25 Ramadan 1441
It’s possible to be surrounded by others physically yet feel utterly isolated.
It’s also possible to be physically apart yet feel the subtlety of someone’s sincere compassion surround you in a tight, protective embrace.
I lived in Columbia University graduate student housing on 112th street for seven years. After defending, I received my final notice to move out and left the block to live further uptown.
And one of the people I miss the most from the block is Mr. Stevens.
I also miss the folks at Westside Supermarket like Musa who always says, Assalamu ‘alaykum, my sister. And the manager who I thought was Dominican FOR YEARS but turns out he’s Indian. And even the guy who can never make me salad without shooting his shot.
“Yeah. I’d like some jalapenos, please.”
“Yeeeah. I know. Because you always like it spicy.”
And I miss Puerto Rican Charlie. (If you’re reading this, Hey Charlie.)
But these days including today, I’ve been thinking about Mr. Stevens.
This is the time of year, pre-pandemic, when I would be looking for him to drop off a few mangoes from Florida. My parents would track the mango shipment and as soon as it arrived, they’d also be sure tell me, Don’t forget to give Mr.Stevens mangoes.
The other guys working the block always knew. They’d wait for mango season, watch me like a hawk even though I thought I was slick walking over to Mr.Stevens’ building like I don’t have mangoes in my black plastic bag, and then when I’d cross the street to head home, they’d call me out, HEY YOU ONLY GONNA GIVE DAVID MANGOES??? WHAT ABOUT US?!
And then I’d give them mangoes.
Other than a Frisbee tearing open my upper lip, getting stung by a bee that landed on a granola bar I bit into, stepping on a sea urchin while snorkeling in the Red Sea, falling down a snowy slope while tubing, the occasional high fevers and vomiting on trips to Bangladesh, and the post-hajj hacking cough, I’ve been relatively healthy my whole life.
Then I moved to New York City. The first year I lived in New York City, I not only learned how to read and write Hebrew fluently and ride the train to different boroughs of the city, but I was sick all the time.
And I don’t mean allergies or the common cold. I mean bronchitis, vomiting, fevers, biopsies, surgery, post-surgery infections, taking so many meds I’d never taken before, badly reacting to those meds, more vomiting. Every time I thought I recovered from one thing, I became sick with something else.
It was like I had joined a sorority of mean girls, and I was being hazed, only the mean girls were viruses and bacteria, and I didn’t want to be in their sorority.
I just wanted to be a nerd and be in school.
After getting over a cough that sometimes hurt and sometimes made me feel embarrassed to be sitting in a graduate seminar, October brought me a couple weeks of respite until I felt feverish perhaps at the end of October or early November, walked over to John Jay, and was told I had symptoms of a “flu-like virus.” For some reason, the nurse wouldn’t say H1N1. I was handed a couple masks and told to inform all my professors I would not be attending classes for the next 10 days. I was also told my professors would be informed so they would excuse my absences.
At first, their recommendations seemed excessive–until I got to my apartment, went to sleep, and couldn’t get out of bed for 10 days except for the occasional need to use the bathroom, or vomit, or drink Gatorade, or make wudu and pray.
One of those days, I called Mr.Stevens. I found myself unable to turn on the hot water. I thought if only I could take a bath, maybe I’d feel better. He immediately answered the phone and knew who I was.
Mr. Stevens was my super at the time. An older church-going Jamaican man with college bound kids, he felt very familiar to me and my father the moment we met and picked up my keys. He once told me that even though he knows we pray differently, he believes I walk with God, too.
Before I could say anything to Mr. Stevens about hot water and why I was calling, I frantically told him, Just a moment, I’ll be right back, tossed the phone on my bed, and rushed to the bathroom to vomit.
I couldn’t catch a break.
I’m not sure how long I was away from the phone, but eventually, when I was no longer vomiting–I carefully washed the sink. I cleaned the floor. I washed my face and neck and hands. I changed my clothes. And I sat on my bed to rest.
When I looked at my phone again, I noticed it was still on.
I was mortified.
I spoke into the phone, Hello?
Mr. Stevens replied, Oh good. You’re back. Are you okay?
Mr. Stevens was still there, waiting on the other side. He never hung up. He could hear me coughing. He could hear the faucet running. He didn’t wait for me to call back. He waited the entire time for me to return.
He didn’t have to be in my apartment, in my space, physically there, but I felt so cared for, loved, and safe.
Eventually, I wasn’t sick all the time, and eventually, I learned to love this city.
And eventually, I graduated, and Mr. Stevens was so proud. I felt more celebrated by him than folks in my own department.
And I miss Mr. Stevens very much these days and pray he and his whole family are safe, healthy, and well.