The One Who Stays Outside, by Michael Cooke

Apr 12, 2024 | 4 comments

On a crumpled piece of paper a pencil-written note was left on the stoop:
“ This is the one who stays outside on the steps No one has come bye I’ve waited and Dinner Time is here I’m sorry I could not wait any longer “
This older forgotten woman who was embraced with the telling sting of the innocent no guile, no pretense, non-adult active child swirling in the moment-to-moment whirlwind of survival in the harsh world – was never seen from again.

“True… too too true…”, the saying might and has been said and reiterated.

The man lived a floor below me. He was in his thirties. A very quiet man, thin with flat straight lightish brown hair. Though attractive, one knew from his manner he’d not had, never had nor ever would have any relationship with anyone in his life. He was always to and by himself. He was completely alone, as if a shade was drawn on some questionable shadow from a diffused light source invisible to his own human

He was always polite when by chance we’d run into each another. He created a faint smile of courtesy which registered sincere to the extent it belied the crushing abandonment which was impossible for him to conceal. He was a gentle man with no presumption of anything. He was, forgive us, one of the too many isolated horribly picture-perfect displays of the unseen, unknown forgotten souls that inhabit the city.

“True… too too true…”

One day some friends of mine (a then happily newly married couple) who lived on the floor below me in an apartment directly next to the man in his thirties’ place, opened their door to welcome me for a visit. Suddenly the stomp of footsteps were heard pounding up the stairwell. It was as if the clomping of the footsteps were a form of foretelling of some edict about to be announced. It was our forlorn neighbor. Having now arrived on the landing, he stood before us adopting a fixed stance, rooting himself like some official about to proclaim a major declaration.

He was uncharacteristically buoyant, beaming from ear to ear, overflowing with gushing exuberance. So animated was he the three of us could hardly believe it was the same quiet lonely man we shared our apartment building with. He could not contain himself, could hardly collect himself to blurt out to us his story. – “I did it.”, he said! “I did it! – I went to the library and researched all the names and made a list of all of them! Then I carefully typed a personal cover letter to each one of them individually – there must’ve been nearly a hundred of them. I went to the store and got manila envelopes to write out their addresses. Then I wrote my return address carefully at the top left on every one of the envelopes. And for every envelope, I placed my cover letter and enclosure. Then I rushed to the post office and had them individually stamp each one. Then I stood there watching as the postal worker place each one in the large outgoing canvas mail bin to mail them all off! – This just now! I’m so excited! – I mean – even if I get only one response out the hundred I’ll be so satisfied!”

We all of us reflected smiles of supportive good wishes. He thanked us and with what almost appeared as if gliding on air above the floor landing, he broke away from us reaching for his deadbolt key and another for the doorknob key and stood before his apartment door opened it, walked in, shut it and disappeared. I entered my friends’ apartment where we again repeated our collective enthusiasm for our neighbor and our good wishes for him. For we saw how hard he had labored on his project, which none of us knew the nature of. Was it a book? An invention? We knew nothing of the nature of what he’d been working on. But in the little he shared with us he feverishly demonstrated how extraordinarily hard he’d worked.

Some months later I ran into my neighbor on the landing and enthusiastically asked what positive responses he may’ve received from his submissions. My neighbor was extremely dark in pallor and mood and lowered his head before saying the following. He said, “I…… received… nothing.” I quickly blurted out, “Impossible! You had to have had, like you indicated, at least one response.” He mournfully and very slowly shook his head ‘no’ adding, “I received nothing.” – I said again, “It’s impossible you received no response.” I was actually growing irritated for him. – “After sending out so many submissions you had to have had some response!” I felt myself almost pleading with him on this. Then, as if by degrees, he raised his head up desolately and looking directly into my eyes said, “It is possible. It is possible because it was my mistake.” I insisted “What mistake? What are you talking about? You did everything! There couldn’t have made a mistake.” He said, still peering at me, “I made a terrible mistake.” (I thought he was about to break down weeping when he continued with the following) “… I sent them all out as I say. But… but my return address… my return address was wrong, it wasn’t right. My return address was incorrect!” He shook his head placing his hand on his brow. “I don’t know how I could’ve done such a thing. But I did.- All my return addresses were incorrect. If anyone did respond, I’ll never know because of this stupid mistake I made on every one of the close to a hundred submissions.” He broke his gaze from me and without another word swiftly descended the stairs to the building’s entrance and exited out the front door.

