I was raised and went to school in the safety and comfort of Bayside, Queens. Although it’s part of New York City, life in northeastern Queens more closely resembles its neighbor to the east, Nassau County, than the city proper which is about 12 miles to the west.
I learned that there is a stark contrast between living in suburbia and in the city.
Traveling in from the suburbs to the city for work or play gives you a chance to think about and prepare for this radical change in reality. From the burbs to the city and then back to the burbs. Most of the time, the changes between these two universes occur subconsciously and we never notice it.
Living in the city is different. There’s no transition period. You walk out that front door, and it’s showtime. Better get that game face on, or you’ll end up becoming somebody’s lunch. Doesn’t matter what day of the week or time of day it is. The intensity of being surrounded by tens of thousands of strangers is both unnerving and exciting.
I learned all of this with my first rent-stabilized apartment in New York City. In 1986, I made a financial arrangement to sublet an apartment from a friend who was moving in with his future wife who lived in the Bronx (poor bastard). This apartment was located on busy 8th Street right off 6th Avenue. I felt very fortunate and excited to be living not just in New York City but in the center of the universe: Greenwich Village.
It was called a studio apartment. But calling it a studio was somewhat of an exaggeration. At just over 300 square feet, I needed to make some hard lifestyle choices.
I had a lot “stuff.” I wasn’t a hoarder, but I believed you should hold on to things that might be needed later in life. (Although, not sure why I still have a 1982 IRS instruction manual for the 1040 form.) I stuffed my worldly goods in every nook and cranny available. I built shelves and hung large objects from the ceiling. In the end, the limited amount of space forced me to modify my retention habits and relocate a large portion of my 20 years’ worth of personal artifacts to my parents’ house.
I also owned a car. Finding a parking spot in New York City is an Olympic event. The winners are rewarded with a transient spot on the street that would be legal for just a few hours (bronze medal) or in some cases legal for a few days (gold medal). But remember, in NYC nobody goes home empty handed. The losers are given a memento, a souvenir—a note personally signed by a member of New York’s “Finest,” placed smartly under the wiper blade on your front windshield. By the end of the first month in NYC I had too many “mementos” and I surrendered. My car was added to the list of personal artifacts vacationing at my parents’ house in Queens.
Running the air conditioner 24/7: expensive white noise
The apartment was on the third floor, with the windows facing out over 8th Street. The glass wasn’t thick enough to prevent the invasion of noise coming from streets below. The soundtrack of life in the big city—the random staccato screams of drunken suburban teens; the cabs tooting angry horns—played loud and consistently, 24/7.
The apartment had an old window air conditioner which I ran continually night and day all year long. Not just to cool the room but to create a white noise barrier against the wall of sound generated from the street below. I took comfort from and felt protected behind the continuous rumble of the three-speed fan and the hum of the two-speed compressor. The only quiet moments that I can recall were on early Sunday mornings and on holidays like Easter Sunday (back in the day when people actually stopped working on holidays).
The apartment also had the usual suspects lurking in the walls, under the oven, and in the cupboard. The classic companion, the unwelcome visitor, the garnish which is the essence of the New York experience: Yes, there were a few roaches running around the apartment but the mice, oh, those mice. They were true New Yorkers with a dry sense of humor, showing up at the most inopportune times. I lost more girlfriends that way.
A hidden alcove that early-morning revelers knew about, unfortunately
The apartment building had an open vestibule by the front door. This small but partially hidden alcove between the street and the door became a known refuge for early morning revelers with full bladders. On my way to work in the morning, as I stepped out of my building and into the light of the day, my senses were awoken with the unmistakable aroma of urine or the sound of a splash caused by my foot landing in a puddle of urine. Once I got past my own vestibule, my daily commute to work was relatively quick and uneventful.
Over time, life in the apartment began to stabilize and the relationship of living in the Big Apple became a love affair. Like in the early stages of a love affair, the endorphins kick in, and you tend to overlook and ignore the flaws, imperfections, and foibles that surround you.
By 1990, however, the neighborhood seemed to be going downhill. Not sure if it was the crime rate or that the area was losing its edge. Things were changing for the worse, and it was time to get out, so I did. But of course we all know now that these were the last days of the dark ages and miraculously, crime virtually disappeared, turning every area in the city into a child friendly neighborhood. Even the Bowery, yes the Bowery: A name that is synonymous with homeless alcoholics, prostitution, and misery is now a safe place to raise your kids.