Thursday, July 8, 2010

Danker's Global Village

When Bill and I moved into our house in 1983, along with 8 month old Thomas, we were told that the apartments across the street were "like a retirement village." And it did seem that the tenants at Danker Village were old, quiet, and many did not own cars. Taxis and the ambulance service were frequent visitors to our dead-end street. Neighbors described watching the complex being built in the 1940s on land that Danker Florist had used for its gardens.

As the older folks moved on, neighbors worried about "what kind of people" would replace them. Most newcomers were still retirees, but by 1990, we had Ukrainian women wearing printed head scarves, and long printed skirts; families from Belarus who fled cancer-causing contamination from Chernobyl; and Poles, coming as all of them had, for freedom to practice their Jewish faith.

Thomas and Meredith had new friends! Alex, Lera, Boris, and Igor joined in games of basketball, climbed trees at the end of the street, shared afternoons ice skating on our nearby pond and snow-tubing in the park. They also shook up the status quo by flaunting their disbelief in Santa Claus. In heavy Russian accents, the parents of these children told us why they had left their homeland, and about their dreams for the future. The friendships continued even after the families managed to save up enough money to leave the apartment complex and buy their own homes.

By the mid-90s, UAlbany began a residency partnership with Danker Village for their Chinese graduate students. Quiet and diligent, these students were easy across-the-street neighbors. Each year when the first couple of inches of snow fell, the young people would take turns photographing one another standing in the snow, touching snowflakes on the tree, and brushing snow off the car. I loved seeing their excitement over the first snow fall.

A few growing pains arose as the population changed. Cars multiplied on the street. New residents chose not to pay an additional fee to house their cars in the garages behind the apartments. Not only did they park on the street, but every individual in every apartment seemed to have a car. Homeowners had to face the fact that the street in front of our houses was not our own. A few unsavory tenants arrived, and once I did call the police to quiet a domestic dispute that I could hear from across the street.

But now we have Carl, dubbed the Mayor of Danker Village. He visits my favorite neighbor, Mrs. Mendleson, every day. Mrs. Mendleson says, "There were times in my life when I might not have made it if someone hadn't helped me out. I try to do the same for someone else when I can." Carl is her current charge. She says, "He's a lonely old man. I can spend a few minutes listening to him." And then adds with a laugh, "Most of the time he talks about his dead relatives in Brooklyn."

Despite such severe hearing impairment that his speech is garbled, Carl knows everyone, and he seems to be everywhere. The instant the garbage or recycling truck comes on Fridays, Carl is over at Mrs. Mendleson's turning her containers right-side up and returning them to her back yard. He also picks ours off the street, puts the lids back on, and stands them on our grass. Recently, he began to do the same for our next-door neighbors on the other side. Their health has failed in the past couple of years, and menial tasks are difficult. Carl has added them to his Friday list. If the recycling truck arrives considerably later than the garbage truck, Carl comes over twice.

This past year, more and more Chinese have come to the apartments. Unlike the UAlbany students, some of whom are still here, these Chinese people have families. They come with infants, toddlers, and elderly parents. The first Chinese woman I met was Hong. Hong came to my door brandishing garden clippers. "Your flowers make me sneeze," she said. "I can cut them for you." I looked puzzled--my garden was well across the street. "The doctor says it is those plants," she pointed. "I can do it for you. It will only take a minute." Would she step into my garden and snip the all flowers off? It took a while for me to calm her, agreeing several times that I would take care of the problem, while she held the clippers in my direct line of vision.

I was able to lead the conversation in a more congenial direction. Hong told me that her name was Xue (shway). "It means snow," she said. "Snow is rare and precious in my country, and good for the farmers. On the day I was born, it was snowing, so my mother named me Xue. I tell my American friends to call me Hong because they have trouble with a name that begins with 'X.'" She explained that she took care of her 90 year-old mother. "We are brought up to take care of our parents. It's a cultural thing, not like here." I said nothing, but I had many friends who were very caring of their aging parents. In the evening, I cut the offending flowers and made a huge bouquet for the diningroom table. I could accomodate the request this once, and who knew, maybe Hong wouldn't even live here next year, I thought. But she did, and for one more season, I cut the flowers, in fear that she might once again shine her clippers in my direction. Instead, she came over and thanked me.

This Spring babies seem to be everywhere. Old Chinese grandmothers carry them up and down the street for air. Parents walk them in strollers. Families visit with one another and appear to have a sense of community unparalleled to any I have seen in the apartments before, more than when the immigrants from the former Soviet countries were here, and more than long ago when the retirees all knew each other.

One day Bill looked out the front window and said, "There's a little Chinese girl standing in the bay window of that apartment." He pointed, but before I could take a look, he exclaimed, "There are two of them! Two little girls exactly the same standing in the window!" This drew my attention and I saw the figures of two toddlers in the end apartment.

Since that day I have met Kelly and Kayla and their parents. "We named them almost the same," their father told me. "It is a Chinese custom when you have twins." I thought of twins my children knew in Elementary school named Treenah and Teenah, and thought, Americans often choose similar names too, but I said nothing. Kelly and Kayla are busy toddlers, running everywhere, and crying when they don't want to share. Their grandfather, who lives with the family, walks the block with the little girls, making sure they don't go too far.

One day the grandfather saw me mowing my lawn. I waved and he came over. He looked at my non-motorized reel lawn mower, and made a rolling motion with his hands. I nodded that, yes, it worked by having a rolling blade. He looked again and shook his head. "Oh," I said, "but it works fine." It did indeed leave some stubbly stalks as it mowed. He shook his head again. The grandfather did not like my mower! With hand motions, however, he did indicate to me that he liked our house. He pointed to the two upstairs dormers and gave me a thumbs-up. Then he walked down the driveway and looked at the backyard, returning with another thumbs-up. Now I wave to the little extended family whenever I see them.

I also wave to the young family with two little boys. That family set up a grill outside one day and many of the families joined in a weekend picnic. Carl walked over and all of his neighbors knew him. Recently, an acquaintance said to me with a tone of concern, "How are the apartments? I hear they are full of Asians now." I smiled and said, "Yes, lots of families. They are great neighbors." We wonder who will come next. These families will grow, assimilate, and leave. If the 27 years that we have lived here have taught us anything, it is that the apartments will continue to change in interesting ways, and I will continue waving to new across-the-street neighbors.

1 comment:

  1. Virginia, this is beautiful. Lovely writing. A book wrapped around the apartments would be even better. The imagery was evocative.