Posted: January 3, 2012 in New York City

We arrived at the hotel within the hour of landing in New York. It was a nice room… small, but not too small. I judge all New York hotels by the one I once stayed in where you can stretch your arms out and touch opposite walls at the same time. This was larger than this, but small enough for Helena to make a face. She was satisfied though. At least it was clean and modern.

I dialed Jerome from my cell phone to tell him we had arrived. No answer. I left him a message.

“Hey, we’re here. I know we can’t move in for a few more days but we’d like to come by and pick up the key and take a look at the apartment. Call me when you get this message.”

I hung up and wondered once again whether it was a bad idea to have taken the apartment sight unseen. But the way he described it, it made us very hopeful. Huge windows in the living room overlooking a garden. Hardwood floors. Cozy bedroom. Kitchen. Cable included.

Helena was looking out the window from our tenth floor room.

“What’s with all that noise out there?” she asked, hearing the distant sirens mixed in with the traffic and horns.

“Welcome to New York.” I responded.

Being several years younger than me, Helena hasn’t travelled much yet, except for the few times we had come here on vacation. She had fallen in love with the city just like I had.

“Hey, why don’t we unpack our bags later and go take a walk through the city?” I suggested.  “It’s beautiful outside.”

It was like 75 degrees out there and it was the middle of July. About 20 degrees cooler than Miami. I was bursting to get out and stroll around my new home. I kept repeating it to myself, over and over in my head. I was home. I was home.

I looked over at Helena. She was already unpacking and neatly placing everything away.

Thirty minutes later, after I decided to jump in the shower to bide my time as she tidied up, we were walking down Madison Avenue. Helena put her arm around me and her head on my shoulder. As we walked, I took a good look at all the people’s faces. Orientals, African-Americans, Muslims, Indians, Orthodox Jews, Hispanics… There were men and women in business suits, leggy blonde model-types, hip-hop wanna-bes,  college students, bag ladies, homeless begging for money, tourists… (you can tell who the tourists were because they were the only ones looking up at the buildings). I heard snippets of conversation in all kinds of languages; English, Spanish, French, German, Arabic, and some other languages I didn’t even recognize. A good portion of the pedestrians were wearing headphones, bopping by to the music playing in their ears. Others were talking loudly on their cell phones. It wasn’t difficult listening in on what they were talking about as they rushed by.

“…I don‘t mind going to the party, I just can’t stand her….”

“…I’ll meet you at Grand Central on the lower level near the fruit stand…”

“…We should have some quality time before the ceremony. I haven’t seen Grandma Jones in so long…”

“…yeah, yeah, don’t worry. I hid it for you…”

I looked over to Helena to comment on that last snippet, but she had been unmercifully sucked into a Zara store. It was a common occurrence, this victimization of hers from the cruel seduction of clothing stores. I rushed in to try to rescue her from its grasp but it was too late. There she was, struggling valiantly to tear herself away from a row of coats and dresses, her arms and hands hopelessly entangled inside the racks of tailored fabric.

“Oh, my God, look at this coat!” she whimpered as the coat attacked her body, draping itself over her. She pulled and tugged to get it away . “It’s not my size! I can’t find my size!” she rationalized until the coat gave up and allowed itself to be placed back on the rack.

It was not a pretty sight. Every time I thought I had managed to extricate her from the store’s grip and we were near the entrance, another item caught, no… clamped on, her eye and pulled her back in, until I finally said the magic phrase that seemed to appease the beast within.

“Why don’t you just buy something already and let’s go?”  I had to repeat this incantation several times like a priest exorcising its victim.

But Helena was a frugal sort. Her practicality protected her from the lure of the buy… most of the time. Although she could have easily afforded it, she always had to think twice, three times, after allowing herself to flirt with the Kenneth Cole’s and Michael Kors’ that beckoned malevolently to her, before she ‘d ever succumb to the one item that figured most prominently in her mind’s eye.  At last she escaped the store, taking with her only the thought of the coat.

Some time later, after we had to once again do battle, this time with Steve Madden, we arrived at Madison Square Park and the wafting aroma of burgers filled the air.

“Are you hungry?” I asked Helena.

“Ooh, I’ll bet they have french fries!” she said excitedly.  “I’d love some french fries.”

We stood in a line that traversed halfway down the park. The aroma was intoxicating. A rich smell of cooking beef mixed with sweet pickles, frying potatoes and ketchup. I got on my cell phone while we waited and called Jerome again. Still no answer.

