Monthly Archives: September 2015

Living with Strangers: Crown Heights Revisited, Part II

The musicians steadfastly ignored our presence as we tarried in the yard listening to them play. After a while Vikki suggested we go to the first floor.

“Wait ‘til you see it. It’s where the common space is.”

I followed her to the first floor. I had been waiting to figure out how they managed to fit two floors into one apartment—especially in a first floor apartment. It turned out the first floor was actually in the basement of the building. The landlord had cut a hole in the hardwood floor in the hallway and installed a spiral staircase, thus accomplishing the total destruction of the apartment’s original layout.

When I first came across the apartment on Craigslist, and after having my interest piqued by the two-floor concept in a regular tenement building, I decided to do some investigating. I went to the Department of Buildings website and plugged in the address. I found that in 2010 there were 37 complaints and seven violations—most revolved around unauthorized construction. Clearly the buildings’ other tenants didn’t appreciate being cut off from the basement or the back patio.

I came prepared to encounter structural novelties. I suspected that Vikki’s apartment, with its pioneering two-floor set up, was the root of the complaints, and my suspicions were confirmed when Vikki told me that the apartment had been redone in the past few years.

The spiral staircase creaked as we went down. Vikki enthusiastically led me to the common space, which was actually a glorified hallway with no windows. She told me she would buy all the furniture for the common space, but everyone could use it, emphasizing that she believed in shared space, but it seemed there was hardly any space to share.

let’s go to the first floor                                                                                                              (pic from

Adjacent to the common space were two dark and unappealing bedrooms that the Turkish brothers would occupy. The floors were tile and each room had a window approximately the size of a heating vent. While not appealing to me, I guess the dark rooms would suffice for dark-minded cartoonists.

The only decent sized space was the kitchen back on the first-floor-turned-second-floor. There were supposed to be two matching light fixtures, but one was missing. The previous tenants, in an act of desperation or creativity, replaced it with a miniature chandelier which hanged incongruously next to its square counterpart. Part of the Formica countertop was loose. I fidgeted with it and unexpectedly pulled up almost two square feet. Vikki looked anxiously at the situation.

“Yeah, the previous tenants did a number to this place.”

“I guess they had a lot of fun.”

I looked down and saw paint splatters dappling the entire floor of the kitchen.

“They must have painted recently.”


Vikki looked down at the splatters as if she were seeing them for the first time. “I’m going to get them to clean that up too before we move in.”

“Hopefully they’ll get to it.” I was being optimistic for her sake, because I wasn’t interested in living there—not for $900 a month.

“Oh, they will. I’ve already talked to them about it. And I’ll tell them about the counter. And the light.”

I felt bad for her. Finding decent tenants is hard enough in New York City. It’s even harder when your new apartment is in shambles before you’ve even lived in it.

Luckily, I didn’t have to tell Vikki I didn’t want the room. She did not work in retail, which made it easier for her to abandon a lost cause. She knew I wasn’t buying it and the resignation seemed to relax her. Her hands weren’t shaking anymore and she decided to be frank with me.

“Okay, so what do you really think of the room and the apartment?”

I told her the kitchen space was great, but I would want a bigger room for $900.

“Also I like more natural light.”

“A lot of people are saying that.”

I wanted Vikki to keep keep talking, since there wasn’t another nice thing I could say about the place without lying.

“It’s just that the whole place is so big and the space is great, that’s why I priced it a $900.”

I wished she could have seen my apartment in Washington Heights, when it was still good. For me, it was the archetype of greatness.

“I get it.”

“I’m glad you came though. I’ve had a lot of people cancel at the last minute, or promise they’ll come and never stop by. This was before I even had the keys. I had to ask the broker to come here, too.”

I was relieved that Vikki wasn’t talking to me like a prospective tenant anymore. I felt bad that she had lived in a worse situation than this, and that she considered this a step up.

I don’t know what we said to each other in departing, but I think we at least wished each other good luck.


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Living with Strangers: Crown Heights Revisited, Part I

Vikki was a hot mess when I met her. She probably still is. I don’t blame her. After all, she only had a couple days to find a schmuck desperate enough to pay $900, plus utilities, to live in a closet marketed as a bedroom.

