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.