It was April of 1973 and I had long over stayed my welcome on Ron’s sofa. He never said a word in that regard of course, because he was a gentle, good-hearted soul who only knew how to be kind. Jacob was alternating between his obnoxious friend’s apartment and Ron’s. It had become evident that if I intended on staying in New York, it would be necessary to share an apartment and Jacob was the only person I knew that also needed to find a place. Although he was not what I would consider a friend, he was honest and trustworthy. After all the angst my first NYC apartment share had caused, those qualities now seemed to account for a lot. If only he weren’t so juvenile and silly acting and oh so very…OHIO. There just was no other way for me to explain his giddy behaviour most times. It served as a reminder that he had graduated from high school less than a year before.
My nest egg had dwindled down to the size of a pea – under $100. On Ron’s advice, I had signed up at a temp agency and began going out to work as a clerk/typist. I hadn’t taken a timed typing test since the tenth grade, yet actually did very well and was told I could get an extra dollar or so an hour because of my ability at the keys. The bad thing about temping was that even if you were available every day, they couldn’t guarantee a full week’s work. Sometimes on an assignment, you were not told until late in the afternoon that there was nothing for you the next day, so your services wouldn’t be needed. Often it was too late to call the agency to find anything for the following day. One positive was it did allow me the freedom to audition, and now that was the only theatre I had been doing since I’d moved four months before.
It was a real thrill to work in a New York City office though, even if the financial reward was somewhat less than paltry. My jobs were in Midtown Manhattan in offices in many of those dozens of 1960s “modern” glass buildings. On the twenty or thirty something-eth floor overlooking the city, the views out the window were ofttimes breathtakingly stunning, even to my hyper acrophobic eyes. And the colorful Gothamites who were my supervisors and co-workers for the day or week were character studies for me. It was on these jobs that I began to learn the distinction between a Brooklyn and a Queens accent. Here is where I adopted “waaah-dah” and “coo-aawh-fee” into my daily vernacular. Temping gave me money for my day-to-day Manhattan existence, but I worried that it was not going to give me enough to pay rent and utilities for any inhabitable apartment, even with Jacob’s corresponding half.
Our days of going out to eat, or even deli takeout, were over. We took turns shopping and cooking for Ron – poor payment for his generous hospitality. It became a form of entertainment and he would regale us with stories of when he had come to the city at my age, ten years before. It gave me hope that there was a future to be had for a gay guy from NoWheresville, USA: making a home, finding a partner AND steady employment in the theatre. “Be patient. It’ll happen.” was the mantra my guru assured me. Jacob was searching for apartments, studying the Village Voice like I memorized Backstage. It depressed me to even consider looking at rental ads, because I was realistic and had no idea how we would ever find the money for security deposit and first month’s rent. That did not deter the zealous teenager. What he wanted most was a Manhattan address. I told him I would only consider the West Village.
One day, when I had a work assignment and he didn’t, Jacob met me at the subway station as I was climbing up the stairs to the sidewalk on my way home. He was nearly frothing at the mouth with excitement, instructing me to follow him to see “the most FABulous apartment ever”. He babbled as he led me fast-footed to his “find” where the super was waiting to show us the place he had seen earlier that morning. He was afraid it wouldn’t last long. It was on Sullivan Street, south of Houston in what at that time some referred to as Little Italy, but now is named SoHo. The building was on the block between Prince and Spring Streets, nestled amongst many charming old red brick buildings.
110 Sullivan wasn’t charming red brick like most of its neighbors. The facade was white glazed brick and it stuck out on the west side of the block like a stark monolithic malignancy that jarred the eyes. Often I wondered what possible little gem might have been torn down to make room for this 1960s eyesore. Nora Ephron mentions the same building in a recent book. It was her first New York apartment in 1963 when she moved to the city. She says it was new when she moved in and her only adjective to describe the place was “horrible”. In those days it rented for $160 a month.
I suppose when you’ve been living on some kind stranger’s sofa for three weeks and you are desperate for setting down roots and making a home, anything will look good. It was an elevator building – a plus. It had air conditioning – another plus. The main room was decent-sized and had lovely hardwood floors. What they called a kitchen was really just the far right corner of this room clustered with an apartment-sized two burner stove, an under-the-counter mini fridge and a sink the size of the spit bowl in my dentist’s office – I swear. Jacob’s find also had a bedroom (O joy! O rapture!), the biggest of all pluses.
