In October 2007, my husband and I were looking for an apartment in Brooklyn. We’d seen too many to count and none worth the price, so when a one-bedroom just off Prospect Park popped up for $1200 we jumped. On the way to the appointment, the broker gave us the news: The man who lived in the apartment until last month had committed suicide there.
We took it anyway and when I went to sign the lease at the landlord’s office in Borough Park, I could tell he was pleased to have unloaded the apartment.
“He was a very sick man,” said the landlord. “He stopped taking his medication. His family was devastated.”
After about a week, the woman in the apartment next door came to introduce herself. I asked if she knew the man who’d lived here and she said yes.
“His name was David,” she said. “He was a teacher. And he was really nice.”
I told her what the landlord said about him, and she had a different story.
“He was Hasidic,” she said. “And he was gay. His family abandoned him.”
Then she peered into the apartment and said: “They did a good job of cleaning it up.”
The first piece of mail addressed to him arrived about a month later. It was a post card from Spain. Judging by the handwriting, the note was from a woman. More letters arrived over the next few months: a flyer with a photograph of a man in lipstick advertising a performance in the Greenwich Village; something official from the Teacher’s Retirement System; a check-up reminder from the local hospital.
I didn’t open any of the letters, but I kept all the mail in a folder in my desk. As a reform Jew who grew up in Central California, I had only recently realized that communities of ultra-Orthodox even existed in the U.S., and, I have to admit, the people who lived in this world fascinated me. I saw them on the train, dressed in clothing that seemed from another time; clothing that separated them, that screamed, I am Jewish.
I started to read about their community, and the more I read, the more I wanted to know David. I listened for him, but never saw signs of a ghost. For a while I toyed with the idea of tracking down his family and bringing them the thick folder of mail. But I realized that that would be an exercise in selfishness. If they hadn’t wanted to hear from him, they certainly wouldn’t want to hear from me.
So, because I could only imagine him, I did what writers do when we get curious: I started to write about him. Well, not him exactly (although you’ll find a reference to him in my novel, Invisible City), but the world he came from.
And I still have his unopened mail.
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