Archive for the ‘New York City’ Category

7

A lot happens in the span of a year. Then again, a whole hell of another lot doesn’t happen inside that same span. You grow a little older, but just when you think you’ve got it all figured out, life comes around and throws a pie in your face.

We finally got around to finding a decent apartment for a reasonable price, but we had to settle on looking outside Manhattan. My friend Ray’s sister lived in the Bronx and Helena and I met up with her one day for lunch at Madison Square Park when Ray came into town to visit from Miami for the first time in ages. We all commented on the pleasant day as we munched on burgers from the Shake Shack. It was August but it wasn’t hot, thanks to the breeze left over from Hurricane Irene ‘s visit just a few days before. Maria, Ray’s sister and a lifelong New Yorker, mentioned how much she loved greenery and the sounds of nature.

“You must miss it then, living in the Bronx.” Helena commented.

“Not at all. It’s right outside my window. I live in Riverdale. It’s very green there.”

This piqued Helena’s interest. She loved the outdoors and was already showing signs of displeasure at the cement surroundings. Maria invited us to come visit the area some time and we took her up on her offer.

We took the subway all the way up to the 231st street stop in Kingsbridge. It was a 40 minute train ride from where we took it on Christopher Street in the West Village. When we walked down the El into Kingsbridge, I could feel Helena tense up.

“There’s no way I’m going to live here,” she whispered as we descended the stairs into the busy, dirty intersection of Broadway and 231st Street. The sound of the train departing above us was deafening as the wheels clacked loudly against the tracks above, built over the street and casting a dark, industrial pallor over the entire area. There wasn’t a green leaf to be seen anywhere. Instead, franchise restaurants, pizza parlors, bagel delis, pharmacies and a bank surrounded us. The air was filled with the aroma of delicious roast chicken and gasoline. The sounds of the traffic, the bus’ engines as they roared by mixed with every other city noise you can think of, was cacophonous.

I caught a glimpse of Maria out of the corner of my eye waving at us from inside a taxi.

“It’s best that I pick you up instead of having to catch a bus from here or you might get lost,” said Maria as we got in.

“We have to catch a bus normally from here to get to where you live?” I asked.

“If you take the train you took you do.” She said, smiling.

Maria gave the taxi driver directions in Spanish and I looked at Helena, who looked like she had just eaten a shit sandwich.

“So this isn’t Riverdale?” asked Helena?

“Oh, no, no. This is Kingsbridge. We’re going further west, near the Hudson. Actually I live just south of Riverdale, in a place called Spuyten Duyvil. It means ‘The Devil’s Spout’ in Dutch.”

Wonderful, I thought. If a dive like this neighborhood was called “Kings”bridge, what the hell would a place called the Devil’s Spout look like?

Apparently, the Devil has a very pretty spout. All the green leaves were located here. You can tell you’re heading towards Spuyten Duyvil as you approach a park from 231st Street and Broadway. Ewen Park seems to be rising from the ground like a sudden eruption frozen in time. It’s sliced in two by a staircase that climbs all the way to the top.

“That’s a nice park.” Helena said to herself.

“Yes, it is. But don’t walk there at sunset. My husband got mugged there once.”

“He did?” I asked, incredulous.

“Like four or five kids surrounded him. I always warned him not to cross the park at night but he did anyway. Short cut. Anyway, he took off his watch and his wallet and threw it as far away as he could. That was smart because the gang went after all his stuff and that gave him a chance to run the hell out of there.”

“Wow.” I muttered.

“Oh, it’s not like that anymore. But be careful anyway. I mean Spuyten Duyvil is a safe place but try not to put yourself into situations where you’re just asking for it.”

Maria took us on a grand tour indeed and, in a nutshell, we pretty much loved it. Helena loved how green the neighborhood was. We walked alongside the Henry Hudson Parkway from 227th St all the way up to 246th Street and back. Wave Hill, an incredibly beautiful and very well-kept park right along the Hudson River held a breathtaking view of New Jersey and a fascinating array of varied species of plants growing naturally and in greenhouses.

As we walked back down, Elena fell in love with a connected row of charming one-story brick homes, each and every home with a shiny red door and a landscaped path. She couldn’t get over how pretty the doors looked. Unfortunately, there wasn’t a sale or rent sign anywhere to be seen among them.

We visited a few apartment buildings that day and decided later that evening that we wanted to move there. Soon, we would have our own place again, vacant, so we can rebuild our home and our lives together. We would miss the West Village though, but promised ourselves we’d come back often. There was plenty of easy access to the buses, subways and trains from Riverdale. A train ride into Grand Central took only 20 minutes.

It all sounded very romantic. I relished the fact that I was indeed living in New York City, the Big Apple, one of the most important cities in the world, filled with history, drama, entertainment and opportunity. I truly felt born again; a new chapter of my life had begun. Most importantly, I felt truly happy. No, I wasn’t where I wanted to be in my career. Although I had accomplished much, I still felt it wasn’t enough. Everything I’ve done did not sum up to the volume of work I still felt I could produce.  Maybe it would be different in New York. I bet my entire comfort zone in Miami that it would. But not much happens in a year. Then again, a whole helluva lot can happen, too.

My relationship with Helena had subsided from a passionate, constantly together romance to a more laid back, loving one. I loved her quite a lot and I felt she loved and cared for me too. Her occasional displays of impatience and rude remarks were things to be overlooked. After having been married twice before already, I finally got to the point of understanding that, as long as there is love between two people, everything else was something that had to be tolerated and dealt with in a calm, loving and positive way. It took me a long time to learn that.

*****

 I had divorced my first wife, Maureen, simply because I was young, still in my twenties, and with an intense desire to fool around. I was co-producing the premiere season of Sabado Gigante  back then and women were everywhere and readily available. My young conscience however, could not abide having so much candy and being on a diet, so I did what I believed was the only right thing to do and divorce my wife for the simple reason that there was no way I was going to keep it in my pants much longer.

I was actually shocked when the Chilean producer of Sabado went up and put his arm around me to ask a question that he earnestly couldn’t understand.

“Robert! Why are you getting a divorce? Your wife is such a pretty girl. Why don’t you just fool around on the side?”