But then there was the bathroom. It was off the bedroom. I had lived in three apartments in Ohio and the studio in NYC plus Ron’s yet I had never seen this phenomenon before or since in nearly 40 years. It meant anyone who needed to pee had to tromp through your bedroom. It made absolutely no sense. We took it anyway. The rent was $225 a month which even we knew was quite a steal for what it was and where it was. How could we pass it up? And I know it would have been snatched up if we hesitated even twenty-four hours. Before we could actually say yes, we needed to find $450 which we neither of us had nor could get our hands on in a month let alone by the following morning. Still Jacob seemed undaunted. We needed to go home to Ron’s and seek his advice, he announced. And once he heard Jacob gushing about the place, Ron found our answer. “There’s no problem. I can go to my bank tomorrow morning as soon as they open and lend it to you”. I was dumbfounded. “But how in the world will we pay the rent and utilities and still find the money to pay you back?”, I questioned. He was confident we’d do it in time, little by little, as we could. I still cannot believe what a fairy godfather we had found in this man.
We moved in the little that we had salvaged from Matty’s apartment that was usable, plus our clothes and personal treasures. At first there were no beds, but almost daily Jacob began collecting hand me down furniture from his circle of weird friends. By the end of that first month we already felt the pinch in our pockets when May rent came due and our first Con Edison bill arrived. I remember that same week the agency could only get me work two days, when necessity had called for me to work at least a nine-day week just to break even. There was no money left for groceries, so we ate cream of wheat cooked with water (not a drop of milk in the house) with the dregs from an old bottle of Aunt Jemima Pancake Syrup sparingly drizzled on top for dinner three nights in a row.
Friday was payday and after buying my subway tokens (35 cents each) I was down to less than a dollar. At lunchtime, starving from lack of real sustenance, I walked past a street vendor who had beautiful, huge apples, absolutely delectable-looking to my hungry eyes. I chose carefully to find the largest, prettiest one. It would hold me until I picked up my check on the way home. I found a bench to relax and savor my treat and biting into it with relish, it turned out to be dry and mealy and brown but I ate it anyway. That was the first time in nearly six months of living in New York, that I questioned what in the world was I doing in this place. Going back to Ohio was NOT an option on the table, however, no matter how bad things might get.
Living for a little over two years at 110 Sullivan, quite a lot of life happened to me. I will not begin to bore you with all the details, but there are some highlights that bear mention. First off, the list of negatives:
The air conditioner we thought was a plus, was actually a useless piece of crap that was in reality only a wimpy fan that blew hot air into the apartment. No matter how many times we complained, they could never make it work.
The elevator often stopped between floors. Not to worry though, because the door could be easily pried open with frantic fingers making it possible to crawl out or at worst jump down to the floor a few feet from above. Its frequent misfunctioning served to cure me of my lifelong fear of elevators at last.
Our downstairs neighbor was this strangely attractive, beefy, middle-aged Jewish girl from Queens who was our own private Rhoda Morgenstern. She was so naturally funny and had the distinction of being the first person to ever refer to me not by name, but rather always only as bubala. She phoned constantly at all hours to complain about our walking with shoes on the bare wooden floors above her head. “Bubala darling, is Jacob practicing in high heels? You’re giving me a migraine already!” Or when there was low water pressure she’d call to gripe about not being able to rinse her hair “Are you boys running the bath and kitchen sink at the same time? Leave a little water for Mumalah”. When she couldn’t direct her complaints at us personally, she called to kvetch about no heat, her mother in New Jersey, or just the weather.
That poor excuse for a kitchen may have been impossibly small for me, but the roaches loved it so much they invited all their friends to share the space. We bought a can of Raid for almost every quart of milk and still they thrived. They sprayed the building monthly, but I secretly believed the exterminator used sugar-water or something the creatures craved, rather than poison, to guarantee themselves job security.
