La Vie de Bohème
Names and some identifying details have been changed to protect privacy.
When my college friend, Jo, and I began looking for apartments in New York City in the fall after our 1972 graduation, we drew up a checklist using the abbreviations in the New York Times real estate listings: “Tr ld blk” (Tree lined block), “WBFP” (wood-burning fireplace), “conv all trans” (convenient to all transportation), quiet safe neighborhood, affordable rent, a bedroom for each of us, plenty of light…. But as we scoured the ads we quickly had to adjust our expectations. Our entry-level jobs—mine in publishing, Jo’s in advertising—paid less than $10,000 a year, so even a one-bedroom would be a reach.
I had come to Manhattan because that was where the book industry was concentrated and I thought that publishing was a way to make a living while developing the writing career I hoped to pursue. But I was terrified of New York. I had been brought up in the pristine Berkshire Hills of Massachusetts, had attended a convent boarding school for high school and an only-slightly-less-cloistered women’s college in the affluent New York suburbs. I had no idea about Manhattan neighborhoods, desirable and otherwise. It all looked menacing and dirty to me.
And, in truth, it was. New York in the 1970s was a lot different than it is now; residents generally were resigned to crime and filth as inescapable facts of city life, thus giving criminals, litterers and graffiti “artists” free rein. Seeing someone crouching between parked cars to defecate or urinate was a not-uncommon sight.
Adding to the chaos, the mentally ill had been de-institutionalized en masse, under the pretext that their conditions could be managed through medication (which most could not remember, or refused, to take). The state’s real motivation was to save money, and certain neighborhoods became crowded with seriously disturbed people roaming the streets mumbling, screaming, sometimes attacking passersby. As it happened, one of these neighborhoods would be ours.
My parents, who had moved to Tennessee, took only the most distant interest in my search for a new living situation. They had enough to deal with, with the aftermath of my mother’s open-heart surgery and continuing ill health. In truth, though, they had never been very involved with their three children, sending us off to boarding schools and sleep-away camps at the earliest possible ages. So I was on my own. Except, I had Jo.
I thought of my friend as an urban sophisticate and woman of the world. Throughout our senior year she had often taken the train from our college late at night to hear jazz in the West 50s, after which she was driven back to her off-campus apartment by her much older, married, jazz musician lover. She would tell me about their wild trysts that went on until dawn.
Somehow Jo heard about an available place on Riverside Drive and 106th Street. We were to meet a guy named Randy on 114th Street one early-September evening; he would show us the apartment.
At the appointed hour we made our way down the block of unkempt brownstones with indecipherable slogans spray-painted on the buildings and trash and dogshit strewn on the street. As we approached the address we had been given we saw two young men hanging out on a stoop, one black, one white. Randy, our contact, turned out to be the white one. To my inexperienced eye, with his unkempt dirty-blond hair and shabby clothes he looked more like a junkie than a real estate agent.
With a sense of dread I followed Jo and Randy up the block to a beat-up old car parked beside stinking garbage bags. I got in the back seat and Jo in the front, and I prayed we weren’t being taken to some dire fate—murder, or slavery.
But no. We drove the eight blocks south and Randy parked on West 106th Street, a wide and fairly clean-looking street with some handsome buildings and a large statue at its end—a soldierly man on a horse, overlooking Riverside Park. We went around the corner to a narrow brownstone house with a columned portico framing the front door. Black graffiti marred the white-painted columns. Randy unlocked a door to the left of the main entry, which was probably used by the household’s servants in bygone days. We entered a dim hallway that smelled of gas and garbage.
Our prospective apartment was on the second floor. The formerly elegant single-family house had been chopped up into small units and abused by successive waves of Columbia University students. I was too numb with fear and dislocation to be able to form any clear-headed judgment of the place. But Jo was excited. “This is so cool! Just look at the details.”
I tried to see the apartment as she did. But I didn’t have Jo’s romanticism and selective perception. That was probably a fortunate thing, because my friend’s active fantasy life was a brave and necessary shield against reality’s bruising truths. She developed this protective mechanism early, as the child of an alcoholic mother who, in her oblivion, did things like send little Jo to school dressed in a witch costume on the wrong day for the class Halloween party.