We ate in the park beneath the trees, feeling the cool breeze blowing by us and listening to Helena’s occasional wails of “I really want that coat I saw at Zara…”. We hailed a cab and decided to go to the apartment to finally take a look at it, despite the fact that he wasn’t answering the phone.

“1375 Morton Street please.”

The driver silently took us there.

“You want me to drop you off on the left hand side or the right?”

“Uh… the right.” I guessed.

We  hopped off and started strolling through Morton Street in the West Village. A beautiful collection of brownstones framed in willowy green trees. People walked their dogs,  restaurants all around were filled to capacity. A quaint little theater, the Cherry Lane, was nestled among the trees in a street corner that truly looked like a movie set.

“We’re on the wrong block.” Said Helena.


“The numbers on the building. They’re going up. I think we’re on the other side of  7th.”

We turned around and crossed 7th Avenue. There, as Morton continued, was a car parking lot next to a garage door with graffiti scrawled all over it. Garbage bags lined the edge of the sidewalk. There weren’t as many people strolling about. A mouse suddenly scurried by, away from the building and towards the garbage bags.

“Is this it?” asked Helena. She pointed at an old, beat up green door with the numbers 1375 on it.

“Yeah, that’s it.” I said and climbed up the front doorsteps to try the door. The paint was falling off and parts of the wooden door had holes in it. It wouldn’t open. There was a combination lock under the doorknob.

“Let me call him again.” I said. As I dialed, I saw a figure walking towards me. He looked like Woody Allen: curly red hair, thick, black-rimmed glasses, short and skinny. I had a sneaking suspicion this was Jerome. He was wearing an oversized torn T-shirt, cargo shorts and old sneakers.

“Are you, Robert?” Woody asked. “I’m Jerome.”

He didn’t extend his hand.

“Hi Jerome, this is my girlfriend, Helena. I…”

“I got your messages but I couldn’t answer the phone because I was making a copy of your key.” He quickly climbed up the front steps to the building door,  entered a code and opened it. “Let me show you inside.” He walked in first and I caught the door before it smacked me in the face.

We walked down a narrow dark hall that looked like it hadn’t been sweeped since World War II. Papers littered everywhere with a thin sheet of dust for carpeting. I glanced over at Helena’s face. She looked nauseous.

“Uh, how old is this building?” I asked.

“Oh, from the 1870’s. We’re upstairs on the fifth floor.”

There was no elevator. I wondered if  anyone had ever taken a broom to the hallway at all during the 20th century. As we briskly walked up the stairs, I hoped we weren’t going to live next to some crazy neighbor. I hoped all the neighbors weren’t crazy. A guy in his late twenties passed us on the third floor and I took comfort in that he didn’t look crazy. By the time we got to the fourth floor, it was getting very difficult to take another step.

“I’ll show you how to open the building door when we get back downstairs.” He talked in a brisk staccato. “Did you see the mailbox as you passed it? My apartment number is 5M. Fuck, I hope this key works, copies don’t always work and the lock in my door is a little tricky.”

I stopped listening to him halfway through the fifth floor staircase, focusing more on my heartbeat and hoping I wouldn’t suffer cardiac arrest before I spent my first day in my new home. I wondered how we were going to bring our suitcases all the way up here. I figured one at a time. Maybe I’ll just spend the night on each floor with each of them. At that rate, we’d be totally moved in by next month.

“OK, here we are, it’s all the way down the end of the hall.”

If it was dark down in the lobby hallway it was a lot darker up in the fifth floor. We had to almost feel our way through, its walls painted black for some  reason. I noticed a small, one-foot-tall tree stump next to his door. I didn’t ask why it was there because I was still too busy trying to catch my breath.

“See? See? I knew it!” he yelled, startling both of us. “Goddamn key doesn’t work! Damn these locksmiths. OK, that’s OK, I’ll get another key for you guys after I shove this one up the locksmith’s ass. Now this is how you open the door,” he said, taking his own key out. You lift the knob like this, see? And then you jiggleitalittle.”

“I jiggleitalittle?”

“Yeah, jiggleitalittle. And voila! See?”

His entire front door was papered from top to bottom in cut-out newspaper articles about him and his photography. Each newspaper article looked weathered and yellowed and each one was taped on to the door by what looked like small strips of white duct tape. I was trying to comprehend why he would paper his front door like that, particularly when he was at the end of the hall and all his door faced was his neighbor’s door. It wasn’t like anyone could pass by to read about his achievements, except for the neighbor across from him. I glanced over at Helena. Her expression had changed from nausea to an unblinking look of disbelief.

The door creaked open but stopped abruptly.

