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


1 Comment

Filed under pesonal essay

One response to “Living with Strangers: Crown Heights Revisited, Part I

  1. Best intro yet, beats em all… Even Tom Wolf. This reads at the speed of light. Good one with the “three point turn into a ten point turn”….(maybe don’t use the second ‘turn’ …consider “three point turn into a ten pointer”—-same words used too close together and the piece gets boggy.
    Got a kick outta “Hackneyed marketing vernacular craigslist” speak…I can hear it from here.
    “Flyaways reaching skyward…” Sticks like flypaper in my mind. A well honed and economical bit of imagery.
    Respectfully submitted.

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