I don’t try to paint myself as one who has any kind of noble human being because I don’t feel very noble. I simply did not want to go through the process of having to lie all the time and remembering to keep the lies straight and make sure I didn’t smell like perfume, etc. Too much stress and trouble. Better I snipped things. It wasn’t easy. It’s not like I didn’t care for my first wife, Maureen. We had had our shares of happiness and tragedy. Her parents had died in a plane crash only a year earlier. That had affected me very profoundly, seeing the mask of sorrow and heartbreak carved into Maureen’s face every day after that horrible moment. I was afraid of it. We were no longer alone in our home. Once, Maureen and her sister smelled flowers in our garage and they frantically yelled for me to come. I ran in, wondering what the yelling was all about, and distinctly smelled flowers. And this was the garage. NOTHING ever smelled like flowers in there. And just as soon as I acknowledged the scent, it dissipated and went away. This was only a few days after the plane crash.

Weeks after that, the cellar door in that same garage would fall open more than once in the middle of the night. I would investigate to locate the source of the loud bang and there was the square, unhinged door laying on the platform that I would step up to to get into the cellar. It never used to do that before the plane crash.

I started to stay out late, saying I had to work at the show. I would come home completely inebriated and woke up hours later to get back to the studio. I was desperate to not be home. I missed my own family. Each time the phone rang, I wondered if it was bad news. Finally, I moved out and back home to my parents’ house to sort things out. Maureen didn’t want me to leave. She warned me that I was taking the wrong step. But I left her. Months later I filed for divorce. Just like that. It was over. It was such a long time ago.

My second wife was a disaster. It was more than a payment for my sins. It derailed my life. The only thing good that ever came out of that union is my lovely daughter. I walked away from that marriage, too, but I didn’t walk away from my daughter. I’m satisfied to say that I did not miss a moment of her childhood.

*****

So here I was, married for a third time. It was something I’d never thought I’d repeat; and in New York City, a place I’d always dreamed of living in. I was truly happy. Helena is a beautiful woman and I finally understood, and more importantly, accepted that marriage had its ups and downs. There would be good times and bad. I knew that.

I noticed a discernible change in her affections a week after she took the job in the beginning of June. She was acting distant. When before, she used to run up to me and hug and kiss me after only a few days out of town on business, now she would barely kiss me hello after coming home from work, replacing it with a hand up towards my face and a curt “Don’t start!” when I criticized her weak attempts at a kiss.

It was two months later when she told me she didn’t think she loved me anymore and a few months after that when she went away for good. The marriage had barely lasted five years.  It was very hard. For the first time in my life, I didn’t enjoy being alone. The tables had turned on me. How do you blame someone for falling out of love? How do you explain to someone that a marriage has its ups and downs when they want to get off the ride no matter what? Now I was to pay for my sins of the past. Again. Or maybe that’s just the way life is.

Yep, a lot happens in the span of a year. I was facing an uncertain future, alone and sad. My sadness overcame me many, many nights. Winter had begun. Spring was still months away.

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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.”

“Yeah.”

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

“What’s wrong?”

“Nothing.”

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.

OUR WEST VILLAGE APARTMENT – 5

Posted: February 12, 2012 in New York City

 Getting used to living in that tiny apartment wasn’t easy. Even the simple act of taking a shower was a task of complex proportions. Whenever Helena or I needed to use the bathroom, I had to open the water valve located under the kitchen sink first and hope my hand will come out of that black hole without a rodent attached to any of my fingers. Leaving the valve open all the time wasn’t an option either, primarily because that would surely mean losing gallons of water into the Hudson River, but also because the whoosh of rushing water emanating from the walls was surely what the Titanic must have sounded like when it was sinking.

Upon entering the narrow shower stall, we had to be careful when twisting open the hot water faucet more than one eighth of a centimeter lest we boil the skin off our bodies. The stall floor was so stained with God-knows-what that we had to buy a plastic mat to place on it so our bare feet wouldn’t have to touch it. This however posed two additional problems.  After a few days, the mat would capture soapy water that turned into black scum underneath, and Helena would insist on cleaning it despite her grumbling about it. The mat would also prevent the water from draining immediately, so we had to take our showers quickly before the water overflowed into the rest of the bathroom, since the edge of the shower base was only a few inches tall.

Getting out of the shower required dexterity and skill. The first step was to make sure that your body never touched the shower curtain since it looked as if it hadn’t been replaced or cleaned since the day it was hung there. Not touching the curtain proved impossible however, since it was hanging from tubing that was contoured in the shape of the stall. The L-shaped tubing was attached in its center by a bar leading to the ceiling. That bar prevented the curtain from being pushed all the way to the opposite end, so we had to squeeze ourselves out between the wall and the curtain and inevitably, our skin would have to come into contact with one or the other. Then, I had to undergo the task of stepping out from the shower mat to my plastic slippers nearby, because the thought of standing anywhere in the entire apartment with bare feet was unthinkable. This was not always easy because, even though I made sure to place the slippers within foot’s reach and next to each other, most of the time I managed to kick one of the slippers by mistake or move the other one cockeyed, making the act of putting them on as well as avoiding shower curtain contact, all without landing onto the floor on my naked, wet ass, a virtual impossibility. As a result, inevitably, I wound up having to place a foot on the bathroom floor anyway.

Drying oneself with a towel was infinitely easier outside the bathroom, where there was elbow room, but we had to be careful not to lean on anything when doing so. I put my hand on a nearby bookshelf once for balance and the whole thing teetered, threatening to fall. It was the same for the shaky end table near the futon. I quickly had to learn how to balance myself on one leg so as not to fall over when drying the other leg or a foot.  Sitting on either of the two chairs in the living area was also out of the question. One was a stiff wooden chair and the other one was an old theater chair complete with the brackets left from when it was screwed on to the theater floor. Since we only had one towel for each of us, we couldn’t use it to sit on, so the whole drying process became an acrobatic maneuver.

If taking a shower was an action-adventure, it was nothing like the nightly ritual of going to bed.

On the first night, we decided to sleep with the living room light on because you couldn’t see your hand in front of your face if you turned off all the lights, and if any creepy-crawly was going to appear at two o’clock in the morning, we wanted to make sure we could see exactly who our nocturnal visitor was.  But the living room light proved too bright, so I left the bathroom light adjacent to the living area on instead. By leaving the bathroom door open, it cast just the right amount of light into the bedroom to serve as a night-light.

