Go East Young Man

The pressure kicked in the day after the fire. I had to find a new apartment.

I felt desperate but not enough to move into the first available place. I couldn’t afford to be too choosy, of course, nor could I risk moving into someplace even more dingy – or dangerous –than 78 Washington Place. Once again, all signs pointed east.

In 1981 the East Village exerted the attraction of a powerful magnet, extending far beyond the allure of the music scene that first drew me there. Young people populated the bars and breakfast spots, people far younger than the kindly folks I saw at work every day.

I avoided going to East Village with Jeff the super, though the Ukrainian and Polish fare on offer there was right up his alley: starchy, filling and cheap. The World War II era décor and cafeteria service at Katz’s Deli suited his taste to a “t”, but at $5 plus their Himalayan pastrami sandwiches were too expensive. And his enthusiasm for global cuisine stopped at the Indian restaurant row on East 6th Street. Unlike the diners Jeff frequented, homey coffee shops like Kiev, Leshko’s, Veselka, and the Odessa were full of people closer to my age not to mention appearance. The few times we did go, I felt acutely self-conscious about my companion. We were one odd couple.

To be honest, I pulled back from my relationships with both Jeff and Frank before the fateful night of the fire. Frank understood, better than I did, the transitory nature of urban acquaintance. He tacitly acknowledged our divergent social lives. Jeff, on the other hand, was confused and hurt by my sudden reluctance to discuss The New York Times over two-hour dinners. It was cruel but as my raw hunger for human company abated, or became sated in other situations, hanging out with Jeff, even occasionally, began to cramp my style.

I didn’t dare mention to either Jeff or Frank that I was looking for a new place to live. They didn’t share my urgency about relocating. Unsurprisingly Jeff assumed an attitude of brittle defensiveness about the fire, when he wasn’t blithely acting as if it never happened. And Frank, despite his moving-on-up ambitions, now seemed to be content with his base of operations. Maybe he enjoyed, or relied on, the relative anonymity, the cover it provided.

I wanted to get the hell out. The first weekend after the fire I looked at a basement apartment on 1st Avenue near 12th Street that shocked me in its abject decrepitude. “Cramped quarters” can’t begin to describe the size of this place, at six feet even I could barely stand up. My head bumped against the single light bulb that barely illuminated the windowless gloom. Thinking of a prison cell or indentured servant’s quarters, I half-expected the gruff Chinese landlord to insist that I also wash dishes in the restaurant upstairs.

On the next weekend I visited two more East Village addresses with vacancies. The one I loved and didn’t hear back about, further east on 12th, was a modest studio in a weathered, yet well-kept building that wrapped around a small, shadowy courtyard. The other apartment, the one I turned down, was a generously sized one bedroom in a bombed-out tenement on 3rd, near Avenue C. I knew it was no go when I saw punctured trash bags in the halls and smashed-in holes in the walls. At first I didn’t have the heart to tell the super, a simpatico Hispanic man of about 70 who seemed surprisingly eager to get a young gringo in the building.

The following Monday I called a building management company, as opposed to the usual real estate agency, in response to an ad in the Times. The apartment had already been rented but when I mentioned the fire at my current address, the bland masculine voice on the other end of the line adopted a new tone.

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“I handled that building for awhile. Oh god. You’re lucky. We can get you out of there. OK. Go look at 48 9th Avenue on the corner of 14th Street. Hold on while I get the super’s number.”

The corner of 14th Street and 9th Avenue abutted the northern fringe of the West Village. West? So far west it was nearly in New Jersey. I stopped by after work, walking straight up Hudson Street.

When I was ushered into apartment 9A, the first thing I noticed was the back window. I looked around for another room. Nope. If my previous studio was small, then this place was miniscule. I tried to imagine conducting my home life within these four walls: eating, sleeping, reading, relaxing. I’d be existing in this tiny box.

A sink, stove and refrigerator flanked the front door to the left. To the right was a wall. Take half a dozen steps forward and you’d reach the rear wall: two long windows on either side of an ancient radiator, a massive heater many times too large for such a small place. Tall ceilings didn’t create any illusion of spaciousness.

The shallow closet was barely deep enough to hang a jacket in. There was a narrow bathroom off the main room: chipped tiles, battered sink and a big white bathtub. Lifting the toilet seat, I smiled at the message scrawled on the flip side. “I Love You.”

I signed a two-year rent-stabilized lease for $240 a month.

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