“Oh, wait. I gotta push it a little. Don’t worry, there won’t be anything in the way when I leave. It’s just a box I put there full of my shit.” I hoped he didn’t mean that literally.

He managed to get the door open and the first thing we saw was this huge machine standing opposite us, partially blocking an entryway to what I assumed was a closet. The machine stood from floor to ceiling and was wrapped in cellophane. It had some kind of overhead contraption, like a large projector, pointing downwards towards stacks of multi-colored trays sitting on its lap. Rusty kitchen utensils in round containers were all haphazardly placed around the trays. Behind the machine, hanging on the wall, was a huge metal billboard that said “Brooklyn Bridge”, next to a large Mickey Mouse clock and a scale hanging from the ceiling that was filled with large acorns.

“What’s that?” I asked.

“What’s what?”

“That.” I pointed at the monstrosity before us.

“Oh, that’s what I use to develop my film.”

“Oh. Is that going?”

“No. That’s staying. Don’t touch it. Come on in, guys. Just walk around the boxes. Don’t worry, they’ll all be gone.

The scent of piss, old books and dust was distinct and hanging over the apartment like a cloud of ingredients to a really fucked-up recipe. A Jerome-made pathway measuring approximately ten inches wide of floorspace was all that was left for anyone to walk through between his boxes, overflowing with what looked like his underwear, and an old kitchen stove, a counter and a beat-up refrigerator against a brick wall. The brick wall was hidden behind a wood-framed kitchen cabinet with glass doors, where you could see stacks and stacks of plates inside. Cardboard squares separated each individual plate. The kitchen counter was littered with bills, pens, pencils and other documents, and had a rusty toaster oven that looked like it didn’t work. Jerome threw his keys on the counter as soon as he had walked in.

The top of the refrigerator was crammed with all types of things; a small, dusty, perfectly round yellow radio, the size and shape of a softball. I instantly recognized it as something I actually owned, but in red, back in 1972. Next to the radio was a small dusty wooden cabinet, also with a glass door and filled with tchotchkes. In front of that was a letter holder stuffed with envelopes, including a cardboard with the words “XMAS TREES FOR SALE” scrawled on it. Next to that was a tall metal sculpture of what looked like a very thin human figure about a foot and a half tall. It was taped down to the refrigerator with black duct tape. On the side of the refrigerator were a dozen little sticky yellow strips that said “Sign here please”, the kind you pasted onto legal documents. I tried to understand why he would keep things like this. Couldn’t he just find another cardboard to write on for the next Christmas tree sale? Were “Sign here please” strips that hard to come by?

Helena opened the refrigerator. Inside were stacks of film and film development bottles, a couple of already opened wine bottles, a box of baking soda that looked like it had come with the refrigerator, and a cold, dirty plate with a fork that was adhered to the plate with dried noodles. She opened up the freezer and found so much frost around its walls that it took up half the space, along with an ice cube tray that looked so attached to the caked frost you’d need an electric drill to get it out. Also in the freezer was one old sneaker.

Jerome smiled at Helena, a crooked smile that displayed more uncertainty than warmth.

“I put my sneakers in there because I like to keep my feet cool in the summer.” He said. “It gets hot out there, you know.”

Helena quickly shut the refrigerator door, wishing she had never opened it. Neither of us bothered to ask why there was only one sneaker in there.

We dared walk a few steps further into the apartment. The smell of old books and dust thankfully overpowered the smell of piss in this area. Book cases covered almost every available inch of wall space from floor to ceiling, filled and stacked with photography, biography, art and history books The hardwood floors were devoid of any polish and had no wood color to it anymore, mostly white from years of walking on it.

“So you’ve seen the kitchen. Kitchen’s right here. The gas isn’t working too well, so you gotta light it each time you want to use it. Sink’s right over here. As you can see, the faucet is dripping a little, so you gotta go down here and tighten up this little valve under the sink if you want to get any sleep at all. Probably a good idea to open up the valve only when you’re gonna wash dishes or something. Don’t wanna waste any water. I told the super about it last month. He’s on vacation. He said he’d come by whenever he comes back. I don’t know when that is so don’t ask me.”

The faucet wasn’t dripping. It was pouring. The noise sounded magnified, like someone had hooked up an amplifier to the water pipes, and it sounded like it was emanating from the walls, not the faucet.

He opened the cabinet under the sink. Its doors were loose and they were held together by more strips of white duct tape. It was so dark and dank underneath the sink, that it looked like a portal to another world. It reminded me of the organic pathway to Hell from Poltergeist. Rusted tools and all kinds of weathered, damp boxes were stacked inside. I was afraid to look down and see the valve he was pointing at, let alone stick my hand in there.

