“Henry? Henry, may I speak with you a moment?”
I was crossing the lobby when my elderly neighbor Mr. Lansky called me into the mailroom. “Good afternoon, Mr. Lansky, what’s up?” I asked, my voice tempered with neighborly bonhomie.
“Just a moment, please,” he replied. He took an envelope from his mailbox and glanced at the return address. He carefully placed it on the shelf below his mailbox. He then reached in to take another envelope.
“Bills. Junk.” he said, looking at the return address. He tore the envelope in half, placing it next to its intact twin on the shelf.
“Yes,” I responded. “Mail.”
Mr. Lansky looked at me, his face expressionless. He then reached again into his mailbox. He looked at an envelope and placed it with the first one he had fished out. Another was retrieved. He looked at the front, and then the back. He began to tear it in half. The tearing proved to require more effort than he thought. He took his other hand from the mailbox key and, with both hands, tried to rip the mailing.
I shifted my weight, waiting.
Mr. Lansky focused his strength on the recalcitrant envelope. He decided to tear it from the opposite side. The envelope refused to give. Mr. Lansky looked again at the envelope. The bright yellow color gave it away as a mass circular of coupons. We all received these mailings every month or so.
A nearby wastebasket was full of them.
I jingled my keys in my pocket.
Unable to tear through the stack of coupons, Mr. Lansky added the yellow envelope to his pile of saved mail. His hand reached back into his mailbox. He found it empty. He looked into the mailbox, confirming that there was nothing left.
He took up his mail, and closed the mailbox. He locked it, returning the keys to his right pants pocket. With his hand free of the keys, he took up the ripped envelope and walked to the wastebasket. He dropped the torn envelopes into the trash.
I stood smiling placidly, as though I had nowhere else to be.
“Henry, please, I want to speak with you.” He gestured toward the elevator.
I allowed a measure of concern to enter my voice. “Yes, Mr. Lansky, what’s on your mind?”
I walked slowly beside him, matching my pace to his. “I think you know, Henry.” He stopped and looked at me. “It’s about your door.”
“Yes . . .”
“We have spoken before about your door,” he said, his voice rising to a well-modulated pitch. “You made a promise to me.”
I nodded, stepping back to his side. “Yes, we spoke about the door.”
Mr. Lansky stood still. “I don’t take promises lightly,” he said, training his eyes on mine. “I can’t afford to. I’m not a young man.”
“ None of us is getting any younger,” I offered.
What the hell are we talking about, I wondered.
Mr. Lansky has been growing increasingly more eccentric. When he hears me coming or going, he opens his door to greet me, or to glare. I never know what he will say, if anything, when his door swings open. I always wave and smile.
He recently took me aside to express his concern that my ten-year-old son Collie was “too close” to our three-year-old neighbor Holly. He felt that it wasn’t natural for a boy his age to play with a girl her age. He feared the possibility of sexual molestation.
I said I would keep my eyes open. He told me he doesn’t like to talk, but he “sees things.” I noted that discretion is the better part of valor.
Mr. Lansky may be eccentric, but I suppose he earned the right. He survived the Holocaust by repairing clocks and watches in a series of concentration camps. Most of his family wasn’t so lucky.
He often offers to repair any clocks I may find running slow.
As we stepped into the elevator, Mr. Lansky returned to discussion of my front door.
One afternoon last October, I had noticed that Collie and Lillie were being suspiciously quiet. I investigated and found them with Holly at our door. “Look, Dad,” Collie smiled. “We’re getting ready for Halloween!”
“Yeah, now kids will know to trick or treat here!” Lillie added. The door was covered with stickers. SpongeBob and Patrick cavorted across the door in orange and black costumes. Holly smiled at me as she added a pumpkin to the group.
“Hang on, kids, hang on,” I winced. “Maybe we should be sure those stickers come off, okay?”
“Oh, they do, Dad. Look.” Collie peeled away a sticker of SpongeBob dressed as a ghost in a sheet. “I tested it, don’t worry.”
“Okay,” I said, warily. I tried another sticker and it came off without effort. “All right, go ahead—let’s make it look good and spooky.”
“Yay!” Lillie shouted.
Holly’s mother joined us. She shook her head. “You are an indulgent father, Henry,” she smiled.
“I know, I just can’t help myself. Say, you want some stickers? Your door looks pretty drab.”
“No thanks,” she laughed.
As the kids and I ate dinner, there was a knock at my door. “Yes, Mr. Lansky?”
He frowned. “I see you have your door decorated.”
“Yes, the kids put up some stickers for Halloween.”
“Well, I don’t grudge the children. You know this. But these need to come down after Halloween. I am putting my apartment on the market. I can’t show the apartment when there are stickers on your door.”
I leaned on the doorframe. “Oh sure, you can show your place, Mr. Lansky . . .”
He held up a hand. “Please. I appreciate your advice. But you will take off the stickers?”
“Yes, of course, after Halloween”
“So, November first.”
“Well yeah, after Halloween.”
“Good. November first. We have an understanding.” He turned to his door. “Enjoy your dinner. Your children are a blessing.”
“Thanks, Mr. Lansky.”
He closed his door. I closed mine.
Just after Halloween, Mr. Lansky reminded me of my pledge to remove the stickers. One day after school, I delegated the job to Collie. “Hey Dad,” he called to me. “Come here, okay?”
“Okay, just a second.” I put aside the dishes I was washing and dried my hands. “How’s it going?”
“Look, the stickers are really stuck.” Collie held fragments in his hand. He had managed to remove a few stickers—taking layers of paint with them. “Oh, no! Wait, wait, don’t take off any more. We need to use some kind of solvent or something. Those things are really stuck.”
