Posted: April 3, 2012 in New York City

I’ve walked more in the first few months since I moved to New York than I think I’ve ever walked in my life. It’s either that or take a subway, and that was something I had no intention of ever doing.  Cabs were out of the question as that seemed to be a waste of money if you’re only going a few blocks. Everything you could possibly want in Manhattan is pretty much within walking distance anyway, especially if you live downtown.  So we walked.  And walked.

And walked.

Helena and I looked for apartments in the West Village during that last week of September. We looked online and visited realtors and spoke to brokers and after a few days, we arrived at the same conclusion we had started with: everything was too damn small for the prices they were asking.

So after much debate we decided to look further up north.  We tried Tribeca and Chelsea but it was the same deal as the Village. Too much for too little. A broker we had been talking to suggested Hell’s Kitchen so we went to check it out.  Although it didn’t have that quaint quality of the West Village and it wasn’t nearly as quiet, it did have a distinct vibe and the place was filled with all kinds of restaurants, bars and nightspots.  So we were hopeful when the broker told us he knew of a place that was going for just a little more than what we wanted to spend. If we liked it, we figured, we’d agree to take it immediately so we could be out of that awful apartment before the end of the month. I didn’t care if we weren’t going to give Jerome enough time to find another tenant because I was still pretty pissed off at his insulting meltdown over the phone. Besides, he even told us he wanted us out of there anyway, although I got the feeling he didn’t really mean it because the next day, he had called to tell me that he had finally paid the cable bill and spoke to me all friendly and chummy, as if nothing had ever happened.  Still, it was uncomfortable enough living there, sharing space with rodents, and I didn’t need a manic-depressive landlord.

Hell’s Kitchen was a little too far from the Village to walk and it was impossible to find an available cab between 4 and 6PM because that was the time all the taxis in Manhattan changed shifts, so there was really only one other choice; we were going to have to ride the subway.

Looking at a subway map for the first time is like trying to decipher code. All we could see were a lot of red, yellow and green lines crisscrossing over each other with corresponding numbers and letters. I quickly gave up and got in line to ask the lady in the booth for directions, something I hated doing because all the employees in the booth look at you as if you were a simpleton.

“Uh, can you tell me how to get to Hell’s Kitchen?” I asked, trying my best to act as if I only had a momentary lapse of memory.

“Where exactly?” the lady asked with a bored tone.

“10th Avenue. Between 50th and 51st Street.”

“You can take the 1, the 2, the A, the C or the E. Get off on 50th Street,” she looked over my shoulder as if to say she was done with me. ”Next.”

“Wait! What?”

Before I can ask her to repeat what she said I had been jostled out of the way.

“What did she say?” Helena asked me.

“She said to take the 1, the 2, the A, the B and the C. I think.”

“Then what?”

“I don’t know. Then get off somewhere.”

“You’re useless,” Helena sighed and went back to study the subway map.

Miraculously, Helena was able to translate my interpretation of the booth lady’s directions and found that the 1 train stopped on 50th and 7th Avenue, only a few blocks’ walk to 10th.

We got in line to purchase a Metro Card so we can board the subway. The line went pretty fast. People swiftly  pressed their fingers on the monitor and then dashed off. When it came to be our turn, we found the displays pretty self-explanatory and we managed to extract two cards out of the machine without too much impatient huffing from the people behind us.  Then, we too dashed to the turnstile, slid our cards through the reader and after a few tries, we were on the other side, just in time to watch the train speed off.

The next train was only six minutes away, so we waited and watched as the once empty corridor began to fill up with people.  Pretty soon we were all shoulder to shoulder and I maneuvered us to an emptier space a few feet away.

“Hey! Excuse you! Fuckin’ people have no manners?” some guy yelled out. I didn’t turn around because I didn’t want him to think I knew it was me he was talking to. Besides, I hadn’t even gotten near him so I didn’t understand why he chose to be so possessive over the little bit of subway territory he has claimed as his own for the moment. The next train arrived soon after and as the first cars whizzed by, I was happy to see through the passing windows that they were practically empty. But as it slowed down, the subsequent cars were packed, with people standing together side by side and the empty cars now way down in the tunnel.