Climbing onto the bed required deft skill as well because the mattress was about four and a half feet above the ground and we needed a chair to stand on so we could jump onto the bed.  The mattress had been placed on a four foot tall wooden base. I supposed it was to store things underneath.  Helena chose to sleep on the side of the bed closest to the bedroom threshold, which meant I had to climb over her if she got into bed before me (which was all the time) and climb over her again if I needed to use the bathroom in the middle of the night. Getting down from the bed in the dark was tougher than getting up on it because you had to remember that there was quite a distance between your feet and the floor.  Many times I landed with a thud , forgetting in my sleepy state that I was coming down  from a high summit, and startling myself awake.

Once I settled into my corner of the bed, I prepared myself for my nightly habit of reading in order to doze off. Next to me was a small table, which was about a foot higher than the mattress. On top of that table was a small lamp. I reached up to turn on the lamp that first night, but it didn’t turn on. Somehow, with all the quirks and surprises of The Apartment From Hell, that made sense. We didn’t bother to check and see if it was just the light bulb that had burned out because something told me that the lamp still wouldn’t work even if we changed the bulb. Besides, the lamp was a one-piece object and I had no idea how to access the bulb even if I did want to change it. Thankfully, Helena was thoughtful enough to buy me a nightlight to clip onto my book the very next day, so the lamp remained on the table like a conversation piece, unlit and unused.

We had to be very careful not to sit up in bed suddenly because, since the mattress was so high above the floor, we were close to the ceiling fan, and unless we wanted to get scalped by the rotating blades, it was important to remember to sit up halfway whenever getting out of bed. One particular night when I was sound asleep, I felt something fall on my face. It felt flat and cold and it stuck to my cheek, startling me awake. It had me wondering if this place also had frogs, but it was just a piece of plaster, shaped like a jagged square about a couple of inches in diameter. It took me days to figure out where the plaster came from. I looked at the ceiling right above me and the wall behind me but I couldn’t find any plaster holes. It wasn’t until a week later, when another piece fell off the day New York City experienced a slight earth tremor that I saw that the chunks of plaster were coming from the base that held the fan to the ceiling. I couldn’t decide if the tremor was more worrisome than our rapidly deteriorating surroundings, and at first, I didn’t even realize we had experienced a tremor at all. It was Helena who pointed it out. I had figured it was just the building itself, settling or on the verge of collapsing.

Despite this comedy of circumstance, I felt responsible to honor my verbal agreement with Jerome to stay through November. After all, it wasn’t his fault we didn’t check his apartment first. In fact, had we seen it, we surely would not have left Miami in the first place, so it was a bit of a mixed blessing moving to New York to an apartment sight unseen. We were quite happy to be living in The City That Never Sleeps as long as we got shut-eye, and during the first few nights that wasn’t an easy thing to do. As a result, Helena kept making me promise to move to another apartment by the end of August. After all, we had no written contract with him and he never asked me for a deposit. But August came and went, and despite our profound discomfort with our habitat, we stayed in the apartment, primarily because we grew to love the West Village and we spent most of our days out in the city anyway. But then, Helena made me promise to look for an apartment by the end of September. Once again, I felt a twinge of guilt… until the day our cable went out.

Jerome told us before we moved in that he was behind on his cable payments but he would make sure he would pay for it before we moved in. That was very important to me because the cable company also supplied us with Internet capabilities, and a large part of my work required my being on-line. He kept his promise, but nine weeks later, we suddenly had no TV or Internet. When I called the cable company, they told us that the past due amount had only been partially paid. I called Jerome and he expressed surprise.

“Fuck. Fuck, fuck, fuck,” was his response.

“Yeah,” I agreed.

“OK, I’ll take care of it next week. I’m a little tight right now but next week I’ll be able to take care of it.”

I thanked him and he asked me if everything else with the apartment was all right. I lied to him and told him everything was fine, since there was no point in going through the litany of misadventures we were undergoing. Just then, as if to mock me, a tiny, dark gray mouse scurried quickly from under the kitchen stove to the front door. The damn thing was so fast that I barely noticed it until it ran behind the kitchen sink on the opposite side of the room. Helena was sitting beside me on the futon reading a magazine, so she wasn’t an eyewitness to the fact.

“Jerome,” I said into the phone.  “I think I just saw a mouse run by.”  Helena’s ears perked up and she dropped the magazine.

“Ya did? Fuck! That’s impossible. I stuffed the hole they were coming through with iron wool before you moved in and bought a few mousetraps and placed them all around behind the kitchen!”

“Well, this one didn’t cooperate with you because it just ran out from under the stove and I think it went under your front door.”

“Oh my God… OK. If I were you, I would get some more mousetraps and lay them anywhere you last saw them.”

“Them?”

“It! I mean it. I’m sure there aren’t any more.”

I’m sure that wasn’t true because when I’d go to throw out the garbage in the lovely dank area directly below us down in the first floor, I’ve seen, more than once, rodents scurrying over the refuse, much to my blood-curdling disgust.

“Allright, I’m gonna buy some more mousetraps. Just please make sure you take care of the cable bill because I really need to go online.”

He promised me that he would and we hung up. I looked at Helena.

“Don’t tell me,” she said and curled her legs up under her.

I stood up cautiously and tip-toed to the front door, careful not to get near the stove. I peered over the kitchen counter, expecting to see a mouse chilling there, but there was nothing. I looked at the walls for it and peered into the bedroom. The idea that the mouse could have easily scurried into the bedroom was a notion I preferred not to entertain.

“Do you see it?” Helena asked.

“No. Maybe I was just seeing things.”

“Or maybe you weren’t. We’re getting mousetraps now!”

Helena and I wasted no time. We immediately went to the nearest pharmacy to buy an assortment of mouse traps. There were all kinds of modern traps, some were in the form of a box that came with some type of sonar to attract them, others looked like some hi-tech contraption too difficult to figure out. We opted on the simple traditional mouse trap, the kind you saw on the old “Tom & Jerry” cartoons, where you put a piece of cheese on a lever and the weight of the mouse on the trap triggered a vise that would crush its little body. The whole idea of the rodent’s death was as equally repulsive to us as the rodent itself, but these weren’t palmetto bugs where you simply used bug spray or stepped on to kill. First of all, these damn critters were lightning fast. Secondly, the idea of crushing a mouse under my shoe was something I wasn’t about to do even if I could catch the little buggers. So despite my personal feelings about killing complex life forms, I prepared myself to become a mouse’s worst nightmare:  a rodent murderer…  a vermin serial killer.