Had I known how the room was I would not have come, but in the Craigslist ad it was described as an “amazing space” complete with hardwood floors, molding, and a large window. The apartment itself was a two-floor affair, something I’d never heard of or had even thought possible in a normal New York City.

As soon as I got to the neighborhood Vikki texted and told me she would be late, so I found a choice spot on the stoop and sat down. The apartment was only a few blocks away from Charlene’s place. An older black man came out of the building and nodded at me as he brought out some trash. A younger white guy walked up, hauling a bass up the stairs.

I knew Vikki had arrived when a red car tore down the street, came to a screeching halt, and turned a three-point turn into a ten-point turn as she wedged into a no-parking zone. The door flung open and out she stepped, every frazzled fiber of her being. Vikki had forest green eyes and dark hair that was scooped up into a thick ponytail. Flyaways reached skyward, as if trying to flag down some help. She introduced herself with a handshake, transferring a can of Coca-Cola into her other hand, which also gripped a cigarette. Her newly freed hand was cold and trembling despite the summer heat.

She told me she had just come all the way from Long Island, where she was staying with family, to sign the lease prior to showing me the place. Before that she was living in a room share in East Harlem.

“It was awful.” She shook her head and left it at that.

Vikki’s uncle had to sign as her guarantor for the apartment since none of the occupants were very gainfully employed. Vikki did freelance film production. In her Craigslist ad she had mentioned that two of the roommates were cartoonists. The cartoonists were brothers from Turkey whom she lived with in East Harlem. She described the brothers and herself as “comic book nerds” who were gearing up to go to ComiCon. When I wrote to her I told her I was not a comic book nerd, but definitely some sort of nerd.

Vikki led me to a first floor apartment. The keys were still new to her and the door put up a fight when she tried to unlock it. I held her soda as she did battle. Vikki’s shaky hands belied a strong will, and the door finally yielded.

Every stray hair, bead of sweat and deep drag of the cigarette gave Vikki the air of a general who had just come from battle. The skirmish with the door was nothing compared to the warfare involved in getting a lease in New York City. She had gathered the troops, paid the mercenary brokers, crossed the Rubicon and now she had the keys to her kingdom. But her kingdom turned out to be a wasteland that no one wanted to live in despite several aspirational garnishes that tried to distract from the overall offering.

While it’s good and well to lower your standards of living if there’s some sort of economic sense in it, this was not the case in Vikki’s apartment, or much of New York City in general. The pressures of time also make people less discerning. In a fix they will throw in the towel at the first available apartment, even if it lands in a bathroom with missing tiles and mold growing on the walls.

I actually do not remember the bathroom at Vikki’s place, but there were other things that stuck out, the first of many being the bedroom.


It was not a room with a view; it was barely a room with a window. The window was rammed against the left wall—actually, the wall was rammed against the window. The window preceded the wall by at least a few decades, and must have been part of a large and stately room once. The room was adjacent to the kitchen, so perhaps it was a dining room. Whatever it has been, the room had been ruthlessly bisected by an overzealous landlord who knew that the best way to increase rent was to also increase the number of millennials who would live together. Right below the window there was molding—but it too was cut in half, and now it was nothing more than an incomplete rectangle that hovered below the unhappy window, which looked upon an unhappy collection of trashcans right outside.

Vikki showed me the other two bedrooms on the floor. One was slightly bigger than mine, but was priced the same.

“Sandy, our other roommate is taking this room. She’s awesome. She’s such a sweetheart,” said Vikki, using the hackneyed marketing vernacular of Craigslist, which was apropos because that’s were she found Sandy. The other bedroom on the floor was Vikki’s room, which was much larger and had double doors that opened to the courtyard.

“Isn’t this great? I was thinking we could have barbecues here.”

“What if someone wanted to read back here, or something, and you weren’t home?”

I don’t think Vikki though of this, but I had because of all the times I would have used my own yard if access hadn’t depended on Vlad being home and in a magnanimous mood. I eventually figured out that I could climb over the railing of the front stairs and drop down into the walkway abutting the side of the house. But it was often overgrown, or blocked with furniture from Vlad’s restaurant.

Soon after moving in I learned that he started a successful Basque restaurant, complete with mosaics designed by Goran. Vlad sold this restaurant and started an upscale hamburger joint, which was not doing well.

