Saturday, December 6, 2008

The Legend of Betty: Quintessential Upstairs Neighbor

This is a silly little picture I took of myself three years ago. We were enjoying a deep, blanketing snowfall and I took the opportunity to stage a self-portrait. I grabbed my camera and tripod, geared up, and snapped a couple shots in front of my apartment building--my apartment windows would be just to the left of that staircase.

Out of all the shots I took in that session, I kept this one just because of the old woman in the entryway. I hadn't heard her come downstairs and didn't even know she'd been there until I checked all the photos later. I can promise you she did not seriously need to check her mail at 10:00 PM.

Her name's Betty. She used to be caretaker of the building in the '80s and still considered herself to hold that position, to the chagrin of the tenants and management alike. She wrote up the notes that told you to remove the doormat in front of your door or take down certain decorations from your door. She would lecture you if you sat on the front steps and smoked. And in this classic scene, she was coming down to stare disapprovingly at my suspicious photo session. It was not uncommon to look up at the building and see her on the second floor, directly above my apartment, peeking through her off-white venetian blinds with resentment.

Betty introduced herself to me by asking me to please turn down my stereo. She didn't really ask and she never said "please," but she might have. I assured her I had no stereo but she insisted I did and that it was too loud. Up until I answered the door I had been listening to Radiohead very quietly on my computer speakers, tinny little things with no bass. A person on the toilet in my apartment could not have heard what I was listening to, but Betty was disturbed by my ruckus. I invited her to come in and look for a stereo. "That's not necessary," she said, "just keep it down."

Later, she came down to complain about my recording studio. I have never owned a recording studio. The argument over this issue sounded very comical to a pretty woman walking by in the hallway, another tenant who had previous experience with Betty. I called my landlord about Betty and he apologized, explained her history to me, and promised it wouldn't happen again.

Betty lived alone, directly above me. The only family I heard about was a 50-year-old son in a coma, whom she visited in the hospital at least weekly. The visit was an ordeal, as her limbs were not in good condition and she relied upon our public transportation. He died shortly before I moved out of the building, never having come back to consciousness.

There are some people who are incapable of sympathy or consideration because they are so deeply locked in their own condition. They are disagreeable but it's without true malice, and I sensed Betty was such a person. She was old and alone, probably on the precipice of senile dementia. Other tenants regarded her with amusement, irritation, or even fear. I made an effort to not let her get to me. Whenever I saw her I smiled and addressed her by name.

It didn't take long to get in her good graces, surprisingly. She warmed up quickly, commiserating with me about some of the other horrible tenants, expressing disapproval over the recent choices in caretakers. I agreed with her down the line: the vacuuming was deplorable, the grass hadn't been mowed in quite some time.

Then she knocked on my door, greeted me by name, and asked very shyly if I weren't busy. Curious, I followed her to her apartment: she decorated very tidily and it looked quite like a little cottage inside. There were photos of extended family members on shelves, a lace antimacassar, couches and chairs in very busy upholstery. There were several framed certificates on the walls, expressing gratitude for her volunteer work at some hospitals and elderly centers. I'd always wondered what her place looked like, and I knew that no other apartment in the building looked as nice.

Betty just needed me to replace the light bulbs in her dining room--well, she had as much of a dining room as I did, which was a large empty area next to the kitchenette. I climbed up--she begged me to be careful--and replaced the dead bulbs with new energy saving bulbs. She was effusive in her gratitude and I stayed for another 15 minutes, chit-chatting with her about whatever she wanted to say.

Later, she told me she was having trouble with her VCR. I know very little about electronics but was able to figure out that one of the speakers on her TV had gone out, and somehow she had pushed the stereo output of her VCR exclusively into the dead speaker. I balanced the sound and we watched half an hour of a John Wayne movie together.