“Over there is the living room.” He didn’t have to point, It was right next to the refrigerator. A futon was at the end of the room with a very flat black cushion over it.

“Don’t try and open up the futon. It doesn’t work very well.”

The flattened-out, non-opening futon was framed by two large three-foot tall, one-and-a-half foot wide speakers covered in dust. On top of the speakers were some strange looking decorations; large wood carvings of what looked like ancient icons from the Inca civilization. There was even an ivory tusk with more carvings. In front of the speakers were two small tables filled to capacity with newspapers and magazines. Behind the speakers were two windows overlooking a fire escape with white cloth for curtains held on by black duct tape. This was evidently the ‘two large windows overlooking a garden’ that he had described to us. You had to stick your head out the window to see a small patch of grass five floors down.

Hanging from the living room ceiling were several small model airplanes from different eras of aviation, including a dirigible that resembled the Hindenburg.  Across from the futon, under the air traffic, was a TV set with two more metal human figures on top of it, held down by more black duct tape, and a wagon with a slab of white marble that he apparently used as a table.

“Careful with that wagon,” he said. “It’s a priceless antique. When you put something on it, stick these wedges under the front wheel or the whole thing can go off balance.” He picked one up and showed us a wedge of wood from the several he had scattered on the floor. “In fact, better if you don’t put anything on the wagon.” He threw the wedge back on the floor, next to a power strip with electrical cords attached to every available plug. The safety light blinked on and off as if desperately sending out a warning in code. I was beginning to realize that this guy may look like Woody Allen, but he lived like Ratso Rizzo.

I took notice of the other three walls. Not brick, but white stucco with sections of cracked paint exposing a black backing. Cobwebs on the corners of the ceiling Every inch of the walls were covered with either old street signs, posters and masks. Ancient, wooden masks of all types. Grimacing, frightening faces with large extended noses, wide open eyes and teeth-baring smiles, like those used in ancient Indian rituals. As I looked at them, I caught a glimpse of Helena. Her expression resembled one of the masks.

“Dust. There’s dust everywhere,” he said, flailing his arms. “No matter what I do, I can’t get rid of the dust.” He picked up a blanket draped over the futon and started to shake it, filling the air with tiny particles. “You’re gonna find that out about New York. The whole city is dusty. Dust. I hate dust.”

“I see you’re a collector of… things.” I said, trying to make conversation through the fog he just created. “You like masks.”

“The masks are all antiques, Collectors items. Don’t touch them. Don’t try and wear them. They’re priceless. Absolutely priceless. See this?”

He pointed at a ten foot structure made of cork that resembled the Empire State Building.

“It looks like the Empire State Building.” I said.

“It is. Well, it’s not really. It’s a facsimile. It’s made entirely of wine bottle corks. See in here?” he pulled open a square chunk of the wine corks about six inches across and it opened. “Do you know what’s in there?”

“King Kong?”

“If you look inside you can see that there’s a small watch attached on the opposite side. See that?”

“Yes, I do. Why is it there?”

“It’s the artist’s dead mother’s wristwatch. He put it in there as a memorial to her.” I thanked God the artist’s dead mother’s wrist wasn’t attached to it. “When I saw this I had to have it. Barely fit into my car.”

“Does it still tell time?”

“Hell no.”

“Are you taking it with you?”

“No that’s staying. It’s priceless. I wouldn’t move it for the world.”

It was there and then when it dawned on me; I didn’t have to worry about living with a crazy neighbor. The crazy neighbor was moving out for a few months because I was living in his apartment. No. His museum. The Ratzo Rizzo Museum.

By this time, Helena was looking a little green. I looked around the tiny living room for a chair. There was a rickety wooden one in one corner and a movie theater chair in another corner.

“Do you want to sit down?” I asked her.

“Are you kidding me?” she whispered.

“Here’s the bathroom.” Jerome exclaimed, opening a small door that had a small metal plaque on it that read “Here’s The Bathroom” with a hand extending its index finger. “Hold on a sec,” he said and walked into the bathroom to flush the toilet. The smell of piss started to replace the scent of old books.

“I don’t want to go in there.” Helena whispered.

“You’ll have to sooner or later.” I whispered back.

“No I won’t. I’ll hold it until we move out.” She said.

“Come on in. It’s OK.” Said Jerome. I wondered what he meant by that.

