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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1 Comment

Filed under pesonal essay

One response to “Living with Strangers: Washington Heights

  1. The cast of characters, sunlit windows, wood floors and such make a delightful documentary, especially your word portrait of Goran in his Venice Beach attire. (Check the bit about him holding his beer). The reader, at least this one, goes along with the author…. Almost as if I were renting the place…. Inspecting odd bits and savoring unexpected open spaces and garden options.
    All that though is like a missile countdown: ten, nine, eight…. to the cat and kitten launch. This was a tender and beautiful moment and all the more since it was the last gift to be unwrapped. That bit about the mom Cat licking invisible dirt is perfect ….we have all seen this a million times but not til you wrote about it did it scream CAT.
    The cat photos are poignant and ooze warmth. When connected to the story they gain emotional power (much like your window pictures).
    Respectfully Submitted
    Dad

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