India Choquette is a writer, a trainer, a teacher, a breakfast sandwich eater, a person in love with a person, and a FOrmer Vermonter living in New York City.

Lady in the Basement

R. moved into the basement apartment nine months after I moved into my mine. I first noticed her dog, which barked whenever she wasn’t there. Which wasn’t often—as far as I’ve been able to tell, someone is always in R.’s apartment. R. R. doesn’t look that old, but she behaves like she is. She is white with a small grizzly dog that, unlike her, is elderly. She has a woman who works for her who is black and is at least fifteen years older than she is. Her helper’s name is H., and I met her once when she was painstakingly walking down the stairs to the basement to do laundry. H. was struggling so much that I let her put her laundry in first. It was late at night, and she looked like she should have been in bed hours ago. She told me her arthritis was bad, and she introduced herself as R.’s “helper” and asked me how old I was. She was effusively grateful that I let her go first. It didn’t feel great—she kept mentioning how much laundry R. had and, when she found a stain on shirt she had just washed, she was worried that R. was going to be “mad” at her. I wondered if she slept over at R.’s, or if R. was keeping her there until the laundry was done. It made me upset.

R. is able bodied. I once crossed paths with her shoveling the snow up to the front door. This makes no sense because she lives in the basement and has a separate entrance. I thanked her for shoveling—it was nice of her—and she barked something about how “that man” sure wasn’t going to do anything about it.

“That man” is A. A is the super for my building and the one next to it. Both are brownstones with approximately seven apartments. He does not respond to texts. And I’ve only had two real interactions with him. The first was when, after ignoring many desperate texts from me to help me kill the rat in my apartment (that’s another story), he showed up to remove the rotting carcass from under the sink with his young grandson, who said to me, “You live here?” in a quite judgmental tone. The second was when I came home after being out of the house for fifteen hours to find that my toilet had flooded into the hall, and there was a legitimate waterfall cascading down the stairs. S. and I dealt with it, and A. eventually stopped by to hand us a mop. It was 11:00 at night. Apparently, R. had called him during the day, and he hadn’t responded. People in New York DO. NOT. CARE.

So I’m not a big fan of A. either.

On the week after my birthday, R. taped a double sided handwritten note to the front door. She writes in cursive. To summarize her note, she “didn’t mind” carrying my packages from the basement level to the front door, but I had been getting a lot of packages and some were heavy, so would I “mind” being a “little more diligent”

I LOVE THIS GAME. I wrote back: “Dear R., I very much appreciate you carrying my packages upstairs. Please, feel free to leave them by the basement. It was my birthday this past week, so I do anticipate the packages slowing. Additionally, I work nights (and mornings!) so I’m often not home until after 10pm. If you leave the packages there, I will retrieve them. I’m so grateful for your help!”

That was the only note addressed to me directly. Since then, there have been so many good ones: ones about the rats (she drew a picture of rats on the note), ones about the garbage, the recycling, and so many other rich topics that none of the us—the young people who inhabit the shitty studio apartments—care about.  

Last night, S. was in the basement doing laundry, and she met R. R. was, apparently, screaming at some young man when S. went downstairs, so she was already freaked out. S. described the young man as slightly “off.” That was the same feeling I had had about H. The teenager was also black, and it was also late at night. What was he doing there? I didn’t get the full details from S., but it was enough that she came up and told me about it right away.

Then once she finished scolding, R. cornered S. in the basement. It was a worst case scenario for S. who isn’t a big fan of talking to strangers. Especially aggressive ones who scream a lot. I don’t know if she was truly screaming, to be fair, because S. is really sensitive. But R. is aggressive and something was happening. R., being the word artist that she is, not only got S.’s name, but she also got our floor. Once she learned that we lived on the third floor, she asked, “Does your bathroom ever leak?”

S. smartly lied and said no.

She laughed when she came back upstairs and told me about the lie. S. is very honest, and she must have been extremely uncomfortable if she left out our leaky bathroom. I made a joke that now R. knew where we lived. I don’t trust anyone.

An hour and a half later, however, I heard a little knock and a woman’s voice saying, “Sara!”

R. had found us. I answered, “Hi,” I said.

“Is it okay if I take your clothes out of the dryer?” she asked through the door.

“I’m coming down now,” I said. S. was crouched down with her mouth covered. She was laughing but also a little afraid.

“Oh, I can do it,” she said.

“Okay!” I said.

It is not necessary to knock on someone’s door to ask if you can take their clothes out. New York laundry etiquette—especially in our building where there is only one washer and one dryer—dictates that you just take that shit out and put it on the table, no big deal. I could literally write forever about laundry. But this post is about R.

I waited a solid thirty minutes before going down to the basement to collect our clothes. R. feels like the witch in the basement, and I’m scared of her. I wanted to avoid her. I walked extra fast past her door and moved fast and silently, like a panther. In the basement, R. had neatly packed all our underwear in our laundry bag, lined up like little sardines. And individually handled. She had painstakingly draped all our shirts and pants over the back of a chair. She had scotch taped a small square piece of paper to the draped clothes and had written “So they don’t wrinkle” in her cursive.

It was nice, but also invasive. I would have thought it even nicer if I hadn’t seen her rant and rave on so many occasions. It would have been endearing if I hadn’t met H. and if S. hadn’t seen her yell at the young man. What is she doing? I wondered if she had happened to have the stationary with her, or if she made an extra trip upstairs to get the tape etc. then come back down with the note. It seemed like overkill.

But, objectively, it was nice. And invasive. I hated it but didn’t want to incur her wrath by being rude. I shoved all her neatly draped clothes into our laundry bag—I mean, really stuffed them in there—then I took her note and debated if I should write back. But, unlike her, I don’t carry a pen with me down to the basement. So I took her note and folded it into a paper crane.

I left the crane in her hamper.

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