The Ancient Modern
My Friend Shal / Joshua Alan Sturgill
I never apologize for
but I often have to explain
about my friend Shal
who lives on the apartment fire escape.
He’s lived there as long as most of us can remember. We frequently offer to let him move inside, but he always declines.
He comes in for tea once in a while. But there are conditions. When he’s at my apartment, the window has to be left open, things have to be very tidy, and no one else can be over. I think his rules change slightly, depending on whose place he’s visiting that day.
But I have to say I enjoy those rare mornings. I see him outside and say “hey, I’m having tea, do you want some?” and he unexpectedly says, “sure.” And it’s always a lovely time, but never lasts long.
Occasionally, I’ll have a party, and Shal seems to enjoy watching from outside. I’ll hand him a beer through the window, and after one or two, and he’ll say, “come out here for a bit,” and I’ll say “sure, but…” and I’ll explain that I can’t stay long—I have to keep things going at the party. It seems to make him very happy that I’m taking a little time for him, though I’m occupied. “Of course!” he’ll say. And he’ll show me some project he’s been working on, and then he’ll remind me that I should get back inside. For the rest of the evening, he’ll sit by the window and make witty conversation with my guests.
He tells great stories of things he’s seen from the fire escape. Sunsets and traffic accidents and crazy people. And somehow, everyone knows instinctively not to ask him too many questions in response. Just laugh and enjoy the stories. I think Shal likes that the fire escape keeps him connected to a lot of people, near but not too close.
I’ve known Shal long enough that I am sometimes invited onto the fire escape for a whole meal. When this first happened, I was surprised at how carefully, even artfully, his found-furniture was arranged to make the landings look more spacious.
“But see,” Shal says seriously, “how I’ve set things up so no one’s way will be blocked if there really is a fire. Because I know this is a fire escape. And fires happen continually, and you need to be prepared.” He always asks if our fire alarms have fresh batteries, and whether we know he’s there to help if we need him.
This is the closest Shal ever comes to admitting that he lives in a place reserved for emergencies.
It’s almost like he’s saying, “I know I live in everybody’s way.” But of course, he’s not in anyone’s way at all. We all love and appreciate him being out there. One of the tenants upstairs travels frequently, and she gave him a spare key so he could feed her cat when she’s gone. Obviously, he doesn’t need the key, as he climbs in through the window. But the key made the arrangement official. I think Shal likes formalities—when he can be part of them without having to change his circumstances.
For all of us inside the building, Shal is a sympathetic ear if we need one, or a wicked gossip if we need that, or an intelligent conversationalist at any time. He’s brainier than he lets on. He used to do quite a bit of traveling himself—and to some exotic places, it sounds like—but he always comes back to the fire escape. Occasionally, he’ll disappear for a few days or a week, but I know not to ask about it until he’s ready to talk. We’re not supposed to be paying that much attention to him.
Over time, I’ve learned (from hints he dropped or from my casual observations) that Shal is actually very uncomfortable on the fire escape. He especially hates the ivy growing up the side of the building—though I think he feels guilty for hating it. Our building is old, and the ivy is almost a threat: slowly crumbling away the mortar between the bricks and promoting rust on the fire escape’s iron steps and railings.
I often see him gently pulling the ivy away from the building, twining it instead around the tables and chairs he has on the landings. The ivy makes his living space look verdant and beautiful, and people compliment his green thumb. But I suspect that, from Shal’s perspective, arranging the ivy is really like placating an aggressor.
The ivy and rust, weather and traffic, are his nagging concerns. “I know I can’t really stay here long” he says sometimes, offhandedly, “I’ll have to move soon.” But he’s been saying this for years. He mentions the constant work of managing plants and people—or the cold front moving in this weekend or the neighbor who plays music too loud. He discusses it all with a strange mix of pleasure and anxiety.These may be common worries, but they uniquely affect his living arrangement. And, they’re something to occupy his restless mind.
Once or twice he’s been uncharacteristically vulnerable with me. In a halting tone that betrays genuine concern, he tells me how much he worries about the people in the apartment. He’ll complain in a parental sort of way that so-and-so is not taking good care of whatever-it-is. But he’ll end this confession by saying he knows what a burden he is to everyone, how inconvenient. This blend of compassion and frustration is endearing, but sometimes painful for me. I know I’m just expected to listen, not offer advice.
Shal is one of my favorite people. If I try to say this to him, or to give him any kind of compliment, he recoils and I won’t see him for a few days. Then, things are suddenly back to normal and we don’t mention it. Back to his normal, anyway. Normal for Shal is brief morning greetings, bits of humorous apartment news, ironic anecdotes and clever puns. And daily managing the ivy.
I watch him arrange furniture again
so it won’t be in anyone’s way,
because fires happen continually
and you need to be prepared.