Issue 28, Summer-Fall 1962
Last evening, while we were strangling on the fumes of the newly lighted coal stove, Harriet, who is very romantic, said: “It’s the house, darling. It’s the spirit of the house asserting itself through you.”
I hope so. All the more personal explanations are much less simple—and isn’t it prettier to feel you’ve submitted to being possessed of a hearty Georgian dybbuk than of a neurotic contemporary zeitgeist sludging your psyche around in self destruction and retreating from (as we nowadays call boring jobs and boring lives): Reality? Besides, there is this additional evidence in support of Harriet’s theory: The last occupant of this apartment, Grant Lebwitz (presently a successful Broadway producer, but at that time an unsuccessful off-Broadway producer), was also forced into a corner, though his corner was at the other end of the flat.
Probably I am the only man in New York, if not in the whole country, who has been driven into one room of an enormous duplex penthouse where there is no central heating, no gas, no telephone, no electricity, no hot water, and who is typing right now by the light of an oil lamp and with his gloves on because it is eight degrees farenheit outside and scarcely warmer within, since the pot-bellied stove plugged into the fireplace heats only itself. So, hooray, I’m unique—but I’m also gloomy, though much more energetic than I’ve been in months, and perhaps the time has now come to think things over.
If Harriet is right, the first thing to think over is this authentic Georgian townhouse which stands in crumbling grandeur on a Greenwich Village street opposite a row of well-preserved but unauthentic Georgian townhouses with dwarfish sycamores in front of them. (Across-the-street is, at best, mid-Victorian, and if one could imagine Victorian houses having spirits, as opposed to ghosts, one would have to imagine these spirits being quite compatible with modern comforts, with scientific achievements—to the joy of those heated, lighted, air-conditioned tenants across the street.) For over a hundred years, this house was the home of a banker, his family, and his descendants. But then, toward the end of the Nineteenth Century, it was suddenly vacated and boarded up. The owners, however, remained the same. (I don’t know any of the reasons for any of their actions; the Bureau of Records does not record emotions.) Just after the First World War, the building was sold, opened up, and the two lowest floors turned into a night club by Kinky Smith who was shot dead in a gangland battle in 1940. Until he died. Smith’s place was one of the most fashionable and notorious clubs in New York, especially during Prohibition, and the neighbors have told me that the third floor of Kinky’s was a whore house.
The two top floors—where I, in a manner of speaking, now live—did not escape from the general upheaval; they were completely modernized, and the Georgian never protested. Kinky Smith lived here in comfort for two decades. I know this from the man who installed the telephone last year when I moved in; he used to service Smith. There had been electric lights, steaming gas radiators, hot water, women in every room (perhaps he was confusing floors), refrigerators stuffed with champagne, and a tiled, patio’s, and hothouses roof filled with plants and flowers. The walls, by the way, ad been every one covered with red brocade, and from the telephone man’s description of the furniture I think it must have been Second Empire mixed with Louis Quatorze. Fancy, curly, golden, were the type of words he used while screwing the mechanism into the rotting woodwork.
After Smith’s death, the building was sold to people who turned the club into a transvestite cabaret. Did the dybbuk retreat up the stairs in horror at this point? No, I cannot feel the spirit is a moral one so much as an aesthetic one. In any case, it is impossible to know, for no one seems to have lived in my apartment, or anywhere else in the house, during the transvestite era. (Whether, or how, the third floor was used in the Forties is something no one remembers any more.) In 1950, the police shut the cabaret, and the house was once again sold, this time to a woman who converted the two lower stories into a theater that is apparently cursed, for in its ten-year existence it has never run a successful play and has changed hands six times. The third floor became memorable again by being rebuilt as dressing rooms, and this apartment was used for storing scenery and costumes except for the brief period when it was let (to someone who had the good sense to get it rent controlled) and except for the year before I moved in when Grant Lebwitz, then the owner, lived here.
