It takes a village (or an apartment building) to nurse a New Yorker back to health

By Marjorie Cohen  |
November 16, 2015 - 9:15AM

In the middle of October, I was dropped out of an airplane onto the sidewalk on West 43rd Street. Or at least that's how it felt. The real story is a little less dramatic but almost as traumatic. While walking to the subway from the theater, I tripped over a raised sidewalk.  The result: two broken toes and a badly broken elbow in need of surgery.

At 4 am the next morning, after about seven hours in the emergency room, I limped home to my Upper West Side building wearing a hospital gown, my coat over my shoulders, my toes in a splint and my arm in a cast. A few hours later, when news of my injuries and my impending surgery spread in the six-story building I've lived in for nearly 40 years, a benevolent swat team I now call Team 201 (the number of our building) got to  work showing me why I'm lucky to live in this building, and why I may never ever move.

Here's what my neighbors have done for me in the last few weeks:

  • Brought me flowers, chocolate truffles and Whole Foods chocolate salted caramel ice cream
  • Filled my fridge with fabulous cheeses and my favorite Sauvignon Blanc
  • Lent me meditation CDs to take my mind off the pain
  • Washed my hair
  • Changed my bandages
  • Tied my shoes
  • Made me tea
  • Cut my bagels
  • Brought me cannabis-based pain relief cream (smuggled into NYC from Colorado)
  • Texted, called, and visited
  • And  when I could hardly walk because of collateral damage to my hip and back, my neighbor, a massage therapist, gave me the gift of an hour-long massage

It was not just the neighbors who were so kind; on the very first day, my wonderful super came upstairs, rang the bell and asked, ”What can I do for you?”

This has always been an unusual building. Bought in 1945 by Viennese Jews, it became home to many who were escaping the war.  Families, artists, musicians, and more than a few eccentrics rented here.  It's modest by increasingly fancy UWS standards and registered as a tenement with the Department of Buildings, and had been designed as a home for the working middle class.

My husband and I moved into the building in the mid 1970s when, pregnant with my first daughter, we needed a two-bedroom. The place where we had been living was on West End Avenue, a much “nicer” building with a sad-sack elevator operator who ferried a pretty unfriendly bunch of tenants up and down the 15 floors. We knew our next door neighbors—that was as far as the camaraderie went.

As soon as we moved into this building, we could feel the homey vibes. For a while we had a tenant patrol in the lobby—those were the wild and wooly West Side days—and everyone would gather down there to keep the tenant-on-duty company. The younger tenants—that was us back then—would share babysitting, keep each other company at the playground, and have meals together.

Now, the inevitable has happened and the young cohort is now the older cohort in the building. But, most of us are still here, friends still celebrating good times together and still helping out with the bad times. One of our more well-known tenants even wrote a piece about it for the Wall Street Journal. (The younger tenants? That’s a story for another time …)

I wonder if there’s a way to determine whether or not the building you are about to live in will be one where there is a genuine feeling of community, a place where when you have the flu and ask a neighbor to pick up a prescription for you, where you can expect some chicken soup brought over from next door. I suppose you can ask the super about the building's neighborliness quotient or ask the people in the elevator what their take on the tenant-friendliness-factor is before you sign on the dotted line.

There was a book written in the 1950's about the culture of shtetls, the Yiddish word for the little villages where Jews lived in Russia. Its title is Life is with People. For me, that says it all when I think about our building. That title and the image it invokes is what I think of when I think of life here. It is with people, it is about people and it is about caring about, and for, people. If that sounds like a corny sentiment, so be it.

In about three weeks, Apartment 4A is having a knee replacement. We're ready.


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Marjorie Cohen

Contributing writer

Marjorie Cohen is a New York City-based freelance journalist, editor and author of over seven non-fiction books. Her real estate reporting has appeared in amNewYork, Investopedia, and The West Side Rag. Since moving to New York five decades ago for graduate school at the Teachers College of Columbia University, Marjorie has lived on the Upper West Side, with a brief detour to West 15th Street when she got six months free rent in a new building.

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