Love Thy Neighbor

After she was gone (but not long after), our knowledge and understanding of Nancy as a person blossomed.  What had been sheer mystery, obfuscated even more by the fog of denial, lifted little by little over time, layer by layer, almost as if by magic.  Beginning with the “angel” who was introduced to us from yahoo (see Introducing Nancy), followed by phone calls with people our yahoo angel insisted we speak to — the headmaster of Nancy’s high school (Fieldston), her ex-husband, an old high school boyfriend, another neighbor, a Hendrix biographer, and more — connections to the people in her life followed each other like a daisy chain whose beginning and end was unknown. 

Sometimes the revelations came completely unbidden, as when a curious cousin in Santa Barbara, CA. called me one one day, about a year after Nancy’s death, puzzled after a session had concluded with members of her book club.  They had been reading The Year of Living Biblically, by the author A.J. Jacobs.  In the book, AJ (as he likes to be called) describes with a supple mixture of seriousness, hilarity and sarcasm, his effort to follow every single rule in the Bible literally for one year, as much as he possibly could.  When he got to “love thy neighbor,” he described living in an apartment building in Manhattan where, by his own admission, he didn’t even know his neighbors’ names, and certainly didn’t love them.  But one neighbor he recalled had a dog, about the same age as his son, and with “pretty much the same vocabulary.”  This neighbor, A.J. noted, happened to have been a friend of Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin, was shy to a fault, and looked a bit like Janis. 

My cousin in Santa Barbara was aware that Nancy had recently been discovered by me and that her relationship with Jimi was known.  So she called and opened with something like, “this is a long shot, I know, but I’ve got to run this strange coincidence by you before I can let it go from my mind.”  Before long I was in touch with AJ who confirmed that this neighbor that he had intended to love biblically was Nancy, my half sister. 

Since the overall purpose of this blog is to offer three dimensional glimpses into the person Nancy was in actual life, however fleeting or complex those glimpses may be, I am including, excerpted directly from his book, The Year of Living Biblically, Mr. Jacob’s take on knowing and liking, if not loving, Nancy.  It may not say all that much about my half-sister, but (especially for us, her siblings) it adds up. 

Day 84. I’ve been trying to love my neighbor, but in New York, this is particularly difficult. It’s an aloof city. I don’t even know my neighbors’ names, much less love them. I know them only as woman-whose-cooking-smells-nasty and guy-who-gets-Barron’s and so forth.
Well, except for Nancy in 5I. We met because our son and her beagle are about the same age, have pretty much the same vocabulary, and share similar interests, such as running around the hall.

Nancy is a former hippie who was once friends with Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin. In fact, she looks like what Janis Joplin would have looked like if Janis Joplin had lived another thirty-five years.

In the sixties, Nancy took a lot of drugs, had a couple of disastrous relationships with men, did some waitressing, wrote some poetry, and now lives alone with her dog and listens to Howard Stern every morning.

She almost always wears sundresses and knit caps. She calls herself “the kooky lady with the dog.” She’s painfully shy, almost skittish. She’ll visit our apartment occasionally, but when I knock on hers, she always just cracks the door open and pokes her head out. “I’m painting one wall at a time,” she once explained. “I don’t want anyone to see it till it’s done.”

She also once told me that I unnerved her because I maintained too much eye contact. (Which is, in fact, a problem for me. I often forget to glance away intermittently during conversations, and have to remind myself to do so; otherwise people will think I’m a psycho who keeps a cup of noses in my freezer.)

Nancy was married for a while after college, but she couldn’t have kids. So she’s become the unofficial godmother to our son. For the past few months she’s been sketching a portrait of him. “I’ll be finished soon,” she promises. “By the time he takes his SATs.” And today she brings Jasper an early holiday present: a wooden Noah’s ark with a menagerie of little painted animals.

She thought it’d be good to get him a biblical present. I make Jasper say thank you, a phrase he pronounces without those tiresome consonants, so it sounds like a-ew.

“You know, it’s interesting,” I say to Nancy as we sit at the kitchen table watching Jasper march the giraffes onto his boat. “I was reading in one of my Bible commentaries about how the flood is such a tragic story—the drowning of millions of people and animals—and how strange it is that it’s always made into cute kids’ toys.”

Nancy looks wounded. “I didn’t . . . Ugh. What a putz.  I had tried to show off my biblical knowledge, and I ended up insulting my only friendly neighbor. The Bible tells us not to be know-it-alls—A prudent man conceals his knowledge.”  Proverbs 12:23).

“I love his ark,” I say. “It’s adorable . . .”

“Don’t worry,” she says, recovering. “At least I didn’t get him the stuffed ten plagues.”

Nancy is a good neighbor, probably the best I’ve had in my time as a New Yorker. I decide that this will be one of my missions for the year:  Do something righteous—a good deed, a mitzvah for my neighbor in 5I. 



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