The only problem was that the damn traps didn’t work most of the time. We bought some gouda cheese, specifically because we liked eating it ourselves, but also to put it on the trap. After a few days of this however, we started to associate the smell of gouda with the mice and we suddenly developed a permanent distaste for that type of cheese. I would break off a tiny morsel and carefully place it on the mousetrap. As careful as I was in setting the traps, I would still trigger it inadvertently at times and catch one of my fingers in it, much to my painful chagrin. But soon after I managed to master the delicate process, I learned how to smear gouda on the lever first, before clamping the vice down, and then I’d put it down near the last place I saw them.

These little bastards were smart though, and I was sure there was more than one hanging about, but several times when we walked into the apartment, I’d only catch a glimpse of one. I would see a long tail protruding from the corner of the stove top, then disappear. Fortunately, we had decided on the first day we moved into that apartment that we’d either be eating at restaurants, ordering take-out or consuming raw food in order to never have to use that dilapidated old stove, but the sight of any part of a mouse near where someone is supposed to cook was unnerving nonetheless. Other times I’d be sitting on the futon and a tiny mouse would peer from under the stove, just inches from the mousetrap. I’d make a sudden move and the thing would either go back under or scurry away towards the front door.

But the worst time of all was one particular night, when we were asleep.

I woke up that night to a rustling sound outside the bedroom. We used plastic shopping bags to put garbage in and we made it a point to hang them from a knob of one of the kitchen cabinets so a mouse couldn’t crawl in there. Somehow though, the damned things wound up in there anyway, rustling around for food. I sat up, careful not to behead myself with the ceiling fan, and climbed over Helena who was sound asleep. In the partial darkness, I was able to make out silhouettes of not one, not two, but three nasty rodents scurrying across the darkened kitchen looking for a late-night snack and ignoring the mouse traps. Without realizing it, I let out a loud, low yell at the sight of this mouse-a-thon. My yell apparently startled them because they scurried away with incredible speed in different directions. One ran towards the bedroom threshold and under our bed.

“What’s the matter?” Helena asked groggily.

“Nothing.  I stubbed my toe. Go back to sleep.” I couldn’t bear to tell her that we may be sleeping over a mouse mall because I knew she wouldn’t get any more sleep that night.

I got up from under the bed and checked the mouse traps. The traps had not been triggered but the cheese was gone! How the hell could those tiny animal burglars do that? I picked a mouse trap up to see if the stupid thing even worked and it immediately snapped on my finger. Stifling another yell, I bit my lip and threw the goddamn thing into the plastic garbage bag, then carefully looked inside it to see if there was anything alive in there. I caught a glimpse of a small, furry gray thing in the bag so I tied it up tightly and walked out of the apartment to throw it out. I didn’t throw it out into the garbage area of the building though, because I didn’t want to meet any more mice, particularly while I was holding a bag with one of its cousins thrashing around in it, so I went out into the street and tossed it into the nearest trash can at the end of the block.

After several weeks of waging war against these resilient animals, I did manage to kill a grand total of five mice. Another time, also in the middle of the night, one death was particularly gruesome because when the mouse trap snapped shut, it woke me and I could hear the poor mouse struggling to escape it as the trap clattered against the floor, then suddenly stop, then resume with waning effort, going through the motions of its death throes before my ears. The mental image I had conjured up of aurally witnessing that mouse’s valiant struggle for life was one I couldn’t shake for weeks, and having to pick up and throw out these little corpses with what appeared to be pained expressions in their faces was something I hoped I’d never have to do again. Still, I much preferred killing them than living with them, because after I did away with the Rat Patrol Five, I didn’t see another mouse again. Either I had taken care of all of them or word spread out in the mouse community that a heartless, deranged killer was living upstairs.

But still, all this wasn’t what convinced me to move out of the apartment early. It was the phone call I made to Jerome the next week to follow up on the cable bill he still hadn’t paid for that made me decide it was time to skedaddle. Whenever Helena or I had to go on-line,  we’d go to the nearest Starbucks or at that charming tea place nearby we liked so much, which was fine with us because as I explained, we didn’t mind being out of that apartment for long stretches at a time. But after a while we did grow tired and wanted to go back home to relax as best we could in that place. Helena liked to watch Ghost Whisperer on TV and she hadn’t been able to for several days so I called Jerome. When he answered, he didn’t sound happy.

“Hey, Jerome. How are you?” I asked. He sighed, which was what he usually did whenever I talked to him, as if the effort of everyday living was too much.

“I’m OK, I guess,” he said, sounding a bit despondent.

“Listen, I was just calling to remind you about paying up that overdue cable bill.”

“Yeah, yeah I know. I’ll get to it sometime this week.”

“Well, it’s just that, I’ll still have to pay for the current cable bill this month regardless of how many days I’ve been without it so if you don’t mind paying for it as soon as you can I’d appreciate it because I’m kind of paying for something I don’t have right now.”

I don’t know if perhaps I had a certain aggravated tone in my voice when I said this or perhaps I may have sounded like a cheapskate to him, but it seemed to have rubbed him the wrong way. He didn’t speak for several seconds.

“Hello?” I said into the phone, thinking I had been disconnected.

“Don’t push me, Robert. Just don’t push me.” Jerome warned.

“I’m not trying to push you, it’s just that…”

“I’m sick and tired of this bullshit!” Jerome suddenly exploded. “I’ve done everything I possibly can to accommodate you! I bought a new air conditioner, I paid for the overdue cable bill and I don’t even watch cable! I didn’t even get a deposit from you!”

“You didn’t ask me for a deposit, Jerome.”

“Don’t push me on this shit because you’re not gonna win!  You got a great apartment in a great part of town and I could have gotten a lot more for it! But I’m stuck with you instead and now you’re goin’ on and on about this fuckin’ cable bill! Well, I’ve had it! I want you out of there by the end of next month!”

“All right, Jerome, just calm down…”

“I’m not gonna calm down! I’m not gonna calm down!”

