FIRST THREE WAS the long hospital corridor, then a group of nurses all starchy and then Miss WIlliams herself, looking like an apparition - all white. She wore a white hospital gown and had white hair and very pale skin and she sat in a wheelchair, covered with a white blanket, her feet tucked into little blue slippers - an old, frail woman, recently fallen down, moving in and out of lucidity. She had been crying. Oh, Miss Williams, do you know they're taking you away?
My friend Taylor knelt before her in the hallway. He took her large-veined hands in his and he talked softly to her about the building where they both live. He was going to see the lawyer in an hour, he told her, and maybe they could postpone the move. She smiled. Oh yes, she said, they would have to. Oh Miss Williams, they are going to take you away.
Already most of them are gone. Already, half the tenants have moved out. There is almost nothing but the old left, maybe 15 of them, some of them with parents who still live in the building - mothers in their 90s, daughters in their 70s. Through all of them Taylor moves like some sort of mustachioed Florence Nightingale, ministering to them, asking after them, checking on them. The building is going condominium. What will happen to the old people?
It's happening all over town. Everywhere you go the old and the poor are taking it on the chin, being pushed aside. The houses are boarded up and the trucks of workmen are double parked and on the roofs men are hammering. In this building where Miss Williams has lived all her adult life, the signs to vacate have been posted in the lobby. Nov. 8 is the last day, although it is not the last-last day. There is always more law to play out and more ways to stall and then, maybe, the marshals come with their orders and the old people are taken away. The television stations will send reporters with razor cuts to do a story. They never tell you where the old people go. Where do all the old people go?
In the lobby of the building, an old woman comes out of the warm, bright sun. She is dressed for the very cold. Her hands are gloved and her head is hatted and she is wearing a heavy coat. She is the cat-squirrel-pigeon lady. She feeds them all. She gets up in the morning, dressed for a non-existent cold day and walks to the little park where she feeds the birds and the squirrels. She feeds the cats at her place. She has something like 13 of them, all with names, of course. They'll take her someplace soon - someplace where they won't allow cats.
In the hallway, the walls are dingy. The place was last painted in the Pleistocene era. For three weeks last winter, they say there was no hot water. The landlord, they say, wouldn't put a dime into the place. No one really blames him, what with rent control and all. He sold and a day later they put up notices to vacate and now new people will come in. The neighborhood will be richer and the schools will be better and the tax money will go to the poor. I'm all for it. I just wonder where the old people go.
My friend Taylor is from a small, Southern town. He has turned his building into one. He cares about the people. They are his neighbors, therefore his responsibility. Most people think it's the other way around. He knows their habits and because Taylor is a writer, he can make time for them - have tea with them and take them to lunch. There are others like him in the neighborhood. Across the street, the people who run a cafe let Miss Williams have her breakfast on the cuff. It's the neighborly thing to do, but the neighborhood is changing. The woman comes in from feeding the pigeons and another woman comes in who's been in the building since 1943. Her mother's here also. I'm sure they'll find a place for the two of them.
We go to visit Miss Williams in the hospital. She sits outside a room she shares with a moaning woman. She will soon be going home and soon after that she will have to go somewhere else. No one knows where. Taylor comes over and crouches before her. She recognizes him. She smiles sweetly. The two of them talk. Her father worked 55 years for the Agriculture Department and she has the voice and accent of a parasoled Washington. Taylor tells her they will meet later with the lawyer.
"The landlord is thinking of putting us out," Taylor says.
"Is he?" she says. "Well, we have some of the finest people in Washington. He can't do that. He must be cracked." She giggles at her use of the word cracked.
"Well, we are trying to stay here," Taylor says.
"I'm sure we will," she says, nodding. "He can't do that. He must be cracked."
Later we went back to the apartment house and then I drove to work. I took the street I always take, the ones with the renovated houses and the double-parked trucks of workmen and the new apartment with the million-dollar plants hanging in the windows. It is wonderful the way the city is coming back, sneaking up on downtown even, everything getting better. Some day it will all be terrific - nothing but new people, and some day before that happens somebody, probably Taylor, will have to get down on his knees again and hold the hands of Miss Williams and give her the news.
Oh Miss Williams, they're taking you away.