My first apartment was a one-bedroom flat in a renovated brownstone on the Upper West Side in New York City. I was about 22 years old when I finally left my parents’ home and rented it with a friend I’d known since the 4th grade in parochial school. It wasn’t easy to leave. Even though it was the Sixties, nice Catholic girls didn’t move out of their parent’s homes unless they were married.
“What can she do in an apartment that she can’t do at home?” my mother’s friends asked her. She trembled under their disapproval.
But I knew I had to go. At that point my mother was still doing all my laundry and ironing the little silky bows on my half-slips. (Remember half-slips?) It was time to strike out on my own.
The apartment cost $150.00 a month, plus one month’s security deposit up front. So it met our major criterion: We could afford it.
Although it was on the first floor of an old brownstone building dating from the early 1900s, the apartment had been stripped of any charm or decoration during the renovation. It was painted stark white, with not a cornice or curlicue to be seen. And it was dark. Dark, dark. It faced north, with surprisingly small windows, hemmed in by taller buildings. Even on bright sunny days, it was gloomy. I began to fear that we would wind up like those fish who live their entire lives in caves, the ones who eventually grow a film over their eyes and become blind from lack of light.
So, when our one-year lease was up, we told our landlord we were moving out. Like many a landlord in the day, especially in smaller, informally-run buildings, he refused to refund our security deposit. Something about damaging the apartment with our hanging lava lamp. (Which, dear reader, we had removed ever so carefully.) Holding on to the security was a common practice then, and most tenants just shrugged their shoulders and moved on.
But not us. I knew we could sue the landlord in Small Claims Court, represent ourselves, and maybe get our security back. I had no legal training, of course, but I had dated some lawyers and watched a lot of Perry Mason on television. (Remember Perry Mason?)
On the day of the trial—there really was a trial—my landlord took the stand and said we’d left a gaping hole in his ceiling.
I, however, had anticipated this, and had taken pictures of the almost-pristine ceiling. When my turn came to question the landlord, I knew—from Perry Mason—that I couldn’t outright call him a liar. I could, though, ask a sneaky lawyer-like question that went something like this: Would you change your testimony if I showed you a picture of that ceiling?
When I asked that question, I heard a chuckle from the spectators in the courtroom behind me. I saw the judge actually smiling. And, best of all, there was a small flicker of fear in the eyes of my sleazy landlord.
Well, yes, he admitted. The ceiling didn’t look that bad after all.
We won our case, and we got our security deposit back. My roommate and I teamed up with another girl and went on to rent a bright and sunny apartment on the top floor of another West Side building.
I still have that apartment, in fact, having outlasted all the roommates who moved to California in the dark days of the 1970s and ’80s, when New York was bankrupt and crime ridden. Ha on them!
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