When I came out of T.’s room tonight, after leaving her fast asleep in the dark, I found Scott helping L. into his pajamas. L. was jumping up and down on his bed, his hair wet from his bath and Scott was in the middle of telling him a story about the last apartment we had lived in before we moved away from upstate New York.

The story is a good one: about how we had decided our original digs in a trendy and quaint neighborhood were getting too pricey, so we had found a lovely apartment on the second floor of an old Victorian home on Amherst Street in a slightly dodgy–but terribly funky–part of the downtown. We had signed the lease only two days before and had decided to do a “drive-by” past what was to be our new home. As we turned down the street we spied our future home again and our hearts did a giddy leap. But something was wrong with the picture. The half of the street right in front of our house was cordoned off; there was a police bus parked in front of the house next door to ours, and the front porch of that next-door house was crawling with black-clothed men wearing jackets with the initials S.W.A.T. emblazoned across the backs in white letters. Before long they led several handcuffed men out of the house and into the awaiting bus. Scott and I sat open-mouthed for awhile in our silver Toyota and then drove off. When we watched the news later we found out that the police had mounted a massive drug bust on the house next to our new apartment. Well, we told ourselves, it’s probably unlikely that drug dealers will move in next door again. So we moved in and didn’t think much about it again.

That particular block off of Monroe Avenue, in downtown Rochester, NY was made up of old 19th century Victorian homes turned into apartments. In the bottom apartment of the house to our right (not the abode of the former drug lords) lived an eighty-something year-old woman named Grace. Her son, a portly man in his late thirties, came to see her every weekend but, other than that, she had no visitors. She confessed to me one day that she spent endless amounts of time watching the birds that came to the feeder I had installed in our backyard. And sure enough, one spring, I saw her face watching eagerly through her back window while I filled up the feeder with seed. I waved to her and she waved back–I can still see her hand raised in that pane of fogged-up glass. In the winter she would stand right outside the back door, the snow up to her thin ankles and her wool cardigan pulled around her tightly, just getting air. She told me that she had to get some air every day, or she didn’t know what she would do. One day in the summer of 1999, shortly after John F. Kennedy Jr.’s airplane had crashed off the coast of Martha’s Vineyard, I was weeding the garden. I looked up suddenly and noticed Grace standing silently by the fence which separated our yards. Her eyes were glistening with tears and her nose was red. When I asked her what was wrong she looked at me with wide eyes and raised one hand to her lips: Oh John-John, she said, her voice breaking into a sob. Why couldn’t I have died instead of you?

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Shortly after we moved into the Amherst Street apartment the landlord of the next-door house did some renovations in an attempt to make it look less like a former drug den and more like a regular house regular people might rent apartments in. An older black woman named Carol moved in a few months after we moved in. She was in her fifties and worked as a private night nurse somewhere–but no place that paid her very much. Every Friday a man friend of hers, a stooped-looking man who always seemed to wear plaid shirts, would come over to her house carrying a plastic grocery bag filled with beer. In the summer they would sip beer on their front porch and we would sit on our front porch–sometimes sipping beer ourselves–and their conversation was entirely audible to us as ours was, I’m sure, to them, yet there was no question of eavesdropping. When L. was born Carol peered into his infant carrier one morning and said Oh God bless him and gave me a few flowers she had snipped from the hanging pot of petunias on her front porch. When we moved I gave her my petunias and a potted fern and she was just about as happy as anyone could be that I had done that.

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