Lebwitz painted all the ceilings black, covered the walls with green and orange burlap, and made a heroic attempt to keep the apartment connected to the contemporary world. But the spirit had obviously had enough. It longed for a return. It wanted for the house what the house was built to contain. When the city Marshall came to dispossess Lebwitz, there was no electricity, no gas, no telephone, no hot water, and no windows except in that last room whither Lebwitz had taken refuge; there was also no Lebwitz, he having driven off to Broadway and success in the middle of the night before, leaving the local shopkeepers with several hundred dollars worth of bad checks and the Marshall to deal with the forty beatniks camping in the cellar. (The errand boy from the local liquor shop told me not so long ago that when he used to make deliveries to Lebwitz, the hashish and marihuana fumes—this sixteen-year-old can evidently distinguish between them—rising from the cellar were so powerful on the stairs that he’d be “high” before he reached the second floor, and he wasn’t making a pun.)
The house now went to its present owner and my landlord, a rich young man with thin blonde hair and dreamy eyes who likes to give the impression that he is vague. He is the rebel son of a nouveau riche coffin manufacturer, and though I find him effete, I’m sure the coffin-maker feels rebelled against when young Mr. Tinley throws tantrums and shrieks about his father going counter to the life force. (I’ve learned of these scenes from Harriet who had them described to her at the Central Park zoo last spring by a close but indiscreet friend of Mr. Tinley who, recognizing Harriet as someone he’d seen on the stairs of this building, began talking to her. He gave her another interesting bit of gossip, which I will mention later on.) When Mr. Tinley advertised that this apartment was to let, he had several not-so-vague thoughts in mind. For one thing, his idea of a tenant was someone rich and probably crazy who would rebuild the flat, inside and topside, while paying a monthly rent of two hundred dollars. He didn’t say this in his ad, but it was perfectly clear when out of curiosity I went to look at the fabulous ruin described in the Times. Now, I was neither rich nor crazy, and though the place was a shambles, I was overcome by the vast amounts of space, the incredible height of the rooms, the rickety interior staircase, the boarded-up penthouse, the broken fireplaces, the smashed skylights, the ragged roof whence nearly all of shattered lower Manhattan can be seen. And this was in New York, that anomaly of cities growing younger ever)’ day, where the oldest houses are Victorian, where characterless glass and steel characterize our dreams and hearts, where civilization has come to the pinnacle of conceit and lies thinking of itself as the phoenix to rise one day newly born out of its senescence. I had, the year before I found this apartment, returned home from a decade in Europe, shocked to find my elderly mother-city waiting for me in the port, dressed like an adolescent. But I loved her, and if that was what she wanted to look like, I would not complain. And, like any obedient son, I sought to please her, to do as she asked. For ten years I had wandered in beggary over the old world. Now I would put my ways aside. And I did. I found myself an excellent and boring job, and I rented a brand-new, low ceilinged, hideous little cell, cool in summer, warm in winter. I lived this way until I saw Mr. Tinley’s ad and came to find age and beauty on this Greenwich Village street. Yes, I and the spirit must have recognized each other at once, known our need of one another. But, though I spoke to it sincerely, it withheld from me a part of the truth: it wished no compromise. While I, of course, did.
I set out to get the apartment—not as easy a task as you might suppose, for there were others who wanted it, and I had to compete against people much richer than myself. But in spite of my tastes I am my mother-city’s son, victim of the American dream, full of hope, courage, eternal youth, energy, do-it-yourself, and unscrupulousness. No doubt about it; even if the dybbuk hadn’t been rooting for me, I’d have gotten the place anyhow.
I guessed at once (there being no heat or hot water) that Mr. Tinley was breaking laws, and so on the very first day I came to this house, I checked with a friend of a friend at the rent commission and learned that the apartment was controlled at fifty-two dollars a month. The next day, when Mr. Tinley said he didn’t know whom he would choose as his tenant, I offered him two hundred and fifty dollars a month and suggested I would go higher. He was tempted but hesitant; perhaps he thought me crazier than he’d bargained for. If so, I would have to be not only crazier but richer, rich beyond the dreams of any mere coffin-maker’s son, except possibly during a plague year.
