I'd chosen the apartment tower purely for its location: It was right on Rittenhouse Square, probably the most prestigious address in Philadelphia. I'd never thought I could afford a place there. But a newspaper ad had revealed a secret: the lower the floor, the lower the rent. I scored a studio on the second floor, right above the IHOP. In a city like Philadelphia, a good address meant safety, and safety was everything.
It didn't take long after I moved in to realize the other reason the rent was so reasonable: The building was filled with elderly folk, many of them on fixed incomes. Some, certainly, lived on the double-digit floors; that was apparent from their immaculate coifs, fur coats and imperious manners. But others were, like me, jostling for a toehold on safety.
Among the latter was my next-door neighbor, whose name I've long since forgotten -- if I ever knew it. She was in her late 60s or 70s, living alone, not particularly mobile. There was no sign of a husband, late or living, nor of any children -- nor of any friends or family members. I worked nights, so it was easy to avoid her, and she too made no effort to reach out. In a city like Philadelphia, safety meant people left you alone; I prized my solitude and respected hers.
Until the night she fell. I was awakened sometime after midnight by cries coming from her apartment. Her voice was strong but garbled; it took me a few moments to decipher what she was shouting. Like the commercial, she'd fallen and couldn't get up. She alternately moaned and yelled; it became apparent that she couldn't reach the phone. I waited; if she'd been loud enough to wake me, surely she'd woken others. Surely someone else would come to her aid. I didn't want to get involved. It could get risky.
Then she cried, "Shit!" I was so taken aback by the profanity that I sat up. How did this old lady know such an earthy word?
But she wasn't merely cursing. "Shit!" she shouted again, and this time her voice teetered on the edge of despair. "I'm lying in my own shit!"
Clearly, she posed no danger to anyone. I picked up the phone, dialed the lobby, suggested as quietly as possible that a resident might need checking on, gave the apartment number and hung up. Then I waited.
A few minutes later, I heard the knock on her door. She'd begun crying; she went silent immediately. "Who is it?" she called, cautiously. She was still in Philly, after all.
The man from the lobby identified himself. He said he'd called her emergency contact - her nephew. She thanked him in a voice that suddenly trembled, and asked who'd notified him.
"I don't know, ma'am," he said. "One of your neighbors." She didn't press him.
The nephew arrived within the hour, bringing medics with him. They made such a racket that I felt I could safely open my door, on the grounds of wanting to know what the commotion was about. I was right; I wasn't the only peeping face. She was being wheeled out on a gurney, the nephew hovering nearby, speaking softly and reassuringly.
She was gone a few days, then returned. I didn't see her come back; she was just there again. I nodded silently at her, the way I always did. She gave a curt, return nod, the way she always did. Then she gave me a longer look than usual. I guessed she was wondering if I'd been the one to alert the lobby. Suddenly, I felt vulnerable. I reminded myself that I prized my solitude, and I respected hers. I went into my apartment, and I shut the door. That way, I was safe.