March 12, 2012 | by Christopher Bollen
“Love amid apocalyptic urban debris, love amid pimps and drug pushers, love on staircases scattered with used needles … can barely pay the rent.” This was not an atypical note to find myself jotting down in my early twenties, part of a scribbled, half-legible foray into a novel I would never write. I wrote this in 2002, three years into my very first no-lease, single-occupant New York apartment and one year before I would eventually leave it, fleeing on grounds of emotional distress for a nondescript studio in Gramercy across from the Thirteenth Precinct (note my subconscious need for police protection). The cloying repetition of the word love suggests a rather flagrant tendency toward romanticizing crime and poverty, the ellipses symptomatic of someone too undisciplined to develop a thought. The only real character of this imaginary novel is the building. At least it was for me during the years that I called 314 Bedford Avenue, between South First and South Second streets on the grimy, sun-bleached south side of Williamsburg, my home.
To pass by the six-floor tenement now is not to see the building I lived in a decade ago. DuMont Burger has replaced the Puerto Rican dry cleaners in the street-level store front, where I never recall a single person entering or exiting with pressed shirts or anything approximating a claim ticket. Green metal café tables have taken the place of the wheelchair-bound homeless man with no legs who lived and slept seated for nine months of the year outside the entryway, his single mode of communication being “don’t touch me!” whenever anyone asked if he needed help. The building’s facade, still the color of a sick tongue, seems to have been water blasted, and the fire escape has been skinned and painted. As New Yorkers, we all live in a peculiar state of location upgrade, a kind of reverse Manderlay, where places we had once known have outpaced our own internal soft-focus (as an exercise, I recommend replacing the word nature with real estate developers in the opening page of Rebecca). Memory must do the decay work of time, and it is here at 314 that I remember the black, rusted iron gates of the front door, the hallway swabbed in yellow plaster, the chipped linoleum floor tiles attempting a marble mosaic, the five flights up to my apartment where, even drunk at 2 A.M., I had to be careful not to step on syringes, used condoms, sleeping prostitutes, and take-out ketchup packets.
I found the apartment through my friend Lulu, who tended the day drinkers at Mars Bar on Second Avenue. She had “a friend who knows a friend, fucking bitch, who is looking to sublet her place.” Lulu had a minor case of Tourette’s, so I didn’t take “fucking bitch” as an accurate description of my future subletter’s character. I went that day to check out the apartment, and sure enough, a young, pregnant woman answered the door, her eyes staring worryingly at the kitchen, already half packed with moving boxes. She told me she was going to stay with her parents at least until she had the baby, but she wanted to keep the lease, “just in case.” (New Yorkers feel the need to hold on to leases the way out-of-shape middle-aged men hold on to high school sports trophies.) “It’s $750, you send me a check, I send it to the landlord, and if he ever asks who you are, which he won’t, because he never comes around”—she shot her eyes up to the water-damaged ceiling for verification—“you have to tell him you’re my cousin.” The apartment was large, massively large to a twenty-three-year-old who owned one chair, one architect’s desk, and one futon mattress that had been donated by a college friend who had graduated to the lush comforts of a box spring. Stepping through the red eat-in kitchen, the long hallway, the rectangular living room with a view of the distant Word Trade Center, and the small bedroom windowed in a diamond-pattern grate, I knew I would take it. I would find $750 in my anemic biweekly paycheck working as an editorial assistant in the guides department at Time Out, New York. (I spent most days calling midtown hotels, repeating the questions “Do you take AmEx? MasterCard? Visa? Diner’s Club? Discover? JCB? Do you accept pets? Children? RVs with electric battery hookups?”—a very uncertain literary launching ground.) Julie—that was my new cousin’s name—drafted up an agreement on her ink-jet printer and a week later #5A was mine.
#5A was mine for exactly four years, and that time did not magically evaporate in the expected dissolve of entering a revolving door and stepping out of it older, wiser. It was more like entering a revolving door and, by some failure of equipment, being stuck between two segments of glass, a perfect specimen of a confused young man who couldn’t go forward or back. In that time I knew very few of my neighbors. In fact I knew so few of them that I spent an entire year often meeting my good friend, the artist Wade Guyton, in Manhattan for drinks, never realizing that he lived one floor above me in a slightly upgraded two-bedroom. We met once in the stairwell, each astonished by the fact that the other had, for some incomprehensible reason, found himself in this building.
