Thursday, September 08, 2005
squeezing through tight spaces
I am in the middle of everything. Cars and trucks go by in both directions, barely pausing to avoid pedestrians. My bank is on the corner; across the street is a gallery where I once coordinated a jazz performance. The old chicken shack is to my left, and a brand new cafe is right in front of me. I believe this is the busiest intersection Downtown: a meeting place of neighborhoods.
Years ago, before there was any property market here, I attended a party at an apartment at this intersection for a few gay men and their admirers. Being neither, I chatted with the caterer. She was from Basking Ridge. She told me she had been scared to get out of her automobile. A decade later, she would not be able to afford rent here. It did not frighten me then, and it does not frighten me now.
I don't look my best. I'm unshaven this morning, and direct sunlight turns my hair into a mop of grease and sweat. Usually I fuss and bother over my appearance like a debutante, since I do not like to walk down the street until I can be sure that everyone who sees me will be fascinated by my noble carraige. Today I am settling for ruggedly handsome, or some dweebish minor-league variation thereof. At least I am wearing my second pair of glasses -- the ones without the crack in the lens.
The realtor is not waiting outside the corner tenement as she said she'd be. I am anxious to get out of the sun. After pressing buttons, somebody buzzes me in. I check the mailboxes, and find the names of two former Arts Center tenants. These were real holdouts; there until the bitter end, taking the abuse, and stoically mulling contingency plans. They counted me as a friend. I register their names without astonishment. Although I haven't seen them since they were forced out of the building in March, my strong sense was that they were around somewhere, and that I'd catch up with them at some unspecified point in the future.
That point is now. I am greeted by my old friend as I walk up the stairs. Her husband is working elsewhere, but she is all smiles; she is pleased to see me. It's her apartment that's for rent: the landlord hasn't shown up, so she's been giving the mini-tours today. She is a non-native speaker -- her accent is heavy, and she struggles a bit with English. Inside, I recognize much from her old studio at 111 First Street: books, art supplies, musical instruments. I recall sitting at her table at the studio, drinking tea and discussing development politics.
Chatter in Hebrew on the steps: a party of three Israeli women in their early twenties has arrived. They follow me into the apartment for rent. I sense undifferentiated ego boundaries, like those of college roommates. Their skin is young and tight -- they have not felt the cosmetic drag of city living. They stare at me, hypnotized by the lines of hard experience etched on my face. Okay, they don't.
My friend ushers them around the flat. I stay rooted to the spot and make awkward conversation, and try not to bring up the P.A.D. She isn't leaving for good, she hopes; they're moving in with relations in Queens so they can save money and purchase a building somewhere. In a week, their work will be packed up and carted across the East River, and two more Arts Center tenants will have slipped away to the Empire State.
When you have done your best to defend the rights of a couple to stay in their studio, it is tough to evaluate the place they move to next. It seems drained of significance, colorless and cheerless. These were characters in a drama that seemed worthy of Dickens, and yet here they are, in a nondescript apartment like the rest of us, availing themselves of the same rental ads, and harboring the same wish for property ownership and stability. This is from my romantic perspective, of course. To my friend, this is a temporary stopping-place. She likes it; she has put up shelves. Three big windows bathe the kitchen and living room with sunlight.
The landlord is hiking the rent. It will go for several hundred dollars more than we are currently paying. The Israeli wome seem uncomfortable with the price. Two would have to share a bedroom. I imagine that they also share a job -- taking turns managing a switchboard or call center on a vast international trading floor. They commute together, switching sections of The Wall Street Journal as they do. As I turn to leave, it becomes apparent that my friend had assumed that the three women were here with me. She must have thought they were my harem, or my backup singers, or my vetting committee. Embarrassed, she clasps her hands over her mouth. I tell her it's okay.
On the street, daylight is sledgehammer thick. My reserve pair of glasses isn't the proper prescription, and they make the world feel dislocated. I am to get cat food before I return home. Ducking into a shop, I watch the counterpeople ogle a blonde purchasing a box of pop tarts. She leaves, and they say something in a foreign language; I don't understand, but I get the gist.
From the waterfront, the sun shines high off of the Goldman Sachs tower. It burns through the thin canopy of leaves on Grand Street, and through the lenses of my second-string glasses. My eyes hurt. For a moment, I feel like an insect under a magnifying glass. I shrug off the burn and go inside.