The main room into which Randy ushered us must have been the townhouse’s parlor back in the early 1900s or even earlier—it had mahogany paneling and a fireplace (we could check off at least one item on our list, the WBFP) with a carved mantel, high ceilings with ornate crown moldings, a brass chandelier, and scuffed herringbone parquet floors. Large French windows with a window seat below them presumably had once framed a pleasant view but now looked out over the backs of other buildings and a cement courtyard. Although the sun was still shining at that hour, not much illumination filtered down amid the buildings that surrounded the courtyard. So much for “plenty of light.”
The apartment was listed as a one bedroom, but the “bedroom” was actually just a wide hallway between the main room and the bathroom. A single bed would take up half the floor space. As for the bathroom, it had pink-and-black tiled walls, and pink fixtures, but I tried not to inspect it too closely after spotting streaks of something—dried vomit or feces—down the side of the toilet.
The kitchen was crammed into what had probably been a closet to the left of the front door. It was equipped with the smallest gas stove I had ever seen, a three-quarter-sized refrigerator and a large stained porcelain sink bolted to the wall with its rusty pipes exposed below it. The counter space consisted of a long and very narrow shelf across from the wall of appliances; someone had made a futile effort to spruce it up by covering it with yellow and white-checked Con-Tac paper which was peeling at its edges. There were no cabinets, just open shelves above the sink, their white paint gray with age and neglect. Illumination was furnished by a single overhead light bulb hanging from a cord, making me think of the root cellar in Psycho where Norman Bates stored the desiccated corpse of his mother.
Randy stood by, bored and disengaged, as we looked around. “I think we should take it,” Jo declared.
I just wanted to be settled, somewhere. I had been wearing out my welcome staying with another college friend on the East Side, and a few nights with my boyfriend’s family on Long Island before he departed for graduate school at Yale. So Jo and I signed a year’s lease, each of us paying $250 a month.
We scrubbed and dusted and vacuumed, and furnished the place with finds from the street and thrift shops—a rocking chair that we painted red, a turquoise velvet cushion that almost fit the window seat and released the odor of cat pee on the infrequent occasions that sunlight ever touched it.
Jo bought a mattress at The Salvation Army and set up her bed on the floor in the corner of the living room; I took the hallway-bedroom which had two windows whose loose glass in rotted mullions freely let in rain and winter drafts. The plaster wall beneath the windows bulged out from repeated soakings. I hid it with the decorating panacea of the era—an Indian-print bedspread tacked over the crusty surface. Against that wall I put a desk that I had bought at a thrift shop in the hope that it would magically summon me to begin the novelistic career that I believed was my purpose in life, though the evidence for that so far was scant: a few short stories from my college writing classes.
Also at the same thrift shop we found a black pedestal dining table and some Danish modern chairs. Jo’s idea was that we would have candlelit dinner parties, entertaining our as-yet-undiscovered brilliant companions in front of the blazing WBFP. Unfortunately the first time we tried to light a fire there, it filled the apartment with choking smoke, so we gave up on that particular aspect of the fantasy.
Despite all our efforts to clean up the apartment, there turned out to be one hygiene problem we couldn’t eradicate. The first time we lit the gas oven a torrent of skittering cockroaches came pouring out of the heat vents, making us both shriek with horror. Switching on the bathroom light at night caused a panicked race of bugs for the nearest cracks and crevices—and in my bed in the darkness I would sometimes feel delicate insect legs scampering across my cheek. It was disgusting—but just seemed to be another of those things you had to put up with, like noise and crime and dirt and crowds, for the reward of living la vie de bohème—the bohemian life—in the very heart of the literary and artistic capital of the world, which was what Jo said we were doing.
I tried to go along with Jo’s vision, in the way that a lost hiker will blindly follow someone else who at least pretends to know where he or she is going. But in truth I was too overwhelmed and scared to venture beyond the safe bus route to and from my midtown job, and the immediate blocks surrounding my apartment building and office tower.