“Is it bad?” he asked.
“No, it will work. We just have to get the right stuff to help us.”
Mr. Lansky asked about my progress a few days later. “Oh right,” I said. “I need to get some solvent. Thanks for reminding me.”
The next week, he mentioned it again as I headed out to work.
“Right, I need to get on that. Thanks.”
Thanksgiving came and went.
I bought a solution at the hardware store. It didn’t work.
Christmas had passed by the time he pulled me aside in the mailroom.
“Now really, Henry, I have been very patient. As you know, I am waiting on you before I can show my apartment to sell. I am not a young man.”
I apologized, adding, “But really, my door doesn’t affect the selling of your apartment.”
“Your advice is taken,” he said, cutting me off. “But I know better.”
I nodded. Mr. Lansky would indeed know better than me. He puts his apartment on the market every six months or so, always asking far more than its value. Perhaps he could sell it one day and make a killing. That is, if my door was presentable.
Finally, one day in January, Bridget and I found a trick that worked. Following advice I found online, we painted vegetable oil on the stickers. After soaking for a few hours, they slipped off like wet paper. “Thank God,” I sighed. “Our long nightmare is ended. Mr. Lansky can now cash in his million-dollar property and rest easy.”
“Maybe the new neighbors will like Hello Kitty,” Bridget said. “Because I’ve got the coolest stickers to give to Lillie . . .”
“Not funny,” I laughed.
I later passed Mr. Lansky in the lobby.
“Thank you, Henry, seventy-five percent.”
“Thank you for removing the stickers. But you still need to repaint the door.”
“Well, it needs some touch up . . .”
“You can hire a painter. I know a good one in the building.”
I looked at him. “Okay, well, I’ve got to pick up the kids now. I’ll see about the paint.”
“I’ll leave the painter’s number under your door.”
Now, I’ll confess, I forgot about this. I have three kids, lots of work and a very active social life. I did not make a priority of dabbing a few strokes of paint on my door.
Mr. Lansky did not forget. I had made a promise. We had an understanding.
I’m sure he looked at my door every day, fretting about its effect on the value of his property.
One afternoon, I arrived home with the kids. I was hot and tired. I had been up much too late the previous night, and then woke early to work before walking to get the kids.
I unlocked the door. When I pulled the key back, it refused to budge.
“Shit,” I muttered, wiggling the key.
“Dad!” Collie admonished.
“Sorry, sorry,” I said, pulling the door back and forth with my key, to no avail. “The key is jammed.”
I oiled the lock. Nothing.
I had no patience for this. I left the key in place and closed the door, bolting the three other locks. This could wait.
I helped the kids with their homework. I made dinner and did the dishes as the children bathed. By ten, they were in bed. I was exhausted.
I poured a bourbon and took my book to the couch. I expected to be dead asleep within an hour. Just then, I heard voices in the hall. It was Mr. Lansky and a woman I couldn’t place. They reached my door. I heard bits of their conversation.
“. . . this key in the lock . . .”
“Not safe . . .”
Mr. Lansky rang the bell.
Jesus, I thought. Can’t I get a moment’s peace? I know about the key. I don’t want a conversation about the paint job. I don’t want to spend any time trapped by Mr. Lansky. And so, in a time-honored New York tradition, I ignored the bell. I would pretend to be otherwise engaged until the two of them gave up.
Mr. Lansky rang again. He knocked.
“ . . . father with three children . . .”
“Not safe . . . robbery . . .”
Mr. Lansky tried the key. Please don’t fucking toy with my door, I thought. Just go away.
Mr. Lansky tried the doorknob. It’s locked, I thought. Thank God, since apparently you wouldn’t hesitate to barge in.
Mr. Lansky and his companion continued to worry my door for ten minutes. Then fifteen.
Twenty minutes passed.
Now I felt stuck: would they ever stop without me telling them that I know about the key, and my other locks are secure? What would they think if I opened the door now, after all the ringing and knocking and scraping, to reveal that I was home the entire time?
My phone rang. I answered in the bedroom.
“This is Jim Friedman, we’ve met before. I’m president of the co-op board. I hope I’m not disturbing you?”
“What can I do for you, Jim?”
“Well, I just got a call from one of your neighbors. Apparently your key is stuck in your door.”
“Yes, I know. It’s stuck. I plan to get a locksmith tomorrow. For now, my other locks are secure.”
“Oh. He was worried because he had knocked several times.”
“I guess I missed it,” I yawned. “I turned in early.”
“Oh, well, then sorry to bother you. I’ll let him know everything is fine.”
“Thanks Jim. Good night.”
“Good night, Henry.”
The next morning, I tried the key again. It slipped out with no resistance.
Of course, I thought.
I ran into Mr. Lansky that afternoon. He was stepping into an elevator as I was stepping out.
“Henry,” he began slowly, holding the elevator door open. “I tried your door last night. The key was stuck . . .”
“Yes,” I interrupted, hoping to curtail prolonged conversation by speaking rapidly. “The key was stuck but it is fixed now. How about that, huh? First the stickers are stuck, and then the key is stuck. It’s like, one thing and then another, right?”
“I’ll tell you what’s ‘one thing and another,’” he said, raising a finger to me. “Seven concentration camps.” He pointed a finger to his chest. “Remind me, I’ll tell you sometime.”
I nodded. “Well, yes, I will.”
“Think about it,” he said as the elevator door shut. “Seven camps.”
“I hear you.”
Mr. Lansky quietly took his apartment off the market two weeks later.