We finally met the neighbors directly across the street from us. Other neighbors we've met have referred to them as The Mayor and First Lady, a title earned after 6 decades living there.
Returning from the park we saw Mr. and Mrs. P. out on the stoop, where they held court in the warm evening air. He stood to the side of the marble steps, leaning over with his elbow on the top. She sat just outside the door on the threshold, stooped herself. They looked to be in their sixties but are in fact 85 and 83. We rushed over and introduced ourselves and promptly formed up into pairs. Cha and Mrs. P. chatted about the neighborhood and Cha's work as Mr. P. told me stories about being a cook in the Army and going ashore at Normandy and moving through France into Germany. He told me about each house on the block, and which ones he'd helped restore during a previous revitalization in the 1960s. What Mr. P. must have seen, as Reservoir Hill moved from its lofty top-tier economic status into a racially mixed middle class region, then following a short period of white flight it became a black middle class neighborhood, and following the deaths of many long-term residents Reservoir Hill descended sadly into a struggling ghetto with pockets retaining mere hints of past dignity.
I was awed and humbled by the arc of their lives. Mr. P. overheard Cha mention art teaching and mentioned that he himself was not only a painter of houses, but also a self-taught painter of pictures. At his suggestion Mrs. P. gave us a tour of the first floor of their charming old house, where several of his paintings hang. They were impressive, including several accomplished family portraits, a clever oil featuring two Jewish men drinking beer ("Them's his Jews," Mrs. P. said in explanation), a lovely portrait of a rooster and two hens, a colonial or Revolutionary-era parlour scene of three gentlemen seated in a grand library with mugs. Mr. P. had also done extensive murals on the walls of the house, but sadly these had decayed into disrepair, with grandchildren's artwork taped over top. "He don't paint no more because he done got lazy," Mrs. P. said and laughed. When she laughs she claps and then throws her hands in the air, a gesture particularly endearing to me, as my paternal grandmother also did so.
As we returned to the stoop their daughter arrived, herself in her fifties and a former principal in the City school system. "I'm typically the docent on the tour," she lamented. "Mother is not an entirely incapable stand-in, but omits much of the vital history. Some day I'll take you through with more context." As her father resumed telling me house and family histories, she corrected him from time to time, gently but with a teasing tone. He said someone had died twenty years before, and she said "More like 45 years ago. I was a young girl when he left us."
"You're still a young girl," Mr. P. replied, and she stroked his wispy hair. The entire P. clan is full of humor and thus they retain a remarkable youthful vigor, a twinkling in the moist bright eyes set in sagging faces.
The daughter told us her father and deceased brother were at one time amateur magicians of some renown. Mr. P. had constructed his own illusion machines, including a guillotine, a sword-box, and a "lady-sawn-in-half" table. "They violated child labor statutes by forcing me to work as an unpaid magician's assistant. The worst part was rehearsing every night in the basement for weekend birthday parties."
"You wasn't unpaid," Mr. P. said. "You got ten percent of the proceeds for each show."
"Ten percent of five dollars!" she protested.
Is there anything Mr. P. had not done? Electrician, painter, artist, teacher, magician, soldier, contractor, unofficial Mayor...
At this point we met another neighbor, three doors down from us. A slight man with Einsteinian bushy black hair, dressed all in black himself, and effecting, dare I say, dare I use the cliche? Pourquoi pas? He was effecting a certain je ne sais quoi.
"Here's another of your nice neighbors," Mrs. P. said. "And all the way from Paris, France. This is M."
"I move here because in France I read the name Reservoir 'Ill and knew I had to come," M. said with a sneer. We spoke French briefly, but were chided by the others, who began teasing us and yelling random words of European origin, like "cappuccino."
M. mounted a convertible sports car after announcing he was due in Providence, RI for a date in seven hours. "The drive will take six and a half, so I must leave now!" he shouted, waving and winking.
And thus we add more good folks to those we've met already, and we learned that for two decades our house had no roof, and no rear wall.