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.

Five Minutes to Live

The alarms are blaring outside and the TV has the shrill piercing beep and a warning to take cover immediately—that North Korea has launched missiles that will reach the U.S. in less than 5 minutes.

I’m so scared that I am almost in a catatonic state, finding it hard to believe that this is the end for us all. For weeks we have been getting dire predictions that war is imminent but like everyone else I did not really believe it. How could that be? How could any rational person let the rhetoric get so out of hand that here we are. But when you have so many lickspittles in Washington not willing to stand up to this administration, it was inevitable. When you have an unbalanced President who stokes the fires and provokes, and thinks it is macho to use the nuclear weapons at his disposal, it is bound to happen. I go through the motions of grabbing my birds and jumping into my bedroom closet—the safest place. But, as I am doing this I know there is no safety anywhere and I am doomed. Well at least I will die fast.

I close my eyes, think of my children and feel so sad that I will not be able to say goodbye. I harken back to when I was a child and I used to play the game of what if: what if the Russians launched a bomb and we were told it would hit us in 5 minutes? I remember saying that I would hide in the closet with no other thought of what would become of us. I remember hiding underneath the desk at school for our bomb drills and cannot believe that this is it and all that practice was for naught. However, I take solace in the fact that at least I won’t get any older, and that maybe I will see my boy in heaven, all healed and beaming. A feeling of peace and calm comes over me as I pray. Those sweet parrots of mine know something is wrong and instead of squirming and squawking they are quiet and strangely attentive, just sitting with me. I think of all the things I wanted to do and never did. I oddly worry about my computer and laptop, and my beautiful camera equipment. I think that nobody will ever know I existed because all traces of my life will be obliterated with everything else. I wonder if by some chance I do survive the initial impact, how long will it take for the radiation to travel and how us survivors will die a slow and agonizing death. I think back on the movie, “On the Beach” where survivors who lived in Australia waited for the inevitable. I remember the ominously preternatural TV movie, “The Day After” and try to remember how long it took for Jason Robards to die of radiation poisoning. I think of my friend whose entire family moved to Australia during the cold war, only to move back to New York a few years later. I wonder who will succumb first—me or the birds? I think that if only I had taken my phone into the closet I could at least say farewell to my son, but in my haste I left it outside on the counter. I wonder if anybody will be posting on Facebook or the Kardashians will post doomsday selfies, maybe burying them in a time capsule to let the future inhabitants of the world know who the beautiful people were. Will my pictures or paintings survive? How about my IRA—will I have money to live in the new apocalyptic world. Will I lose my hair and where will I get my hair done in the new world if I don’t die, knowing full well all these thoughts are totally ridiculous?

Then during my foray into the dire future or lack thereof, I suddenly become aware that the sirens have stopped and there seems to be some announcement on the TV. I wonder if I am just dead already. I listen carefully and decide to venture out of the closet only to hear the amazing announcement that a miracle of sorts has happened—the U.S. has intercepted the missiles and the strike has been averted. We will live—I will live—my children will live. The announcer is saying that the threat is over and during my rejoicing and relief, a cold and dark shadow appears to pass over me making me shiver and I sigh and say, “For now.”

August

Wherever I am, when I hear that familiar rattling sound coming from the trees every August the old childhood memory is evoked. I am a girl, living on the main floor in Stuyvesant Town right near the many trees that surround my window. That shaking, rattle snake sound at the end of August signals an end to the carefree days of tops in the playground; getting up early to play all day; running races and being champ; going out after dinner. Although still hot in August, seemingly overnight, the steamy days are replaced with that distinct smell and slight coolness that signals Fall is coming. The days are noticeably shorter and school is on the horizon.

Third Grade

It is a shame that families are so dysfunctional and are so filled with secrets and “justified anger” at really nothing. We waste so much time with our petty disagreements, never really talking it out. Life is so short and it is such a shame that we never see the goodness in our family members until it is too late. When I was a child, I loved my mom so much and I distinctly remember sitting on the couch, holding her hand while I watched TV. I used to wrap Readers Digests up and give them to her as presents and she would act as if it was so wonderful. I don’t know when I started to distance myself from her and the rest of the family. But, I think an incident that happened to me when I was 8 laid the framework for the distant relationship I had with my parents that lasted pretty much until they died. I’m not sure why I never even trusted my parents to share a molestation as an 8 year old which happened on the way home from school during lunch. Looking back I’m sure part of this was due to my dad being hypercritical, telling me I was stupid every day so I guess I assumed he would blame me. I was so ashamed as if this was somehow my fault. I knew better than to go into a building with a strange man, but I did it anyway, because I thought I was being helpful showing him the mailboxes. I thought my parents would be angry so I just stuffed it and let the pain and sickness wash over me until I could push it far enough into my subconscious mind that I could function again. I never told a soul about this and that was a very heavy burden for an 8 year old. But there was a cost in that I suffered from the same nightmare every night. I would dream that I went out to the bathroom but when I looked down the long hallway to the dining room, I would see “something” on the wall and start that loud moaning that marked my nightmares. To make matters worse, I had a shrew of a 3rd grade teacher, Mrs. Habatkin, who I was warned about. She literally hated me and made it her mission to harass me and make my life a living hell. Couple this with the molestation and I just simply stopped doing all my homework. Each morning she would come around the room to check our workbook and mine would be blank. She would then put a big X or a 0 on the top of the sheet into which I would then draw faces but never add anything to the actual contents of the homework. This went on day in and day out so that I was eventually referred to the school psychologist named Miss Mack because, at this point, I was in danger of being left back. I was allowed to leave my classroom each day early and go to her office where she would talk to me in her quiet measured tone, while I played with the dolls. She was my savior and I’ll never forget how she would tell me to never mind Mrs. H, which in turn gave me hope. However, I never once divulged my deep, dark, secret to her lest she tell my parents. I think that set me up for lots of depressive and drinking issues later in life. It is a shame that I never felt that I had anybody to confide in and didn’t even give my parents a chance. Whether or not they would have loved me or ridiculed me, I will never know.