When people say, “It’s a nice place to visit, but I wouldn’t want to live there,” they are usually talking about New York. Despite having the highest violent crime rate in the nation when I arrived, New York also had the highest cost of living. A tiny apartment could easily devour more than half of one’s salary, and so, unable to afford the skyscraper high rents, I’d moved in with my grandfather on Long Island. Commuting meant rising around 3:30 a.m., getting a ride to the train station, catching the Long Island Rail Road to Penn Station, taking a subway to Wall Street, another subway to New York University in Greenwich Village, another subway back to Pennsylvania Station, the train to Huntington, and a taxi back to the apartment at about 11:30 p.m. If you’ve ever wondered about people who can sleep anywhere, even standing up, this is one way of learning how to do it. Thank goodness Huntington was at the end of the line since more than once I awoke in the train yard.
Penn Station is between Seventh and Eighth Avenues and 31st and 33rd Streets in Midtown Manhattan and directly below Madison Square Garden, which is home to the New York Rangers and the New York Knicks. Manhattan seems to go through Madison Square Gardens the way Donald Trump goes through wives. The first two venues (1879 and 1890) were located on Madison Square on East 26th Street and Madison Avenue. The second MSG was designed by architect Stanford White’s famous New York firm McKim, Mead and White, and the place where, even more famously, White was fatally shot by millionaire Harry K. Thaw in 1906 over his affair with Thaw’s wife, actress Evelyn Nesbit. This occasioned what reporters of the day dubbed “The Trial of the Century” and also became a big booster for the insanity defense. The third MSG was an indoor arena located on Eighth Avenue between 49th and 50th Streets that opened in 1925 and closed in 1968.
The Penn Station that my father and grandfather enjoyed was also built by McKim, Mead and White (though Stanford White was no longer with them for reasons previously discussed) and completed in 1910. With its soaring pink granite interior, classical Greek Doric columns and glorious angel and eagle statues, this colossus was a masterpiece of the Beaux-Arts style and made for a breathtaking entrance to New York City. The main waiting room approximated the scale of St. Peter’s nave in Rome and was the largest indoor space in the entire city.
However, the owners decided they’d make more money with a sports stadium and office complex at the location and thus what was considered to be an architectural jewel of New York met with bulldozers in the 1960s only to be replaced by an ugly, poorly lit, low-ceilinged completely underground station with all the charm of a stovepipe factory in an architectural style best described as rabbit warren meets Walmart. Similarly, the accompanying office buildings are completely without character while the fourth Madison Square Garden remains a hideous concrete slab. Much the way Love Canal became the poster child for environmental disaster, the destruction of Penn Station turned out to be an object lesson in historic preservation. It was no coincidence that the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission was created the following year.
When I’d been a dreamy high school student watching the movie Fame about a group of New York City teenagers hoping to hit the big time there was no mention of living expenses. Upon starting work at the stock exchange I told everyone I met that I was in the market for a cheap place to live. Yes, I was willing to share with total strangers, disregard empty crack vials, feed somebody’s python, or do housekeeping. Every Wednesday morning I scoured the apartment ads in The Village Voice the minute it hit the newsstand. Other eager apartment seekers gathered around waiting for the bundle to be unwrapped. Back in the days of paid dead tree newspaper ads, the customer was charged by the amount of space used, and brevity was therefore a money-saver. Thus a vernacular had sprung up around the rental market, and it wasn’t unusual to see: Bet. Nolita and E Ch Reno Jr. 4 DM DW EIK WIK NR 123 M11. Translation: Between North of Little Italy and East Chelsea a recently renovated one-bedroom apartment in a doorman building with a dishwasher, eat-in kitchen and walk-in closet that has or can be converted to a two-bedroom near the 1,2 and 3 subway lines and the M11 bus line.
Many advertisements still feature “living spaces” to make it clear that you don’t get a house, apartment, or room, but merely a place to lie down and plug in a hotplate. A “studio apartment” is a euphemism for a “no-bedroom apartment.” And when it comes to a “doorman building,” there are two kinds. The first means there’s someone in the lobby to approve who is coming and going, collect packages, and generally assist tenants. As for the second, there’s a guy who sleeps in the doorway. I was searching for the latter. It’s been said that the most shocking thing about the 1975 novel Looking For Mr. Goodbar, which was based on a true story and made into a film, is not that a young woman who liked to cruise bars got her head bashed in but that a school teacher could afford to live alone in a doorman building on the Upper East Side.
All this doesn’t even begin to parse the differences between a condo, co-op and condo-op. Rather than offer microeconomics at New York University they should’ve given a class in real estate semantics. It didn’t take long to learn that a block with pot dealers was more expensive than a block infested with crack dealers. This was a time when no matter how good someone was at a job you avoided saying, “He’s a crack salesman.” A “heroin block” was considered luxury real estate to which I could only aspire. The Village Voice listed some interesting cohabitation situations, but most cost more than I could afford, and the rest were already taken by the time I arrived, including the one involving leather chaps.
