Don’t Assume

Making assumptions is problematic. A prime example was our next door neighbor where I was raised in West Philadelphia, Villy Leudig. He moved in with his wife, Aily when I was around seven in the early-1960’s; he still lived in the corner house, separated from my parents’ home by only a thin median of grass, when my parents moved away thirty years later.
My first awareness of the then-thirty-something couple was overhearing my father return from greeting them to tell my mother that our new neighbors were Stonians, and probably D.P.’s.
I didn’t know what either of those things were, but I had heard the latter term used by my father to describe occasional customers at his clothing store, and it didn’t seem to be a good thing.
“What’s a Stonian?” I asked my father at dinner that evening.
“Estonian,” he said, emphasizing the ‘E.’ “Our neighbors are from Estonia, a small country north of Germany,” he said.
“Is that a good country?” I asked.
“Well,” he hedged.
My father was usually straightforward in answering my questions, particularly if I showed interest in a business or political sort of subject. His hesitation was intriguing.
“Is it a bad country?” I asked.
“They were not helpful during World War II. The Nazi’s used Estonians as concentration camp guards; they looked perfectly blond, just the way they wanted people to be,” he explained.
I was wide-eyed with alarm.
“Are the new neighbors Nazi’s?” I asked.
“No, no, I’m sure they’re not,” he said. “They seem like nice people. But I think they’re D.P.’s.”
“What’s a D.P.?” I asked.
“A displaced person,” he said. “It means they didn’t have anywhere to go after the war.”
I was still confused, not sure what ‘displaced’ meant. If they had nowhere to go, maybe our new neighbors were bad people.
“Well, how do we know they didn’t work as guards?” I asked.
My father shrugged. “Those murderers melted back into Germany or Poland or went to South America. I don’t think they came to Philadelphia. You’ll be safe.”
He smiled.

I was not entirely satisfied with my father’s assurance. Not an outgoing child, I was reluctant to encounter our new neighbor, but I followed his movements from the safety of my second floor bedroom window. Sure enough, I observed, Villy looked exactly like a concentration camp guard from every World War II movie I’d seen. He was thin and of medium height, with light skin, a blond crew-cut and blue eyes. Aily, too, was a platinum blonde, with hair braided as though she were auditioning for a part in “The Sound of Music.”
During their first week next door, the couple were busy as bees reshaping their yard. While Aily created gardens and planted flowers, Villy undertook a large project to chop down brush and weeds from an area between our houses. He began to build a sitting area, with paving stones, an ornamental wood fence, and a barbecue pit.
Next, he re-tarred his detached garage roof and painted the trim around his house. Never had I seen such a blur of home-improvement activity, especially by a homeowner. Though our neighborhood was not wealthy, it was comfortable, and landscaping and repairs were rarely performed by anyone who wasn’t hired. Villy was the first neighbor I’d seen who cut his own grass.
I finally met Villy after several weeks, because my father said he was going next door on a hot Sunday afternoon (the only day he didn’t work at his store) to examine the on-going projects and offer Villy a cold beer.
“Why don’t you come along?” he said to me.
I didn’t question why my father chose to be sociable but I followed behind him to be introduced.
“Thanks, Lou,” Villy said, accepting the beer, with a vaguely European accent. “Is this, aaaaaaaaahhh, your son?”
“Yes,” said my father, and told him my name. “Say hello to Mr. Leudig,” he said to me.
“You can call me aaaaaaaahhh, Villy,” he said.
I’d never heard someone speak like that, with such a long hesitation. I looked carefully at him, trying to see if any evil lurked behind his kind smile. My father and Villy spoke for several more minutes while Villy showed us his improvements. I couldn’t ignore the speech impediment, but I detected nothing else amiss; Villy seemed like one of the nicest adults I’d met. My father had a new friend unlike any other friend he’d ever had — significantly younger, not Jewish, and not related to the men’s clothing business in any way.
In the next several years, most of what I knew about Villy came from overhearing my parents. I learned Villy and Aily spent most weekends at a home in New Jersey, where my parents assumed they had a large community of Estonian friends and relatives. I learned Villy was a traffic engineer for the City of Philadelphia and Aily was a pharmacist. I didn’t know what a “traffic” engineer was, but any sort of engineer sounded impressive to me. I assumed Villy designed bridges or roads; I assumed his household projects indicated a person of incredible technical know-how.