Eventually she started to decline. A friend of mine down the hall told me that Betty tried to visit me during the day, while I was at work. She found Betty kicking my door and screaming at me to turn my music down. I called the landlord again, not to complain but out of concern for Betty. I had to call him again, out of concern, when she asked me to fix her television: it sounded like a problem with the reception, as she reported images flickering across the screen. She brought me up to her place, sat me on the couch, and I waited for her to turn on the TV.

After a minute she yelled, "There! There it is!" All I saw was a TV with the power off. "It's there! The mouse! Do you see the mouse?" she asked me. I didn't see a mouse at all. She explained to me that a mouse must have crept into the TV because she would see it running across the screen while she was trying to watch movies--sometimes it was a mouse, she said, and sometimes it was a small dog. I naively tried to explain the nature of a vacuum tube and how a mouse couldn't possibly crawl into one. She dismissed my science and pointed at the screen, at the mouse she saw running back and forth. I looked at the blank screen and my stomach dropped; I admitted that I didn't see anything.

She looked at me, her serious expression turning a little sad around the edges. "Oh, Christian, don't tell me that," she said quietly.

She was declining. She was convinced her neighbor was cranking up his music. Her story for him was that he worked second shift, came home early in the morning, and relaxed by turning up techno music very loud while she was trying to sleep. I found out later that no one lived in that apartment at all, it hadn't been rented while she was complaining. Another tenant who used to live there, a young woman who moved one apartment over, said that Betty used to complain about the techno music she was playing at extreme volume.

Betty would visit me and complain, horrified, about the music. "He plays the strangest music," she told me. "He just plays these lyrics over and over: 'I love you, I love you, I love you! I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry!'" Later, the lyrics included the name of my friend down the hall, and then they began to describe Betty's actions in play-by-play detail. "I don't know how he does it!" she cried. "I wash the dishes, and the lyrics sing about me washing the dishes! I call the landlord, and the lyrics make fun of me calling him! How does he watch me? How does he make those lyrics so quickly? And then they say the most horrible things!" I won't repeat those lyrics here, but I was stunned to hear what she came up with. The younger generation always believes they created all the obscenities, until a shock like this reveals them to be generations old and older.

I asked the landlord what was going to happen to Betty. He told me they couldn't really do anything until she was clearly unable to take care of herself or if she hurt herself, and then he could call county services. He urged me to please contact him if I ever thought she'd gone over the edge.

It was more important than ever for me to be kind to her. I slipped cards under her door for the holidays. I listened to her grievances and escorted her to the bus stop when she had to run errands. I avoided expressing any opinion on what she saw in the TV or heard in the techno lyrics. "I feel like I'm going crazy, Christian," she told me, her voice cracking. "Am I going crazy?" I didn't consider it a huge crime to assure her she was fine.

Last year I moved out to live with my fiancee. My landlord was disappointed because I was a good tenant, but Betty took it especially hard. She said, "There's no one else here for me. Everyone else thinks I'm crazy." I told her I would visit occasionally to see how she was doing.

I never did. I got wrapped up in my new life and never went back. My friend down the hall moved out a year after I did and said that Betty was no longer there. She didn't have many details: one day there was an ambulance, and later Betty's apartment was emptied out and loaded into a truck. Betty was moved to whatever kind of elderly facilities are run by the state, and there may have been a stint in the hospital. No one had any facts to offer.

This isn't an uncommon story by any means: an elderly adult living alone, out of touch with family (if they still exist), paying the rent who-knows-how, whiling away the days until their body or mind gives out. It happens every day, everywhere. Many of them pass on quietly until the Tragedy needle dips into the red, pushed by cumulative factors, and they belatedly flag the attention of the media.

Now I wish I'd asked about her history, gotten some good stories by which to memorialize her. All I have are a string of awkward anecdotes that do no tribute to her life, and they put a pretty dark spin on our community, too. I tried to comfort her, but did I do enough? I couldn't change anything in her life but her sense of loneliness, and there was plenty of room to do more along that line.

I don't know where she is now. I hope she's not suffering.

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