I got a reconditioned Kitchen Aid mixer in October to help me make bread. It’s a big machine with its own stand, the sort of thing that does not go happily into the kitchen of a Brooklyn co-op.

I’ve owned, for some years, a blender so powerful that it could grind dinosaur bones. Unfortunately, when I push the button, it blows off its own lid and covers my kitchen with ground dinosaur bones. And that’s just on “Low.” So I scrapped the fearsome blender and wedged the Kitchen Aid into its place on my counter. I took it for a spin, and made two big, primo loaves of olive bread.

Two loaves of homemade bread is one too many for two people. I sliced the second loaf and gave it to various folks in the building, including my upstairs neighbor–call her Maude–an older woman who lives alone.

I hiked upstairs and rang Maude’s doorbell. She wasn’t in, so I rubber-banded the plastic bag of bread to her doorknob. This was the Saturday before Hurricane Sandy, in the early evening.

Maude is 87 years old, Brooklyn born and bred, proud and fierce, a retired RN. She takes flute lessons. She sings in a choir. She volunteers for blood drives and routinely donates her own platelets. She volunteers for the Coney Island Mermaid Festival, an event not for the faint of heart.

When she didn’t answer her door, I figured there must’ve been a choral event, or a blood drive somewhere in preparation for the storm. Or perhaps she was visiting her ex-sister-in-law in Queens. She hadn’t told us she was taking a trip out of the city, so I expected her to return before the first big winds were to hit early Monday morning.


On Sunday afternoon, I climbed to the fifth floor and discovered my bread was still on Maude’s door. This made me uneasy. I asked neighbors if they’d seen her. Nobody had. I called her apartment and her cell phone and left messages.

Kerwin the Super had last seen her on Thursday or Friday, and said she hadn’t mentioned taking a trip. He didn’t have a spare key to her apartment, and nobody—not even Paul and I, who know her well—had a number for her ex-sister-in-law.

I called her again. Kerwin called her. No answer.

Paul and I went to the local tavern to grab an early dinner before it closed down for the storm, and I fretted about what to do. Should I climb the fire escape and try to look in her windows? It would feel like snooping. Maude had been in our apartment many times, but I’d never, ever been in hers; it’s her sanctuary, a private space in a crowded world for a very private person. Except for Kerwin the Super, who’s done small repairs for her, she never lets people past the front door.

But what if she was lying on the floor unconscious from a fall, or passed out in her bed from one of her infrequent attacks of heart arrhythmia?

My cell phone buzzed in my pocket. There was a voicemail from Amy, a neighbor.

It seemed the dilemma had been taken out of my hands: worried by Maude’s disappearance, Amy had called a relative who was a policeman and asked him what she should do. He told her to call the NYPD.


A squad car sat in front of our building. We walked up five flights to Maude’s locked door, where the bag of bread still dangled forlornly from the doorknob. Amy stood in the hallway with two young uniformed officers. Other neighbors had arrived, and they were discussing how to get into the apartment.

The guy who lived next door to Maude wanted to hire a locksmith, but the NYPD doesn’t do locksmiths. They break down doors. And if you call them about a missing senior citizen, they have to do all they can to make sure that citizen is accounted for.

They checked the local emergency rooms. No Maude. They pressed us all for phone numbers of relatives and friends. We had nothing for the ex-sister-in-law, nothing for the brother who lived somewhere up the Hudson.

Paul did find the number for a friend who lived upstate, a woman she stayed with every summer, and we called. She hadn’t heard from Maude.

The young officers eyed Maude’s apartment door.

Kerwin the Super suggested an alternative to breaking it down: he could go up the fire escape, break through Maude’s window, unlock the door for the police, then close over the window with plywood.

And so, as the wind picked up on the Sunday night before the hurricane, I followed Kerwin the Super up the stairs from our fire escape to Maude’s, and held a flashlight on the window as he smashed it with a hammer wrapped in a blanket.

There are only 36 units in our building. The window was not easy to break, and even muffled with a blanket, the impact resounded through the place. Lights turned on; windows opened; heads poked out. I explained, explained, explained. Kerwin the Super stepped through the window, let the officers in, and they went room to room.

No Maude.

This was a relief. We still didn’t know where she was—which was still troubling—but we knew two places where she wasn’t: in some local hospital, or bleeding to death in her apartment.

Kerwin the Super boarded up the window, locked the door after himself, and left.


Hurricane Sandy swept in late that night and buffeted the neighborhood throughout Monday, hurling trees about and bursting transformers. We are on high ground, for Brooklyn, and our building emerged nearly unscathed.

The next day, I got a call. It was Maude. She was stuck at her brother’s house up the Hudson. He’d lost power, and the roads were flooded and tree-blocked. She would be later coming home than she’d planned.

Was everything okay at home?

I told her I was glad to hear from her. Very glad. Um…had she checked her cell phone messages?

No, she said. “I never check that phone. I can’t figure the danged thing out–and besides, nobody ever calls me.”

So it fell to me to explain to my neighbor that we’d broken into her private space, the police had walked through every room, and her window was now boarded up.

Trust me: this was not an easy message to deliver.

Silence. “What?” she said.

We had no phone numbers, I told her. No spare keys. No idea where she was. I’d left messages.

“I told Paul I was leaving,” she said.

Paul shook his head. “He doesn’t remember it,” I said.

Again, silence.

She sighed. She said she should probably be glad that people were concerned about her; she knew Paul and I cared, but she was surprised that anybody else would. Still…there was a part of her that felt violated. “I’m sure I told Paul,” she added. “Am I losing it?”

She gave me her brother’s number, which I carefully logged into my cell phone memory. I reassured her that Kerwin the Super, who is the handiest Super in New York, had done a great job boarding her window; I was sure it hadn’t leaked.

I hung up, feeling terrible, knowing what a shock I’d given her. Knowing that she must feel vulnerable and raw. Betrayed. Old.

It is now December, a month and a half from the day I followed Kerwin the Super up the fire escape. Maude has been down to visit many times. She has discussed the event, rehashed her feelings about it, reassured us—and herself—that it was not a terrible thing.

Not that she believes that.

Today we took her to brunch, then to Home Depot to buy new blinds for her newly-repaired window. She told the clerk, a sweet and helpful young woman, the story of the break-in, and her voice still trembled. The clerk nodded, and assured her that it was an appropriate thing to do, under the circumstances. I nodded. Maude nodded.

The ground has shifted ever-so-slightly beneath us all; things are okay…but not quite the same.

Tomorrow, I will make bread with my Kitchen Aid mixer.

I want to give some to Maude, but I’m a little afraid.