IN THE MORNING, now that it is hot, he comes out early and sits on the stoop. He is an old man, black and wrinkle-faced, the sort who wears a felt hat as if every day there was a funeral to attend. He sits and watches the traffic. Every morning he is there, but not for long. The workmen are coming and soon the old man of the stoop will be gone.
He has no name. He lives, I suppose, in the old brick apartment house where he sits. It is an ugly building, dirty and worn with a trampled front lawn of dirt and weeds and Orange Crush bottles from the 7-Eleven. It is the only building left like this. The neighborhood is improving. That is why the old man of the stoop will soon be gone.
I pass him every day on the way to work. I go by in my car, sometimes with the windows up and the air conditioner on, and I have to notice him. him. Whatever the hour, he is there. He does no work, that's for sure, although maybe you can get him for an odd job or two. His voice, I know, is deep and resonant and he is kind -- very kind. On Sundays, he goes to church and maybe visits a child but the rest of the time he just sits on the stoop. He is watching his block improve.
For more than a year now, a small army of laborers has been working on the block. They have gone from house to house. First the house is vacated and then it is gutted and then it is renovated inside. A big, ugly machine, looking like a dinosaur, puts its beak into the highest windows and spits cement on the floor. Then things move fast. Every day, you can see the progress. You can see the trucks of the plasterer and then the electrician and then the plumber and, finally, the painter. Soon a sign is hung and then a lady, pink and fresh-looking, sits in the bare rooms and sells off the place. The old man of the stoop must know the routine. He has been watching it now for years.
All the time, my phone rings with people calling about what is happening to the old people. Usually, the call is about how the city is changing and the old people are being forced out. The other day, a woman called about a couple in the suburbs. The building was going condominium and the old couple did not have the money to buy. They did not really have the money to rent some place new, either.
Their son flew in from California to help them look for an apartment. Some friends helped also, but there was very little available. The old people despaired. They had some money -- not much -- but they had promised it to an heir. It was a matter of pride. They wanted to leave something. They decided to die. They talked of suicide. They said it would be best for everyone and no one knew if they meant it or not. Nothing will happen for 120 days now. There is a moratorium on condominium conversions -- also, in a way, on suicides.
My parents are old and retired. Their friends also are old and retired. They live close to the edge -- some of them anyway. They tough it out. Sometimes you see them at smorgasboard restaurants, stuffing the food into plastic bags so they can take it home. Sometimes you can see the old people in the Safeway, their hands shaking as they reach for their money in the checkout line -- those little change purses with an inexhaustible supply of pennies.Tell them it is the Golden Years. Tell them they're Senior Citizens. Tell them anything you want, but the way we push them around we're telling them, really, that we want them out of the way.
So the old man of the stoop sits. The heat chases him out early and the flies swarm in the hallway. Every morning, the workmen come to the block to make it better for lawyers, doctors, writers like me, born on the lucky side of the Great Depression, the easy side of the civil rights struggle.
Oh old man, I'm sorry, but it's good for me that the workmen come. It's good for property values and good for the neighborhood and good for the city and good for my son who is in the schools. The block looks better already. The city is coming back, old man, and you're in the way.
The house where the old man sits is one of the few left that has not been renovated. It is like the only unbroken window in a gutted building -- an affront to nature or someting. Soon a truck will come and someone will draw big white Xs on the windows and one day the old man will sit on the stoop no more. Goodbye, old man. I'm glad we never looked each other in the eye.