“Allright then, don’t calm down.”

I’ve had it with your bullshit! Now as I just said, I’m gonna pay the motherfuckin’ cable bill in the next few days so stop pushing me on this! I’m gonna hang up now and I don’t want to hear another thing about this ever again, is that clear?

“Perfectly,  Jerome.” I said, wanting to reach into the phone and grab his little scrawny neck to place in one of the mousetraps.

He hung up the phone and I sat there immobile, fuming. We had never missed a rent payment. In fact, I had always paid before the first of the month, so for him to act as if we were unpleasant tenants because I asked him to pay for something he had to pay for anyway, was beyond anything I could fathom, let alone tolerate. My face must have betrayed what I was feeling because Helena looked at me with concern.

“Are you OK?” she asked me.
“That’s it. We’re looking for a place today and moving out of here by the end of the week.” I declared, my guts turning inside out by the anger I felt for being talked to in such a manner.

“What happened?” Helena asked.

I told her the entire conversation and she immediately called the broker agency that we had passed by in our walks through Hudson Street.

It was on. We were a week away from the end of the month, and even though it was probably just his anger talking and he didn’t really mean to unceremoniously throw us out, he had given us a perfect out to break our verbal agreement and leave this mouse infested dungeon once and for all.

THE WEST VILLAGE – 4

Posted: January 28, 2012 in New York City

People have the ability to tolerate situations that initially seem intolerable. At first, the idea of spending just one day in this tiny, mouse infested West Village apartment seemed out of the question. But when you compare it with other scenarios, poverty stricken human beings living in huts with dirt floors , without running water and in despotic countries  where no opportunity exists for advancement, our temporary situation seemed tame in comparison.

This however, was no consolation to Helena. 

“So we’re essentially one level above living in Afghanistan, is that what you’re trying to tell me?”

“I’m just saying that our situation is solvable. The place isn’t that bad.”

“Yeah, if we were one of the mice, maybe.”

In truth, I wasn’t happy with our situation either. I hate mice, for starters. But I was trying to play the realistic role and come up with an affordable alternative. We had originally planned to stay there through the rest of the year, but judging by Helena’s reaction, this was probably not going to happen if I wanted to live in peace.

“Maybe we made a mistake,” she said. “Maybe we shouldn’t live here.”

“You mean here in this apartment.”

“No, I mean here in New York City. It’s kinda scary.”

I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. This was coming from the same person who had been convincing me to move here for the last year.

“Hey, you’re the one who wanted to come here in the first place!” I said. “I told you we may be replacing  roaches for rats! I told you that the apartments here are small! I told you…”

“I know what you told me! I’m entitled to change my mind, aren’t I?”

“No! No you’re not! You’re not entitled to change your mind! All we have to do is find a nicer place to live, that’s all.”

“I can’t live in that apartment even one day, Robert. I just can’t.”

“So you want to go back to Miami.”

“No! I don’t want to go back there.”

“Thank God.”

“At least we got out of there. There’s nothing going on there. Can’t we go live in Los Angeles?”

“Why? So when you get there, you decide you don’t like it either and want to move to Topeka? Forget it. Besides, California is in worse economic shape than Florida.”

“Well, then where?”

“I can’t believe this.” I muttered. At the same time, I felt a slight twinge of relief. I knew what Helena meant. New York can be daunting. I was always concerned that the quality of life we had become accustomed to could deteriorate here, at least at first. The city was expensive and there was no guarantee that jobs would be forthcoming during this recession, even though New York had relatively lower unemployment than many other cities, especially Miami and Los Angeles. There just weren’t any guarantees.

“Remember I mentioned Atlanta to you a few months back?” I suggested. “ It’s very affordable there. And the city’s fun too.”

“It is? Can we get a house there?”

“I’m sure we can find a house there that’s less expensive than Miami. I can call my friend Mitch and ask him. He’s in Marietta.”

“Call him.”

“You’re serious about this. I mean, I mentioned Atlanta to you months ago and you said no, no, no. It had to be New York…”

“I know what I said! Stop reminding me. I just didn’t think it would be this… scary.”

“But we’ve been here twice already! Why wasn’t it scary then?”

“I don’t know! It just wasn’t then but it is now, OK?”

I shook my head, realizing that trying to make sense of all this would be futile. I got on the phone to call Mitchell.

“Yeah! There’s plenty of places to live around here!” Mitchell said brightly. “You can probably rent a home here for under $1000 a month, and a nice roomy one too.”

“Are you kidding me?” I asked incredulously.

“Absolutely. There’s a housing glut here. So there are a lot of wonderful places outside Atlanta that have big, gorgeous houses, and they’re all empty! You’ll love it here. It’ll be great to have you around.”

Mitchell is one of my closest friends. We worked together on many television projects, he as Director Of Photography, and I as Director. He was a talented, optimistic guy who would bend over backward to help a friend. The idea of living in the same town as he and in a large, affordable home that would cost me way under what I ever dreamed I would have to pay until we decided to buy something, was very enticing indeed. I told Helena what he said. Her tear-tinged eyes brightened up.

“I would love to live in a house, baby,” she said, placing her hand on my arm. “Not just for me but for you. You deserve a nice, big, beautiful house. You shouldn’t have to live like this.”

I smiled because I knew she was sincere. We decided to take a walk through the Village and think about it. We scooper up our laptops in cased we found  a Starbucks and left.

The day was beautiful. It was in the 70s and a cool, gentle breeze blew. As we walked down Bleecker Street, Helena asked me about the weather in Atlanta.

“It’s great.” I said. “It doesn’t get hot like in Miami and it doesn’t get too cold either like up here.”

We turned towards Hudson Street and strolled by all the little restaurants, stopping by to gaze into them and peruse the menus. There were Spanish restaurants, Italian, Japanese, even a few Peruvian.

“Are there a lot of nice restaurants in Atlanta, too?” Helena asked me.

“Well, there are nice restaurants but you won’t find the variety of South American cuisine you find in Miami or the large selection of everything like here.”

We were major foodies.  We didn’t cook, but we did eat. You could tell that by just looking at me but not by looking at Helena. Her waist was the girth of one of my legs. That’s because she never overate, something I still hadn’t quite mastered all these years. But she did have a sweet tooth.

“What’s that?” she asked, pointing at a line of people a block and a half long waiting to go into a bakery.

