leaves her door open, the dog's wet odor permeates the entire stairwell, forcing neighbors to leave incense burning in the hall. Believe me, the combined olfactory sensation is not something you'd like to experience. Worst, the woman is mean. She encourages the dog to bark. She destroys potted plants if they come within her reach. For the sensitive soul, she's a moral problem that knows no answer.

Her opposite number is a neighborhood lurker with bandy legs and bandages on his feet. This man is as sweet as can be. He can't speak intelligibly, he walks with great difficulty, but he populates the neighborhood like a friendly ghost, hanging about amiably at the edges of card games and smiling at passers-by. You'd trust him in an instant to hold your wallet, to keep an eye on your child. You'd trust his impulses, in any case. But he wouldn't be able to execute.

When I see this man and he hails me, I'm careful to extend him bounteous and conspicuous hellos -- this is a person I feel for. Not so much the dwarf, who clearly can take care of himself. Not so much my lady neighbor, who irks me on purpose. Nor the magazine-thumber, a disturbing individual. But the little man with the big smile and the bandy legs gets every last ounce of my good human feelings.

No comments: