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I pushed the key into the lock and tried to turn it, but it wouldn’t move. I tried left and right; I removed the key, reinserted it, and tried again. No luck.
I pulled the key out and looked at it in the dim light of the apartment building hallway. The key was a Segal, and although I couldn’t see the name on the lock, I knew it, too, was a Segal. Segal was a name I had come to know since I started working with aged tenants on Manhattan’s West Side. Every apartment had at least one Segal lock in addition to the original house lock the landlord had supplied in an earlier, friendlier time. Many doors also had so-called police locks, a lock that governed a pole set into a floor bracket inside the door to keep the door from being broken down. And of course, everyone had a chain and a peephole. Nice way to live when you’re eighty.
I stepped back and assessed my situation. Before trying the key, I had leaned on the bell, banged on the door, and called. Mr. Herskovitz was one of only three tenants left in this decrepit building, number 603 in Manhattan’s west Seventies. I thought of them alphabetically: Gallagher (on three), Herskovitz (on five), and Paterno (on six). All three were old, all three had lived in this building since World War II days or shortly thereafter, and all three were holdouts in a bitter fight with a landlord who wanted to empty the building, gut it, renovate it, and rent out the apartments at five to ten times what he had been getting.
It was a situation brought on by New York’s rent control laws, laws that went into effect in the forties during the war to prevent price gouging and which were never repealed because … well, because no one wants to pay more for something if he can avoid it, and there are many more tenants in New York than landlords, and the city responded to the majority without caring very much about fairness. It’s not hard to see why.
But although I was in sympathy with those who said rent control was unfair, I was shocked by the tactics of some landlords, like Metropolitan Properties, Inc., the owners of this building. They had managed to persuade all the tenants but the last three to move elsewhere by giving them cash bonuses and helping them find new apartments that they could afford; well, almost afford. If you’ve been paying $127 for a two-bedroom apartment, you’ll probably have to move farther than Queens or the Bronx to find something similar within your budget.
When Metropolitan Properties couldn’t budge Gallagher, Herskovitz, and Paterno, the realty company initiated what can only be called terror tactics. They turned off the heat and hot water. They turned off the electricity and gas. They removed the lock from the door to the lobby, letting in what New Yorkers call “squatters.” I won’t even attempt to describe what they did in the building. Among other plagues, numerous fires were set in stairwells and empty apartments, and turnout-coated firemen became daily visitors. At the point when all the water was about to be turned off, a fiery but lovable old lawyer named Arnold Gold heard about their plight and took on their case as a cause. Arnold Gold’s life has been full of causes. Although he has a very busy practice, his wife does not wear a fur coat and his children helped put themselves through expensive colleges, but a lot of people are living better lives because he takes on causes at his own expense.
I met him a couple of months ago, and I’ve been doing odd jobs for him ever since on a volunteer basis. I’m not rich, but I have a small income that I find comfortable, and I teach one course at a college in Westchester County, about twenty miles from New York and about ten from where I live, so I can afford to do things because I want to, not because I get paid for it.
What I was supposed to be doing this morning was taking Mr. Herskovitz to synagogue. That may seem a bit odd, considering that I’m a former nun, but I’d sort of adopted these three old tenants with a passion. Today was Yom Kippur, Mr. Herskovitz’s Day of Atonement, and he dearly wanted to go to synagogue. He had a walk of several blocks on unsteady legs, which I would help to make less painful.
When I had offered to help, I had made the almost mortal error of offering to drive him to synagogue to spare him the walk. He had glared at me for a few seconds before acknowledging my ignorance. Not only could he not ride on Yom Kippur, but this year Yom Kippur fell on the Sabbath, and it was particularly important that he not ride on the Sabbath. I had said I would walk with him.
But he had not answered the doorbell and not responded to my calls. And now the key he had given me only two days ago—“In case something should happen, I couldn’t get to the door”—did not turn in the lock.
“Mr. Herskovitz,” I called once again. “Nathan? Are you there?”
It was as deadly quiet on the other side of the door as it was on mine. I hated this building. In my heart I could not understand why Gallagher, Herskovitz, and Paterno remained. There were no light bulbs on any floor, and the only light came from the dirty windows at either end of the hall. Paint and plaster were chipping off the walls, the paint in thick flakes whose edges showed numerous layers of different colors, each one representing an era, a once new fashion statement, maybe somebody’s dreams of grandeur. Now they lay like so many dried-up leaves that crunched underfoot. Dust balls blew along the stained, patched linoleum, carried by the chill breeze from the broken windowpane at one end. The three occupied apartments were like outposts in a desert. Safety had been, to some degree, restored along with the utilities; Arnold Gold had seen to it that a new, shiny, heavy-duty lock had been installed on the lobby door, but in the evening one heard scurrying sounds, and I chose not to speculate on their origin. And many of the empty apartments still had the leavings of the squatters who had been turned out. Drug paraphernalia lay scattered everywhere, along with the remnants of meals eaten months ago. I had suggested to Arnold that I might clean up at least the apartments adjacent to the three occupied ones, and he had flown into a rage. Not only was it NOT MY JOB TO DO THAT KIND OF THING, but the danger of DISEASE lurked in every piece of garbage. I didn’t argue.
Turning away from Nathan Herskovitz’s door, I went down the hall to the stairwell and then down to the third floor, maintaining my calm by an act of will I always employed when using the stairs. On three, I walked along a hall identical to the one upstairs until I came to the only closed and locked door. I pressed the bell and heard it ring inside.
“Who’s there?” a hostile voice with an Irish lilt called.
“It’s Chris Bennett,” I called back.
“One moment, darlin’.”
I smiled and waited for the sound of three locks opening. “Good morning,” I said to the handsome, bathrobed man with a head of hair so thick and silvery that it belied his age.
“And how is my ray of sunshine this Saturday morning?”
I walked inside and listened to the clicks and snaps of the three locks behind me. The smell of fresh coffee permeated the apartment. “I’m worried about Mr. Herskovitz,” I said. “I’ve rung and knocked and called, and there’s no answer.”
“Well, he’s old enough to take care of himself now, don’t you think?”
“I’m really worried, Mr. Gallagher. I came to take him to synagogue this morning. Has he been down here today?”
“Haven’t seen him.”
“He couldn’t have forgotten.”
“Herskovitz never forgets.”
That was true. He was a tough old guy who had survived more than most people ever read about, and although his body had begun to fail him, his mind was sharp. “Then where could he be?”
“Haven’t the faultest.”
“Did you see him yesterday?”
“Oh yes, we sat on a bench together on Broadway, and he groused and I groused, and he went home before I did.”
“Do you think I should call the police?”
“What, to break down the door? And leave Herskovitz to pay for a new one? Hah.”
“What if he’s sick?”
Mr. Gallagher shrugged. “Use the phone then. But keep me out of it.”
I went to the phone, ready to call 911, but the image of the door to the Herskovitz apartment being battered down troubled me. “I don’t suppose you have a key to his apartment,” I said, just throwing it out with little hope.
He raised his head and looked upward. “She does.”
“Well, let me ask her.”
“Don’t say I told.”
“I won’t. See you later.”
I went back to the stairwell and climbed the three flights to six. The hallway was a carbon copy of the other two I had walked along this morning, open doors with ragged holes where locks used to be, dirt, chill, shadows, waste. I stopped at 6G and rang the bell.
“Who’s there?” Mrs. Paterno called, with more fear than hostility in her voice.
The door opened, and Mrs. Paterno stood before me like a black knight. She was a striking-looking woman, tall, dark-haired with only a whisper of gray, aristocratic. Today she was wearing a black jumpsuit and black turban that emphasized her height. As always, there was an air of timeless classiness about her. Of the three tenants, she was the one I could least understand as a holdout.
She said, “Good morning,” but didn’t ask me in. She never did.
“You wouldn’t happen to have a key to Mr. Herskovitz’s apartment, would you?” I asked.
“I came to take him to synagogue, but he doesn’t answer and I’m worried.”
She pulled the door open, allowing me in, then quickly closed the door. I heard the snap and click of two locks.
“What’s his number?” she asked, heading for the kitchen.
I told her and she dialed. She stood there with the phone, a long black column, with her chin tilted upward. Finally she hung up. “There’s no answer.”
“Perhaps he’s gone for a walk.”
“I don’t think so, Mrs. Paterno. I was to come for him at nine, and I was a few minutes early. If you don’t have the key, I’ll call the police and have them break the door down.” I turned to leave.
“Wait.” She opened a kitchen drawer and pulled out a key ring with two keys on it. They looked just like the ones Mr. Herskovitz had given me. “I need them back,” she said. “In fact, I’ll go down with you.” She put them in her jumpsuit pocket and took her own keys from a handsome snake-skin bag on a kitchen chair.
Outside she locked her own two locks, and we started for the stairs.
“I have Herskovitz’s, Herskovitz has Gallagher’s, and Gallagher has mine,” she explained as we went. “We agreed on that when everyone else moved out.”
“Sounds like an interesting arrangement.”
“A practical arrangement. Better than everybody having the keys to everybody else’s apartment.” She said it as though she were talking about a great number of apartments and keys. “This way, if someone’s been inside, you know who.”
We had reached five and were halfway to Nathan Herskovitz’s door.
“I’ve never used it,” Mrs. Paterno said. She stopped in front of D and inserted the Segal key in the Segal lock. It turned easily. Then she used the key to the landlord’s lock. That, too, turned and the door opened.
“Mr. Herskovitz?” I called, pushing the door closed behind me. “Nathan, are you here?”
Mrs. Paterno had entered before me and was peering into rooms as she went. This apartment, like the other two I had seen in this building, was, from my perspective, backward. You passed the bedrooms first on your way to the kitchen and living room. Mrs. Paterno disappeared down the long, dark hall as I checked out the two bedrooms, the first set up as a study, the second with Nathan Herskovitz’s old-fashioned double bed and bedroom furniture, both empty. As I regained the hall, I saw Mrs. Paterno turn in to the living room. Then I heard a scream of such horror, such agony, that I froze.
Mrs. Paterno had found Nathan Herskovitz.