“That’s Magnolia Bakery,” I said. “Remember in Sex and The City? That scene where Carrie is talking about her new boyfriend… what’s his name?”

“Aidan. Come on. I want to try it.” She said and crossed the street to stand in line.

I hated standing in line, but this particular line was quick. As we waited, I watched the sun set over the Village skyline and I put on my I-Pod. Pink Floyd’s Comfortably Numb was playing, so I raised the volume. I watched all the people walking briskly to and fro, the cabs whizzing by and the sky turn a beautiful reddish yellow as David Gilmour’s guitar swam in my brain.

The smell inside Magnolia Bakery was intoxicating. The fresh baked cupcakes, coated on top with fresh, delicious creams, the huge cakes… German Chocolate, Velvet, Vanilla… The place was tiny but well organized. The line would curl around the place, so we could admire the baked goods as we waited, undoubtedly to tempt us into purchasing more than we had originally planned.

“Ooh, look at those cupcakes!” Helena cooed. “What’s that?”

“Red Velvet Cake, I think.”

“Oh, my God! And what’s that?”

“German Chocolate. Look at those brownies!”

“Yum! What’s in it?”

Whenever Helena was excited about what she was seeing, she always asked rhetorical questions.

“I’m going outside.” I said. “This is all too much for me.”

“You’re not gonna get anything?”

I shook my head and walked out the door to wait for her. It all looked delicious but I didn’t want to indulge in all that sugar, deciding instead to save my appetite for something more substantial.

Helena walked out with a big chunk of German chocolate cake. I had a taste. She had just a forkful and put the rest back for later. The cake was light and full of flavor, smooth cream leaving a light coat on your palate mixed with crunchy bits of coconut. 

By now it was dark and we decided to head back towards the apartment. I looked up at the skyline and could make out the Empire State Building in the distance and smiled to myself.

“Ooh, what’s that?” Helena asked, pointing at a smoothie bar. We walked inside and it smelled of fresh fruit and vegetables. Indeed, the smoothie menu’s ingredients were all fresh and they made it right in front of you. I couldn’t resist the temptation so I ordered a strawberries and banana smoothie blended with apple juice and frozen coconut milk. I watched them throw the fresh fruit into a blender, pour the juice and scoop up the frozen coconut milk. Helena opted for a spinach, kale, parsley, romaine, cucumber, celery, lemon and apple juice. I tasted it and could actually feel the vitamins and nutrients surge through my body.

We strolled through Bleecker and, after Helena got sucked into another shoe store, I peeked into a place that sold old vinyl records for $20 a pop. I shook my head, lamenting the fact that I had given away all my vinyl LPs when I replaced them with CDs, never dreaming that vinyl would ever make a comeback. Having listened to vinyl growing up and enduring the scratches, pops and skips, I still couldn’t understand why anyone would prefer it over the quality of today’s technology, but there were at least a dozen and a half customers there, perusing through all the records as if they were mining for gold.

It was getting late and we decided that we had no choice but to head for the apartment. We couldn’t bring ourselves to call it home. On the way though, we noticed a quaint little tea shop with huge windows displaying a wood floor, wood bar and wood seats and tables.

“I’d love some green tea,” Helena said. “Can’t we just go in there for a little while?”

“Until we’re so sleepy we don’t care where we live anymore?”

“Right.”

I agreed and we walked in. The waitress was very pleasant and she sat us at a rather large table for four, since we were the only ones there, and gave us a small red booklet menu.  An array of macaroons and pastries stared across from us, beckoning to be savored. Helena walked over to see what they had. Macaroons in all flavors:  dark chocolate, raspberry, vanilla, coffee, cinnamon.. . I ordered a drink called a Matcha latte, “matcha” being a finely milled green tea that purportedly had over 100 times more antioxidants than regular green tea, mixed with milk and served either hot or cold. I asked for it cold. It came in a glass and it looked like a green milk shake but it wasn’t thick, more like the consistency of an iced coffee.  I sipped on it and it tasted like a sweet herbal mix.  Helena returned with two small dark chocolate macaroons and ordered a small pot of hot green tea.

We both turned on our laptops and I started researching how much it would cost to make the move to Atlanta. Soft music, early 1920’s jazz, permeated the tea shop as we sipped on our drinks.

“I love this place…” Helena muttered, her eyes surveying her surroundings,  as she nibbled on a macaroon.

We were there for over an hour and a half. I had ordered another matcha latte and Helena was sipping her green tea slowly, immersed in her laptop. During that time, I was able to find and purchase reasonable train tickets to Atlanta and a hotel room to stay in for a few days until we found a place to live in. I called Mitchell and he said he’d be happy to help me buy a used car. A car was essential in Atlanta.  Fortunately, Mitch was a car aficionado and he knew where all the great deals in the city were. He even offered to hold on to our boxes at his home until we settled into a place. All in all, adding together the train tickets, the hotel stay and the cost of a used car, it ended up being pretty much the same as the rental of this Village apartment for six months if you amortized it over that period of time with the money we were going to save by renting an affordable house in Atlanta.

“Where’s Hell’s Kitchen?” Helena asked me.

“That’s in Midtown, why?”

“Is it nice?
“It’s a pretty popular area. Like the Village. Why are you asking?”  I was pretty sure  I already knew why.

“Did you know that there’s an apartment available for rent in Hell’s Kitchen for just a little more than we have to pay for this apartment in the Village? And it looks brand new!”

I stopped sipping my latte mid-sip. I looked at Helena, knowing full well what she was thinking. She looked at me, smiling and blinking innocently.

“You realized I just booked our train tickets to Atlanta and made hotel reservations.”

“Maybe if we give this apartment a try for just a week or two, we can see if we can rent a better place somewhere nearby.”

“You want to stay here then.” I asked.

Helena smiled and blinked again.

The soft jazz in the tea shop was playing Louis Armstrong. I looked out the window. It was getting late but people still scurried by, lights were still on, restaurants were still full. I felt a surge of excitement and a thrill to be here.

I turned on the laptop again, cancelled the train tickets and the hotel reservations. I was home.

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.

“What?”

“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.

