Sunday, July 5, 2015

An Auspicious Beginning

Guess somebody else had the same idea.
I got married late (33) after many failed mishaps with older men, married men, and numerous short-term flops — from bar encounters, blind dates and Club Med calamities.  At one point (when my Gramma asked me for the four thousandth time, “When you gonna get married hokeesie?”) I considered parading up and down Madison Avenue wearing a sandwich board sign with the message 
No, I did not resort to that.  But it was the age of dating before cell phones, the Internet and texting.  At the time, the most advanced (and risqué) form of dating was placing a  personal ad in the back of

and though I remember writing and rewriting what I hoped would encapsulate me in 75 words or less, I know I never actually paid and placed an ad. Too chicken or too cheap.

So when I met my future partner — through a chance meeting with his sister on a plane to the middle of America (we were headed to St. Louis; for that story read here) — I was incredibly happy to have finally found someone I loved, laughed with, was a great fit sexually, and — to make it even better — who felt the same way about me.  

The early years were fun and challenging.  To begin with I had never lived with a guy and I wasn't planning to do so now.  To start our life together, we needed to find an apartment in Manhattan we could afford.  Given our work circumstances then, it was his job to scout out places, narrow down the options, and bring me to the ones fitting our requirements and budget — a real Everest of a challenge.  

The first option he scheduled an appointment for was a small one bedroom at 97th and Fifth.  It was sweet and just a block from an entrance to Central Park, but at $1800 @ month — what was he thinking?? [This should have been my first indicator that finances weren't his forte.] 

The next was an apartment in the opposite direction, Chelsea on West 25th, close to Ninth Avenue.  It had an Art Deco feel and a sunken living room was dark inside, far from the subway, and $1500 @ month.  Yes, better, but still a no.

Then, a large loft-style place on East 14th for $1200 @ month  he was getting better at this.  Open plan, light-filled, high-ceilinged BUT — you had to “buy” the kitchen the previous tenant had installed ($800 bucks!)and in the walls at floor-level there were these very large, dangerous looking grates for heat.  Horrifyingly I imagined our someday-child crawling in and being grilled alive on the spot.  This apartment?  No way.  

He was very discouraged.

Finally, an apartment he was convinced would meet ALL my expectations.  A four-story building with an apartment on each floor on a lovely tree-lined street (it was in fact the street he was already living on — East 89th close to First Avenue).    I liked it.  It had charm.  It was quiet, it had light and the price was the best we’d encountered — just $1000 @ month!  Still — it was a fourth-floor walk-up.  I couldn't imagine hiking up and down those four flights of stairs with the groceries or the trash — let alone a stroller and a diaper bag and a baby one day.  I had to say no.

My soon-to-be husband was dejected at this rejection.  Frustrated from looking every day, convinced that nothing, nothing, NOTHING would please me, HE was ready to give up.  [Maybe this was his first indicator of what it would be like living with thinking-through-every-last-detail crazy me.] 

Things were at a stand-still and still, we had no apartment.  It was already April.  The wedding was in May.  The where-are-we-gonna-live clock was ticking.  I suggested that we walk building to building on the east side in the 20s and 30s in the neighborhood where I was living — bordering Gramercy Park.  I’d met a woman who managed a small brownstone on Lexington at 31st and in my mind surely we could/would get an apartment in that building so we headed to the premises.   When we arrived on her stoop, the landlady sweetly said with a smile, “Nothing available” and shut the door in our dumbfounded faces.

I had a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach.  I had pinned all my hopes on that  apartment.  We had no choice but to continue on. Door by door, building by building, we kept walking.   Up and down numbered side streets we zigzagged our way through “No” after “No” after “No.”  We walked between Second Avenue, Third Avenue, and Lexington, block after block after block.  We were tired and cranky and discouraged.  After walking forty blocks in two and a half hours with no success, we were just about back to where we started.  We were standing a block from where I was living in an 800 square-foot studio that I owned (or more accurately the bank owned) with a doorman, no natural light, and much too much stuff to ever clear enough space for another human being without my feeling displaced and resentful.  If we had to resort to living in MY studio we sure-as-shootin' were gonna be starting off this marriage on the WRONG foot.

Feet aching and hungry, we rounded the corner at Lexington and 24th, placing us on my block in front of the shop for all things equestrian, H Kauffman & Sons with its yellow wooden carousel horse parked outside the doors.  Across the street was a building I’d always wondered about…brick with these enormous leaded glass windows six feet high by eight feet wide!  At the top of the maybe ten floors was a two-story penthouse with windows even more spectacular. 

“Let’s go in,” I said as I crossed the street.

“Not another one,” he groaned, “Aren’t you tired of all this?”

“Yes, but just this last one.”

