The Apartment on 11th Street

“I can’t wait to grow up” is what so many kids say. But most of them don’t plan to move out of their childhood home when they turn 18. But I did.

When I was a child, I looked forward to getting out of my house. On the surface things seemed OK but I hated living there. Yes, Stuyvesant Town on the lower Eastside of Manhattan was a great place to grow up with its rolling hills where I spent many a day skating, playing tops, running races, and playing skelly in the many playgrounds. But that was outside. Inside my house were things beyond my control.

I felt special that I was admitted to Art and Design high school where all the kids were artists, but when I would return home, there would be constant criticism from my father. A vague idea began to form in the back of my mind that I might be able to move out and I didn’t have to live like this.  But then I met my friend Verna who was also a student at that school.

Verna was half Japanese and both her and her sister went to Art and Design. I had never been to her apartment before but one day we got to talking. It was my senior year and I didn’t know what to do with my life. I was at a crossroads. My whole junior and senior years were about getting high on booze and weed (and other substances). I didn’t really care about my future but one thing was very clear to me—I wanted to move out of my house when I turned 18.  Verna ‘s family lived in a run-down railroad tenement on crime infested 11th Street and Avenue B in Manhattan.  Her father was the building super (superintendent). She mentioned to me that they had a vacant apartment and we might consider being roommates. It sounded like Nirvana to me so one cold Winter Saturday afternoon I went over to see it. All I could think of was total freedom. We sat in the living room and I felt so grown up and didn’t even think of the pitfalls—probably because Verna painted a rosy, but apocryphal picture for me.

At first glance all I could envision was having my own “room” and not having to answer to anyone. I could do whatever I wanted and not face constant criticism. I could smoke, drink, and do anything. I overlooked the flaws in the apartment which were many, most importantly that I would not even have a real room with any privacy since this was an old run-down Railroad apartment where one had to go straight through my room to get to the others. Railroad apartments were built in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, to conserve space, and were so named because they were similar to a railroad car, which would go straight through one compartment to another. In the South, they were called “shotgun houses.”

Coming from a “normal” apartment in a good neighborhood, it was kind of a shock. Of course, it was a walk-up and there were basically no windows except in the living room where there was a fire escape.  You had to enter through the kitchen first, which contained a bathtub replete with “feet”, a tiny gas stove and oven, and a lovely “water closet” containing a toilet with a hanging water tank and a chain to flush. However, instead of running for the hills, I embraced the romance of living like a Bohemian. I was an artist, after all, and I a reveled in the idea of setting up my easel in my room of sorts. So, despite my initial reservations, I decided to move out of my parents’ apartment into this shithole which promised so much but turned into a nightmare.

Soon after moving in, I realized this wasn’t going to be the Utopia that I had hoped for. It became Party Central with mostly Verna’s friends in and out at all hours.  Even if the partying was in other rooms, it didn’t matter since there were no doors and one room simply led into the other room. There was constant comings and goings with noise so I couldn’t really sleep.

I was a “lucky” or sheltered child it seemed compared to some of my other school friends I grew up with who often lived in the tenements surrounding Stuyvesant Town.  I never even knew what a roach was until I saw one in my desk one day at school.  Apparently, I didn’t see any roaches on that cold, fateful day I made the choice to live in that run-down apartment. But that soon changed after I moved in. Roaches usually don’t come out much during the daytime or in the light. I discovered this when I would climb the steps, open the many locks we had on our door, come into the kitchen and turn on the light, only to see dozens of roaches on the wall, scattering into the dark recesses of the nooks and crannies of the kitchen.  I had to move my bed away from the walls at night so that roaches wouldn’t get on the covers.  This apparently didn’t seem to upset Verna who grew up in this building and was used to it.

Although her friends were a bother I would often party along with them. Our parties which would start early on Saturday and go into Sunday, were legendary and I would invite everyone.  Some of Verna’s friends were pretty unsavory, but the higher I got, the less I cared. It all became a haze of booze, drugs, sex–anything went. I watched with apparent indifference at best as one guy proceeded to shoot up in the kitchen, being more curious than shocked when a spirt of blood came out when the needle went in. I thought, “Oh, so that’s what it looks like to shoot up.”

I could go on and on, recounting story after story of behavior that I would find abhorrent today but considered normal then. But after about 9 months of the living in the Roach Motel, I made the decision to move back to my parents’ apartment.  I was going there anyway to take showers because I couldn’t bear using that antiquated bathtub in the kitchen. Although I felt like a failure, I was relieved. But soon afterwards, I married my first husband, seeing him as my way into respectability–my savior.

