On the way home last night, I hitched an uptown First Ave bus; it was after midnight-- my card was near-empty but the driver was kind and waved me on. The ride uptown took nearly ninety minutes. It seemed every stop was crowded with the down-and-out crowd. By 34th Street the bus was jammed with passengers-- many of them homeless men and women with oversized carts filled with stuff. The stench was strong, but the driver patiently rolled out the handicapped ramp and let them all board, mostly without paying. it occurred to me that they wait for this man-- maybe the beginning of his shift, and they know they can rely on transport, these forgotten untouchables. Maybe some of them ride all night to stay warm. A few disputes erupted among cranky territorial passengers, but for the most part people were complacent; many came from the VA hospital, Bellevue… a drunk man kept yelling he needed a hospital… but then he passed out and slept like a baby. It was a kind of pre-Thanksgiving reality check.
When I was young, I used to visit my friend's grandparents in the same building where I now live. It was a little far uptown to be fashionable, in those days-- a great old turn-of-the-century prewar with a grand lobby but no doormen or luxury services. Their space was massive-- lofty-- with skylights and high ceilings, and resembled my imagined version of a successful European artist's studio c. 1900. It stretched from one end of the building to another, with huge windows onto upper Madison Avenue. Sparsely furnished, there were plenty of loungey sofas and reading chairs with quaint lamps-- tables and ashtrays-- window-seats and desks. As they were part of an important publishing firm, they entertained writers and intellectuals; there were books everywhere… yards and yards of shelves, and piles and piles of treasured volumes, magazines, journals. The radiators clanked in winter; in summer, in those pre-air-conditioned years, the top floor was sweltering. The park was half a block away, and there was often a breeze on the roof, if you climbed up at evening. It was a source of gossip and rumors-- secrets were exchanged here, a few inappropriate relationships, many drunken dinner debates-- a million cigarettes, deals inked and stories begun.
The sprawling apartment-- undecorated and decorous as it was, felt like the heart of adult New York. This was what I would be when I grew up and got old-- a host-- a home-conversationalist in a book-lined room alive with dialogue and energy-- ideas and excitement-- like a sort of club whose membership required no dress-code or mindset, but a passion for literature and art. But more than anything-- it was a home. You knew where you were when you were there; you could wander and browse, sit and lose yourself in a poem or look out the window… but you felt 'embraced'.
Thirty-five years later, I bought into their building-- a funky back-door apartment in need of renovation but with the pedigree and bone structure that had become part of my Manhattan dream. It was cheap and a little dilapidated, but I was a young single Mom and felt so empowered to have bought what would really be my own true home. My first Thanksgiving was blessed, for so many reasons… but I felt the tradition of that building, even though the publishing family had died long before, and that grand space had been divided into smaller units. There were neighbors who had grown old in this place that seemed magical to me; there were senior couples with piles of books and great art and they welcomed me into their homes with the often shabby old chintz curtains and the beautiful but worn Persian rugs; they spoke the cultured and human language of old New York; they had ideas-- they loved music-- they wrote, still read Latin and Greek, many of them… they treated their neighbors with kindness and generosity.
In those years the old building had a single employee: a superintendent who'd been born here… he was in his 60's, had raised his family in the ground floor rear unit. He painted, polished brass, cleaned the old marble. The rest of us chipped in and tended the garden, had lobby parties-- we were a true cooperative in the old sense-- a group of tenants who all cherished our home, who seemed to agree that our space and privacy were sacred. Our individual priorities included maintaining a low public profile, modest monthly fees, a non-pretentious simplicity of style. The architecture spoke for itself-- a quiet, old elegance, without luxury. They welcomed me-- financially limited as I was, because they knew I was happy to be part of this lifestyle.
It took years to fill what seemed like a massive space to me-- to furnish it with my books, the art I've collected over the years, the finds and objects, the old furniture I've gathered at random auctions… It is quite full now-- my instruments, the things I love… I have quite everything I ever longed for as a young woman… and yet I am no longer content and secure the way I was twenty years ago. In the early 90's, I helped a senior woman in my building-- Jane, was her name-- to pack up her spartan belongings. Regretfully, she told me she had intended to die in this apartment, but her very modest pension from years of brilliant editorial work no longer covered rising maintenance costs. I recognized so many of the wonderful books we carefully piled into these boxes like relics from a life well-lived and no longer valued. The economy had changed, New York had undergone a massive progressive facelift; the Wall Street culture had created a greed-bubble that has not just priced most of us out of the market, but has altered the rank-and-file New York City human profile.
While Jane was forced to move in with her son somewhere out of state, I find myself living on $3 a day most weeks--- having given up all luxuries including the subway, some days, in favor of walking, rice-based meals… my entire annual clothing allowance is less than some people spend on lunch. Haircuts… movies… vacations… a day at the beach… have been so long left behind… but these days I dare not buy myself even a coffee. Until last night's ride, I have been plagued with my annual Thanksgiving dinner anxiety-- putting on a brave face while calculating how I will pull together the meal on a skeletal budget, how it will set me back. But turning the key into my place-- like a souvenir-shop of my life, a three-dimensional photo-album of memories-- I realized I was 'home' and the idea of these people on the bus having nowhere to 'let down' just seemed tragic and inhuman.
In recent years young bankers and hedge-fund managers have recognized my old building as the potential cash cow they envisioned. These families renovate, destroy, combine, disregard… and then sell. They have way more space than anyone requires; they are rarely home and they have no observable sentimental possessions or books. They have architects and designers, and mostly photoshoot-ready but soulless apartments. The ghosts of former tenants and the spirits in old walls and floors sigh and creak at night. The old radiators still bang, although they will manage to eradicate these eventually. They have forced doormen and lobby improvements-- fancy elevators. They have usurped the great old roof with their equipment and air systems. Even as the smallest shareholder, monthly costs nearly exceed my very humble income as a musician/poet. My slender spending habits have become emaciated. And tonight, as I listen to the soft roar that is New York City seep through my leaky windows, I wonder if these people feel 'home'. As in home-less.
There is some George Segal movie on from the 70's and this is New York, the way I remember it… before clothing advertised things.. when even rich people's apartments were comfortable and slightly messy and filled with things... when hair was not perfect and women had wrinkles and the buildings looked habitable and a little dirty. I realize I am of a dying or defeated generation here-- hanging in, holding on to what I know and love-- my building, my old guitars… sentiment...
Things change-- I know this, and not all change is bad. But this Wall Street generation changed the rules for many of us who thought we had secured some kind of tranquility for our older age. Our trusted annuities and medical plans have been up-ended, our modest pensions have been diminished and decent healthcare is precarious and prohibitive. I naively bought shares in a wonderful institution, only to find myself a tiny minimized partner in a corporation with an agenda of money and attitudes and little regard for human values and the great cultural mesh upon which this city was founded.
I will be home for Thanksgiving, and I will try to forge onward and resist what feels like a tidal insult to everything I am. My neighbors will never share a bus ride like the First Ave. M15 at 2 AM; they don't want to see or smell this kind of thing, and they seem to enjoy the demolition of old walls as much as they enjoy their indulgent vacations. They will grow old, too-- not as gracefully as this building has, and maybe one day they will discover nostalgia or homesickness-- that nothing is ever as precious as that which has been lost. By then I'll be sharing a cigarette with the old ghosts on the stairs while, God willing, someone might be enjoying a home-cooked turkey in what will always be the old rooms with the book-lined walls.