The doors slid open with a whoosh and dozens of people spilled out of the cars, only to be replaced by an equal amount of people, including Helena and I, spilling back into them. You didn’t walk into the car so much as you allowed yourself to be swept in with everyone else.  We had to stand because there wasn’t a seat to be had, and we learned quickly to hold on to the handrail because when the train lurched forward, it sent you lurching forward too. After a few stops, Helena and I managed to squeeze into some available seating. The crowd started to thin out and I was able to see something other than people’s torso inches away from my face. I watched as a tall, thin fellow measuring around seven feet tall and wearing sunglasses sauntered into the car. He pointed at one of the ads located above the seated people’s heads and started talking to no one in particular. I wondered if he was a crazy nut or if he was actually talking to someone, although he seemed alone.  He looked around for an available seat and sat next to lucky me. I could feel him staring at everyone across from him until he zeroed in on some skinhead reading a newspaper. I put on my earphones and listened to the music on my I-Pod. The guy with the sunglasses leaned over and said something to the skinhead. I couldn’t hear it because of the music playing in my ears. The skinhead looked at him uninterestedly, shook his head and resumed reading his newspaper. I looked around and I noticed that no one was looking at anyone else. Everyone either had headphones on, like me,  or were reading something or looking at their cellphones, playing video games or texting.

A pair of middle-aged ladies walked into the subway car at the next stop and the guy with the sunglasses stood up and offered them his seat.  I figured he couldn’t be that crazy if he was nice enough to give up his seat. He walked right by me and stood next to the subway door. I noticed he had all kinds of basketball emblems sewed into his blue jeans. As he stood there I gave him another glance and wondered why he was wearing sunglasses. Then I looked away and resumed listening to my music.

Within seconds, I felt his face inches away from my own.  I turned and there he was, speaking something to me. I took off my headphones.

“What?” I asked.

“I said what are you looking at?”

He glared at me angrily, as if I had robbed his soul by looking at him for too long. I quickly thought of something clever to say.

“Uhh… nothing.”

“Ezackly!” he said and straightened himself up. “So why you come up here and start starin’ at me?”

I looked around at my fellow passengers and saw that everyone was gawking at me, waiting for my reaction, except for the skinhead, who was still reading his newspaper. I suddenly understood the importance of not looking at anyone. I put my phones back in my ears and looked straight ahead at no one in particular, ignoring the confirmed crazy nut for the rest of the trip. He kept talking and gesticulating at me, but from a safe distance now, next to the doors and not up in my face like before.  I realized quickly that ignoring him was the best weapon against inciting a situation.  It was easy to pretend he wasn’t there too since all I could hear now was the music pounding in my ears. I think it was “Love The One You’re With”. Helena had a quizzical look on her face, wondering what the hell had just transpired, and she put her arm through mine. I continued to look straight ahead as he went on, arms flailing about and talking up a storm. I wondered when he was finally going to shut up, and wished at that moment I also had something in my hand to occupy myself, like a magazine or a baseball bat.

The train stopped at the next exit and Mr. Loony Bin stepped out, mumbling to himself. Everyone in the car seemed to relax at the same time. The lady across from me started to laugh and tapped the side of her head, implying that he was probably crazy. I took off my earphones and smiled at her, then turned to Helena. She smiled and shrugged.

“Did you say something to him?” an elderly gentleman, also across from me, inquired.

“No, I was just minding my own business,” I replied.

“Crazy people. What are you gonna do?” he said and smiled wearily.

