Nine, six, four, two, six.
When I was 8 years old, I visited my grandparents’ house on a quiet suburban street in Westchester, NY. Shortly after dinner, I realized I had misplaced my Jurassic Park baseball cap, and my frantic search soon brought me to the living room. Outside, twilight had descended upon the backyard. Pro forma, I donned my Grandpa’s long beige raincoat and brown fedora, obviously, because only Columbo could solve this mystery.
Determined that the elusive cap had slid, against all laws of physics, through the 2-inch gap between the couch and the window, I positioned myself to leverage my own weight to push the couch back a few feet. My hands pressed against the window, my butt doing the heavy pushing, I exhaled with success and optimism as the couch nudged back.
Your move, Jurassic Park cap. I had spared no expense.
But before I could remove myself from the small gap and start digging, my eyes became laser-focused straight ahead. Not five feet outside the window stood a shadowy old man, smiling and waving what I instinctively determined was an incredibly deadly weapon.
I shrieked, dove to the ground, and hoped my Mom wouldn’t use that stupid picture of me and the Discovery Zone Barney for the milk carton shot. Certainly, I could be silent enough in this big old house for the evil abductor to forget about me and realize that a better target was Scott Cohen, the mid-pubescent 6th-grade bully who turned recess into something I’d later discuss with my therapist.
After a few seconds, a loud knock on the window.
“Go away!” I softly bellowed, suddenly realizing that perhaps the police would find the AWOL cap while sifting through the crime scene.
“Looking for this?” A familiar voice beckoned through the glass. I looked up. At the window was my grandfather, laughing profusely, the light-green cap hanging from his right hand. “What are you doing down there?”
What I was doing, I later realized, was experiencing life on the ground for the first time.
Friends from all over the country marvel at this strange fact of city-born life. I have never lived in a house.
Looking back on a life lived in apartment buildings, it’s funny to consider the negative arc of floors:
Nine, six, four, two, six.
Apartment 9B on 86th Street, high above the taxi-cabs, homeless gypsies, and city buses. Room 615 at Watson Hall, with a view of the Zen Japanese Garden. Apartment 421 on Dean Parkway. 2nd floor on 28th Street. 613 on Groveland, overlooking 94 West.
I’ll just be honest: I can’t imagine living on the ground.
There are people out there! Dog walkers, lawn cutters, police officers, GRANDFATHERS! The ground is where the world is! Isn’t the point of being home to be away from it all? To disconnect? To have a space all your own?
To be fair, an apartment complex is not exactly the exemplar of solitude. I am surrounded by hundreds of people, and have to regularly make awkward conversation with neighbors in elevators, hallways, and laundry rooms. I can smell the burnt cookies two doors down, and overhear deliberative love-making upstairs. I have absolutely no control over the water-temperature in the shower.
It is the elevation, I have thus concluded, that provides me this false sense of seclusion. To peek out the window is to see the world smaller, to perceive everything below as small and detached. From a perch on the 3rd floor, the world is flyover country.
Will I ever live on the ground? Probably. I do live in Minnesota now, and people here seem to frown upon raising a family in an apartment. I can see it now: brick facade, quiet street, front lawn, fireplace. The kids are playing in the backyard. Dog is asleep by the door. Wife is watching TV.
You’ll find me in the attic.
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