The bathroom wall was covered with more grotesque masks. It was a tiny room with an old toilet. To the side was a step-up to a very small sink and a tiny mirror I had to crouch to look into as I was a good foot taller than Jerome. On the step to the bathroom sink was a brown, damp rug that made a squishinbg sound when I stepped on it. Next to the sink was a stand alone shower with its floor stained in brown.

“You have to hold on to the toilet handle when you flush or it won’t flush completely. I always forget that. Be careful with this vase.” He pointed to a large violet-colored glass vase resting on the back of the toilet. “It’s very expensive. Worth around a thousand dollars. Please don’t break it. I’m trusting you with this.” I wondered why he would put a thousand dollar vase on a toilet.

“Now this is very important,” he said. “Be very careful when you step into the shower and turn on the hot water. The hot water goes on when you turn it counter-clockwise, but do it just slightly or you’ll scald yourself. The water is very hot. I’ve almost burned my nuts off a few times in there.” He laughed a strange laugh, like  a hen clucking in painful spurts as she tried to lay and egg. I watched a long-legged spider crawl out of a hole in the wall of the shower as he laughed. I turned to see if Helena had seen it. She was not next to me. I walked out of the bathroom to look for her. She was next to the front door, peering into the other entryway that the huge machine-like monstrosity was blocking. Jerome followed me and joined us.

“Is this a closet?” asked Helena.

“No, that’s the bedroom.” Said Jerome.

“Where’s the closet?” she asked.

Jerome laughed his strange laugh. “There are no closets here,” he said shaking his head, as if just the idea of a closet in a New York apartment betrayed our naivete. “You can use that bar there you see to the right of the bed to hang your clothes. See there?” A plain steel bar extended from the wall to the entryway.

The bedroom was pretty much the size of the queen size bed that was in there, but you had to climb up to it because the mattress seemed to be about four feet above the floor.

“Be careful hopping out of bed in the morning,” he said. “You can break your ankle if you’re not careful because it’s a long way down. If I were you, I’d use this chair, see? Just use it to climb up and down from it every day.”

The entrance to the bedroom was covered by a large piece of cloth, apparently his make-shift door. To the left of the threshold was what looked like a wicker clothes dispenser filled with vacuum cleaner parts. Under the bed, inside the four foot space, was a dresser, but you could only open up the three drawers on the left side because the drawers on the right side were blocked with chairs and boxes. The remainder of the space under the bed was dark, and I dared not wonder what may live under there.

A fan circled slowly above the bed with a thin filament dangling from it to turn it off and on. About fifteen inches from the ceiling were shelves that ran around the entire room, filled with more books. There was a tiny window opposite the bed that faced a beautiful view of a brick wall just a few feet away. The window was propped open by an old, empty bottle of rum. A fabric held on by black duct tape acted as a curtain for the window.  I was certain by now that the country’s duct tape business was making a tidy profit thanks to this gentleman. On the opposite  side of the bed was a small night table, towering over the mattress with a small lamp.

“Well, that’s pretty much it, in a nutshell,” he said slapping his hands together. “It’s small and cozy, but I call it home.”

“It’s fine,” I smiled, shocked that those words actually slipped out of my mouth. I could feel Helena’s incredulous gaze boring a hole through the side of my head.

“Well, I hope you treat my place well. The girl who sublet it here last year was a college student and she left the place a mess!” We remained quiet, deciding not to ask what exactly was his definition of a mess.

“I’m going back to the locksmith to get these keys fixed so don’t move from here. I want to give you a set and I still have to show you the code and the mailbox downstairs. I’ll be right back.”

Jerome deftly unlocked the locks on his door, A small blackboard hung on the door that had “Buy Detergent” scrawled on it in chalk. He opened the door and stopped half way to look at us before he left.

“Oh, I forgot to tell you. I saw a mouse here last week. It wasn’t a rat, so don’t worry. Just a mouse. Haven’t seen a rat here in ages. Anyway, I placed mouse traps behind the kitchen. That’s where they usually come in by because I think there’s a hole in the floor down there somewhere. They’re attracted by the smell of food so try not to leave any out for too long. If the traps don’t work just call me and I’ll get some rat poison for you. But I don’t think it’s going to be a problem. Haven’t seen the little fucker for days. Probably dead in a trap back there already. OK, I’ll be right back.”

He walked up to me and patted me on the arm.

“And welcome to New York,” he said, and slammed the door behind him.

We did just like he said. We didn’t move. We couldn’t. Our brains no longer seemed to be communicating with our limbs.

  1. Luba says:

    Hi 🙂 Gosh is Jerome reading this too? I think blogging is fun, I did not notice how many things happened through out the day.


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