I told my friends. We all of us were beyond crestfallen for the poor guy. We didn’t know what to do. And as it too often takes place, we were wrenched in upset and disbelief such a thing could’ve happened. And we tried to figure out what we might do to help him. And we could think of nothing. We were at a loss as to what to do. And slowly and most assuredly, as it too often takes place, our conversation moved on to other topics. And in our chattering away we drifted, further forgetting the matter… further drifting… further forgetting him. And not a one of us ever took any action in doing a single thing.

“True… too too true…”

Months passed, a number of them. I hadn’t seen our neighbor going in or going out of our building, and neither had my friends.

One day of a late afternoon slightly overcast early spring weekday, I was walking down the east side of Lexington Ave in the mid-eighties a few blocks south of 90th Street. It must’ve been over a year that had passed. Was strolling along when my peripheral vision caught sight of a man up ahead wearing a dirty beige raincoat standing before a building that may’ve been a church. I startled and stopped, I was about a half block away from the man as I observed him. His hair was matted, stringy, long and appeared dirty. At first I wasn’t sure, and then… He was in profile standing there on the sidewalk, looking down. And then he raised his head up staring at the building without purpose. He put his right hand in his pocket and pulled out a crumpled piece of paper, stared at it a moment then carefully returned it back to its place in his pocket. I stood there frozen. The man began moving his lips as if talking to someone. Yet no person was near or around him. No one was there but he himself. He mumbled on quietly and appeared to engage in a small but gentle giggle state. Then suddenly he stopped his giggling cold. Then he did nothing but stand there suspended in nothingness. I wanted to say something. I wanted to. But I didn’t know what to do. And as too often it happens, I did absolutely nothing. I couldn’t. I could not. The man was far too gone (‘psychologically’ I determined, in order to make an excuse to myself to justify preventing me from extending myself). – I simply could not approach him and remind him we were neighbors and to make the attempt to add some inane empty-headed, “How are you?” Or: “How have you been doing?” – Absurd, idiotic! How could I’ve? What to do? What to do? The poor man, my former broken-hearted neighbor. I continued walking down the street but weaselly creeped over to the other side, the north side of the street, my eyes sustaining my observation of him. He lingered there not moving. I walked further on, my eyes still zeroed in on him. I reached the point where the two of us were just opposite each other. He staying in profile, his back to me, looking up towards the building. I remained as still in movement as he was in keeping my relentless peering at him. He was statue-like – forgotten, homeless, unquestionably lost in every way imaginable… gone. Then slowly, too slowly, yet not slow enough to stop myself – I placed one offensive foot before the other and little by little began walking away down the street. – I began walking away. – And as I walked I altogether averted my gaze from looking anywhere near my former neighbor. I was wracked with guilt. All I was capable of was to lower my head and eyes downward as low as they could go towards the grey pavement. And in my sustained staring at the concrete, remain glued to the pavement as I continued walking and walking and walking away.

“ This is the one who stays outside on the steps No one has come bye …”

Michael Cooke



  1. An interesting story, Michael. It could use a bit of editing-I noticed a few things here and there.

  2. The photo takes me back to my parents’ NYC life, and the story makes me think of what may be a part of you, Michael, and a part of me and, perhaps, a lonely aspect of so many in our often disconnected society.

  3. This is what we do. We must think it would start a whole chain of obligations if we got involved.

  4. Thank you.


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