Meantime, I was a swing shift zombie being kept alive on Snickers bars and DayQuil, until one day I heard these five magic words: Double illegal rent-controlled sublet. A friend from Huntington knew about an apartment near New York University that was only $50 more than my commuting costs and better yet, was replete with all the intrigue and derring-do of a John le Carré novel.
My friend knew someone who’d illegally rented a small studio apartment from someone who had officially leased the apartment, but the subtenant was suddenly off to Athens for a year and didn’t want to lose control of the space. Thus was my introduction to “rent control,” a practice adopted by a number of large cities in response to World War II housing shortages that made apartments available at about half the market rate. The actual rules are more complicated than the entire tax code and I only understood one thing about them: If you weren’t the original leaseholder then you didn’t want the building owner to know you existed, and since most owners had a superintendent manage their property in exchange for an on-site apartment, then the super couldn’t know about you either.
Upon being told the apartment would be gone in a few hours, sight unseen I paid the deposit and first month’s rent by handing a cash-stuffed envelope to my friend on a train platform at Penn Station. All that was missing was a spy in a trench coat peering around the corner, the sound of a train whistle and a cloud of smoke, but steam engines had been banned back in 1908.
Fortunately, my new home turned out to be on charming, tree-lined Jones Street in the groovy West Village, across from the romantic European-style Caffe Vivaldi, where Camus-carrying grad students sipped espresso correttos and argued about the influence of Weimar Classicism on Postcolonial theory. A street preacher worked one corner while a Gypsy palm reader had set up shop on the other in case one needed an additional point of view. It was a mere 10-minute subway ride to work, a five-minute walk to NYU, and a two-minute trip to the famous John’s Pizzeria on Bleecker Street. I could drift around the corner to Bagels on the Square and order a “poppy with a schmear” or an “everything with nothing” and had to be taken seriously, although people still laughed at my thick Western New York accent, also known as irritable vowel syndrome, which made words like “berry” rhyme with “dairy.” Across from the bagel place was a McDonald’s where coke fiends hoarded the free tiny plastic coffee spoons. Strictly low budget—the guys on Wall Street had tiny spoons made of gold hanging around their necks the way others adorned themselves with Italian horns, Celtic crosses, or Hebrew chais.
It was before the Internet and so on every utility pole or piece of plywood surrounding a construction site were advertisements for concerts, shows, guitar lessons, typewriter repair or lost cats glued over the “Post No Bills” stencils. Local philosophers, and there were many, pasted magazines photos of famous Bills such as Bill Cosby and Bill Murray next to the “Post No Bills” stencils. Another consequence of pre-online shopping was that there were plenty of stores selling drug paraphernalia, pornography and sex toys. Only the proprietors didn’t hide their merchandise in the back or behind a counter the way they did in my city, but instead created attention-grabbing window displays.
My second-floor walk-up turned out to be a long, narrow space with white stuccoed walls, golden hardwood floors and a pretty little fireplace. It came “furnished” with a mattress on the floor, small wooden night table, and 17-inch black and white TV with no reception, to which I added a $7 orange and yellow-striped plastic beach chair.
I’d been instructed not to leave any garbage for the superintendent to take out since he might rummage through it and find incriminating evidence, such as papers with my name on them. This wasn’t really a problem since I was fiscally constrained and much like North Korea, produced little by way of trash. I wasn’t allowed to officially change my address or put my name on the metal mailbox, but if people sent me letters they might arrive anyway since carriers were more often guided by apartment number rather than addressee. New Yorkers were no stranger to aliases. Whereas serial killers were automatically issued sobriquets by the press or police, the Mafia normally came up with their own. Over the years we’ve had Joey Cupcake, Tony Bagels, Vinnie Carwash, Whack-Whack Indelicto, Anthony “Gaspipe” Casso, and The Oddfather (the bathrobe-wearing Vinnie Gigante’s other nickname, besides “The Chin”).
The laundry room was also off limits. Just as well since some of my clothing still had name labels leftover from camp. And I couldn’t lodge complaints about anything, such as the lack of heat or the crumbling ceiling. As for the fireplace, I was warned not to use it under ANY circumstances as this would cause the entire building to burn down and possibly the entire block. If I needed an ambulance it was clear that I should phone 911 and tell them to meet me at the corner. On the bright side, I didn’t need to purchase renter’s insurance because legally I didn’t exist, and I never received a notice to appear for jury duty.
Oddly, the phone company, which was AT&T in its previous incarnation as a monolithic monopoly, didn’t care whose name was or wasn’t on the lease. You could get them to install a phone after spending hours on hold, being given a date three months out, and then waiting for workmen who rarely showed up. It’s not anything like nowadays when the phone company actually wants your business and will even call you at home during dinner to discuss how to get it. This infamous disservice was immortalized by comedian Lily Tomlin in a 1976 episode of Saturday Night Live where she plays Ernestine the telephone operator and says, “Here at the phone company, we handle 84 billion calls a year. Serving everyone from presidents and kings to the scum of the earth. So, we realize that, every so often, you can’t get an operator, or for no apparent reason your phone goes out of order, or perhaps you get charged for a call you didn’t make. We don’t care!...So the next time you complain about your phone service, why don’t you try using two Dixie cups with a string. We don’t care. We don’t have to. We’re the phone company.”
