Living Off The Land in 80s NYC

Frankly, the ad sounded too good to be true: a studio (one-room) apartment near Washington Square Park, the heart of Greenwich Village, for $300 per month. Economically, the rent was a stretch. But I answered the ad anyway, leaving my name and temporary number on a robotic answering machine, never expecting to hear back.

The address turned out to be the best thing about 78 Washington Place: smack dab in the middle of a picturesque block between the park and the commercial strip of lower Sixth Avenue. Arriving early, I conducted a quick surveillance mission before my appointment. The block was comprised of the new NYU Law School dorm and some older three and four story structures. Several had restaurants on the ground floor. One building in particular drew my attention because it looked out of place next to these neatly rehabilitated town houses. The dirty red brick recalled the color of dried blood and makeshift rag-curtains hung in the windows. This has to be it, right? I knew.

I stepped over a decorative iron fence and ascended the crumbling concrete steps to the front door. After several attempts, the buzzer didn’t summon anyone so I began to knock. Instinctively, I stepped back just as the door creaked open.

“Ah are you the guy looking for an apartment?”

Jeff was a gangly middle-aged man, well over six feet despite stooping a bit. His lank black hair was streaked with grey, his incongruous green eyes magnified by gigantic bug-eyed glasses. These ocular relics of the mid-1970s appeared to be surviving in the new decade thanks to a strategic deployment of rubber bands.

Entering the front hallway we were met by the musty, stifling aroma of a long-neglected attic. Fainting – or flight – seemed like a viable option. But I managed to shake the willies. I caught up with Jeff on the creaky staircase’s first landing. A squat, sour-faced man in a fancy headwaiter’s or bellhop’s uniform appeared from above, grunting something cryptic about toilet paper as he pushed past us.

“There are a couple things that Anita – she’s the landlord – forgot to put in the ad,” Jeff said as we resumed our trudge to the third floor. “The bathroom is in the hall and there’s no kitchen.”

At least he didn’t say a couple little things.

“But every room has a sink, and a hotplate.”

To cut a long story short I moved in two days later, and stayed for nearly six months. Jeff and I actually became friends, after a fashion, maybe friendly acquaintances is more accurate. It was a relationship of convenience, mercenary on both ends.

How old was Jeff?. Between 40 and 70? He affected an elderly stance, like a premature geezer. It wasn’t beneath him to accept – or disingenuously solicit – a senior citizen’s discount at an unsuspecting restaurant. Even his quavering voice sounded old. Evasive by nature, he routinely deflected all inquiries. He was careful not to date his meandering anecdotes and boring stories. He appeared to be ageless, misplaced in time like a human anachronism.

Under the surface, Jeff struck me as poignant. Seeing him, I’d get swept up in a unusual rush of melancholy. What haunted me about Jeff was the image of growing old alone in New York.

If nothing else, I was impressed by Jeff’s resourcefulness. His not-readily-apparent means of making a living was something he didn’t try to conceal. No, he was eager to share his acumen. The superintendent job provided free rent plus a meager salary. Considering that his duties seemed to consist of collecting the rent and taking out the trash, in that order of frequency, his $25 a week looked generous from where I slept.

“There’ve been plenty of weeks when I get by on twenty-five,” he admitted. But Jeff always had multiple “irons in the fire,” as he liked to put it.

On certain days he claimed professional status as a “printing broker,” working as a middleman between customers and odd-job printers. Dressed for success in his thrift shop double-knit jacket and paisley tie, he’d set out in the morning with a spring in his crooked step and inevitably return disappointed. Since I refused his persistent offers of a custom-designed business card or resume, I can’t attest to Jeff’s abilities in this obscure field of endeavor. Apparently he didn’t know, or didn’t think I knew, about the existence of copy shops. But his main gig and true calling, his métier, was scavenging.

Jeff was a garbage broker, a speculator in recyclables, a trash tout. He picked investments out of the staggering array of flotsam and jetsam just left there to rot in the city streets. He combed the urban beaches, the New York equivalent of those borderline-derelict Florida retirees who used to patrol the oceanfront, wielding their metal detectors like divining rods.

Naturally, Jeff offered to share his finds with me, asking for a nominal fee only after he’d hauled the junk up to my apartment. None of this was desired nor encouraged. Jeff would show up, plunk down a tattered lamp or rusty toaster oven and start to admire it aloud, conducting a sort of hard-sell seduction until I’d finally fork over the suggested $5 or $10 just to get rid of him. Returning all this weather-beaten house ware to the street wasn’t an option, not after his wounded inquiry the one time I tried it.

“You’re not going to believe this but I found another table fan just like yours…hey wait a minute…” Eventually, the unbidden furniture and appliance deliveries wound down. There just wasn’t much room left in my room.

Consulting Jeff about hot plate cookery would’ve been ridiculous. He ate all his meals in restaurants. How this squared with his frugality is a tribute to his one visionary talent. Jeff Reidel, as he was listed in the phone book, was the budget gourmet supreme, an indispensable guide to the culinary underside of the Village, Chelsea and Chinatown. He became my mentor in the matter of finding tasty, sustaining meals on the cheap. He was the first foodie I encountered.

78 Washington Place in 2015

78 Washington Place in 2015

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