I arrived one morning, twenty minutes late for an appointment, breathless, in borrowed evening clothes, apologizing for my lateness and explaining that I’d been to a dinner party in New Orleans (he’d seen me the afternoon before) and it bad unexpectedly lasted through most of the night.
Another day, I appeared with several artist friends pretending—in trimmed beards and their best, or only, suits—to be architects and interior decorators. Oh, the joy in Mr. Tinley’s eyes as we helped him see the broken walls and windows coming down and then going up strong and new, as he saw ginkgo trees growing through the skylights, as the facade became all glass like a Parisian atelier d’artiste, as the ceilings were rebuilt and frescoes by de Kooning and Rothko, as the roof was retailed and re—hothoused, as a central-heating unit was installed. (I should now mention, not to justify myself, but to refute forever the notion that “it takes one to know one”, the other bit of gossip learned by Harriet at the zoo. It was that Mr. Tinley was something of a con man himself, for he had been planning to recover the apartment for his own use after the expiration of the three-year lease he offered.)
Tinley surrendered, and to his astonishment I brought over a couple of suitcases and a camp bed and moved into the shambles the same day we signed the lease. He asked me nervously on the stairs if I wouldn’t be more comfortable moving in after the reconstruction, and I only shook my head and blushed. I always blush when I’m at last caught out; if ever I robbed a bank or committed murder I’d probably blush at police accusations. It often charms people out of their anger, though it didn’t Mr. Tinley, alas, and after that first day he never did more than nod to me if we passed each other in the building. And even the nodding stopped soon enough, for the rent commission reduced my rent to thirty-five dollars (because of Mr. Tinley’s lack of compliance to his land lordly obligations), and I was left naked, except for my blushes, at the top of the house.
With the occasional help of friends, I spent all my spare time that late autumn, winter, and early spring, restoring the apartment. The place took shape. It became nothing so marvelous as Tinley’s fantasy or Smith’s reality, but it ceased to be a ruin and became a home. The structure was patched and painted, the utilities all, all, every one of them—were installed. Gas heated my radiators and the water tank, cooled my refrigerator; electric lights filled all the ancient chandeliers. By simply reaching out my hand, as the ads say, I could speak to friends anywhere in the world. By the time the warm weather arrived I was living in the whole of the apartment two floors, eight rooms of Eighteenth Century grandeur and Twentieth Century comforts. And my plans were boundless. Slowly, presently, in a couple of years, the place would be like Tinley’s fantasy.
What happened then?
Oh, indeed, what happened then?
There was a sudden change in me, as if my energy had sprung a leak. I was tired. This didn’t seem odd at first, since I’d labored without pause for nearly six months. I needed a rest. I took two weeks off from my job and rested, seemed to feel better, went back to work. Within ten days I was again exhausted, and I visited a doctor who, finding nothing the matter, supposed it was nerves and gave me tranquilizers. So I became tranquil as well as enervated. Where it had been a great effort to get up each morning and go to work, it now became a bore, and soon it seemed absurd. My rent was low, the weather was mild, so no heating was necessary; electricity is all but free; and, being a bachelor, I am continually invited to meals. Therefore, one morning in May, I became not only tired and tranquil, but idle and independent, the way a Georgian ought to be. I began to have on my savings.
Ah, the delicious sloth of last spring and summer! Day after sunny day, Harriet and I and others would he out on the roof in bathing suits, drinking martinis, hardly speaking, gazing west at the blue rise of Jersey, more placid than lower Manhattan. There is nothing to record about those months except my indolence, the serene passing of time, and the fact that my savings dwindled.
