Here’s some election news that is both hilarious and totally non-partisan. That’s a picture of my voter registration letter with our polling place. See where it says Columbus Plaza, Elderly Housing? That’s our apartment building.

Yep, we live in elderly housing. The full story is that the building was originally constructed as 62+ housing in the 1970s, but in one of the later renovations was opened up to everyone. Upon first look, it doesn’t resemble elderly housing (although the exterior does look like unfortunate 1974 architecture). The lobby has chic white tile floors, the light fixtures are sparkling, modern crystal, and the columns are fashionably encased in white granite. (The lobby furniture white as well, until someone realized that was a HORRIBLE IDEA and thankfully recovered them in dark fabric before mud season hit and we were forced to donate our security deposit to the steam-cleaning fund.)

But upon closer inspection, it’s clearly still elderly housing. Everyone we met for the first few weeks was at least a decade into Medicare coverage. (I’ve discovered over time that there are actually a lot of young people, but that we live our life on the old people schedule.) One of my first times in the building, an elderly woman started chatting with me while we waited for the elevator.
“Do you live here?” she asked.
“Yep, we just moved in,” I smiled.
“Oh really, what number?”
“Gracie doesn’t live there anymore?”
I knew we got this apartment because someone died. “Nope, we moved in a few days ago,” I said. “I’m surprised you haven’t heard us—we have three kids.”
“You do! Well, when you get tired of them, send them down to me. Angie, 221. Tell them to tell me their mom said they could come down and say hi.”
“Thanks,” I said. Are you telling me that because you’re not going to remember on your own?
“Did you know I’m well into my 90s?”
“Well, you look great!”
“I’m 97. I’ve lived here since this place opened! I don’t pay what you pay, you know.”
I smiled. We both got out on the second floor. As we went through the door, Angie turned to me and said, “Do you live here?”
Oh dear.

Angie and I repeated our Bostonian Groundhog Day frequently. And Angie was just one of a cadre of people, mostly women, who have been in the building for decades. They get their hair set at a hairdressing station in the back of the laundry room. I kid you not—it has a sink, salon chairs, and heat lamp. A hairdresser comes a couple of times a week and they all sit in the back and chat in Italian while their rollers cool.

The rest of the week, they sit outside the building or in the lobby for an hour or so around dinnertime. We call them the porch ladies. As far as we can tell, they’re all lifelong North Enders, Italian, and Catholic. They all wear gold saint’s medallions, follow up nearly every opinion with “God bless him/her,” and keep us updated on any family events organized by the local churches and Catholic societies. They LOVE the kids. Especially Jack, who really wants nothing to do with them. Every night, they say, “Where’s Jack? Oh there he is,” (as he tries to climb inside the stroller and disappear), “There’s Jack. God bless him.”

I had to ask them if something had happened to Angie after I noticed she was missing from the porch for a while. Frankly, I was surprised to hear she had only broken her arm, but the ladies didn’t think she would be moving back in. Given that in addition to our looping conversation, she often mixed up which unit she lived in, it seemed like that might be a safer choice.

Like the lobby, our unit is sparkling new—they’ve been renovating each apartment between tenants (I’m assuming that’s generally a euphemism for “after the old guy died”) and we have stainless steel appliances, stone countertops, and wood-grain laminate floors. It’s a thin veneer of fancy over the its true assisted-living identity. All the outlets in our apartment are two feet off the ground, presumably because aching backs don’t like to bend all the way down. The hallway has a discreet white handrail on one side, just so no one breaks a hip on the way to the garbage chute. The building has a half-hearted nod to environmentalism with a skinny recycling bin on each floor, described by the leasing agent as, “and we have the recycling, because people want that kind of thing now.” I have a sneaking suspicion that it goes directly into the trash chute, but I’m hoping for the best.

Honestly, it’s everything I could hope for in our Boston experience. The apartment itself is nice, new, and clean, but the building is full of North End characters who somehow simultaneously provide a homey, welcoming community and the feeling that we are strangers in a land far from home. I can speak a little Italian with i anziani (the older people) and the girls have the distinction of being two of the three school-age kids in the older building, which makes them practically celebrities.

They’re just waiting for the chance to be extras when someone decides to shoot an “I’ve fallen and I can’t get up” promo video in the building.

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