Even when the walkway was not blocked I used the yard sparingly, wanting to minimize the times I peered from my coffee mug, mid-sip, to see a shocked Bob standing only in his boxers, with unkempt morning hair, holding his own morning coffee, or maybe a beer.

Vikki’s flyaways fluttered gently as she held herself still enough to respond.

“Oh, um, I’ll just keep my bedroom door open. No problem. This is one of the draws of the place and we want people to use it. I’ll definitely use it to smoke—I definitely don’t smoke inside. Neither do the brothers. I don’t think Sandy smokes.”

Vikki seemed to try to hide her anxiety behind a veil of copious words. She kept her hand on the handle of the doors as she spoke and flung them open when she was done. Stepping outside, she closed her eyes and took a deep breath, as if she had been drowning in the apartment.

The back patio was an enclosed cement area, perhaps five feet wide and the length of the building. Only two first-floor apartments had access to it. It had no particular aesthetic, but it was an outdoor space, which is an anomaly here. Even more anomalous were the two musicians, who were using the space now for an impromptu jam session. I recognized the bassist from earlier. The other musician was playing a fiddle.

Vikki smiled for the first time–and I might have too.

“Hey! We’ll get live music too!”

“That’s pretty awesome.”

They were the only truly awesome thing about the apartment.


Stay tuned for Part II of Crown Heights Revisited! I really did not want to chop up this segment like this, but I also know that reading over a thousand words is a lot to ask an Internet-based audience. Be sure to catch up on the previous installment: Living with Strangers: Washington Heights

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Living with Strangers: Washington Heights

Four years ago, during the last rendition of where-the-heck-am-I-going-to-live I went to various shitholes and met various shitheads, including one woman who didn’t allow cooking in her apartment. There were also many nice people, including one woman who had a pole-dancing stage in the living room.

I visited 670 West 170th Street because there was an open house and I was already running errands nearby. There were not many details in the Craigslist ad, except that there was a yard, and rent was $720.

When I arrived there was a cluster of men arranged on the porch. They seemed to be gathered as some sort of welcoming committee. One was an elderly man whose lanky body was folded into a wheelchair. A grey-haired man with wild curly hair smoked a cigarette by a gate. Behind him a flight of stairs led up to a porch. A tall wiry man with glacial blue eyes, a weathered face, shoulder length grey hair and a long, bulbous nose stood at the landing, wearing a shirt depicting a surfboard. Venice Beach, it read. This guy, who I would later know as Goran, actually looked like he had been abducted by aliens from Venice Beach and spat out in Washington Heights after they decided he was too much to handle. He had a beer in his had that his gripped like a lifeline, and nodded and smiled at me as I passed.

The door at the top of the stairs was open. A calico cat darted out from some crevice, and several tall tropical plants stood sentry in the entry. And to my great confusion, the men all spoke to each other in some Eastern European language. It mingled with Spanish, the lingua franca of the Heights that emanated from every other square inch of the neighborhood.

It was a late afternoon in early May, and the light was a veil of honey that reflected off the mirror in the entrance. The men directed me inside.

“Look for Vlad,” they told me.

Vlad was one of the tallest people I’d seen in New York City, but had the slightly stooped posture of someone who has spent their life interacting with people much shorter than he. He could have been anywhere between 35 and 50, and had a crease between his squinty eyes, which made him look like he lived a life of perpetual confusion. Vlad sounded relaxed and noncommittal as he spoke to me in perfect English, but his voice became deep and commanding when he addressed the men in their Eastern European tongue. I soon found out they were from Serbia.

I trailed Vlad as we entered the foyer, which had two doors. The one on the right led to Vlad’s own apartment, and the one on the left up a flight of stairs to the second unit. Vlad’s tall frame blocked everything from view as we as ascended. The top of the stairs gave way to a light-filled common space and a hallway with three doors. Vlad opened the first door. The room behind it had nice hardwood floors, but they were barely visible beneath all the furniture that occupied it. There was a desk, a bureau, a bed, a shelf, a drum kit. It all belonged to the man who was smoking the cigarette downstairs. Vlad explained that he was some kind of music instructor and the school he was working at was closing—and that he and all his things would be out by the end of the month.

