06 Mar 2013
My column from the last issue of GCN. You can read the whole magazine online of course, HERE.
My neighbour is blind and I have a dog.
I live in a large, well-known, landmark building in Dublin city centre. You probably know it. It's thought of as an office development, and indeed it mostly is, but there is a small residential part to the complex - just sixteen apartments spread over four floors. The building was finished in 1980 and at the time it seemed decidedly modern, even swanky, with it's fountains and courtyards and copper and tinted glass and marble hallways. There was even a swimming pool. A swimming pool! The apartments themselves, built in the optimistic 70's, have fine big rooms, thick solid walls and are heated "New York style", centrally through the whole building.
It sits however in a part of town that is decidedly "old Dublin" - working class and commercial, full of pizza slices and phone repairs, discount stores and first generation immigrants, bus stops and a visible drug problem. The kind of area that has a mosque above a betting shop. Like myself, it's seen better days but it retains a hint of exotic glamour. That's what I'd say if I were an estate agent anyway!
When I first moved into the building there were a number of older residents, some of whom had been in the building since it was brand new. Phyllis, already in her late 80's when I met her was remarkable looking - tiny, fragile, stick thin with a dancers elegant neck and carriage, always in black cigarette pants, plimsolls and a neat bun. Very Audrey Hepburn. But she was a formidable woman, and she'd been a giant of Irish theatre. She'd started out as an actress, but it was as a producer that she really made her mark. She gave The Field and Big Maggie their world premiers. I got to know Phyllis when I'd meet her in the lobby or in the elevator and she would stop to chat and scratch my dog Penny's ears. She was very fond of Penny. Phyllis died aged 91 in 2011.
I got to know most of the other residents because of Penny. When you have a dog, people interact with you. Mostly they want to pet her, but even the ones who don't like dogs get to know you. There's a lady on the floor below us who has a fairly extreme dog phobia and doesn't like to share the lift with us, but even that's a conversation starter! And there's a quirky ould fella two floors down who shuffles about and doesn't like to talk much who gets a bit grumpy when the lift door opens and we give each other a fright and Penny barks giving him an even bigger fright.
Over the years I've been in the building the character of the residents has changed a little. Now there are young Chinese couples with small babies and one of the apartments is a now short let so one month it's a French businessman and the next it an American tourist couple. Even they like to talk to Penny.
And then there's Frank. Frank lives in the apartment next to mine. When I first moved in he was still working, though approaching retirement. A big man, chatty, inquisitive, fond of a social drink. A good neighbour. Of course he's still all those things, but now he's also totally blind. It happened very suddenly. The first I knew there was a problem at all was one day when he asked me to dial a number for him because he couldn't read the number off a piece of paper. And just a few months later he was totally blind. He has coped remarkably well. Admirably well. An assistant comes to visit him a couple of times a day and helps him with things, or goes for a walk (or a drink!) with him, but I can count on the fingers of one hand the times he's asked me to help him with something. He calls Penny "The Hound" with affection.
Everyone in the building (and most of the street) knows me because of Penny, and likewise everyone knows Frank because of his blindness. They are aware of the little dog, and they are aware of the blind man in his big, wrap-around black glasses.
I have never told Frank I'm gay. I assumed he knew of course - he's blind, not in a vegetative state! - but it never really came up naturally. We talk about Penny, the weather, business, the news, my wifi (he piggy backs on my wifi for his digital radio, but insists on giving me a few quid), my Christmas in Mayo... not about sex or relationships. Of course we talk about Pantibar and he's always threatening to come for a drink so I guess my sexuality is pretty implicit, but it's never come up directly, and to announce it apropos of nothing would seem forced or odd. Not that I'd ever spent much time dwelling on it. It simply doesn't come up between us - an elderly blind man and his middle-aged drag queen neighbour.
The other day I met Frank in the corridor when I was coming back from Tesco.
"Penny was barking at something just then" he said. "I think a seagull must have been on your balcony or something"
"Probably", I said. "One of them shit on her out on the balcony a while ago. You don't usually hear her barking do you?"
"No" he said. "I was outside on my own balcony. Sure with these thick walls I never hear anything. Well... " he smirked, "hardly ever."
I looked at him curiously as I struggled to get the key in my door while holding onto my groceries.
"Well, I don't know exactly what he was doing to you, but when you were seeing that last Brazilian fella I'd say they heard you in Dublin 4 sometimes!"
And with that he felt his way into the lift with a mischievous cackle.