The old-timers at my old apartment building on University Avenue

When I first moved into this apartment building on University Avenue in 1982, age 26, I was one of the few young people in the building. Most of the tenants were old people in their 60s, 70s and 80s. Which seemed a little odd at first. It was like living in a nursing home or a retirement home or something. But it was nice in a way, because it was pretty quiet and peaceful and most of the old-timers minded their own business.

There was a bench down in the lobby where some of the old people hung out during the day. When I’d pass by and catch snatches of the conversation, it seemed like the thing they mostly talked about was their health. “My arthritis has really been acting up lately.” “Ew. I think I’ve been having problems with my kidneys these days.” Etc. That kind of stuff. . . I remember this one little old lady who often hung out on the bench. Very prim and proper with her hair pulled up into a bun and skirts down to her ankles. Her main feature was her facial expression which was set in a permanent sour look. Like she was sucking on lemons. Or like you had just farted and she was in a perpetual state of disapproval. I always wondered about her. . . Another regular at the bench was this classic looking little old man. I used to call him Mr. Peabody in my mind, because he had this pear-shaped body — thin chest and this little round pot-belly. Usually he was very blandly and conservatively dressed — button-down shirt and dress jacket. But for some reason, one day he was sitting down there at the bench wearing a sleeveless black David Bowie t-shirt (Ziggy Stardust era). It was the funniest thing. I doubt he had any idea who David Bowie was. The only thing I could figure was he was down to his last clean shirt and somehow that David Bowie t-shirt had ended up buried in the back of his closet.

The owner of the building, ancient old Mr. Williamson, was this gruff old guy in his 80s who sort of barked at you when he talked. Which sort of intimidated me at first. Until I realized it was because he was hard of hearing. So when I’d talk to him, I’d loudly bark back to him. And we’d bark back and forth. He always seemed to like me, he’d smile when I showed up. Probably because I was one of the few people he could actually hear. … Mr. Williamson was a millionaire from his real estate holdings, but he spent most of his time in his tiny little office on the first floor. Everything in the office looked like it was covered with dust, like all the stacks of paper hadn’t been touched in 20 years. And he had this ancient old manual typewriter which he used to bang out your rent receipt on. His son was always trying to get him to switch to one of those new-fangled electric typewriters. But he was very much set in his ways. And everything in the apartment building was like that, like nothing had been changed in 40 years. It was like a museum. Or a time capsule. A remnant from the days of World War II, frozen in time, before the ’60s and the hippies and all that had over-run Berkeley. . . Mr. Williamson had actually lost one of his legs on University Avenue way back when he was a kid when they had trolleycars going up and down University Avenue — somehow he lost a leg in an accident with one of them, and had one fake leg under his pants.

Another old guy I remember was named Stan McNail. He lived in the apartment right above me. He used to publish a poetry anthology from his apartment. Pretty generic poetry. But we struck up an aquaintance due to our common interest in writing and publishing. His big hobby was leaving a tape recorder running when he left his apartment in the hopes of capturing the voices of ghosts who might be haunting the place.

The little old lady who lived next door to me, I never saw her once in all the years I lived next to her. Somebody told me she was an alcoholic. But that’s all I know about her.

The building manager and his wife — Stan & Rose Mary — were a cute little old couple that lived next door to me on the other side. Stan had white hair and a mustache and had sort of an English manner, like an English butler or something, though with a glint of mischief in his eye. His wife was very sweet, and very garrilous, she would talk your head off if she caught in the hallway. Sometimes it would take me 20 minutes before I could politely break away. And before I’d leave my apartment I’d usually listen first to make sure the coast was clear and nobody was out there in the hallway, so I could sneak down the hall before she button-holed me. Of course now I wish I had spent more time talking with her. One time Stan & Rose Mary invited me into their apartment and Stan showed me his scrapbook from when he was young, yellowed newspaper clippings from when he had been an acrobat in the circus, stuff like that. I think they both kind of looked at me like a son. Which was nice. Their apartment was classic little old couple decor — doilies on the end tables, faded old paintings on the wall. Etc.. . . Later I was surprised to find that Stan supplemented his income by setting up electric pot grow-rooms in the closets of different people he knew all over Berkeley, and they always had a big jar of the highest grade THC butter in their refrigerator. Go figure.

Over the years, all the old people disappeared one by one. I didn’t really notice it at the time, but by the time I moved out in 1995 almost all of them were gone. It never occurred to me at the time that I’d be an old man, too, someday. I thought that was something that happened to other people, not me. Or something that happened way, way off in the future like science fiction. And yet here I am, all these years later, an old man, myself. Go figure.

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