One neighbor—or squatter really—that I did get to know was Jackie. She was boyish and petite, in her mid thirties, constantly wearing silver hoop earrings and a matching denim jacket and jeans. She had the cleanest teeth set against the reddest lipstick, and every day at a different hour she pounded on my neighbor’s door. “Papi, papi, let me in.” Other women pounded regularly, every day, much more quietly. Papi was clearly a local pimp. I never saw Papi. He always took about fifteen minutes to come the door and when he finally did he only opened it a crack. One afternoon cops arrived and took their turn pounding on the door for fifteen minutes before Papi opened up.
Jackie was always alarmingly happy. Jump-juice happy. She also called me Papi. “Papi, how you doin’?” Or sometimes, “Papi, you wanna party?” It was often 4 P.M. when she proposed partying, but it never seemed to bother her when I declined. “Everything’s going to be all right,” she’d tell me for no conceivable reason. “Everything is going to be just great!” Her optimism was frantic, jittery, but also spectacularly convincing. Everything was so great for Jackie that even most nights when she slept on the penultimate step leading to my floor, I’d jump quietly over her and think she really was happy. She loved to spread herself out on the full mattress of the step. She never once asked me for money.
That was the province of a different resident, a woman who lived on the ground-floor apartment just behind the staircase. She didn’t look a day over sixty, which was hardly a compliment since she was probably about forty-five. She had linebacker shoulders, claylike, white-gray skin, a brutish way of staring at you, and she wore the same beige housedress and slippers everyday. She fostered two handsome young Latino boys of whom I felt sure she was not the mother. Several friends joked that she might be their father. One day, mid-puff on her Newport 100, she caught me coming down the steps. “You got a minute?” She asked me if she could borrow a dollar. “Want to get something for the kids, you know.” I diligently reached into my wallet and handed her the bill. “Thanks,” she said and, walking around the corner, not even hiding her purpose, treated herself to a fresh pack of cigarettes. All of that was fine, except she kept asking, “Do you got a dollar, something for the kids,” not once a week, but every single time I walked down the steps, like a mythical troll underneath a bridge, demanding money in order to pass. Finally, I told her I was broke. “Asshole,” she grumbled, and then went around the corner to buy her cigarettes.
Depending on my mood and the seasonal difficulty of convincing cabs to take me over the bridge at night, I wanted to move many times from 314 Bedford, but $750 for a bedroom apartment with no roommate was a bargain. The only thing I splurged on at that time was groceries. It felt adult to shop at Tops, Williamsburg’s only store with its own cheese station and non-discount crackers. One day, after my Sunday shopping excursion, walking south, I suddenly really had to pee. I raced home, dropped my groceries at my door, and ran to the bathroom to relieve myself. Two minutes, that was all it took. In two minutes I went to retrieve my groceries in the hall, and they were gone. Someone had stolen them. In fury I took out a sheet of paper and wrote in black marker, “Whoever just stole my groceries from my front door, that was my food for the week. Please return them. #5A”. I taped the sign next to my door and waited. Surely, some family member would notice the curious addition of smoked gouda or carb-conscious bread in their refrigerator and understand that a theft had occurred. I waited five minutes until my curiosity got the better of me. I opened the door and looked out. Someone had stolen the sign.
Eventually the landlord caught me. George Watan knocked on my door one afternoon when I had long forgotten to peer out of eyehole, watching for a tall, white man looming in the hall. Tall, white men meant trouble for all of us at 314, even though I too was a tall, white man.
“Where’s Julie?” he demanded.
“Julie’s my cousin,” I said. “She’s having a baby and I’m living here until she gets better.” Get better? An odd, accidental description.
“Oh, so because Julie’s not here you don’t have to pay any rent?”
I explained that I had been sending her checks every month, $750 like clockwork, that she was forwarding him the money from her own account.
