A few days ago, a fire truck and an ambulance pulled up to my apartment building on the south hill overlooking Dolores Park. A group of paramedics got out, the largest of them bearing a black chair with red straps and buckles. They were coming for my upstairs neighbor, Fred, who is a drinker and a hermit, but who I’ve always held in a strange esteem. I wouldn’t want to trade situations: he spends most of his time watching sports on the little flat-screen television perched at the end of his kitchen table. He smokes slowly and steadily (my ex-wife used to complain about the smell), glued to tennis matches, basketball tournaments, football games—even soccer. He has no interest in the games themselves, only in the bets he places on them. His one regular visitor, the postman, is also his bookie. Fred is a former postal employee himself.
As I say, I wouldn’t want to trade situations. The solitariness and sameness of his days isn’t alluring. And yet he’s always been a model of self-sufficiency. He drinks too much and smokes too much, and if he eats at all he’s just heating up a can of Chunky. But he goes and fetches all of this himself—smokes, drink, Chunky—swinging his stiff legs down the hill to the corner store and returning with one very laden paper bag. He then climbs the four flights of stairs to his apartment—a dirtier, more spartan copy of mine—where he lives alone, itself no small feat in the brutal San Francisco rental market. He’s always cordial on the steps, and even in the desperate few months after my divorce, when another neighbor suggested a revolving door for my apartment (to accommodate high traffic—a snide comment), Fred gave me a polite berth. He knocked on my door once, but only to tell me that I should let him know if I could hear him banging around upstairs. He knew he had “a heavy footfall.” I took this to mean, we’re neighbors and that’s it, but you’re all right with me. Though maybe I read too much into it.
When the paramedics got upstairs that day, there was the sound of muted voices and then Fred let loose something between a squawk and a scream. I stepped into the hall, and by this time the paramedics were bringing him down, shouting at him, stern as drill sergeants. Sir, keep your arms in. Sir, keep your arms in. We will tie down your arms, sir. The scolding seemed excessive for an old man, but when they brought him around the landing, strapped tight in the stair stretcher, I could see the problem. He was grabbing for the balusters, trying to stop his descent. His face was wrecked, his milky eyes searching and terrified, leaking tears.
“I’m sorry, Neill,” he said when he saw me. He held his hands out to me, beseeching. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”
I told him not to be ridiculous. There was nothing to be sorry about. But he kept apologizing as the paramedics carried him past my door, secured to his medical bier.
Apparently he had fallen two days earlier and broken his hip. He had only just called about it. For the previous forty-eight hours he’d dragged himself around the floor, waiting for God knows what: The pain to go away? Someone to knock? I found out where he was staying, and he’s already had surgery and is recuperating in a nice rehab facility. So that part of the story has all turned out well. But I keep thinking about that apology. I’m sorry, I’m so sorry. What was he apologizing for but his basic existence in this world, the inconvenience of his living and breathing? He was disoriented, of course, but the truth holds. He’s not self-sufficient; he’s just alone. This revelation shouldn’t matter so much, shouldn’t shift my life one way or the other, but it’s been working on me in some subterranean manner. I seem to have been relying on Fred’s example. My father, not otherwise much of an intellectual, had a favorite quote from Pascal: the sole cause of Man’s unhappiness is his inability to sit quietly in his room. I had thought of Fred as someone who sat quietly in his room.
Not everyone’s life will be a great love story. I know that. My own “starter” marriage dissolved a couple of years ago, and aside from those first few months of the revolving door I’ve spent much of the time since alone. I’ve had the occasional stretch of dating this or that young lady and sought the occasional solace of one-night stands, which can bring solace, if the attitude is right. I’ve ramped my drinking sharply up and then sharply down. I make the grooves in my life that I roll along. Bachelorhood, I’ve learned, requires routine. Small rituals that honor the unseen moments. I mean this without self-pity. Who should care that I pour exactly two glugs of cream into my first coffee but only one into my second (and last)? No one—yet those three glugs are the very fabric of my morning.