Saturday, January 8, 2011

2B or not to be: An apartment mirrors an existential dilemma

    In the middle of my decade in New York, I lived in apartment 2B of the William and Clara Baumgarten House, at 294 Riverside Drive. I was told several times that this small mansion was originally built for the mistress of a famous tycoon in 1915. My balcony is on the right. I often sat outside in my midnight blue Jean Harlow-style lounge pajamas, drinking coffee, or something more helpful. 
    I loved living there, despite the loud, drunk, sex-screamy neighbors (on both sides of me), the roaches everywhere (laying eggs in one’s underpants…doesn’t that sound like something Kafka would think up?) and the rotting, tiny bathroom and kitchen. I had so many friends, I sometimes forgot how profoundly lonely I was.

Riverside Park was right across the street. It was such a luxury!
   The view of Riverside Park and the Hudson River was beautiful. As far as I know, jogging hadn’t been invented yet – it would be two years before Jim Fixx “gave birth” to the idea -- but the park would have been the perfect place for it. 

    The 12-foot tall French doors leading out to the balcony were elegant, but in the winter, the icy wind howled right through them, causing the old purple velvet draperies to flap into the room almost horizontally. The clanging, hissing radiator tried to keep up. Sometimes, it went too far, and my living quarters felt like a steam bath.

    In the summer, I had to have the balcony doors open – there was no air conditioning, and no operable windows – so the mosquitoes swarmed in during the night and headed straight for me. I had to put garlic oil on my pulse points to disguise how delicious I was. 

    It wasn’t safe, having my apartment wide open, so close to the street, but I had no alternative.

    I was at that age when one puts up with pretty much anything to live in New York City.

    I inherited the apartment from a self-described Jewish American Princess, who married an Arab sheik named Mahboob and was never heard from again. I couldn’t have afforded such distinctive accommodations if it weren’t for rent control, and a bit of subterfuge on our part. 
Joggers in today's New York love this riverside pathway.

    I first came to New York for a summer internship when I was 18 years old. I lived in the Barbizon Hotel for Women during that memorable 10 weeks (

    When I moved back to the city for good, in 1971, my first apartment was in a clean, modern little building at 2 Riverside Drive at 72nd St. (next to a mosque – that was a nice touch), but it had no character, except for the delightful superintendent, Erik. He was a retired seaman from Estonia, who took over the considerable task of getting me settled in and acclimated to my new Big City life.

    This new place 30 blocks farther uptown had both grandeur and funk – an aging socialite who had decided to give in, and just let herself go. The sense of ongoing structural ruination mirrored what had been happening to my psyche for several years.

    Jenny, the former tenant, left behind two elegant old highback chairs, and a four-poster bed that was accessed by climbing a makeshift ladder to a loft in a back corner of the main room, which had a 15-foot ceiling. I couldn’t get used to the black satin sheets – too slippery (but thanks for the thought, Jenny, that was sweet). The cozy area created under the loft made for a nice little study. I loved the Rousseau jungle print Jenny had hung there.
"The Dream" a 1910 painting by Henri Rousseau.

    I still dream about that apartment. I dream that it’s sitting there waiting for me, with all the stuff I left behind, but I owe 35 years rent. (Naturally, I’m broke, barefoot, and can’t remember why I’m back in New York. Don’t I have a very nice home and boyfriend somewhere? And a blog? Maybe that was the dream, and now I’m back in real life.)

    Whenever I cooked soybeans, rats would materialize, and I could hear them at night, scurrying around, just loving that isoflavone aroma, I guess.
     I had a party once, at which at least 75 people were crammed into my long, narrow living area. It was like rush hour on the subway -- totally packed. There were defense lawyers as well as prosecutors (and a judge). There were academics, fancy literary types and City Hall honchos, all of whom I thoughtfully blended with just-released Attica convicts, jazz dudes high on blow, “ghetto” activists, and friends from Lebanon, Brazil, Israel, the Dominican Republic, Trinidad and Romania. Kitty Bruce, daughter of the late comedian Lenny Bruce, came early to help me make hors d'oeuvres. It was not a typical soiree, but people seemed to have a good time.

My volunteer work for the Attica Survivors Committee forged some unforgettable friendships.
Leonard Bernstein, his wife and Black Panther Field Marshal Don Cox.
     I don’t remember whether I knew at that time about Leonard Bernstein’s notorious “radical chic” party in 1970 – to which he invited the city’s social elite and members of the Black Panther Party. I probably did, but I wasn’t trying to emulate him, even though I endorse his idea of bringing together people whose politics and social status differ. I just happened to have a very diverse array of friends, which was one of the greatest aspects of living in New York.

    While I was living in 2B, I also had a modest birthday get-together to toast a wonderful colleague, Mary Doyle Pickman. It was my way of thanking her for helping me realize that one could be beautiful, vibrant and sexy, in spite of the aging process. She was turning 30, the poor dear, but she bravely forged ahead – despite this dreaded milestone -- keeping her anguish to herself.

    When the landlords visited the premises, after I’d been there for nearly two years, they concluded that I was not Jenny, despite my impassioned claim that I had simply changed my hairdo. Obviously, I was there illegally, but that was a common strategy in the crazy game of rent control. They promptly raised the rent to a level I couldn’t afford (it’s $1600 a month now). 
     Ultimately, I found a place over a throbbing gay bar called “Ty’s” on Christopher Street in Greenwich Village. It was an old tenement building, and I shared the two-bedroom walk-up apartment on the fifth floor with a young Yeshiva University law student.

    That poor guy. I used to get drunk, and then I’d helplessly, blindly devour the gefilte fish his mother in Teaneck, New Jersey, had made so lovingly for him. I was a vegetarian, which made my middle-of-the-night gorging doubly disgusting. 
     The next day, I’d run out and buy David some commercially bottled gefilte fish, which I assume is a different animal entirely than something your mama makes. I still feel terrible about that, David. Sue me!

    It was in David’s coral-colored naugahyde easy chair that I also devoured the works of E.M. Forster and Virginia Woolf. 
    One of the things I did not devour were the decorated (and very lifelike) genital-shaped puff pastries and marzipans that filled the window of the bakery next door. I don’t do sugar, sugar. Or white goo, either.
    It was during that time that I met and received a marriage proposal from the most masculine man I've ever met -- a gay black architect from Chicago (

    2B or not to be. It’s still an existential dilemma that I ponder  every day.

    This is the foreword to an e-book of collected New York memories that is available from Amazon's Kindle division. I wanted to make it free, but they required that I charge a dollar! Anyway -- it's all free here, within this crazy blog of mine.