Today on Alphabet City: Jon Paul worries about the disappearance of a supporting character.
The longer I’ve lived in New York, the more I’ve added to my collection. Not bric-a-brac, mind you—although that “vintage” stool in our kitchen was once rescued from the street by Angela. No, I tend to collect people, characters, supporting cast members that help fill out my ongoing sitcom life. And I never realize how much I rely on them until they are written out of the show or go missing—like Fidel-the-Watchdog. Rain, snow or shine, Fidel sits in his 4th floor window across the street from our Washington Heights brownstone chain smoking cigarettes and shouting at violators of parking regulations. But about a month ago, he mysteriously disappeared. I’ve been beside myself ever since.
By way of background, Fidel is part of a long line of character (actors) that I have cast in my sitcom life since my days on the East Village set of Alphabet City. Many of the supporting cast members had useful job functions like the Born-Again-Christian-Korean-Dry-Cleaners who assumed that Angela and I were married and that Chef was my brother. The joke never got old (to us). Other times, they provided a running gag like Opinionated-Semi-Homeless-Man who every morning shouted at me, “Spare any change guy? You look crazy in that suit!” as I headed to work gussied up in a tie while most E. Village hipsters were slinking home from the clubs. I was sad to leave that motley crew behind when my show was transferred way uptown.
But moving to Washington Heights, I needn’t have worried about my new sitcom life filling with captivating characters. The Dry Cleaners role was taken over by a sass talking Puerto Rican chica on 181st street who dishes with me on her latest boy troubles and wants to know when Chef is bringing her some of his famous guacamole. And for one summer season, the Semi-Homeless Man was played by a good-looking guy who I oddly developed a crush on when he berated me for not complimenting him on his dedicated sweeping outside the A-train subway stop.
What I didn’t realize when we bought our brownstone was that it came with its own live security camera—the gentleman whom we call Fidel, an homage to another omnipotent Latin. At first, just the idea of someone watching over my every move unnerved me. If it wasn’t bad enough that he had a direct view into our apartments, he shouted at us in an unintelligible brogue whenever we were coming and going. With a smoke-induced gravelly voice, we couldn’t tell if he was screaming at us in Yiddish or Spanglish.
As it turned out he wasn’t that good of a security camera either. When someone stole a geranium off our front stoop in the pouring rain before Mother’s Day, he just shrugged. Same thing when someone stole my chained up bike. He never liked where I was putting out the trash. And always had something to say when I watered the flowers.
Everything changed the day we planted a tree. After a long battle with the NYC Parks Department, a few calls to a friend in Bloomberg’s office, and a hefty (to us) donation to the “Million Trees” program, our blessed Arbol de la Vida was delivered like manna from heaven. And that’s when the Red Sea of 183rd Street parted and Fidel-as-Moses came for a visit.
Coming down from on high, Fidel regaled us with stories about how he’d seen the street change over his 40 years living life from that window—the fire that once gutted our home, the double homicide next door, the once beautiful trees lining the street cut down to make parking for the police precinct.
While we still couldn’t quite place his accent, it became clear he was once as suspect of us—the new kids on the block—as we were of him. But our chutzpah in planting the tree had shown him we were putting down roots, and after three years, we had passed muster. Fidel, whose given name is evidently George, returned to his perch, and continued his ranting to which we just smile and wave and take as a sign of affection.
That is, until a month ago, when Fidel disappeared from view. Not just for a bathroom break, but for days. Then a week. Then a fortnight. Everyone in the house became nervous. Angela assured me that this time last year he had gone to see his family somewhere—for Easter or Passover (we’re still not sure which he observes). But then another week passed. I could tell Frida started getting agitated—she usually had a stare down with Fidel from her own window ledge on our 2nd floor. Even Frida’s dogwalker Andrea left a note wondering about his whereabouts. He had infiltrated the lives of fellow cast members. When asked, neighbors just shrugged. The Handsome-Hardware-Store-Guy—the one who thinks I am Hugo Weaving—lives in Fidel’s building and told me everything was fine, that Fidel (a.k.a. Jorge) was just on an extended visit with family.
But Fidel’s continued absence just made me worry and miss him more. I longed for the obligatory waves when taking Frida to and from her walks. I wondered if I’d ever get another “thumbs up” for my front stoop gardening. I hoped to once again take the risk of him seeing me naked when I ran from the shower into my front room office to grab my ringing cell phone.
Ever a fatalist—a dramatic flair I’ve inherited from my mother that in therapy I’ve been working to shed—I began to worry that should anything happen to Fidel, no one would know to tell me. No one would know what an integral part of my Washington Heights existence he has become. Funny the affect that one supporting character has on the way you live a sitcom life.
For days I’ve been mulling around how to write about my feelings of loss for Fidel. And this morning, as I poured my first cup of coffee, telling myself that today was the day that I finally share with the world my worries about this character, I looked out the window out of habit. Expecting absence. And, no joke, there he was. In all his normal glory—smoking and drinking coffee as if nothing had changed.
He caught me peeking and smiled, then waved and gave me a nod of approval fro my garden’s Spring Awakening.
Well, Fidel, welcome back to my sitcom life. You may not know it, but you’ve been missed.
Update: EV Grieve has info on the “Spare Any Change Guy” from the East 5th Street days.