My childhood fear that Villy might have had something to do with concentration camps disappeared. By the time I went to college, Villy was an important, positive part of our lives. After my father retired in his late-70’s, he waited for Villy to come home from work like a pet waiting for his owner, so that he had a companion to share a drink and conversation. When I came home on school breaks, Villy and I played spirited ping-pong matches in our basement.
Villy offered advice and assistance on home-repair projects, like replacing toilet innards or repairing leaky faucets. Even though these tasks were basic, they were easily beyond the ability of my father or myself. Villy’s early burst of energy on his own house gave way to several curious attributes, namely: he never actually finished a project. Patio paving stones remained stacked up near the barbecue for decades, though the job could probably have been finished in a day; a porch he commenced screening-in within weeks of arrival remained mostly unscreened twenty years later; the garage that Villy had roofed and painted upon arrival became filled not with a car but with stacks of newspapers and boxes, from floor to ceiling. Villy, it turned out, was a hoarder.
We accepted Villy’s quirks in a friendly way because he was otherwise so decent and sympathetic. We learned that a traffic engineer was actually someone who did not construct things, but counted how many cars went past an intersection. Sometimes, Villy sat alone in his city-owned car for eight hours and monitored traffic flow at a stop sign, to determine if the sign needed to be moved a few feet in one direction or another. Still, the lack of professional status we’d assumed for Villy was no impediment to our affection for him.
The problem: when I came home from college or, later, visited my parents from the town where I worked, Villy’s frequent presence puttering in his yard presented a dilemma. Talking with him was torture. He rarely completed a sentence without an “aaaaaaahhh” and any effort to provide the missing word was counter-productive. For instance, if he said: “I’m going to get gas in the aaaaaaahhhh…” and you offered “car” he would begin again as though you hadn’t spoken: “I’m going, aaaaaaahhhh, to get gas in the aaaaaaaahhhh, car.”
I learned not to “assist” him, but there was still a significant disincentive to speak with Villy. He simply couldn’t converse “normally” and, if I had to be somewhere quickly, or just wanted to get inside the house, it was impossible to hasten the conversation. Every time I snuck into my house without saying hello and/or formulated the thought that I had to avoid Villy, I felt like a horrible person.
“How do you talk with Villy?” I asked my father once, when I was in my twenties.
“I’m used to it,” he said. “Plus, I’m never in a hurry.”
That was true. Since his retirement, my father viewed his leisurely conversations with Villy to be enjoyable, the longer the better. Little did my father suspect he was about to have more time with Villy. Late one evening, when I was visiting my parents, our doorbell rang, an extraordinary event. I was upstairs, and heard my mother rush to the door and greet Aily, who was crying hysterically. I couldn’t hear distinctly what they were saying but eventually understood that Villy, in his mid-fifties, had suffered a heart attack. The ambulance had just taken him to the hospital and Aily feared he wouldn’t survive. My mother comforted her at the kitchen table for an hour that seemed endless.

The next morning, my parents visited the hospital with Aily. Villy was stable despite a massive attack, but my parents returned home saddened not just by his physical condition. The vast Estonian community they assumed for the Leudig’s simply did not exist. They learned that Villy’s house in New Jersey was just a small cottage in the woods and, in fact, they knew almost no one there. Without suspecting it, my parents had become the Leudigs’ closest friends.
When Villy was discharged from a rehabilitation center after several weeks, he retired from his job on disability. He was home all day long, which was perfectly okay with my father. Villy, too, seemed satisfied to be finished with the traffic department and, other than his pledge, finally, to quit smoking, he seemed unaffected by his near-calamity.
I asked my father once: “Did you ever find out what Villy did during the war?”
“No,” he said. “I’ve never asked. And he’s never told me.”
Though hard to fathom, this sort of non-communication is not unheard of among men. In any event, I was pleased to know Villy was around. As my father approached eighty, his old friends from the clothing business dwindled due to deteriorating health, their inability to drive or, in many cases, death. Villy was available to talk or walk slowly around the block, or go out to get a sandwich.

When I married, at thirty, Villy and Aily were among the few non-relatives on my parents’ guest list. They drove two hours to the rehearsal dinner and I was happy to see them, though careful not to be cornered one-on-one by Villy. There were simply too many people to greet and details to attend to.
During the course of the meal, various of the sixty or so guests stood to offer toasts. Some were funny, some were sweet, and a couple were a little edgy. But the evening flowed without anxiety for me until, to my amazement, Villy rose from his seat across the room and tapped his glass.
“Oh, my,” I thought. I tapped Katie’s arm beside me and pointed: “Uh-oh,” I said.
For a long moment, after he had the attention of the entire room, Villy was silent. I feared he was frozen in some way that would become more memorable than any other aspect of the delightful event. The room fell completely silent. Another moment passed. Someone dropped a spoon. I heard a cough. Everyone waited expectantly. Only a few knew of his impediment. Several guests shifted in their seats. My heart pounded. Finally, Villy began to speak.
“I’m thrilled to be here this weekend to celebrate the wedding of two wonderful people,” he said, sounding like a professional public speaker. He held up his glass to us. “I’ve known Stuart and his family for over twenty years and consider them to be dear friends. I’ve battled Stuart in ping-pong and suffered with him over the Phillies. I’ve seen him grow up and go to college and become a lawyer and a man and I have just this to say: when Stuart and Katie slide down the bannister of life, may all the splinters be pointed in the right direction.”
With that, Villy concluded his toast amidst boisterous laughter and waved to us with a broad smile. All my fears were for naught. My negative assumption was wrong. I’m not sure who was more relieved and appreciative, me or him, but Villy had absolutely NAILED his toast.

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