“$750?” he squealed. Now he just felt sorry for me. “The rent’s only $500.” Now I felt sorry for him. Clearly George Watan was landlording in a different Williamsburg decade. Didn’t he know he could charge $1,500 for this place? Still, I had been had. Twice. “And I haven’t gotten a rent check from Julie in a year. Some family you’ve got. Your cousin’s screwing you.”
Cousin Julie had been keeping the money, at least $10,000 by my calculation. When I told George Watan that I could pay the rent directly as I held a stable job working at a magazine, his eyes lit up in fascination. “Magazines,” he repeated with the gusto others reserve for words like “Christmas.” “All right. You get your cousin to settle the back rent and you make your monthly check out to me … $750.” He shook his head with entrepreneurial delight. I tracked down that ridiculous homemade contract I had signed, threatend poor Julie, mother of one, with a lawsuit I could never have afforded to undertake, and wrote my checks directly to George Watan.
George lived in an alternate universe. But so did everyone else in the building. So, for a while, did I. It was a world where, if things were broken for long enough, they didn’t need to be fixed, life simply grew around them the same way plants learn to grow through burned-out cars. One night, water began to trickle through the plasterboard ceiling of my bathroom. Within the hour, the plaster had burst, and leagues of water poured directly down. It went on for hours, this deluge of murky, brown toilet water from the neighbor above. I pounded on her door. I turned my shower curtain into a ramp so the water cascaded into the tub. The tub spilled over. I climbed up the fire escape and knocked on the neighbor’s windows. No one came. At seven in the morning, the flooding subsided. When I ran into this neighbor in the hallway, I asked her why she hadn’t answered my knocking. “I thought you were a burglar,” she whispered in broken Spanish. “A burglar who knocks on your door begging you to check your toilet?” She shrugged.
On 9/11, I had a horrifyingly ideal view. I saw the second plane hit and the smoke pouring toward Brooklyn, an island away and yet so close. But among the many, disparate, broken images I remember of that day is the open doorway of another neighbor on my floor, a plump, mid-fifties Puerto Rican mother whose grown children visited every other weekend. She stood in her kitchen making breakfast, quarto music playing on her portable radio, humming along to the staccato rhythm while she scooped cantaloupe balls from their rinds, grinning dreamily, while in the window behind her, the city was in flames.
No home addition I made to that apartment rendered it any less temporary, a storage unit for my body and my belongings, a shell-shocked shelter from which I would eventually emerge alive. And emerge I eventually did. It’s been too long since I’ve been in contact with that young man in his twenties who spent four years in #5A, but I wonder if perhaps he didn’t treat 314 Bedford as an urban forge at which he could form a hardened character, and when that character had baked for the proper amount of time, he left. Certainly, I remember telling friends how irritating it was to watch the south side grow so overpopulated with more and more young white professionals on skateboards. Maybe nothing is worse to a fraud than the arrival of newer, brighter frauds.
In the final months, mice started upping their invasion, or at least they stopped their clandestine approach—skirting midday into corners, pooping Morse code along the kitchen sink. One climbed on my bed and died on my computer keyboard just as I had finished typing. I laid down traps and came home to pools of blood where the mice had chewed through their legs to escape, bloody trails running into their stove-hole trenches. They were as huge as soda cans, and when I could no longer fight them I decided it was time to move. Maybe I had never worked hard enough to make 314 my home.
Jackie was in the hallway the day I carried my furniture out. She had her fists in her jean jacket and walked sideways down the steps alongside me, smiling with her anxious happy, red-leather smile. “You moving out!” she said. “Ahh, that’s too bad. But you’ll be back. The building will be here, and I bet you’ll be back!” I don’t know how Jackie could watch me carry out every single possession I had and suppose that I would ever move back in to this particular building in this particular neighborhood. But she was always so positive. “You’ll be back and I’ll be seeing you. You love this building. It will be here! And so will I!” Jackie was right. I had loved it in a way. But she was also wrong. It isn’t there anymore. No building we once lived in really ever is.
Christopher Bollen is a writer and editor in New York. His first novel Lightning People came out in 2011. He is currently writing his next novel and is the editor at large of Interview Magazine.