One floor below, at the front of our East Village tenement building, lives Fredda Hardy. She was once an actress. And when she got through the woods health-wise, she told me, she planned to go on casting calls again.
On the dusty, cluttered shelves of her apartment, there is dusty community theatre statuary–circa 1962. One award names her Best Director. Another is an acting trophy with (mysteriously) another actress' name. Fredda had spent years working the midnight shift down in Manhattan’s Financial District, transcribing law firm recordings through the wee hours. She was retired. As for acting, I suppose she would be considered a "character actress"—whatever character means, a question that arises in a different context in all our relationships.
I did see her in a clip of 1976’s “Alice, Sweet Alice” (with Brooke Shields) where Fredda played a hysterical congregant in a church.
A funny smart raconteur, over dinners she told me of a nomadic early life spanning from an Alabama farm to Taiwan to Fairbanks, Alaska. Who her father was I never learned, but when Fredda was about nine her mother began a new family with another man. Fredda was left out, an outcast from way back.
A few years ago, an out-of-town visitor helped her clean debris from her apartment. On that day, in suit and tie, I bounded up the stairs, needing to retrieve something from my place before a business dinner. On Fredda's fifth floor landing were seven grocery bags full of books, a sight bringing bibliophilic me to a dead stop. I knocked on her door and she told me they were soon being put on the street for general consumption, of course I was free to take anything I liked. In a frenzy, I rummaged through the bags, discovering ancient, somewhat crumbling paperbacks with marvelous, antiquated covers—from Hemingway to Graham Greene. Some pages were worm-holed. These were literally dirty books. After amassing two dozen or so, my hands were black.
Later, reading a poem by Robert Service in one of these volumes, a snapshot of Fredda fell from its pages. She looked 40 years old, dressed like an extra of "Hee Haw" in overalls and a straw hat, a warm apple pie expression on her full face. I mentioned this to Fredda and she said she had fond memories of reading Service's poems while on a long bus ride from the Northwest to Alaska.
She's gained considerable weight over the years. Over 60, she appears wider than tall. The stairs up to her apartment are a trial. She suffers from asthma, back and leg pains. A mysterious bulge protrudes from her lower left belly. One tried not to look, but it was hard not to wonder.
A regular figure resting on the stairway landings, panting as she made her way to her fifth-floor apartment, all our building's residents know Fredda. She was invariable cheerful and gasping, befriending everyone from Eurotrash wannabees on the second floor to the monosyllabic musician on the fifth.
A member of the Screen Actors Guild, Fredda sometimes invited me to film screenings uptown. These are usually films that I wouldn't normally catch, but free is a good price. Also, seeing a film satisfies the social obligation of our friendship. If I missed going with her to one of the screenings, no worries: later, she would recount the entire movie to me, scene by scene.
She asked me out for her birthday. We caught a jazz dinner show on Restaurant Row. Years ago, Fredda had gotten voice coaching from the schmaltzy torch singer. To be honest, I sometimes feel a low-grade panic at times like this, like a restless cat wriggling from human hands. Still, in the taxi streaming downtown from her birthday dinner, Fredda let out a joyful howl: "Woo-hoo! This is the life!" I was glad I'm not entirely an asshole.
While gracious and friendly in everyday encounters, at times her grudges gush outwards and I glimpse the roiling river beneath the placid surface. In vehement bursts, she occasionally denounces our neighbors. I fear her wrath. Sometimes I listen to details of a recently-viewed film without trying to change the subject in order not to hear about a neighbor with whom she was annoyed.
Still, she also keeps me highly entertained with colorful stories about our building and our block—like how in the 60s a drug dealer who kept his German Shepherd on the roof was found murdered. Or the anaconda that went missing. Fredda related hilarious anecdotes about Gary, our sloppy, unmotivated ex-landlord.
Fredda has been in the building since the 1960s. With her physical and mental problems, she fights a losing battle keeping her apartment tidy or even sanitary. Pizza boxes collect, as do candy wrappers and cardboard containers from Chinese deliveries. At times when she's been hospitalized, with her permission I've taken the opportunity to scrub down and clean out her apartment—a daunting yet satisfying task for any German Virgo.
When she's at home, I try to stop by with a prepared exit line. But sometimes I forget, like the time I found myself on a video tour of the 126 channels she receives on her massive television. I perched on a cleared-away couch arm, she on her fold-up bed. I have allergies to pollen, dust and mold, among other things.
As I sipped, something shifted in my head: a discomfiting sinus suction. I fogged up, dizzy, like in Hitchcock's "Notorious" when Alicia realizes she's being poisoned by her Nazi mother-in-law. It was as if I needed to get past Fredda to reach the air above the water's surface. Embarrassed, I struggled to my feet, making excuses while staggering to the door.
Fredda's hernia—that's what it was—got double herniated. She was again admitted to Beth Israel Hospital. I made a Get Well card with a picture of our building scanned on the front, posted it in the hallway for neighbors to sign, and brought it to her at the hospital with a few novels.
Fredda's complexion is rosier. She lay on her bed, small at the feet and the head, the bulk of her covered with a white nightgown, resembling a giant fish. She tells me more than I want to know about her "wound." She keeps saying the word "wound," over and over, that word: "wound"… “wound"... "wound."
It became infected. She phones from the hospital and asks if I could bring her certain books from the foot of her bed. Fredda also needed the plastic pasta twirler used for back-scratching. To retrieve the last item on her list, I use blackmail to enlist the help of another neighbor. I would drop off Fredda’s underwear at the hospital if Sara retrieved them--"the large pairs"--from Fredda's bureau.
After Sara left, I'm alone in Fredda's space. Any person is out of context in the hospital; now Fredda's place is vastly different in her absence, a vacated cocoon. I turn off the air conditioner. It clicks to a halt as my sinuses fill. Here is the detritus of a life: chipped knick-knacks, moldy books, bags of newspapers and unhung paintings. The collective search for love and comfort seems tragic and universal. As accumulations go, it isn't much, making me wonder what it is or how muchwe need.
Fredda is due home Tuesday and eager to get her life going again. "I'm embarrassed at my weight and the state of my apartment," she says from her hospital room. "But this isn't me. This is a new beginning."