I had stopped reading my mail because it was mainly bills, and bills made my nerves twitch. I threw all my letters away unopened. So it came as a surprise when, in October, I returned home after an evening out and found my lights weren’t working. Under the door was a note which, when I read it the next morning, proved to contain the first words addressed to me by Mr. Tinley in nearly a year: “A man from Con Edison went down the cellar and locked your electric meter. He wanted to lock your gas meter too, but he couldn’t get at it as it’s in your kitchen. He’ll be back tomorrow. He says you owe the company over two hundred dollars.”
Well, what did I need electricity for? I went out every evening anyhow, and though, as the autumn deepened, my evenings would have to begin at four in the afternoon, so what? Who needed electricity? I never read anymore. One could undress by candlelight, bathe by candlelight, make love by candlelight. And what had radio or television to offer me but additional fatigue and rumors of a world that seemed more and more far fetched, fictitious, alien.
Gas, however, gave me second thoughts. I heated, bathed and refrigerated by virtue of gas, and I didn’t like the idea of being cold or dirty. And what is whisky without an ice cube in it? What is the significance of a warm martini? Yet obviously I couldn’t throw two hundred dollars to the winds, having so little money left. A morning spent in meditation, very simply solved when a knock came at my door. I simply did not reply. It was my apartment, and no one could force me to open the door. A man’s home is his castle, etc., etc. Soon, inevitably, Con Edison would forget about me. I didn’t belong to their world, nor they to mine. Through some cosmic aberration, our orbits had crossed, but natural law would soon assert itself, and our orbits would grow further and further apart.
Nonetheless, I took the precaution during the next four months of never opening my door unless the person knocking at it called out my name and I recognized the voice. Sometimes there would be no voice, only a rapping of knuckles on wood, and then I would sit down, smoke a cigarette, and wait patiently for the deranges of the cosmos to rotate away. Occasionally, a note from Mr. Tinley would inform me that Con Edison had appeared, but that I had apparently not been at home.
In November, the telephone rang, and a polite but firm female voice, identifying itself as Miss O’Gara, told me that if I didn’t pay the telephone company some unbelievably large amount of money, service would be discontinued. Best to he simple.
“I understand the company’s position perfectly, Miss O’Gara. In spite of my hepatitis, I realize that great corporations must act impersonally.”
“Hepatitis!” exclaimed Miss O’Gara.
“Oh, I’ll live, all right,” I said cheerfully. “I’ve got the endurance of an ox. It’s a little difficult just at the moment though, since I’m barely able to crawl out of bed, and naturally I’m dependent on friends for everything. But, thank God, there’s always a telephone at the corner bar”.
“Oh dear, oh dear. Would it disturb you very much if I phoned you hack in a few minutes?”
No, it wouldn’t.
And a little while later, Miss O’Gara called to say that the company was most saddened by my illness and would certainly not discontinue service in spite of that sum of money they wanted.
Like Con Edison, the telephone company too would forget about me. But, as it happens, they did not. An hour-long call to a friend in London hardened Miss O’Gara to my plights and I was disconnected two days before Christmas.
So winter and the new year began with two-thirds of my utilities gone, and myself not feeling especially troubled, except when anyone asked me why. Had I the energy or inclination to pose, I might have pretended I was operating for some principle, some cause. I might have sneered wrathfully at my questioner and made a mockery of his silly electric bulbs, his ridiculous telephones. But I only felt uneasy and said, as people have always said, “Oh well, no money.”
Yesterday, like every day, I woke at noon and looked out the window at a heavy fall of snow. Since I was to meet Harriet at one o’clock, I knew I would have to rise very soon, dress and walk through the snow, and while I considered this, someone knocked at my door. I lay without moving, waiting for a voice. No voice. Only knocking that turned to pounding and finally to kicking. I smoked a cigarette and reflected, not uninteresting. No one who comes to give you anything is ever violent in his anxiety to see you. This sounds cynical, but it isn’t. The givers, the true lovers, destroy nothing, depart sadly. Only those who come to take will smash your door down.
Therefore, I knew they’d come to take—and as I had nothing left to give except the gas, I knew who they must he. I didn’t move.