What you get for $1,150 a month at Prince and Sullivan, New York City, 2007-2009.
After a week of looking I found a second apartment, at Prince and Sullivan. The block was pleasant enough. There were little shops selling cold cuts, coffee beans and fresh mozzarella cheese. One block away was a bakery that sold some of the most delicious bread that I have ever tasted. Across the street was a convent. If it hadn’t been for the lights turning on and off at night I never would have known that there were nuns in there.
If I had any doubts that this environment would provide sufficient local data for me to represent that I had tasted the transcendentally authentic idea of New York, they disappeared when the Haddad’s trailers rolled up outside my building’s door to film “New York, I Love You,” a romantic comedy. Though the film was based on people around my age living on the same block of the same city, they did not, alas, ask to use my apartment. The apartment was a complete apartment. It had walls, a door with a lock, a roof, a kitchen, windows, and shower. There was even a toilet, located a few steps down the public hallway, behind a second locked door to which I held the only key. But these elements (except for the toilet) had been compressed into two hundred square feet, slightly less than the size of my childhood bedroom. You stepped out of the shower into the kitchen, which was also the office. For a while I slept on a pad on the floor, which I would roll up in the morning to make a living room. Then I slept on a cot. Then, when I had trouble sleeping over the last few months, I moved some books into storage to make room for a small bed.
Fifty years ago my apartment had been the childhood bedroom of Dorothy, a chatty woman in her late sixties who worked for the state courts. Dorothy lived on the first floor, immediately inside the vestibule. The building had no doorman—it was an old tenement with a buzzer and a single narrow hallway leading past two doors—so everyone passed Dorothy’s apartment every time they were coming or going. We soon developed a neighborly friendship. When Dorothy saw me leave with a suitcase she’d ask me about the trip I was taking. When we happened to arrive home at the same time, I’d help her carry her motorized, two-wheeled scooter up the stairs. She lent me a bread knife and a platter for a party. She advised me on illegal subletting. She warned me not to get friendly with the guys on the top floor. They were Mexican, and these Mexicans tended to steal. She told me this last nugget in a whisper, then pointed to the intercom on the hallway wall. “Sssshh,” she mouthed. “They can hear us.” She twirled her finger around a cone made of air.
It took a few months for me to turn into one of my other neighbors, who, without exception, sought to keep contact with Dorothy to a minimum. “Hey Dorothy,” I would say, then deafen myself to her reply as my back receded down the hall towards the stairs. Two years passed. I would still carry her scooter in from the street. Her unseen hand would still buzz me in as I fumbled for my keys.
On the last day as I was moving out, Dorothy invited me into her apartment. “It’s a shame that you’re leaving,” she said. “You’ve always been so nice. Please come in. I’ve been waiting to tell you a secret.”
Her apartment was much larger than mine. I did not need to ask to know that her rent was less than $1,150. She showed me her grown son’s old bedroom. There were pictures of him on the walls. The view of the street was blocked by many leafy plants, and an old record player played the Rolling Stones.
The door was closed but Dorothy continued to speak in a low voice, just above a whisper. “Do you see that?” She pointed to an oily spot on the floor. It was about the size of a quarter. “Chemicals. Poison. It comes in through the ceiling. They drip it on me. They’ve been trying to get me out of the building for years.”
She said that she wanted to write a book about it. I said that she should. She said that I should help her. I said that I had my hands full trying to help myself. I asked her whether she’d told anyone else. She had told many people, she said. No one believed her.
“Why not?” I asked.
“The helicopters,” she said. “You’ve seen them, haven’t you? They fly over the city and spray the chemicals on everyone. People get used to it.”
“What’s in the chemicals?” I asked.
I wanted her to say “loneliness.” She said she didn’t know.
This story was first published in the booklet “Teen Sex Energy / Land Money Power,” which can be purchased from Book Thug Nation, Spoonbill and Sugartown, McNally Jackson, St. Mark’s Bookshop, or firstname.lastname@example.org.