Burnt toast down the hall

About half an hour ago, I was sitting at my desk, vaguely thinking about buckling down and getting some homework done, when an acrid smell started niggling at my olfactory senses.  Just as I registered the smell, I started hearing the far-off sound of a smoke detector going off in one of my neighbor’s apartments.  I ignored it, knowing how easy it is to set off our smoke detectors, but soon the smell got stronger and the building system went off.  I sighed, put some shoes on and headed out into the hallway to find out if I actually need to evacuate.

Just as I opened my door, the building manager and Emilio came striding down the hallway and went into Mr. Levine’s apartment.  After they passed by, I went down the hall to check in with Mrs. B, who was standing in her doorway with her part-time housekeeper.  With her hands on her hips, she slowly shook her head back and forth and shouted in order to be heard over the alarm, “I worry about him.”  With a toss of her head, she indicated that she was talking about Mr. Levine.  I nodded agreement and shrugged my shoulders helplessly.  Just then Emilio came out and yelled that there was nothing to worry about and we could go back to our apartments.  That it was just badly burnt toast.  The few small clusters of neighbors that had gathered in the hallway by the elevators dissolved, and everyone returned home.

I’ve been worrying about Mr. Levine myself.  He’s lived in the building as long as I’ve been alive.  I remember one summer when I was about six, he and his wife invited Raina and me over for cookies and to see the stuffed mechanical dog they kept in their apartment in place of a real pet.  His wife died some years back, and his body has gotten increasingly frail.  During one of the ice storms in February I spotted him struggling with the lock at his front door, his head black and blue and bandaged.  I walked over to see if I could help and asked him what had happened.  He had a hard time getting all the words out, but was able to sketch the story about with a few sentences and some hand gestures.  He had slipped on a patch of icy sidewalk and had gone down.  When I saw him, he was just getting home from the hospital.

Up until recently, he was still filled with a sense of fun.  When we would pass in the hallway he’d always stops to harmlessly flirt and joke.  He’d sometimes teasingly get into a boxing stance and mock-challenge me to “put my dukes up.”  The last time he did that though, it took his body so long to find the position that it nearly made me weep watch.  However, I kept smiling for him.  More and more now, he keeps his head down when he’s walking by and says hi with a sketch of a wave.

I’m afraid that he’s getting to the point where he can’t live alone anymore.  I don’t know if he has children, but I rarely see anyone coming to visit him, so if he does, I imagine they don’t live nearby.  Watching people I’ve known for years rapidly degrade without family support is one of the tougher things about living in a building with a large number of older people.

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