We were the only two tenants on the fifth floor. I was the struggling actor, with a view of a street bordered with colored, discarded doors where they were tearing down our neighborhood, just down from West 67th and Columbus, a space that would soon become Lincoln Center.
Just down the hall from me was Andre (always tell your kids your stories when they’re 8, and they will never forget a name).
Andre, an ancient black man, had retired as hotel doorman. He was born in Haiti, was raised in New York and had a view of the alley. We became friends, because he had a working coffee maker and I did not. A visit to Andre’s cluttered kitchen revealed three distinct items: framed pictures of Jesus and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and a calendar from a funeral parlor. An Irish Catholic boy felt right at home.
Whenever I came home late from work at the Waldorf Astoria, he was always there at the top of the steps, looking down, chuckling at the way I cursed each flight on the way up. He was waiting for me like I was his son or younger brother.
At first it was annoying, unless I had lost my key and buzzed Andre to let me in. After a bit, I kind of looked forward to seeing him up there waiting, like a father or mother leaning on the old dark brown scarred bannister. New in town, I had few friends and, like Andre, no family.
When I had a cold or flu, Andre would come over with soup or a peanut butter sandwich wrapped in a paper napkin from the Dew Drop Inn on 86th and Broadway. Andre seemed to have no one else. He said all of his friends had died long ago of booze or old age. Of one, he said the funniest thing I had ever heard, “He just lost the use of his self.”
Andre, in his wisdom, taught me two things. The first was how to protect my larder from the ever-present roaches and their storm-trooper friends, the rats, by always putting everything edible in the “icebox.” Rats and roaches increased every time another building came down. Cereal and bread went in there, cupcakes stolen from the Waldorf kitchen, breadsticks stolen from the Italian cafe on Second Avenue. Everything.
The second lesson was how important America and its traditions were to him. When it came to Election Day, Nov. 6, 1956, (which I had to look up again) it was cold and miserable. I had the day off and had no plans to get out of bed. But Andre had been talking about it for months, and I knew how deadly serious he was. Luckily, I was a registered voter with absolutely no political sense at all.
I was reluctant to walk the eight or nine blocks to vote, but there was Andre in his cap, looking to me like a hundred years old. Guilt won out, and I cast my vote for Adlai Stevenson, who was trampled by Dwight Eisenhower.
I’ve voted in every presidential election since, and like Andre, would never consider not doing so. Romney? Obama? Your business.
Sitting it out?
Remember the pictures of the Iraqi women who proudly held up their purple fingers in the Iraqi 2005 election, when polling place suicide bombings took the lives of 44 people who dared to vote.
Think of 108-year-old Joanna Jenkins, a black woman from South Carolina, who, most of her life, had been denied a chance to vote and just gave up. This year, 2012, Ms. Jenkins, will cast her ballot for the first time, for Barack Obama.
Think of Andre in his rainbow cap walking eight blocks in the snow with a dumb young actor. Vote.
J.P. Devine is a Waterville writer.