The basket didn’t feel too bad as I carried it around the market. The paper towels were bulky but weightless, the jars of spices small. I added four containers of the yogurt Ethan likes. A box of Texas Toast for Dan. Chicken for our dinner. Salmon for the following night. Eggs, cheese, and a jar of salsa in case we wanted huevos rancheros for breakfast. I remembered I needed broth for my chicken recipe and chose a small box of packets instead of a can, my one nod to the predicament I’d face when I got home.
Of course my bags were heavier than I’d hoped. They always are. I shifted them from hand to hand, trying my best to distribute the weight. Almost there, I told myself at intersections as though talking to a small child at my side. Finally, I got to my building, let myself in, and stood at the foot of the staircase debating whether I could make it to the fourth floor in a single trip. As I switched the bag with the eggs to my right hand, the one that wouldn’t be holding the banister, a couple who lived upstairs came bounding down.
“Do you need help?” the woman asked. My first instinct was to refuse politely and struggle up the stairs. After all, they’d just come down five flights and were on their way out. But then I thought about all the times Dan answered that same question with an enthusiastic, That would be great! Being blind, he’d never be able to live his rich, busy life as both a poet and an access technology consultant without accepting help now and then. As a physically disabled woman living with an elevator that’s been out of service until further notice for the past six weeks, I’ve come to realize the same is true of me.
My first Guardian Angel of the Staircase tried to be anonymous. Once a month, I receive a delivery of six jugs for our water cooler, along with a case of flavored seltzer. I hadn’t thought to cancel it. Actually, it hadn’t occurred to me that, seeing that the elevator was out of service, the delivery guy would drop off my order on the first floor and flee.
When I came home from work and saw those heavy jugs next to the defunct elevator I almost cried. There was nothing I could do about it, so I started the trek upstairs. Washing vegetables for dinner, I considered my options. Call Deer Park and have them take back the delivery. Hire a crew of Ethan’s friends to each bring up a jug. My most creative idea, as well as my most audacious, was to post a note on the stairwell door asking my neighbors to bring up a jug on their way upstairs if and when they could.
“I’ll try carrying up a jug a day,” Ethan offered when he got home.
“Thanks, honey,” I said. Ethan is still getting used to waking up at 6:30 am to take the train to his new high school and then coming home to a boatload of homework. “I’ll take you up on that if I can’t figure anything else out.”
Earlier that week my friend Ed took Ethan shopping for a drum set. “The elevator’s broken,” I’d warned him. “You sure you don’t want to put this off?”
“Nah,” he’d responded. A drummer himself, Ed had looked forward to the errand. “We’ll break the boxes down and carry the drum set up piece by piece.” Five trips up the stairs later, Ethan had a new drum set, though he and Ed were too exhausted to put it together anytime soon.
With their drum ingenuity for inspiration, I figured out that I could at least handle the seltzer bottles. The day after the delivery, I brought an empty backpack with me on my lunch-time dog walk. While Cindy sniffed the halls, I broke open the case.
A neighbor came downstairs while I was there on my knees filling my backpack.
“Have I mentioned how much I love living in a walk-up?” I joked to him.
With six bottles on my back I went upstairs to eat lunch. I drank a cup of tea and listened to NPR, then threw on my coat and started to leave for work. All six water jugs, along with the half case of seltzer I’d left downstairs were beside my apartment door.
“How on earth . . .” I wondered, and then realized the neighbor I’d seen downstairs had somehow brought everything up so stealthily that even Cindy, our fierce watch-Chihuahua, hadn’t heard.
I ran into that neighbor on the street the following day and sputtered my enormous thanks.
“It wasn’t all that heavy,” he shrugged, flushing, making me realize he preferred not to be recognized for what he’d done. Was it shyness? Maybe in part. But more than that, he’d simply helped me because he could and because I needed it. Neither for acknowledgment nor for praise. One perk of disability is that I get to see the best in people.
The medieval Jewish philosopher Maimonides considered anonymous giving one of the highest acts — a commandment filled for its own sake. The one form of giving he placed above it is where the altruist finds a way to communicate that she or he and the person in need remain equals. I’ve definitely needed more help since the day the elevator went bust. Often, it’s my family who jumps in. Ethan has met me downstairs to take Cindy from me so I can grocery shop without first climbing the stairs only to go right down again. Dan has shopped with me when he can so he can carry my heaviest bags. But just as often, it’s been my neighbors, many of whom I hardly know. Yet not once have I been made to feel like that poor crippled single mom on the fourth floor. Life’s been a little harder for all of us in these long weeks of living in a walk-up. We’re a little wearier for it but, on the upside, maybe a little thinner too. Most of all, we’re in it together and that’s never a bad thing.