Despite that ridiculous incident, I’ve found that most of the people in Manhattan today to be quite polite, courteous and friendly to each other, despite the world’s perception of New Yorkers. Of course there are occasional loonies, and people do tend to keep to themselves and mind their own business, but for the most part, if you’re in need of assistance, most are readily willing to offer help. Once, when I was on a train to Connecticut, I was having trouble getting the train door opened to get to the next car. Within seconds, several people rushed up from the other car to help me. Another time, in one of my many subsequent subway rides , I saw an African-American male prevent an elderly Caucasian lady from falling when the train lurched forward by extending his arm for her to grasp. She patted him on the back gratefully and they spent the rest of the ride talking to one another. Another time, Helena and I were seated at our favorite tea place with a very orthodox looking Jewish man sitting behind us. He was dressed all in black, had a large black hat and a bushy white beard and was quietly sipping tea, minding his own business. Just then, two Arab men wearing turbans entered the tea room. They looked around to find an empty table and one of them went to sit, but there was only one chair. The other Arab saw that the Jewish gentleman was sitting at a table with an empty chair. The Arab went up to the Jewish man, bowed to him and asked in English if he could take the chair. The Jewish gentleman looked up, smiled and gestured with his hand to take it. They too wound up talking to each other cordially for a few minutes, inquiring about each other in a friendly, interested manner.

I’ve never lived in a city with such ethnic diversity and it truly made me feel good that for the most part, people of different backgrounds were very civil to each other. I wondered if it had anything to do with the tragedy of 9/11. Had it brought everyone a little closer together? Perhaps everyone had realized that tolerance was the only solution.

We arrived at our stop, got out of the subway and Helena and I walked to 10th Avenue, looking forward to seeing our possible new apartment. But when we got there, we couldn’t find it. The numbers of the small apartment buildings on that street didn’t match the one we had and all that was left was just a corner liquor store. Above the liquor store was an entire story covered in white metal paneling that didn’t even look like a building, but more of a fortress. It wasn’t until further inspection that we found a small door next to the liquor store with the corresponding number. Just then, the broker arrived. He was a pleasant looking young guy in his late twenties.

“I see you found the place,” he said cheerfully.

“It’s this door?” Helena asked. “Where does it lead to?”

The broker pointed up to the white metal paneling.

“Up there. Come on. Follow me.”

Helena and I walked four flights of stairs, eyeing at each other with a “here we go again” look.

“You don’t know how lucky you are that I found this place at this rental price,” said the broker as we walked up the stairs. “Hell’s Kitchen has gotten very expensive.”

“Why do they call it Hell’s Kitchen?” Helena asked.

“That’s a term from the 19th century. I’m not sure why, really. I understand there was a big Irish community that settled in this neighborhood back in the day. I think the term was coined during a riot when a cop compared the neighborhood to Hell and the other cop said it was more like Hell’s Kitchen. But it’s not like that anymore. It’s become quite the trendy place.”

As we walked up the staircase we noticed it was clean and the hallways were wide. Apartment buildings in New York City were strange structures. You never knew what you were going to find or how it was going to look. They existed in places you’d never expect. Tiny doors between two grocery stores may lead into a vast complex of apartments. This was one of them. We got to our floor and the broker opened the apartment door  for us, we were surprised to see a nice, clean box of a room.

It was less than half the size of the Village apartment we lived in but it had new wooden floors and freshly painted walls. There was a brand new, large refrigerator to the right of the room with a sink, a stove, a microwave and a cupboard right above it, all new and recently installed. There was also a small closet and a tiny but clean bathroom.  It wasn’t what we expected but it also wasn’t as expensive as some of the other apartments we’d seen.  Having agreed before that we would take the apartment if it was clean and looked new, I looked over at Helena  to confirm that this was it. She nodded.

“OK, we’ll take it.” I said.

“Great!” said the broker. “You’ll have to give us a $500 refundable deposit so we can hold the apartment for you and not show it to anyone else. Then we’ll have to check your credit and speak to the landlord. You understand you’ll have to put down first and last month’s rent and a security deposit once you get approved, right?”

We nodded.

“And our broker fee is ten percent of the entire year’s lease, which is also due upon your approval, OK?”

I gulped and nodded again.

“I’ll contact you in a few days. There shouldn’t be any problem. Congratulations,” he smiled and extended his hand for me to shake.