PREPARING TO GO TO NEW YORK – 2

Posted: December 27, 2011 in New York City

Helena and I were set to embark on July 1st. Things had a way of working out. I no longer had a job and my daughter vamoosed so quickly out of the house after her 18th birthday that it made my head spin. Why stick around? Half the reason I was in Miami these last ten years after my divorce was because Iwanted to see my daughter grow up. She grew up. And out. Now it was time for me.

Our luck in finding an affordable apartment in New York was astonishing. Everything seemed to be paving the way for our move. I  called my old friend Fred to tell him about my decision to leave Miami. He told me he knew someone who lived in the West Village and was looking to sublet his apartment for six months starting on July 1st. I called the guy up. His name was Jerome, a photographer. He said sure, come on up. Any friend of  Fred’s was a friend of his. He offered me the place for pretty much the same rent I was paying now. He’d be leaving for sure by July 1st due to a 6 month gig he had upstate. It was too good to be true. If I had been writing fiction, no one would have believed it.

Up until then, I had spent sleepless nights waking up from nightmares of living in New York. I had this comfortable two bedroom townhouse on Brickell Avenue in tropical Miami. My sisters lived down the block. What was I trading all this for? I had heard about the apartments in New York. Small closets they called studios for the price of what a three bedroom apartment would cost down here. With rats for roommates that were too stubborn to help with the rent. And the winters. Blizzards! What’s a Miami boy like me going to do during the  winter besides freeze my nuts off? Was I crazy? Helena insisted we get out of here. I saw her point. I spent my days and nights working, going to the grocery store, occasionally eating at one of our favorite restaurants, and going home to watch TV until I fell asleep. This was living? Did I want to work for another Hispanic ad agency down here producing cookie cutter commercials? Had my career ended? Most of my freelance clients had either dried up, died or were struggling with the recession. What was I doing here? Waiting to die.

We bought one way tickets to La Guardia. We sent Jerome a check for the first month’s rent as security. He never asked for a deposit, so we didn’t offer one. By June 1st, we were counting down the days to our new life. I could hardly believe I was making the plunge, but I was more than ready. All I had to do was step out and feel the 95 degree weather along with the stifling humidity that was going to have a stranglehold on this city for the next several months to realize I wanted out. No more heat. No more hurricane preparedness and 24/7 news broadcasts predicting doom if we don’t buy batteries. We put the car up for sale, posted the furniture on craigslist. I packed my DVD collection, my CD collection, my books, my chunk of the Berlin Wall and sent them to a friend who was nice enough to let me store them in his warehouse until I could retrieve them. Those were the only things I couldn’t do away with. Music, film and literature were my life’s blood, worthless to everyone but me. We even made plans to throw out our Parcheesi game, but not until the night before we left. This was serious business.

Then came the call. Jerome couldn’t leave on the 1st because he had unfinished business to wrap up in Manhattan, but he would definitely be out by the 15th. My intestines twisted into knots. Would he call us the following week to tell us he changed his mind? We had committed already. We had bought the plane tickets. We had already sold some of the furniture. I asked him if he was sure that the 15th was definitely the date he was leaving. He assured me as convincingly as he had assured me when he said he was leaving on the 1st. I looked at Helena. We both knew what we were thinking without uttering a word. We had no intention of staying here a second longer, so we bought new plane tickets and ate the cost of the first two. It didn’t taste very good at all.

There we stood, two weeks later, 4AM on the night of July 14th looking at our empty apartment. Jerome had called us a few days before to tell us that he was no longer leaving on the 15th but on the 18th… for sure. I asked him if this was his final change. He said yes, absolutely, even more convincingly as he convincingly told me he was leaving on the 15th after he convincingly told me he was leaving on the 1st. We decided to keep the plane tickets and stay in a hotel for those three days as it seemed more cost-effective. It wasn’t easy finding an affordable hotel in the city but we settled on one that was only $250 per night. A bargain. Our dear friend Jerome had already cost me almost a thousand extra dollars out of our budget. I shrugged it off since he never asked us for a deposit.

Waiting for the taxi, I walked into my daughter’s empty room. Gone were the posters I bought her, along with the silly scribbles and stickers she had scrawled and  placed all over the place. We had spent the last three years living here. I had been very happy to have finally been able to get a two-bedroom apartment so she could finally have her own space after all we’d been through.  But since she left so unceremoniously eight months before, I hadn’t heard from her at all, except for my birthday and Christmas. The only way I knew of her existence was her facebook postings that I would check daily. She hadn’t friended me or anything. She just didn’t realize her postings were public. It seems that she was quite happy living with her boyfriend. She no longer needed Daddy. I didn’t call her. I didn’t write her. As long as I knew she was OK,  I had no intention of reaching out to her. Strangely, I didn’t feel sad. I felt relieved, as if I had placed my life on hold during her eighteen years and I could finally pick up where I left off.

I heard Helena calling me from downstairs. The taxi had arrived. I turned off the light of my daughter’s ex-bedroom and shut the door for good. I walked down and picked up the two remaining bags. Helena left the front door opened for me as she headed on to the cab with the two other bags. I could see her ahead of me, placing the bags down to throw out the torn up Parcheesi board that had given us so much silly enjoyment during all those nothing-to-do days . There would be no more time for Parcheesi in Manhattan. We got in the cab and held hands the entire way, stealing glances at each other and smiling uncertainly. Some time later  we were in the Fort Lauderdale Airport. An hour or so after that, we were boarding the plane. Three hours later, we were in Manhattan. Just like that. Miami, my entire life there except for the year I lived in Washington, D.C., had just become a memory.

WHY I MOVED TO NEW YORK – 1

Posted: December 26, 2011 in New York City

I had squeezed all the juice out of Miami and there wasn’t anything left for me.  It wasn’t like I left town. It was like the town left me. You’d think that being Hispanic, I would feel at home living in a city where practically everything was in Spanish.  But it wasn’t  the same city I grew up in.  It felt like new people had arrived, claimed their territory and changed the city to fit their needs. Besides,  I knew Miami inside and out. I had gone to every festival, attended every happening, seen Miami Beach’s rebirth from a place where old folks go to die to the cosmopolitan bullshit it is today,  until the idea of going anywhere again was just eyes-rolling-into-the-back-of-your-head boring.