After I moved away, I got married, had children, lived a life, and never looked back. I never even kept in touch with Verna. She wasn’t even invited to my wedding. It’s as if I wanted to simply banish that shameful part of my life.

But every so often, with no provocation, I dream that I am still living in some version of a run-down Railroad flat. In the dream, I am distraught, but I always get a feeling of acceptance. Then I wake up and for a few seconds, think that I am back there, only to realize I am safely ensconced in my own bed.  Although it was a crazy time in my life and I would never want to revisit it, I would not be who I am today if I didn’t live it.

The Mahjong Girls

Growing up in Stuyvesant Town—a large apartment complex on the Lower East Side of Manhattan—was more like Peyton Place than you would think. It seemed that everyone knew each other. The complex stretched from 14th Street to 21st Street and consisted of a multitude of 13 story buildings. Stuyvesant Town was built in 1948, and was geared for returning vets and their growing families. My parents and other young families moved in, creating a common bond—something you don’t find today. There was a sense of camaraderie and belonging among the new residents who were often either Jewish or Catholic that is absent today. My mom and a few of the Jewish ladies formed a ladies group that met once a week at each other’s apartment, to play Mahjong (a Chinese tile game) and they became known to us as The Mahjong Girls. When it was my mom’s turn to host, we were always in a frenzy—frantically vacuuming and dusting, putting out hors d’oeuvres, nuts, chocolate, drinks, etc. When the first doorbell rang, my older brother and I were exiled to the bedrooms. Since I did not have a room of my own, the evening was particularly magical because I got to watch TV in my parents’ bedroom and eat the goodies my mom would bring into me during a break. Mahjong seemed to be the exclusive domain of Jewish ladies and I don’t think the Christians played it. Now, each Mahjong girl had a distinct personality—and where we didn’t know much more about them, my brother and I invented personalities. There was Ethyl, Anita, my mom, Shirley and Sarah. Anita was chubby, and had a gravely voice, so my brother and I imagined her as someone obsessed with cookies and imitated her voice asking, “Do you have any cookies?” She had two sons, Jay and Steven, who my brother (Gordon) and I played with. Their son Steven was odd, and nobody could really put their finger on what was wrong with him. But, years later Gordon and I came to the conclusion that he was probably autistic. My brother and I could sometimes be pretty cruel, not directly, but looking back I see that our funny games were born of jealousy. On the surface, Anita seemed to have a charmed life, but one day, we found out that her husband, Sydney, was “visiting” somewhere for an extended period of time. Since Stuy Town was somewhat Peyton Place like, we found out through the grapevine that he was actually in jail for perjury. So, from then on, my bro and I referred to him as “the criminal” in our conversations (again, just between us). Unfortunately, their son Steven inexplicably was found dead one day—a real tragedy. Now Shirley, who also lived in our building, was a very stylish and refined beauty whose husband, Bill, was a commercial artist. Their apartment was impeccably decorated and she was the height of fashion. She had blond tresses that she wore in a tasteful upswept hairdo, which never looked out of place. However, Gordon and I had a theory that her hair was not real, and was, in fact a wig—that underneath her golden faux locks, she actually had “black, kinky, greasy hair.”

My family’s circle of friends went beyond our building too. And, just like Peyton Place, gossip abounded in Stuyvesant Town. Since we considered our family so imperfect (and it was, but probably not much more than some other families), we hated seeing seemingly perfect families. One such family was headed by the matriarch, Marion. She was a pillar of the community, always traveling on vacation, head of this or that committee, beautiful apartment, and seemed to live a “Father Knows Best” or “Leave it to Beaver” existence. But, one day, we heard through the gossip mill, that Marion and her husband were getting divorced. I remember sniggering with my brother about that, and being not so secretly thrilled that the perfect Marion was, indeed, human like the rest of us.

It’s so strange that although my memories of growing up in Stuy Town, with my very dysfunctional family, are not particularly great, I still have dreams every so often. I dream that I am somehow still living at 455 East 14th Street, in apartment MG, but I am my age now. Sometimes my parents are there too (the age they used to be) yet it seems perfectly natural. These dreams are never happy ones, but somehow I have them periodically—although less and less as I get older. My brother and friend Janet (who lived across from me) have these types of dreams too, which is so curious, since our childhoods were less than idealistic. But somehow, although there were many painful memories, there were actually some good ones too and, in spite of myself, I find reasons to laugh and reminisce about them. I guess these dreams somehow represent a time of innocence, although imperfect, innocence nevertheless.