“Aren’t you relieved?” I asked Helena as we took the subway back home.

“About what?”

“The apartment. Finally, we can get out of that place.”


I knew by her ‘yeah’ that she wasn’t all that thrilled.

“What’s wrong?”


Again, that ‘nothing’ sounded loaded with ‘something’.

“You want to live there, right?”

“Well, what choice do we have?”

“We have the choice of continuing to look. We already put down a deposit. Are you trying to tell me you don’t want to move in there after all?”

“Well, it’s pretty small.”

“Couldn’t you have told me this before I gave him the deposit?”

“You gave it to him so fast, I didn’t have a chance!”

“I looked at you! You nodded! It was a distinct nod of the head! You nodded ‘yes’ so I figured it was OK!”

“Look, we’re not gonna find any place in Manhattan at the rent we want to pay that’s going to be any bigger than what we found, right?” she asked.

“I suppose not. I don’t know. I guess we could have kept on looking.”

“And we want to move out of that place before the end of the month, right?”

“Right.” I agreed.

“Allright then,” she said. “That’s that.”

“OK,” I responded and settled into my subway seat, put in my earphones and closed my eyes for the rest of the trip home so I wouldn’t have to look at anybody. A few minutes later, I felt Helena tapping my knee. I opened my eyes and took out the earphones.

“What?” I asked.

“Is there any chance that maybe we won’t get approved and we can get our deposit back?”

For the next two days, Helena and I went back and forth on the issue of the apartment, convincing ourselves that we were doing the right thing. The phone call from the broker came on the third day.

“Hi, Robert, how are you?” he asked without the usual cheerfulness he had exuded before.

“Fine. What’s goin’ on?”

“Well, there’s a little problem,” he said.

“What is it?”

“Uh, well, your credit is fine, and the landlord has approved you, but because you guys are new to the city, they feel they want more of a guarantee before you move in.”

“What kind of a guarantee?”

“Instead of a one month deposit, they want three months deposit.”

“Three months? On top of the first and last month?”

“Uh huh.”

“And your broker fee on top of that?”

“Uh, yeah.”

“We’re talking about six months down before we even move in.” I said and looked at Helena. She shook her head and walked away.

“Yeah, yeah. I know.” said the broker. “The landlord just wants to make sure you guys are committed to stay living in Manhattan and aren’t going to change your minds halfway through the lease.”

“You know what?” I said. “We’re changing our minds now. “That’s just too much. It’s not like we’re moving into Park Avenue for Chrissakes,”

“I know…”

“We’re not gonna take it. Tell the landlord to forget it.”

“Well, I can talk to her and see if she can bring it down to two months.”

“Forget it. It’s the original deal or just give us our security deposit back.”

“No, they won’t go for the original deal.”

“Fine. Then I’ll just pick up my security deposit and we’ll keep on looking.”

“Well, we’ll be happy to hold on to your deposit and place it against another apartment once you find it.”

“No, no. That’s OK. I prefer getting our money back and then we can start fresh looking for a new place.”

“Well, sure. If that’s how we want to do it.”

“Yes. We’ll drop by shortly to pick up our check.”

“OK, I’ll see you soon. And I’m sorry.”

“That’s OK.”

I hung up the phone and a feeling of relief overwhelmed me. It didn’t dawn on me until that moment that I didn’t really want to move in there. It was more like a last ditch attempt to get out of where we were now. Helena was relieved too and we decided to celebrate by going to our favorite tea place and have some macaroons.

Of course, the issue of moving to a new apartment was still hanging over us. There was no way we could find a place before the end of the month now, so I decided to pay Jerome for the October rent and not worry about it. There was still two months to go. We were hopeful that we were going to find an affordable apartment in Manhattan that we liked, but the idea of having to pay a broker was out of the question. There had to be a way to find a place in the city without a middle man.

Time was ticking away.

  1. Luis Camacho says:

    before you decide where you’re ovine to, go there late at night and see how comfortable you feel walking around.


  2. Modesto Abelairas says:

    Que odisea!


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