The only thing Hispanic about me is my love for the food,  and that isn’t much of a stretch because I love food anyway. But give me a ceviche over fish and chips any day. I’ll take a churrasco over a cheeseburger in a heartbeat. There’s nothing like a Cuban tortilla with ham and cheese for breakfast. And Cuban coffee! Don’t get me started about Cuban coffee. In my book, it makes American coffee taste like dish water.

But still, except for maybe a soup bone, there is barely a Latin bone in my body, despite the fact that I can speak it fluently. I also know and understand the various cultures and nuances of the different Latin countries, having  worked most of my life marketing for the different Hispanic niches in the United States. That’s why it drives me crazy whenever I see an American movie portraying a Cuban eating a Mexican taco, or a Colombian character with an accent indicating he was from anywhere but Colombia. That’s like making a movie about New York and having everyone speaking with a Southern accent. It showed a tremendous lack of interest in detail and was insulting to boot.

But besides all that, all my traits are pretty Anglo. I think in English, have to think twice when finding the right words to say in Spanish, can’t stand telenovelas, Sabado Gigante  or ANYTHING else on Spanish TV and I can’t dance salsa or merengue even if someone put a gun to my head and demanded it. On the other hand, I’ve seen some excellent Spanish language films that are in line with the best of Hollywood; and play me anything by Juan Luis Guerra and my spirit is filled with happiness, almost as if it were a song by The Beatles.

Most of my friends are Latin too, so I have nothing against Latin people. I have nothing against any race in fact. But sometimes it felt reversed. Some Latins seemed to have something against me. I’ve been criticized for not being Spanish enough. How can I not have read anything by Gabriel Garcia Marquez? I’m Peruvian and I’m not familiar with the works of Mario Vargas Llosa.? That’s all true. I preferred Dickens and Wolfe and Updike, but at least I know the titles of these other writers’ books. And I love Cantinflas although I hate Chespirito.  But you’ve never been to Macchu Picchu? No, but I’ve been to Hialeah.

At work, I was accused of thinking like a “gringo”. I was condemned to recently having to come up with concepts for TV car commercials, after years of producing and directing documentaries and other projects I could hang my hat on. Now, every month, I had to find an original way to sell an Altima. One month, I thought it would be funny to dress a guy up like the devil and pretend it’s the car dealer’s conscience. The “devil” would be played by an overweight actor wearing a hokey costume with horns and a cape, and he would want a car with really good AC because it was so hot down there. The idea was shot down by the Nicaraguan owner of the ad agency because he felt it was too “gringo”. I explained that the commercial was for the English language market so the fact that it may be ”too  gringo” was a moot point, although to this day I still don’t understand what was so “gringo” about it. He wasn’t listening to my explanation however and decided to change my idea by animating an angel and a devil conscience hovering over the car dealer. I don’t know how that made it less “gringo”, but since he was too cheap to pay for real animation, the cartoon figures moved like a bad “South Park” rip-off. So much for setting trends in car commercials.

I don’t even look Latin. One day, I went to fill up my car and stood in line behind four other people to pay for the gas. In Miami, you pay for the gas before you fill your tank. I always thought it interesting that whenever I would leave the South Florida area, you no longer had to pay for gas first. They actually trusted you north of Yeehaw Junction to fuel up and then walk into the store and pay for the fuel. Anyway, I noticed that everybody in front of me spoke Spanish to the attendant. The attendant was a heavy set old lady who found something to complain about every time a person asked for something other than gas.

A pack of chewing gum? “Ay, Dios mio!” she’d exclaim and would rudely tell the customer to hold on as she slid off her stool to waddle over and get the gum.

A lottery ticket? “Esperate, chico!” she’d ask them to wait as she put on her glasses to pick exactly which one of the myriad lotto tickets they wanted. I just “love” people who buy lottery tickets. They spend at least fifty bucks on every known combination of every lottery game, then sit there blocking you as they scratch, scribble and sniff their way into disappointment. I always feel like shaking them and telling them “Hey! Face it! You’re not going to win shit! You have a better chance of getting hit by a truck walking out of here than winning the lotto! And even if you do win something, it’ll probably be less than all the money you’ve spent on these tickets anyway! Do something useful with your money, like gambling on a cockfight or something and get out of my way!”

Once it was finally my turn to ask for gas from Miss Congeniality, I was grateful I only wanted to fuel up. But I decided to speak to her in English instead.

“Twenty dollars on pump five please.”

She looked at me as though I was speaking in code. But she knew exactly what I said because without uttering a word, she took my money and released the pump. She was so fast helping me that I wondered if she thought I would call Immigration on her if she dawdled just a bit. I left the gas station very satisfied with the prompt service and decided that from now on, I would always ask for everything in English. I felt sorry for those who lived here and only spoke English. I’d seen many of them wandering aimlessly about the city, desperately clutching at sleeves and pleading in English for someone to understand what the hell they were saying. They were all met with shrugs. The key was to speak English but understand Spanish as a backup. I felt as if I had just stumbled into some brilliant discovery.

Of course not all Latins were like that. I noticed that the ones who had been in America the longest, such as those in the Cuban community, or those whose parents had moved from some Latin country and were brought up in America,  were really the ones who understood and respected the American system and, although they still proudly embraced their ethnicity, also proudly embraced American culture as part of themselves. But some of the people who had recently arrived from other countries expecting a land where the streets are paved with gold, they were the ones who were having the greatest difficulty assimilating. They believed what they saw in the movies and on TV. It was a shock to them when they discovered that life here wasn’t easy, that the only advantage to living in the USA was that you had opportunity. But it was still hard work. And they worked hard alright, God bless them, but they couldn’t understand why there were so many damn rules,  why you couldn’t bribe a cop, why everything,  even a parking space, cost something.

I never felt a citizen of the Spanish speaking world. I felt a citizen of the entire world. So I came to a point in my life when I realized it was time to move on. I had outgrown the city. As a citizen of the world, I had to live in a city that represented the entire world.  But how was I going to do it? Should I just quit my job? During a recession? I would have to be crazy. And what was I going to do about all my furniture? What about my daughter? She was still in high school. I only knew two things for certain. I knew what my girlfriend Helena wanted to do, and I knew what city I wanted to live in.  It wasn’t until some time passed and things began to resolve themselves that I realized one very important thing: When God gives you a window to jump through, you better be smart enough to realize it’s there, close your eyes and fucking jump.