House Proud


First Person

Almost everyone loves my apartment, which is tucked away in a pocket of New York I think of as Dowager Brooklyn. Indie Brooklyn, with its musicians and lofts and filmmakers, gets all the press. But Dowager Brooklyn has what I want: a good butcher, a wine shop that delivers, and a hardware store.

Still, even the hippest of my acquaintances walks through the wrought-iron hobbit door into my garden-level brownstone apartment and sighs with pleasure at the decorative marble fireplace, the floor-to-ceiling bookshelves, the ivy-walled garden in the back. I think they half believe me when I joke that Edith Wharton drops by for tea.

Inevitably, someone asks, “How did you get this place?’’

Sometimes, I tell them the truth: witchcraft.

My acceptance of the rigors of New York real estate grew with my tenure here. I’d bought and sold two houses during a past life in Saint Paul, Minnesota, rented apartments in cities from Paris to Detroit, but nothing—nothing—compares to the battle for living space that greets a New Yorker. When I first arrived nearly eight years ago, a friend told me about the three thousand dollars he gave a building super to get on the list for a cheap, rent-controlled apartment, a sum that has enabled him to live for years in a two-bedroom at a blushingly low price.

I remember my inward reaction at the time: shock that someone would pay a super to get an apartment. Let’s get real: I thought it was a bribe. Not any more. Now I look at his life and the jagged mercenary landscape that awaits any New Yorker hoping to stake a claim on habitat and I think, Fair enough. He’s a good citizen, he pays his taxes, he’s an artist who helps the less fortunate—and, oh yeah, why didn’t I think of that?

So my path to alternative methods had already been paved when I decided to make the move from Manhattan to Brooklyn. Not that I didn’t try it the temporal way, enlisting the help of a broker friend who didn’t necessarily know Brooklyn that well, but who knew me.

We looked at nearly forty apartments, from newly minted condos in the newly minted neighborhood of South Slope to parlor-floors in Cobble Hill. There were porches in Windsor Terrace that filled me with longing and a garden with a fig tree in Carroll Gardens that inspired devotion of an almost religious nature.

But there was always a catch. The kitchen renovation so poorly planned you couldn’t open the oven except if you stood from the side. The bathtub that could barely hold a cat, let alone a human. The landlady who used to live in the apartment but was now going to live in the basement in hopes a tenant would stave off foreclosure.

The truth was, I wasn’t sure I could count on myself to be my own salvation, let alone someone else’s. The move to Brooklyn was prompted not only by a need for more space; I very much needed to find a lower rent. And, as the search went on, I began to despair.

And that’s when a friend suggested I try a candle shop in the East Village known for its enchantments. Given that I had just spent an afternoon looking at one place where the refrigerator was parked and humming in the living room and another where the bathroom was a thin door’s width away from the communal hallway, it sounded like a reasonable suggestion.

After all, no bribes were involved.

Was the woman who helped me a witch? I have no idea. Was she a psychic? Well, it wouldn’t have taken much to pick up my vibes, recognizable to anyone who has gone through an apartment search in New York, the unmistakable, near-hysterical aura of just get me a goddam place to live.

You might have expected the proprietress of an enchanted candle store to be sinuous and wearing scarves, a sort of Stevie Nicks selling wicks, but the woman before me was tough and shouting in the phone, festooned with tattoos and wearing leather and jeans. She was a tough cookie—exactly what I wanted.

And as I explained my plight, she began paging though a notebook of runes, nodding her head and carving a candle. “Uh-huh, uh-huh,’’ she would say, the knife flicking through the wax. “You a Gemini? Thought so.’’

The candle was placed in a glass cylinder, essential oils were poured in and instructions given. I was to write a letter to the Universe, saying exactly what I wanted in this new home. Then I was to burn the candle for 30 days or until it burned out.

Whenever I tell this story, I get one of two reactions: people are either rapt or they look at me in horror and say, “You didn’t believe this stuff, did you?’’

At which point, if I’m home, I run and grab the letter. In it, I detail the range of rent, the garden, the working fireplace, the cross-current circulation, the cupboards for my dishes, the shelves for my books, the room for my dining room table that can seat fourteen. All of which I found, one fine day in August, when I went to look at a place in Brooklyn Heights, which I hadn’t even put on my search, because who could afford it?

And then I quote the key part of the letter: “As specific as my desires are—surprise me, Universe, on the floor plan.’’

The day that I first walked into my current home, I saw the front room and thought it would be perfect for my dining room. “Um, it’s not that kind of place,” my broker said from the kitchen, “but get in here.”

I did and my knees nearly buckled. Here’s what I saw: a cook’s kitchen, with double-ovens, a marble island, a working fireplace and windows that overlooked the garden. I nearly wept.

After some minutes, I asked where the bedroom was.

“There isn’t one,” my broker said. “This is it.”

The Universe has a great sense of humor. And fairness. I couldn’t afford the place if it had another room. And, as a friend noted, I could spend as much time cooking as sleeping anyway. “Sleep on the island,” she said.

I don’t. I sleep in the front room, where I would have put my dining room table, under a giant sign that spells out Paris, which is my other dream city. If I ever want to live there, I know what to do.