Inside the vestibule looking at the buzzers I pressed the one labeled SUPER.

A fairly decrepit old man shuffled to the door and stuck his head out. “Yes?” he queried.

“Hello, we’re looking for an apartment and I’ve always admired this building.  I live around the corner at 330 Third and I was wondering, are there any apartments available for rent?  We’re getting married and we need a one-bedroom.”

He stared at me intently with his unshaven whiskered face.  He opened the door for us.  “Come in.”

We were ushered into a door just off the vestibule into a messy office with old desks and office furniture, a haphazard accumulation of things that were probably left over and abandoned by others. The super slowly made his way to the back of the long room, went through a door and came back with a white-haired elderly woman. 

“I’m Mrs. Booke. I own the building. What do you want?”

I repeated what I’d said at the door but added that I owned a studio around the corner, that we were getting married in three months, and that we were very reliable.

“We don’t have anything," she snapped and said suspiciously, "Who sent you here?”

“No one.  No one sent us.  I pass this building every day.   I love the windows and I’ve always wanted to see what it was like inside.  We’ve been out all day looking for an apartment and not finding anything.  I just wanted to stop and ask.”

“We have nothing available.” she stated very firmly.

“We’re very good tenants and would take excellent care of an apartment," I said making my case.  " We both work and expect to stay in the city for a long time.  You’d be getting really trustworthy tenants.” 

“There are no vacancies.” Mrs. Booke declared, but, I kept on trying to convince her.

After five minutes my exasperated fiancé was whispering insistently in my ear, “There are NO apartments. I’m really hungry and tired.  Let’s GO!  She already said ten times that nothing’s available!” I heard the tone in his voice and I felt his frustration with me.  He didn’t understand why I was still talking when her answer was clear.  But my persistent nature allowed me to shut out his annoyance, ignore his breath on my neck, and keep making the case that we were a wonderful couple for anyone to have under their roof.

He was more than ready to give up.

I was just beginning to dig in.  

Then after more of my talk about the need for a fresh start and the wedding date and the impracticality of a couple in a studio, Mrs. Booke begrudgingly offered, “I may have something.” 

Twenty minutes after first walking in that door, a chink! 

I rushed on with a tumble of words. “Mrs. Booke you’ll NEVER be sorry with tenants like us, so I HOPE you’ll show us whatever you have, because we’d be VERY interested in seeing it,” I said anticipating a possible triumph.  The wizened, old super who had been listening to this whole exchange was quietly smiling, scratching his stubble.   My partner was utterly dumfounded.  

“My tenant in 2R is moving out and the girls upstairs on seven wanted it, but perhaps Frank can show it to you.”

Compared to everything we’d seen it was huge.  Living room/dining room 12’ wide by 30’ long with nine-and-a-half-foot ceilings!    A doorway (no door) into an incredibly small kitchen with a compact four-burner oven, next to a big stainless steel sink, jammed next to a tiny 4’ high frig complete with a minuscule top freezer.  Not a single inch of counter space. Some metal cabinets above that would require a stool for me to reach the upper shelves.  A narrow rectangular chicken-wired window covered in pigeon poo that looked out into an alley.  No view but at least some natural light.   Everything was in arm’s reach. You could stand in that kitchen and turn around but that was all you could do.  
This is an updated, renovated, today-version of the apt
we had back then with its HUGE casement windows.  

Our place never looked THAT good.

1950s pink and gray tile bathroom  dated yes, but perfectly serviceable.

A decent bedroom with decent closets.  Best of all the living room and the bedroom had these ENORMOUS inset casement windows 6’ high by 8’ wide.  True, being on the second floor there was no view to speak of, but the buildings behind us were only three stories high so we would get southern light during the day.

My heart was pounding.  Back in the office Mrs. Booke was fiddling with her papers.  I was trying to suck in the torrent of words about to pour from my mouth begging her to let us have the place.  I dreaded the question that had to be asked.

“It’s perfect, perfect, perfect.  We love it.   I hope you’ll be willing to let us come start our married life here.  Can you — can you tell me the rent?”  In my mind I was already thinking, given what we'd seen, we would go as high as $1100 if we had to, because we HAD TO get this apartment.  

“Well, I’ll have to check on it and let you know because the previous tenant was here for a long time (22 years it turned out) but I think it’s going to be — she took a breath (ours was bated, waiting for the financial shoe to drop)  it should be around $600.”

SIX HUNDRED DOLLARS!   $587.42 cents to be exact, once all the paperwork was complete.  It was this great apartment, at an amazing rent, in the neighborhood I already knew and loved.  

In Manhattan?  This was a MIRACLE  and an incredibly auspicious beginning to our 29-year marriage. 

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