Apartment for Rent:
I had been away almost a year and now needed a place to live. I was outstaying my welcome with a college girfriend and evidently the gods were in my favor. At the time East 71st St. between 1st and 2nd Avenue, with its blind windows barricaded behind iron fire escapes and narrow staircases engulfed in darkness as they moved into the viscera of the buildings, belonged to a different New York. In 1900 it was a city of immigrants, fleeing poverty and military service in their lands of origin, fleeing family obligations and preordained futures to find lives of their own in what to them was a land of opportunity. To find themselves. 1900 or 1956. Made no difference. The young and the not so young. But all with dreams.
A job, a place to live, a place one could call home. Where the remnants of the past were a link to the present and the future. In the beginning, like those who lived here then, money for a newcomer was scarce. So a battered sign Apartment for rent that had not been there yesterday looked promising. The rent would be minimal and I liked the location.
A dark corridor led back past closed doors and up the steps. Technically a walkup or cold water flat. This was it. On the third floor. Apartment for rent.
The door looked as if it had been barricaded and wrenched open only recently. Light struggled in through unwashed windows from the uncleaned sky of winter. There was a sense of disorder, of the disorder of living and of abandonment in the unlit rooms. Oily looking crumbs lay scattered on the floor and one feared to move lest the yellowed layers of dirt touched and clung to the clothing. How long had no one been here? Yet a hat lay on the table in the center of the room, put there upon coming in, battered, brown, waiting. Beneath their stains the blue roses of the linoleum rug still wore the paper tag of sale. The sewing machine in the corner by the window waited too, its drawers open – buttons, thread, a metal key. Above it on the wall a smoky silhouette marked where a cross had been. Facing it were hung three pictures, behind glass, framed. The Virgin and her Child. A cheaply printed picture of a general, country unknown, his young breast covered with decorations, unsmiling as he stared out into space. The third – a marriage certificate in a foreign language, the letters written by hand below a brightly colored scene of holy wedlock.
The light was faint but still enough to see the picture in the large all but empty white wedding book. Two people no longer young – named John and Mary. And the date that of the wall certificate – 1949. On the floor lay a small snapshot of a woman on a bier surrounded by candles. On the back was written – Mary, 1953. So he must have lived here alone after that. Until sometime in February, for the calendar on the kitchen wall still has that month face outwards. That was when time stopped for him too.
In the refrigerator, placed for some reason known only to John and Mary in the front room, unrecognizable masses around which tiny flies hang and breed still cling. The smells have worn themselves away into past time. Electricity too seems to belong to a more recent world and in the gloom of the small back room the light from a flickering match lasts just long enough to illuminate a broken bed stretched from one wall to another.
Someone lived here once, used the pots that crowd the shelves behind the broken kitchen closet doors, sat in the ungainly chair by the window, left his hat upon the table.
A week later and the furniture is gone. The rooms stand empty. But for the pictures on the wall, the shadow of the cross that was no longer there – and the clock. Someone had wound it and set it in the middle of the mantle. It stood there in the silent room … tick – tock – tick – tock. And on the hour chimed and spoke. The only sound in this room that was no longer lived in.
That was now ready to start its life anew. What was that life to hold within its rooms? Would the walls remember the laughter and weeping of John and Mary – and of those who went before? And would there be new tears, new laughter, to leave a mark upon its soul? In a week, it was mine and with the help of friends the walls were whitewashed and shelves put in. A bed of sorts was set on bricks and it was enough for me to start writing in earnest and observe the NY around me.
Then there were the people. Those I have loved and those who loved me. Those I have left and those who left me. Parts of my life, more perhaps than the places I’ve lived in, experiences had, what I’ve done, what I wish I had done, what I haven’t done. Everyone’s life.
New York, then, was a period of self-discovery. Marked by tears and joy:
Weeping for an impossible dream as I walk the streets of NY. A dream that never left me. Saying yes, but then with tears coursing down my cheeks as I return two gold wedding bands to the jeweler. Enchanted as I walk with a friend to see the skyscrapers in the snow by night. Commiserating with him when asked for advice on what to do with his difficult girlfriend. Walking, by myself, along Central Park in spring and autumn waiting for letters from Europe that would bring a song to my heart. Taking a train at Grand Central Station and wishing that the boy waiting for a girl was waiting for me. Like the city, the people who passed through my life continue living on in my heart. Some were just acquaintances. But all gave me of themselves as I gave them of myself.