Apart From the Occasional Shooting…
Finding an apartment in New York is hard. When I finally realized I was living beyond my means in my East Harlem apartment, I decided to take the plunge and look for the cheaper option of renting a room. It was highly likely that I would end up living with a lunatic, but it’s a chance I would have to take.
Looking through the local listings, I found what sounded like a nice room. I was drawn to it because the ad said it had a fire escape. That was my big Breakfast at Tiffany’s/New York fantasy. Either that or a Brownstone was my idea of idyllic New York City living. The apartment was on 137th Street and Amsterdam Avenue – the heart of Harlem.
I went to view the apartment on a hot and humid August afternoon.
I found the building and rang the bell for apartment 12c. The owner told me to ‘come on up. It’s on the 6th floor’. I walked into the dark, narrow foyer, looking for the elevator. There wasn’t one. The sixth floor was twelve flights of stairs. If nothing else, it would save me forking out money on a gym membership, I thought as I began the climb to 12c. In the summer heat and high heels, this was no easy feat. By the time I reached the top, I needed CPR. The humidity had made my freshly straightened hair frizz beyond all recognition and my make-up had sweated clean off my face. My clothes were stuck to me and sweat trickled down the small of my back. I imagined this was what I would look like if I ever embarked on a journey deep into the African jungle and I had merely ventured uptown.
As soon as she opened the door, I knew I wasn’t going to move in. The whole apartment was just about big enough to swing a cat, which was lucky, as she had three. She was a pleasant woman, tall, with wild red hair (the humidity hadn’t done her any favors either). She showed me the kitchen and all I wanted to do was clean. There were dirty dishes in the freestanding sink and no kitchen units. The stove was so old it looks like it might run on firewood. She offered me a glass of water and, as horrified as I was at the thought of what a CSI team might find on one of her glasses, I had to accept to stop me panting like a dog.
The rest of the tour went downhill from there. The bathroom was tiny and had no sink. She told me she washed her face and brushed her teeth in the kitchen sink. A lovely thought. The living room was what estate agents would describe as ‘bijou’ and was covered in cat hair. Her bed was right there in the corner, underneath more cat hair. You had to walk through this to get to the room she had advertised. There was a paper-thin door to the bedroom which may as well have been one of those long beaded curtains, for all the good it was doing. It would be hard but I thought I might be able to overlook the bad points for a decent fire escape.
She opened the door in true ‘what’s behind door number three?’ fashion and I walked into my nightmare. Again, another tiny room. To my left, a rickety old desk and chair. To my right, a bunk bed. I hadn’t climbed a ladder to get into bed since I was about six and even then, it wasn’t much fun. I walked to the window to check out the fire escape. Even that couldn’t save this hot mess of an apartment now. I bowed my head as I realized there would be no singing of ‘Moon River’ on that. And to think, this haven of cat hair, kitchen grime and bunk beds could have been mine for a mere $650 a month.
I thought I should ask some questions, just to be polite. I refrained from asking the obvious ‘so, how the hell do you live here?’ and opted for the more generic ‘is it a safe area?’ She replied ‘well, you hear the occasional gun shot, but apart from that…’
And with that, I shook her hand and thanked her for her time. I removed my high heels before beginning the 12-flight descent out into the land of the ‘occasional’ gunshot. I got my newspaper out of my bag and resumed my search. A fire escape was no longer a requirement.