The only downside for a friendly Western New Yorker was that double illegal rent-controlled sublet living had much in common with Stasi-operated postwar East Berlin, and the fear that neighbors might be informing on one another was palpable. I didn’t dare greet people in the stairwell, but rather hurried past and tried to appear as if I were visiting a friend, which was a challenge when carrying groceries and a big sack of laundry. Knock-knock. “Hi, it’s me! I brought the Ty-D-Bol and those clean clothes you wanted!” Names were never exchanged. No one went near the mailboxes unless the hallway was empty. One guy had lived in the building for over a year by dressing like his dead grandmother every time he went out. If you heard screams and gunshots in the middle of the night you went back to sleep.
The rumor that New Yorkers don’t care about their neighbors probably got started as a result of thousands of illegal subletters not wanting to be dispossessed. Unlike natural disasters, which tend to bring communities together, double illegal sublets keep people apart and create suspicion. As in Stalin’s Eastern bloc, residents would suddenly disappear under the cloak of darkness, never to be seen or heard from again.
My dorm-size refrigerator didn’t work and so during the winter I simply put milk on the fire escape, a trick learned from living in Buffalo during the energy crisis, where people used the garage as a walk-in refrigerator for half the year. My mother called the apartment the Mushroom Factory since it was light-challenged, but having been raised on the Rust Belt Riviera I wasn’t exactly accustomed to basking in sunshine. It was a known fact that modeling scouts regularly went to Western New York to sign tall, thin Polish girls who’d never been exposed to the harmful and dangerous rays of direct sunlight.
One night I locked myself out of the apartment. Not having a spare key or even a phone number for the super, I assumed I’d need to find a locksmith. However, a friendly policeman climbed off his horse and easily pushed the door open with his shoulder. Didn’t I feel safe now?
Cooking in my apartment was not an option. Like most New Yorkers, I needed the kitchenette for storing out-of-season clothing, schoolbooks and my bicycle. Most nights I ate dinner and did my homework at the Jack & Jill diner around the corner on Sixth Avenue, which was run by a group of heavily mustachioed Egyptians, all of whom were trying to find women to marry them in order to gain citizenship. Even after turning down several proposals, they were still kind enough to allow me to nurse a blue plate special for several hours and thereby absorb some much-needed free heat and light. I was able to pay them back on Halloween when the place became a madhouse because of its location on the parade route. Having worked as a short-order cook back home at a restaurant across from a drive-in playing The Rocky Horror Picture Show, I was prepared to serve excitable costumed hordes, so I volunteered to help the Egyptians. Plus, my job as a clerk on the stock exchange had endowed me with a superpower—the ability to quickly add long strings of numbers in my head. Best of all, when my Wall Street boss happened in and saw me working an evening shift slinging hash and diner slang he felt bad and promptly gave me a raise the next day.
Then came the call. The woman I’d never met was returning from Greece on the first of the month. A sign on a lamppost said a roommate was needed a few blocks away on Barrow Street and the price was right, so I headed over there. My new roommate, Bill, didn’t tell me his line of work, although the tools of his trade were a small scale, a large safe and different-size baggies. He came and went at all hours. My “room” was a kitchenette with a mattress on the floor. I needed ramparts of boric acid around the “bed” to keep the roaches away, much of which ended up between the sheets and acted as itching powder, or maybe more like burning powder.
The guys at the diner had a friend who was owed a favor by the landlord of a nearby apartment and could get me in with an under-the-table payment of $500 cash in “key money.” This is different from a “deposit” in that there’s no receipt and you never see the cash again. As a result, the following month I was snug inside a studio apartment above an Italian restaurant on Carmine Street complete with a Honeymooners-style Murphy bed. This time I met the landlord, a man who favored super shiny suits, two-tone shoes and a black onyx pinkie ring. Once again, I didn’t dare complain about anything, but no longer did I need to worry about locking myself out. In fact, it wasn’t necessary to lock my door at all. It transpired that there were never any robberies above Urbino restaurant, which was right down the block from Our Lady of Pompeii Church aka Our Lady of Perpetual Bingo. Apparently the Mafia had a credo, “You don’t hit where you eat.” Sure, there were gangland-style mob slayings, but those were all prearranged and rarely resulted in collateral damage.
Today, apartment hunting in New York is as challenging as ever and makes reality shows where people struggle to survive on desert islands, catch fish in perilous waters, work as bounty hunters, or eat bugs look like they’re on vacation. Manhattan is currently the most expensive place in the country with Brooklyn a close second. There’s only one guarantee—if you do manage to find a place to live, between the listing lies, finder’s fees, dissembling brokers, avaricious landlords, extensive reference letters, nonrefundable application fees, renter’s insurance, window guard forms, and a money launderer named Sergei, it’ll make for a great story to tell the grandchildren or possibly be the first installment of that Great American Web Series you’d been planning to write. Just remember this: Whether trying to get a job, an apartment, or a seat on the subway, New York will always be based on the Survival of the Fastest. That’s why locals talk faster than auctioneers hyped up on espresso. Just try interrupting—they can go longer than the St. Olaf choir before taking a breath.