Thursday, March 14, 2013

Flowers For Fabio

Years ago, at night, me and my long blonde hair were in the shower, which abuts the stoop just outside the little, frosted bath window. With the bath light on, one could make out from the stoop that I was in the shower. A woman calls, then knocks on the window, "Fabio?" "Fabio?" "Fabio!"

The only Fabio that I knew was the one from romance covers, and me a vision of long blonde hair and all, what romance-minded woman wouldn't call for Fabio from our stoop? What could I do but slide the window open, dripping, shirtless. "Fabio?," asks the woman. No, no, Frank, says I. "Oh, is Fabio there?" No, says I. She didn't speak much English and appeared to be blind. That's how I learned that someone named Fabio, a Columbian man, lived on the second floor of our building.

Fabio and I became fast friends when I started gardening the sliver of soil outside our building. He enjoyed getting out of his steaming hot apartment on summer days, choosing instead to stand in the shade of a telephone pole on our sidewalk, moving slowly with it as the sun slid east to west, until the Yew tree cast its own shadow onto the sidewalk later in the afternoon. He spoke as little English as the blind woman who once knocked on my window, the woman I later learned was his sister in law.

He enjoyed the garden, most of all the flowers, and could often be spied from our windows with his nose buried deep in a rose or lily. I cut stems for him to bring up to his place and sometimes introduced new scents, like the pungent freshness of a geranium leaf or sweet fragrance of the native honeysuckle. We offered tomatoes, basil or cilantro from our pots when the side yard became our little vegetable patch.

Almost every day Fabio headed down Ocean Parkway on his very serious bicycle, all the way to Coney Island. Another opportunity to get out of his hot apartment, and be physical. Fabio was a vigorous, healthy man, a little over 6 feet tall, and lean. He would carry his bike down from his apartment, full riding gear on, head out and return a few hours later.

On a beautiful spring day, Fabio was outside, and we were pulling our bikes out of the apartment for a commute to the studio. Excited by our ride, he went up to get his bicycle. But he didn't understand that it wasn't a round trip for us and apparently he needed company. Demoralized, he returned his bike to his apartment as we rode off, a vision of harmony in the face of his own internal anguish. We often asked his wife, who we call Mrs. Rojas, how Fabio was doing and she would always say that he was okay. We had noticed he wasn't riding his bicycle as much, or at all. When Betsy would speak with him in Spanish, she could gather that he wasn't feeling as well, but had a hard time pinning down the problem.

Within a year's time, Fabio went from a vigorous, athletic man to a shaking, weeping, screaming man unable to dress himself, unable to care for himself, unable to communicate anything but stuttering gibberish. Out of fear and dementia, he would find himself on the landing without any pants on, as we tried to talk him into returning to his apartment. He would try to escape his apartment, or our building, half dressed, and upset. One evening, as I spoke on the phone with an artist friend, there was a knock on our door. It was Mrs. Roja's sister, who in broken English tried to explain that Fabio snuck out and because she was blind could not go to find him. I told my friend that I had to go.

Betsy went one way, and I went the other. There were kids on the street and I asked them which way did the old man go, to which they responded that way, hands pointed in opposite directions. I chose the path given by the oldest, a girl, maybe 13, and made my way to Church Ave, where I stood on the corner, looking in all directions. There! Across the street, trying to get on the B35 Eastbound, but he had no money. I called Betsy and she ran the few blocks and we lured him away from the bus stop. He remembered and trusted us (for a reason unknown to us he raged verbally about his wife). Taking his arms, we crossed the street, slowly walking him back to the building. We stopped in front of the garden, lilies in bloom. I plucked one for him, held it up to his nose, and he buried himself in it, orange dust now all over his face as he smiled.

It was easy to imagine a bad situation on the street, a raving man without pants (he simply could not lift his legs into pants any longer), a tazer, or worse. We weren't always around to help, nor could we be there because of work or otherwise. Sometimes he was cared for by a health aide, sometimes his blind sister in law, sometimes his wife, but there were times when he was left alone out of some necessity or a late train. This is when the police would be called, an ambulance arrived, and although we did this with some hesitancy, most often they were helpful, and sensitive, although they rarely had a Spanish speaker in the group despite my insistence that this was necessary.

Mrs. Rojas, a health aide herself, asked us not to call the police, and we could only presume this was because there was no health insurance available, or possibly for reasons of immigration, but there were times that we simply had no other options as we tried to convince Fabio to head back up to his apartment, tried to lift his legs into his his pants, his feet into his shoes, to calm him down. He appeared to like the ambulance, always relaxing within its box, under its oxygen, soothed by its questionnaire. His part-time aide was late in one instance, and she pleaded for his release from their care. I had to sign a form, holding the EMTs free of responsibility for his release. That was last spring.

This summer Fabio's son was getting married, and so came up from Florida to visit his father, to fit him into a tux. He told me he would get them out of NYC, move them to Florida as soon as he could. I hadn't seen much of him in ten years and wasn't sure if this was just bluster. Fabio couldn't make it to the wedding, it was in Columbia after all, and the day before we were to leave for Minnesota, Mrs. Rojas asked if I would look in on him while they were in Columbia. I wanted to help, but I had to tell her we were on our way out too, and wouldn't be around to look after him. His son was there, in the hall at that moment, and maybe that is when he realized that this arrangement, a hodge podge of aides, family, and neighbors doing their best was untenable.

We continued to listen to Fabio's wails from the apartment upstairs, opposite. Often Mrs. Rojas would come down to ask that I help lift Fabio off the floor, onto a chair or couch. It was sad, upsetting, but okay. And life went on like this for the months of autumn, through Sandy, through garlic planting and school finals. When we returned from Minnesota after Christmas, a trip mired in our own family's health and age issues, we learned that the apartment upstairs and opposite was empty. The Rojas had moved out, down to Florida. I felt terrible that we couldn't say hasta luego, Fabio. And we would do anything to have him upstairs, wailing and demented, over those who live above us now. A true neighbor.

Hasta luego, Fabio


  1. Triste. Espero que Fabio vive y sigue en las flores.

  2. Wow, Frank. I didn't know.


    Beautiful lilies.

    Having bad neighbours is like a sickness, I remember. (Ants?)

    Fabio kind of reminds me of my crazy friend Pablo. But I did not know enough to help.

    1. (Bad neighbours...I meant your new upstairs ones...)

    2. Marie, there's more to tell, and if I can figure a way to tell it without simply complaining, I will.

  3. Beautiful portrait. Thank you for sharing this. And for your guardianship - neighborliness - all those years.

  4. your graciousness & generosity is touching. i am sure you offered some respite to fabio's family. i too hope he can enjoy the year-round flowers for the duration of his time in FL.

  5. your graciousness & generosity is touching. i am sure you offered some respite to fabio's family. i too hope he can enjoy the year-round flowers for the duration of his time in FL.


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