Far longer, however would be my list of good things to recount:
Number one was the super’s wife, who Jacob and I referred to as Our Landlady because everyone understood that this was her building. She was a middle-aged Sicilian-American woman with a set of pipes like a fish monger. She was literally as wide as she was tall. Everyone in a three-block radius knew her on sight and by first name. The super’s apartment was on the ground floor in the front of the building. I only saw her leave to go up the street to Mass on Sunday, or on Bingo night at the same church. She held court from her window right next to the front door, so she could watch all of our comings and goings as well as oversee the sidewalk traffic from early morning until she went to sleep. The window was always open (except when it snowed), her chair wedged against it and her ham hock-like bare arm jutted out over the sill, as though she were driving our building up the street. She was a fantastic cook and often the smells from her kitchen wafted into the lobby, causing one to drool before reaching the elevator button. Once in a while she sent up a dish of macaroni with her killer sauce for us to enjoy. She was immortalized in a WNET documentary about the street festival where she annually sold her baked pasta in a booth in front of our building.
The Saint Anthony Festival was a yearly summer street fair and people came from all over the city for the week-long party. That first year it began like magic, seeing the church block and our block transform to accommodate food vendors, musicians, carnival games and the like. Nobody cooked the whole week and friends came and we’d eat our way up and down the two blocks every night, sampling the delicious home cooking: sausage and pepper sandwiches, meatball heroes, pastas, cannolis and my personal favorite food discovery-zeppole. To refer to this confection as a donut or fried dough would be a huge disservice. It is as heavenly as a New Orleans beignet, only slightly chewier. Some evenings a dozen of these delectables were my entire dinner. The second summer, somewhere mid-week, I began to grow weary of the crowds assaulting my block and all the noise and mess the church festival brought to my home and neighborhood. Even though the city swept and power-washed the sidewalks and street after each night, I still now looked upon it as a great invasion of privacy. And the charm was totally erased on one particular morning, when dressed in a beige linen suit on my way out the front door to work, I slipped and fell on a water-logged, swollen zeppole that lay in waiting for me like an unexploded land mine. The party was over for this boy.
Jacob found a boyfriend our first year in the apartment and the guy ended up moving to the west coast that fall. Devastated, he was going out to visit him. Around that same time, a good friend from University who I’d shared an apartment with my last year there was moving to New York and would be staying at our place. He and Jacob overlapped for a time, not too long if memory serves me. Ken was renting a Uhaul to drive his things to the City, so I took advantage of the trip and went to Ohio and brought my bed and some other pieces of furniture back in the truck. It was good to reconnect with a friend from college days and someone with whom I had a history. Besides, I had grown weary of babysitting Jacob all those months. Somehow his trip to LA got him to Hawaii and that is the last I ever heard of him. Our final conversation was long distance from Honolulu, when I refused to let him charge yet another long distance call on the phone, as he had already run up over a $100 tab. Ken is a warm and extremely witty man and as a roommate he brought a welcome balance to the apartment. Whenever I think about those days, homemade biscuits, incredible cornbread and his wonderful talent for making breakfast fare into a five-star dinner come to mind. He stayed on through the two year lease and we are still friends to this day. I recall with a smirk how the both of us suffered crushes on the two Italian brothers who had taken over their grandfather’s hardware store in our neighborhood. Unrequited love for each of us, I think we would have been content with either of them.
In an ironic twist, soon after moving into the building, I learned two friends from the theatre department, Skip and Nicky, one of the first gay couples I’d met at University were living one block up from me on the opposite side of the street. And my dear friend and one of the most unique personalities from our theatre department, Jennifer, was on the same block in a street level studio only a few steps away from my doorway. I, who was dead-set on cultivating a circle of “New York friends” had managed to physically move right back into the close-knit group of cronies I had spent the previous four years with at school. Through the next decade plus, we matured as adults and New Yorkers together. Now none of us lives on Sullivan anymore, but some are still in the city. Whenever we get together, I remark that we are all like cousins. We have shared so much of life and fate has literally bound us together, like blood does, despite circumstances and ourselves.
I cannot close the book on 110 Sullivan without a final remembrance of the place. The doors from the lobby to the street were all glass and each morning I recall pushing the heavy panel on my right, out onto the sidewalk to begin my day. As I did so, I would glance through the pane and down the street, south, to the brand new twin towers of The World Trade Center, dedicated just before I had moved in. You couldn’t help but notice them, because they filled the entire space at the end of my street-so giant and lofty they looked to be only a block or two away. The towers served to remind me every morning, in case I was still a little groggy from not enough sleep, that I was living in New York City. Even on rainy or over-cast mornings, still they seemed to shine because of all the glass and their sheer stature on the planet. Somehow they made me proud. They made me feel a part of the city now too.