An early experiment in deviating from the familiar did not go well. I decided after work to walk across Central Park South on a pleasant evening. As I approached Columbus Circle, a man got up from a park bench and fell in behind me, muttering that he was going to follow me all the way home and threatening that “I ain’t gonna drop back.”
Naïvely thinking that I could reason with him I turned, looked him in the eye and quietly asked him to leave me alone. “Oh, so you think you’re better than me?” he jeered, and slapped me across the face. I was so shaken that I took the wrong subway and got off in a bad neighborhood. With no money for a cab I walked home, eyes fixed on the pavement, willing myself to think and feel nothing, just to endure.
We knew few of our neighbors in the building. There was a married couple our age upstairs—an exotic condition to us; our hippie collegiate cohort put off marriage until around thirty, probably because so many of them had seen their parents’ messy divorces in the ’60s. Jill and Gavin became casual friends of ours. They would have tumultuous fights and loud reconciliations in the bedroom above my room. I knew their marriage was highly unstable and was shocked when Jill told us that they had decided to have a baby to make things better between them; even I with my total inexperience of parenthood knew that was a doomed plan.
Two young black men lived across the hall but we didn’t see much of them. We met our downstairs neighbor, an Indian economics student, when Jo had the notion that we should refinish the parquet floors and restore them to their former glory, which involved renting heavy sanding machinery that we thunderously manipulated late into the night to avoid having to pay for an extra day.
This prompted a midnight visit from Partha Chatterjee, a slight, dark young man who looked at us through hooded eyes, a tumble of black bangs and a screen of smoke from the cigarette held between his lips. In his thick accent he asked us matter-of-factly if we had any idea what time it was. Why, no, we lied. Oh, gee, that late, really? Sorry! Jo would later wind up sleeping with him (fortunately in his apartment, not in our living room), in response to his initial romantic proposition, “Vell, shall ve have some bit of sex?”
On the nights my roommate spent downstairs with Partha, I would lie in bed alone in our quiet apartment, looking up at the small patch of night sky visible among the roofs of the buildings that was always tinged with the glare of the surrounding city. Listening to the distant honking of horns and the sounds of all the lives going on around the courtyard and beyond it, I wondered if I would ever feel at home, here or anywhere else.
I had three more New York apartments after that one, all on the Upper West Side, each with its quirks—no closets, tiny kitchens with no dishwasher and about a square foot of counter space, faucets that sucked air rather than released water when you turned them on and then explosively farted out a spray of rust before running sort of clear (it’s a wonder I escaped lead poisoning). To outsiders these conditions would seem intolerable but urbanites still probably readily accept and even take a perverse pride in them—the fabled “if I can make it there, I’ll make it anywhere” New York mentality.
My last apartment was a decent, newly-renovated coop on West 95th Street where I lived with my husband for twenty years, and where we raised our son and two dogs. Much of the time I was happy there, but it was usually despite the environment, rarely because of it. I have realized that proximity to nature is essential to me, as is distance from other people except those whom I choose to be intimate with.
I have also realized, through years of eclectic spiritual study touching on Eastern philosophy, Sufism, and positive thinking philosophy, that our external environment is to a great extent a projection of—some would even say a creation of—our internal state. The sheltered girl I had been, virtually abandoned by my parents in young womanhood and seeing no other option than to move to one of the most challenging environments in the developed world, projected threat, ugliness and depression everywhere, just as my friend Jo valiantly projected glamourand raffish romanticism. Even as I matured, I never managed to develop the sensory filters that make city living bearable, nor did I have the vast sums of money by which some Manhattanites secure quiet and escape.
In 2003 my husband and I managed to sell the co-op for three times what we paid for it in the early ’80s, and moved to a log cabin in the rural New York countryside. There I finally began my writing career with energy liberated from the demands of young parenthood and the stress of trying to survive in the city.
Now I live in Chattanooga, Tennessee, in a quiet suburban house that, while flanked closely by neighbors, looks out over a sweeping vista of trees and sky and distant Signal Mountain. Recently my husband and I visited New York and stopped by my first apartment building, restored now, apparently to an elegant private house. I was flooded with memories of the vulnerable girl I had been in the ’70s and the long journey I have traveled that, thankfully, has led me to a settled and peaceful home.
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