There’s a guy who lives in my building in Astoria. His name is Billy. His brow slopes into a perpetual scowl. His hair is shoulder length and dirty-looking, a black beanie covering it. His beard is gray and his skin blotchy and tired. He uses a walker because both his legs are in walking boots shielding thick, crusty socks. Most days, it’s sweatpants and a Yankees shirt. And since Anna and I are on the first floor, I see him a lot, sitting on his walker’s seat outside the front door of our five story walk-up, scowling with solemnity across the street at a skinny tree, seemingly watching it change its clothes with each passing season.
And I have a confession. Every time I see Billy, I say “How y’doing?” And his scowl unclenches slightly with his, “Fine, how you?” to which I reply, “Doing well. [Insert statement about weather here.]”
And throughout this impersonal exchange, I haven’t stopped moving, ascending the steps, finding my keys, opening the door, going inside with a politician’s, “Have a good one!”
Billy and I did this for 11 months before I even learned his name. Christ, forgive me.
But then something happened three weeks ago. I had an exceptionally long day. I was exhausted and it was an orange and pink skied September evening, the air breathless and cool, and I wanted to have a beer sitting out on the stoop. So I did.
As I sat, I heard the door open and turning to look, Billy was there clunkily coming down the steps on his daily pilgrimage. We enacted our perfunctory routine, “How you doing fine how you good insert weather.”
But then, since I wasn’t going anywhere, it felt inhuman to sit together and not even know his name. So I asked and learned he was Billy. We sat in silence drinking that orange and pink filtered sky, watching the tree undress, one of those nights when New York gives you a gift.
It was special. But something even more special happened. Billy turned to me and said, “You know that Popeyes on 48th?”
“Yea,” I said.
“It used to be Mike’s Hardware store.”
(I actually can’t remember what he said it used to be, since we played this game for a while, so I just made up Mike’s Hardware. If there ever was a Mike’s Hardware in Astoria, sorry if I misrepresented your location.)
“Really,” I said. “That’s interesting.”
“You know the Croatian restaurant on 34th?”
“Used to be […].
“Wow. That’s interesting.”
“Yea. My dad used to take me there.”
“Really? You’re from Astoria?”
He nodded and looked away.
“I’ve lived in this apartment for 50 years.”
I turned and looked at him.
“What? How old are you?”
My face dropped a bit in shock and emitted a half-chuckle-half-smile. And then Billy did something I’d yet to see him do. He smiled back.
And that was that. I asked him if he wanted a beer. He said yes. And for the next hour, Billy and I sat together on the stoop of his home and he told me about Astoria through the years. We went block by block, building by building, as he recounted the evolution of a neighborhood that had not asked him if it was ok to change. He had no guile, despite his face’s scowl. He loved the Yankees and told me he owned every Season’s End Review video when they had won the World Series. He knew statistics about the Yankees I don’t think the Yankees know. He told me he was an only child to Irish parents and both his mom and dad died in that apartment. That he had a cousin in Boston but he’d never leave. That he’s paying $700/mo in rent. That drew a half-smile-half-chuckle.
I don’t remember how the conversation ended. But when I walked back inside, I told Anna how foolish I felt. How self-obsessed and hypocritical I had been. And how sad I was that it had taken me 11 months to know Billy’s name and here we were moving to Brooklyn in a few short weeks. There were so many conversations I wanted to have with him. Questions to ask. Beers to drink. Seasons to watch the tree together. And I wouldn’t get that chance, because I was so consumed in my own life that I had never even taken the time to ask his name.
Anna is wise and told me to give myself grace. All would be well.
The sky was now completely pink and it was slipping through our blinds casting a beautiful filter on our walls. I walked over and peeked out the window to see if Billy was still there. He was, of course. Scowling and solemn. Staring straight at the tree.
Why are we planting Hope Brooklyn? Because Billy’s have something to teach us about their city. And I am richer when Billy is my friend. And I pray he would say the same.