As told to Laura E. Kelly by Ms. Walter
I think of “my first apartment” in two parts.
Part One: Whatta (temporary) dump
In 1984, I moved to New York City from Salt Lake City, Utah, where I continued to live for three years after graduating from the University of Utah. I had been working as a manager of a Planned Parenthood clinic. I decided I wanted to live in Manhattan after visiting in 1977, poring over Women’s Wear Daily in junior high school, reading plenty of books set in New York City, and viewing lots of Woody Allen movies.
A good friend of mine from college was now working as a young lawyer at a large law firm in NYC, so I had my chance. I asked her if I could come and stay with her while I got settled, and she said “yes.” I bought a 1974 Dodge Duster (with a durable slant 6 engine), and drove across the country, trying to stick to blue highways (without much success).
I arrived in Manhattan on a Sunday afternoon in August 1984, and spent about an hour trying to find street parking. I thought I was just having bad luck that day.
How happy I was to see my wonderful friend, as I envisioned us running around Manhattan together for many years—dancing at “Regine’s,” chatting up folks at “Elaine’s” and taking in the latest exhibits at the MoMA—all in fabulous clothes. Unfortunately, my friend informed me that she had gotten engaged to a wonderful guy in Texas—she was giving up the apartment in six weeks and leaving our beloved Manhattan. So I didn’t live in her apartment for too long a time, but the apartment definitely made an impression on me.
A lopsided sleeping loft with a stylish red-shag carpet
It was a “fair-market” apartment, meaning it was not regulated by Rent Stabilization or Rent Controls laws, so the landlord could charge and raise the rent at will. It was a horrible dump in Yorkville, at 2nd Avenue and 89th Street, and my friend paid a whopping $600 a month for it (actually, pretty good for that time!). It was one tiny room with 20-foot ceilings, in which a lopsided sleep loft had been constructed, all stylishly carpeted in a deep red shag.
The apartment had one window that overlooked a nasty little courtyard that was literally filled with garbage. The neighbors in all the surrounding buildings would routinely toss garbage — old furniture, paper waste, broken toys, etc — out their windows into the courtyard. There were weekly intrusions by mice and giant cockroaches (I now know they were just normal-sized New York cockroaches) into the apartment, causing my friend to frequently set-off bug “bombs,” which keep us out of the apartment for hours, with lots of unsavory clean-up afterward. My friend had lived in this place a year now and had already called the Sanitation Department about the garbage situation several times. Sanitation would come by and empty the courtyard—then it would just fill up again.
I knew I had to be employed to get an apartment once my six weeks with my friend ran out so I set about getting a job. One day I came home from the job hunt and found a man lying in the vestibule. I squeezed by him and when I got to the apartment, said to my friend, “There’s a drunken man lying in the doorway!”
She’d seen it before and simply said, “I’ll call the police.”
“But they might come and take him away!” I exclaimed, concerned Utahn that I was.
“Exactly,” she said, and that’s what happened.
The apartment was one block from Elaine’s, the famed restaurant/salon that I had read about in my WWD’s in Salt Lake City, and seen in Woody Allen movies. But I found that I was too poor to go in, so I would just walk by the place and peer in. Later, when I actually went in there a few times, I discovered that Elaine was not a kind woman; she appeared to be especially rude to young women. She once loudly accused me of leaving a gym bag on the floor of the bar (it turned out to be a male customer’s bag). Another time, one of my girlfriends was heading to the ladies’ room, and Elaine grabbed her by the collar, demanding to know where she was going. When my friend tried to explain she was going to the bathroom, Elaine accused her of trying to spy on people sitting in the dining room.
Luckily there were many other places to go to besides Elaine’s.
Part Two: Roommate roulette
I had saved every penny during the last two years I worked in SLC and had come to New York with a cashier’s check for $5,000. I knew I was going to need all of it for a deposit plus my first few month’s rent. I also sold my Duster to a minor league ball player who lived in Co-op City.
About five weeks into my six weeks’ deadline, I secured an administrative job at CBS on 52nd Street. Around the same time, through the Village Voice, I found an illegal sublet on 85th between 1st and 2nd. (I believed at that point that every single young woman was supposed to live on the Upper East Side, even though I eventually ended up renting and buying in the West Village.) This apartment was also in Yorkville, which still had some charm at that point in time, with many older German restaurants and shops.
