Five years ago, My Life’s Editor and I unloaded half our books and all our brown furniture (rejected by kids and consignment shops) and moved into a condo in the beating heart of St. Pete. “So, how do you like living, ah, downtown?” a friend asks, dubious, as if he meant to say, “How do you like living in a pestilential hell-hole?” I respond, “Best thing we’ve ever done!” The friend follows, unconvinced, “No, I mean, really what’s it like?” I reflect, sipping on my Kahwa latte, that we haven’t yet been mugged, run over by a scooter, or nailed at a crosswalk by an octogenarian in her Audi. It is true that songbirds trilling in our oak trees at our former manse on 19th Ave NE have been replaced. Instead, we hear the growl of Mustangs on Beach Drive, driven by testosterone-laden youth, cruising. Excluding dogs and one opossum I saw trotting down the sidewalk, people are the dominant downtown animal life form. That said, one afternoon while reading on our 21st floor balcony, I heard an explosive “thump.” Three feet from me, teetering on the balcony railing, was an osprey the size of a Mini Cooper, featuring a wickedly hooked beak as big as a catcher’s mitt. He glowered at me with demonic yellow eyes, decided I was not on the menu for lunch, and flapped off. Awesome.
I am sometimes asked, “What about all those people in your building, so many people!” Demophobic folk (you can look it up) need not fear condo life. A condo is sort of an adult college dorm, absent loud music and random people coming in to drink your beer and plunder your stash of Fritos. I estimate there are 400 people in our condominium. The only time I see a significant cluster of them is at the annual meeting, where they swill free wine and munch on free cheese cubes and shrimp. They are there to torture the Board of Directors, who struggle to find their happy place while enduring verbal water-boarding.
Our residents are treated like visiting dignitaries by our front desk folk, garage attendants and maintenance staff. “Have a good day” and “Welcome back” are chirped with gracious smiles. I have not yet done it, but the thought has occurred that when I have a bum day, I could repeatedly stroll back and forth through the lobby, trolling for “Have a good day”s and “Welcome back”s until I felt my specialness return. By contrast, when I lived in a house and returned home, my triumphal entry from a day of bread earning was met by teenagers and wife who had featured my act before and were not impressed. I merited maybe a “Hey.” Our dogs, Molly and Bingo, were enthusiastic greeters, but were likely trying to distract me from discovering they had pooped on the dining room rug.
Regarding dogs, life in our former abode and life in our downtown condo differ sharply. On 19th Ave NE several times a day a neighbor would lurch by, dragged by a labradoodle the size of a small horse. We would exchange a brief “Howdy” as the beast strained at the end of the leash and towed its owner down the sidewalk. Our next door dog, Oscar, was a black Doberman about 16 hands at the withers, all teeth and attitude. Condo dogs, on the other hand, are knee-high ankle-sniffers who look up at you from the elevator floor with hopeful eyes, strapped into a dog brassiere with a leash attached. You want to lean down and say, “Be free! Run, jump, cavort! Join a pack, terrorize Pioneer Park! Pee whenever you damn well feel like it!”
Taking out trash was a chore at 19th Ave NE. I toted the bulging trash bag to the back alley, where squatted the gigantic multi-family black dumpster from hell. I had to lift the lid with one hand and skootch the trash bag up to the dumpster lip with the other hand, maybe support the lid on my head and then try to sling the bag in the opening. Or I would try to flip the lid back and throw simultaneously. The lid, not quite making it all the way over, would flop back and smack me on the head, chortling. In our condo, I peek out our door, look down the hallway to see if the coast is clear, and hustle to the utility room in my pajamas. I lift the trash chute lever, pop in the bag, and down she goes. Our grandchildren gleefully volunteer for the job, reveling in the thump, thump as the bag caroms down 21 floors. By the way, it never rains in our condo hallway.
19th Ave NE had no parallel to the sine qua non of condo life – the elevator. In my suit-wearing years, in downtown Chicago, proper office elevator culture called for no eye contact or communication among occupants beyond a noncommittal glance before turning to face the elevator door. I would look down at my shoes or up at the ceiling, hope my fly was zipped. In our downtown condo, life stories may be exchanged between the lobby and the 21st floor. Small talk is de rigueur, capped off by a departing “Have a nice one,” at minimum. The elevator door is like the curtain on a theater stage, pulling back to reveal a new act. Sometimes I imagine I get on an elevator alone, drop a floor and the door opens to a burst of Klieg lighting. It is Alex Trebek. He asks, “Marshall Craig, for a million dollars, on the World Series Champion 1908 Chicago Cubs, who was the third baseman for the legendary Tinker to Evers to Chance double play combo?”
I would crush it.