One very cold day last week I was sitting in St. Peter’s church listening to the pipes bang. The pipes at St. Peter’s make a lot of noise when the heat comes up, and when they do, it sounds like someone’s banging them with hammers. The radiator is a big, grand old thing standing at the back near the doors, and I imagine that it must have seemed unbelievably modern when it was first put in a hundred years ago. When the pipes bang their loudest and most shameless, the church is like a very old lady with an ear trumpet who doesn’t know how loud she’s talking. I understand the sounds that the pipes and radiators make and what they mean, just like a language. Everyone who lives in old, unrenovated buildings in New York knows that if a radiator isn’t making any noise at all, that means no heat, and the old boilers always seem to give out on the coldest days of the year. When my radiator gets going, it sounds like a bunch of old teakettles.

While I was sitting in the church I noticed that someone, once upon a time, had carved the name Alejandro Tubens into the wood of the hymnal shelf in front of me. The letters had an old-fashioned style to them and looked to have been carved with a nail. Alejandro Tubens had carved a not-quite-square rectangle like a gravestone around his name, and looking at it ignited my curiosity. Who was Alejandro Tubens?  I imagined him being a kid and carving his name there sometime in the 1930s or ‘40s. I wondered what things were like outside the church on the day he did it. The church probably would have looked just the same, but what did 8th Avenue feel like? And how did he get away with doing it? Maybe he was there with his grandma and maybe she was blind. The big organ, which still blasts music beautifully, could have drowned out the sound of a nail or a pocketknife on the wood, and so could the heating pipes, if they banged then like they do now. Did he carve the gravestone because he felt bored to death? And maybe he was caught and got smacked upside the head. Decades of woodpolish had made Alejandro’s name as much a part of the pews as their little doors and latches. When I get home, I thought, I’ll look him up and see what I find.

It’s easy to look someone up, but I’m not sure it’s always a good thing to do.  Recently I thought of someone I had known twenty-five years ago when I had my coffee wagon downtown. It was a customer who came now and then after the morning rush was over. Her name was Melinda. She was a sweet but very awkward lady somewhere in her early 30s, and whenever she came she liked to chat with me for a few minutes about books. One day a man showed up and told me that he was Melinda. I was both surprised and not surprised. It explained something about Melinda’s awkwardness, but that’s all it explained. He told me his name was Tim. He said he was a writer and he’d had many stories rejected by the New Yorker. His stories were all about a man getting a girlfriend and then losing her and feeling terrible. He didn’t tell me where he worked, only that it was some kind of Wall Street job that he didn’t like. He started coming almost every day.  He told me that I should wear more makeup because while my looks were okay at the moment, he could see that I wasn’t going to age well so I should take advantage of my youth before it was gone. He asked me if I thought Melinda looked better in the blue dress or the green one. One day he asked me if I would let him clean my apartment as Melinda. He said he’d pay me fifty dollars and I wouldn’t have to be there. That was when I realized that while I liked Melinda well enough, I found Tim very annoying. I said no, and he was very disappointed. After that, everything was swallowed up in years.

I found Tim’s picture right away when I typed his name into the machine. He looked the same, just older and bald. He had become an English teacher and he’d been teaching at the same high school for more than twenty years. Then he died. He keeled over without warning one day and dozens of his students posted tributes to him on a memorial page. He was everybody’s favorite teacher. I read what they said and felt both glad and sorry for him, but I also had the strangest feeling of regret for having looked him up at all.

When I looked up Alejandro Tubens, I found an item about a lady who lived in Puerto Rico during the early part of the twentieth century. She had run away from an awful husband and then, for reasons that mystified her descendants, changed her name to Tubens. The 1940 census records revealed one person named Alejandro Tubens, who was at the time a ten-year-old boy living somewhere in Puerto Rico. A later record of vital statistics for an Alejandro Tubens, probably the same one, listed the year of his birth as 1930 and the year of his death as 2001, both in Puerto Rico. I could find nothing to link him to New York, even though lots of Puerto Ricans came in the 1940s and many of them lived right here in Chelsea. I think my hope was that Alejandro Tubens would turn out to be someone who still lived here, maybe somebody I know from the neighborhood, like the twinkly old geezer with whiskers who lives down the block from St. Peters and always says hello to me when he’s taking the trash out. 

January 16, 2013

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