A couple of weeks ago, I went out on my terrace with my cup of coffee. I'm an early riser so this must've been about six a.m. or so. I love the quiet of the morning in the city. You'd be shocked sometimes how much it can sound like you're out in the country. I've lived both kinds of places, so I know what both can sound like. This particular morning was as quiet as sleep.
So I'm leaning on the half-wall that keeps me from falling off my terrace. I'm four floors up, so I'd be dead for sure, or almost sure, if I were ever to fall. I set the coffee mug on the top of the wall, and gazed down at my Super's back garden.
That was when I first saw the guy who lives perpendicular to my world. He was just standing there on the back of my building. He was standing on the building like the brick face of the building was his ground. He wasn't doing anything, just standing there like gravity was going the wrong way. Of course I was startled at first, but this is New York City so I glanced away just as he glanced toward me. I made as if I was studying the bags of peat moss my super had stacked near his plasticene tool-shed. After a few moments, I wandered back into my apartment. I wondered if I should call the management company. They're pretty good about keeping the place up, so I thought they might want to know there was a guy standing perpendicular on the back of the building. But then I thought, well, why not wait and see? Maybe he works for them?
My life being what it is, full of drudgery and boredom, I soon forgot about the man living perpendicular on the back wall. I went to work, came home, made my meals, slept unsoundly. And then it was a Saturday and I, without thinking, wandered out onto my terrace again with my cup of coffee. I was still half-asleep, I suppose, my guard was down, otherwise I don't think I would have wandered to the wall and set my coffee on it as had been my habit before the perpendicular man had shown up.
But in any case, for whatever reason, I did it and before I could stop myself I had made eye contact with the perpendicular man. He smiled and nodded slightly. I was raised with manners so I could hardly look away at that point. I smiled slightly and nodded back. He was about halfway down the building, near the top of the windows on the second floor apartments. He had on faded jeans, a red sort of lumberjacky type shirt (it was a little bit cool yet), and I noticed his black, high-top Keds sneakers. Do they still make those, I wondered. I had a pair just like that when I was a kid.
"Yeah, they're my favorites," the perpendicular man said, starting toward me, up the wall.
Had I spoken out loud? I couldn't recall. I remembered wondering about the high-tops, but I couldn't recall if I expressed the question out loud. Could it be this man not only lived perpendicular to me, but that he could also read my mind? I mentally beamed the question at him, as a test. He gave a small cough, covering his mouth politely, and continued on up the wall toward me. I thought about fleeing back into my apartment, but I could hardly do that now. He clearly wanted to be friendly, to have a bit of a morning chat. It would have been rude to run away.
"My name's John, by the way. I live on your building."
"Oh, hi. I'm Mike. Nice to meet you."
"You're an early riser, I see."
"Yeah. Pretty much." There was an awkward pause. "You too, I guess."
"I don't sleep very much. In fact, I hardly sleep at all. Perpendicular people don't, much. Just one of those things, I guess."
"Are there very many of you?" I waved my hand vaguely at him, and at the ground four floors down. "Living on buildings and all."
"Not many, I guess. In fact, I'm the only one I know."
Okay, I confess, I wanted to ask him how he could live perpendicular to me like that. But I don't know. In New York City, in an apartment building, you want to be careful about which of your neighbors you get close with. It's not like you have a nice yard and a fence between you and them, after all. They can just open their door and cross the hall and knock on your door whenever they want. And who knows what you might be doing when they knock? It's not like you can pretend you aren't home or anything. If they're the kind of neighbors who keep track, they're going to know you're in there.
So, you know, you just want to take it slow and easy at first. See if they have a life of their own. The last thing you want is to get close with some loser neighbor who's all the time wanting to come over and make your life theirs.
Finally, it occurred to me that the pause in the conversation was going on way too long. I can't stand that. I'm always the one that gets embarrassed and uncomfortable first. So I thought I'd maybe start with something, you know, kind of interesting, but not too personal. Just to get the lay of the perpendicular land.
"You follow politics at all?"
"Not much. People who live on the outside of buildings don't really have politics. Well, I don't think we do." He smiled shyly. "I'm the only one I know of, so I guess I really don't know for sure."