It was a room of eternal dusk. Scarcely any light was able to creep through the window, which was about a foot and a half away from the side of the neighbor’s house.

The rest of the apartment compensated for any lack of appeal the room presented. Vlad showed me the kitchen, where a young woman was emptying the recycling bin. Vlad introduced me to her as Holly.

“I’m Molly.” She blushed as she quietly corrected him.

“Okay, right. This is Molly,” said Vlad breezily before she scurried down the hall. Her long, blond ponytail trailed down her back and almost reached her waist.

The common space adjacent to the kitchen was uncommonly commodious—bigger than some studio apartments I’ve been in. It had a fireplace whose mantle was coronated with plants whose vines nearly tapered all the way to the floor. A table was against the south-facing wall, which had two large windows that looked out onto the yard and welcomed copious sunlight that poured onto the wood floors. On the other side of the room were three armchairs.

“This is really nice.”

“Thanks, we did it ourselves.”

Ourselves were Vlad, his brother Igor, a collection of their friends, and to some extent his mother and father.  I found out later that the family got a loan and bought the place together before Vlad’s parents got divorced.

I could have stayed in that room all day, but Vlad wanted to hurry things along.

“Alright, well, that’s that.”

Before turning back down the stairs I looked out the window and saw the yard, which had been featured prominently in the ad, but had been barely mentioned by Vlad.

“Can I see the yard?”

“Sure,” said Vlad, as if it just occurred to him he had one.

We went back downstairs and entered the first floor apartment, where Vlad apparently lived, to get to the yard. Its long hallway opened out to an airy living room, with plants and a print of Andy Warhol’s Elvis that hung on the wall over a long wooden table. The older man in the wheelchair who had been on the porch was now in the living room, reclined on a bed that was tucked in the corner. The man turned out to be Vlad’s dad, who would soon be sent to live in a nearby nursing home.

The door in the living room opened directly to the backyard. A blanket of green spread out before me, with brick tenements providing a backdrop beyond the yard’s wooden fence. To the left, tall lilac bushes blocked the view of the parking lot next door, and along the right side of the fence was a raised flower bed. It was empty, but full of potential.

“Vlad, would I be able to plant stuff here? I mean, if I rented the room?”

Vlad blinked and hesitated to respond. “What do you want to grow?”

“Tomatoes, maybe beans? Stuff like that.”

Vlad shrugged. “Oh, okay. Sure, that’s not a problem.”

Besides the lawn and the flower beds, there was a patio with tables and chairs and a tulip tree that provided shade.

Now that we were in the yard Vlad was suddenly indulgent with his time, and let me sample the tender grass—it is hard to find tender, untrampled grass in New York City, and sit in one of the patio chairs.

Heading back inside I noticed a grey and white kitten flopping around in a patch of sunlight on the living room floor. I had not seen this kitten before—or its mother, who was staring at me staring at her offspring. Vlad told me she was a few weeks old. Neither of the cats had collars.

“Are they yours?”

Vlad smiled for the first time.

“No, they just live here.”

The kitten clumsily crawled towards her mother, who stared at me with her claws unsheathed. She let herself relax once the kitten found a teat buried under black and white fur. The kitten nursed, and the mother licked invisible dirt from her head.

I decided that this was where I wanted to live. The kitten, the patch of sun, the grass, the delicate, the light, the plants, and even weird Goran all drew me to that place. But it was the kitten that told me this would be a good, safe place.

And it has been—mostly.

Stay tuned for next week’s installment. Until then, enjoy some cat pictures. Also, be sure to read last week’s installment: Living with Strangers: Crown Heights.

Screecher in Washington Heights

Screecher in Washington Heights

Cat in Federico Garcia Lorca's garden, Spain

Cat in Federico Garcia Lorca’s garden, Spain

Cats in Cinqueterre, Italy

Cats in Cinqueterre, Italy

Cat in the Bronx

Cat in the Bronx

Kitty in Inwood

Kitty in Inwood

Cat in the Medici's garden, in Florence

Cat in the Medici’s garden, in Florence

Cat in Cinqueterre, Italy

Cat in Cinqueterre, Italy

Gracie in Kansas City

Gracie in Kansas City

Albus in Chicago

Albus in Chicago

At the Alhambra, Spain

At the Alhambra, Spain

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