This sublet was offered by a young couple who had moved to a much nicer apartment in the city. They cautioned me, “Don’t draw attention to yourself. The landlord can’t know that we left!” The wife even left her furniture in the place, and so I discreetly moved in my own stuff in small bags and suitcases, making many trips.
This place had an elevator and one (tiny, dark) bedroom, so seemed like a step up from friend’s place. It was rent stabilized, and the rent was $700 per month. You entered the apartment through a narrow kitchen, what I learned was called a “Pullman kitchen,” like the train cars. The bathroom had ancient turquoise and pink tiles and no window (I’ve made sure to have a window in my bathroom every place since!).
During my apartment hunt I had met a young woman from Michigan and she became my roommate, taking the bedroom. She only lasted six weeks—couldn’t deal with the city and went back home. By that time, I was broke, and only clearing about $350 per week, so I had to find a roommate.
How broke? I did the 50-minute walk to work every morning and back every evening, not for the exercise, but because that walk meant having two more dollars in my pocket. It was a nice walk, though—past Sotheby’s, the hospitals, and Maxwell’s Plum (an over-the-top Warner LeRoy fern bar)—except when the weather was bad, which was, of course, half the year!
Freebies and the betrayal of the bedroom-set
Everything was new to me and coming from Utah, where on Sundays everything was closed up and bleak, it seemed like things were just exploding in New York. CBS was a big corporate donor, so we got free passes to all the museums and free tickets to shows. My boss, a female VP at CBS, would take me along on some of her business lunches at great midtown restaurants on her expense account.
At other times, I ate with my girlfriends at the bars that supplied happy-hour food buffets, with the purchase of liquor, ostensibly to bring in young women. Hard to imagine they wanted women like us, who would eat enough food for dinner while judiciously sipping one drink, but it did put females in their bar seats. I also shopped at “Encore” a consignment shop for used clothing (not yet called “vintage”). Supposedly, Jackie O left her old things there for re-sale. I was living fairly well below the poverty line.
But I really needed a roommate, so I put an ad in the Village Voice classifieds saying I had an apartment share for $350. You could pick up a copy of the Voice in the evening at an Astor Place newsstand before it was widely distributed the next day. So the next morning, I got about 20-30 responses, and another 20 thereafter. I had to interview a bunch of these people, and it was exhausting. Most were nice, some were strange, and I remember one woman’s boyfriend had just produced Madonna’s second album, then left her. I barely knew who Madonna was, but I was impressed by this.
I finally settled on a woman who was getting her MBA at St. John’s, and seemed serious enough to pay the rent on time. But she turned out to be the wrong choice. She was from upstate New York, and moved an entire bedroom set into our tiny illegal sublet. Unfortunately, she and her boyfriend enlisted the help of the superintendent, who promptly told the landlord. A few weeks later, we received a legal notice threatening our eviction. The original couple was not pleased at all about losing the apartment, but when I went over to their new place to settle things with them and saw how nice it was, I didn’t feel very sorry for them!
For the next four months, I moved in with a friend of my sister’s, who was kind enough to let me stay in the dining room of her charming West Village apartment. I then secured another illegal sublet on the Upper East Side, located on East 73rd Street and York and notable for how incredibly loud the early morning garbage trucks were, so many of them chugging up our street. Unbeknownst to me when I signed up, my sublet apartment was on the same block as the Sanitation Department garage.
After that I actually signed a real lease for a rent stabilized, third-floor walk-up in the West Village, where I was (finally) able to stay for many years. Sometimes, there were still homeless men in the vestibule, or men with homes doing questionable things in the vestibule, but at least it was my vestibule!
I’m now on the board of my West Village co-op and have watched firsthand as single older teachers on pensions have been replaced in our building by derivatives traders. Yes, things have changed, but I still sometimes take the 50-minute stroll home from my job in midtown, and marvel over all the iconic NYC landmarks and the feeling of a city still exploding with energy and vitality. It’s a wonderful place to live.