"You don't get the paper?"
"No, I don't really get anything, actually."
"What do you do all day?"
"Well, I can look at the sky without having to bend my neck." He indicated the cloudless blue morning sky above us. I bent my head and looked up. I flinched slightly, a crick in the neck, guess I slept wrong the night before.
He turned and faced the ground.
"And I can look down, too. Without having to bend my neck for that either." He turned and faced me. "Sometimes I walk right down to the ground and stand there right next to it, watching the bugs and ants, right close up. You can learn a lot from watching bugs that way. Right close up like that without having to bend your neck."
"You could probably make a pretty good living at something like that. You could be a scientist of some sort."
"Yeah," he said, considering the possibilities. "I suppose. I don't really have to make a living, though, so I mostly just do it because it's interesting."
"You don't have to earn money? What about food? And what about your rent? Do they charge you for living on the side of the building like that?"
He shrugged. "They haven't yet. Nobody really seems to mind. You don't mind, do you?"
"Me? No. Hell, no. Why should I mind? It's none of my business. It's brick so it's not like you're going to ruin the paint job or anything."
Here there was another awkward pause. I was just getting ready to say something about grape jelly when he spoke up and broke the silence himself. Maybe he was an okay guy. Maybe we had some stuff in common.
"I guess you're into politics, though."
"Oh, yeah, sort of, I guess. It kind of wears me out sometimes. It's so frustrating. People are just so... stupid, sometimes. It drives me crazy." I laughed slightly and looked up at him -- well, not really "up" because he was standing just above the third floor windows, which made him down of me, except from his point of view I guess I was sort of lying on my back at his feet. So it was more like I was looking down and away, from my perspective at least. But, whatever. It felt like I was looking "up" at him.
"Maybe I should be perpendicular like you. No politics. Nothing to drive me crazy. Doesn't sound all that bad, actually."
He frowned slightly.
"Did it sound bad to you?"
"No, no, I didn't mean it sounded bad. It's just, you know, different is all. I've never met a perpendicular person, is all. I'm sure it's normal. You know, for you. It's just not normal for me, is all."
He tilted his head slightly, puzzling through this.
I went on quickly, for fear that I had offended him. "It sounds kind of good, actually. Like I said. But it's not anything I could actually do, I don't think."
He glanced at the ground three floors below him, then looked back at me.
"You could try it, though. Maybe it would be good."
"No," I laughed nervously. This whole thing was suddenly starting to bug me just a little bit too much. "No, I think I probably won't try it."
He nodded. "Okay. Suit yourself."
"Well," I said. "I better be going."
"You have to go to work?"
"No, it's Saturday. Day off. Got to go buy a paper, and all."
"Ah. Well, it was nice talking with you."
"Yeah. Great. Nice talking to you. Guess I'll see you around the building."
We did that sort of guy-nod thing and I turned away from the wall and went back into my apartment. After a quick shower and throwing on some week-end clothes, I went out for the paper and remembered on my way back to pick up some Cream of Rice. Later that day, after breakfast and the crossword puzzle and a little bit of work, I decided to wander back out onto the terrace to see how John the perpendicular guy was doing. I guess I was probably a little bored.
When I looked down the wall for him, I saw him standing at the very bottom of the building, staring straight at the ground. Guess he was watching ants or something. Anyway, he looked kind of preoccupied, kind of absorbed with what he was doing, so I decided to bag it and go out for some lunch with some friends. We went to a movie afterward but it was a really boring movie and so I found myself sitting there wondering if John ever went to movies. Didn't seem very likely. If he did, would he have to stand on the wall of the theater? And If he had to do that, wouldn't the whole movie be sideways for him? It sounded very discombobulating, actually. Just thinking about it made me queasy. And how would he get to the theater, anyway? How could he ever cross a street? Every intersection would be an unscalable height.
Pretty soon, just sitting there in the dark thinking about all this, I'd gotten myself all nervous and upset and so I finally just went back to watching the movie even though it was a pretty damn boring movie, all right. One of the worst movies I've seen in a long time.