21-20 22nd Drive was a nightmare of a place, a Hell on earth. It meant well, for the most part. And it didn’t really bother us for the first two years we lived there … we were just psyched to be living in New York. But once we saw how fucked up that place was, we could never unsee it, like the penis on a pack of Camel cigarettes.
There were four apartments in the building. Our apartment was on the second floor. Next door to us were the landlady, Mrs. Talgot, and her troll of a husband. When I say he was a troll, I don’t mean it facetiously. He was an actual, living troll, straight out of a Grimm fairy tale. He had long, greasy greenish-white hair and he appeared to be in his early hundreds. His VW van was completely rusted over and it was filled to bursting with old, broken things and the bones of goats and children.
On the Talgot’s mailbox, underneath their name, Mr. Talgot had written “Talgot Frut Distribs” in a childlike scrawl. A few times a week, we would leave our apartment to find a giant box of rotting cantaloupes or maggot-infested apples sitting in the hallway, stinking up the place. I’m not sure who he was distribbing these fruts to, but I hope they had other ways of getting vitamin C.
The Talgots had a son in his 30s who either lived there or just came over to visit all the time. He always had some kind of get-rich-quick scheme percolating. I asked him once why he didn’t just get involved in the family fruit empire, and he turned serious. “The old man’ll die before I get a piece of that action,” he said. I didn’t have the heart to tell him his father was one of the undead.
In the apartment below the Talgots lived two guys known only as the Egyptians. They were very mysterious. I only saw them three or four times in the entire time I lived there. The only thing we knew about them was that they never made a peep and they had a taste for the kind of women who took reservations, if you get my drift. In a post-9/11 world, we might have suspected the Egyptians of being a terrorist cell, but back then they just seemed inconsequential.
Next door to the Egyptians, beneath our apartment, lived the biggest piece of shit to ever slither out of the womb, a 300-pound Armenian former hairdresser named Garo Zamrutian, a/k/a Scary Gary. Gary looked exactly like Ignatius J. Reilly from A Confederacy of Dunces. Like Ignatius, he lived with his mother, an ancient, unwashed woman with Coke-bottle glasses and a single tooth who wore the same, stained muumuu day out and day in. We called her Blueberry Ankles on account of the prominent varicose veins on her legs. Which was just awful of us … she had the hardest life of anyone on the planet, having to live with that horrorshow of a son.
Still, she was no paragon of decency herself; her only joy in life came from rifling through our garbage, removing items that could have gone in the recycling bin, and presenting them to us with a disapproving lecture in severely broken English. Like, she would go into the trashcan, tear open our bags of garbage, and pull out nasty old cartons of moldy food, then put them somewhere so she could show them to us the next time we left the building. And she’d stare at us with that single-toothed grin and say things like, “This … can … bag … no good.” This happened at least once a week for the four years we lived there. And despite our rude nicknames, we really couldn’t be mean to an old, nearly blind woman, so we’d listen patiently to her lectures while secretly wishing she would fall into one of her beloved trash cans and get carted off to a landfill.
We moved into the apartment in the fall of 1997. Jill and Don drove out in a U-Haul and my dad and I followed them a few days later. As I found out when I arrived, the trouble with Gary started the minute Don and Jill started unpacking the truck. According to Don, Gary insisted on helping them unload. Which would have been great if he’d actually bothered to pick up an object and carry it into the apartment. Instead, he stood by the truck and told them they were lifting things the wrong way for the 2 hours it took them to unload everything. Which was a very Gary thing to do … like his mother, he liked nothing better than to lecture you about what you were doing wrong. And his advice was never, ever useful. Like, you’d wear a new pair of shoes, and he’d say, “hey man, how much did you pay for those shoes?” and no matter what price you told him, he’d say, “Phhhh, that’s stupid, man. That’s too expensive. You shouldn’t pay that much for shoes. Why would you buy shoes? You’re stupid, man.” Like, literally, he would question why you would ever buy shoes. And if you tried to argue with him about it, he’d get angry. “No no no no, man,” he’d say, “You don’t buy shoes! You just get them! You know what I’m saying? You just get shoes!”
It took about two weeks for this act to get old and about three for it to become downright torturous. And we couldn’t avoid him, because he spent every minute of every day guarding the front stoop with his mangy, terrifying pit bull on a leash next to him. That pit bull was a fucking menace and it was because Gary beat the living hell out of him several times a day. He was scrawny and underfed and had this crazed look in his eye like he was just one kick away from ripping out Gary’s jugular and tossing it in our trashcan so Blueberry Ankles could find it and accuse us of fucking up the recycling.