Postcard from the Past: Welcome to New York

One of the great things about working independently is that you can timeshift and placeshift your work. So a week or so ago on a Tuesday, when I had no meetings to attend and nothing due until Wednesday, I decided not to go into the office and instead to work at home around an 11:00 a.m. doctor’s appointment I’d scheduled uptown.

My appointment was near St. Luke’s Hospital on 114th Street and Amsterdam Avenue. I took the subway to 116th and Broadway and then cut through Columbia’s campus to Amsterdam. Some years ago I’d attended an information session at the Education School there, when I was thinking of retiring early from the advertising business to teach English as a second language. It seemed like a good plan until the guest speaker, an alumna of the school who was working in the field, mentioned that the top salary you could expect to earn was around $40,000. I’d decided to give advertising a few more years.

I left the doctor’s office around noon. The sun was out. I felt like walking before catching a train back downtown. I could do my work anytime, even late into the night when I’m really quite productive. So I set out down Amsterdam Avenue, intending to walk for about thirty minutes, at which point I’d be just below 86th Street, where maybe I’d grab some lunch before heading home.

I passed the Episcopal cathedral of St. John the Divine at 110th Street. Begun in 1892, its construction was halted in 1967 to “remain unfinished as symbol of the anguish of the troubled communities surrounding the cathedral.” (So reads the timeline on the cathedral’s website.) The neighborhoods surrounding the cathedral, then and to a lesser degree now, mostly housed African-American and Hispanic communities. Construction was resumed in 1976, the year I moved to New York, “as an outward and visible sign of the Church’s commitment to the city’s future.”

New York was nearly bankrupt then. Corporate headquarters were deserting Manhattan for lower-priced real estate in New Jersey or Connecticut. The subways were covered in graffiti. Central Park, as I crossed it going to and from my acting classes at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, was derelict. Down in the Village, in the remains of warehouse buildings on abandoned piers over the Hudson River, gay men roved for random, anonymous sex in fetid corners of the darkness, water sloshing at the pilings below. This was, of course, several years before mentions of the “gay disease” started appearing in the mainstream press.

Though the first services were held at St. John’s in a completed chapel in 1899, the cathedral remains unfinished today, its southwest tower jutting jagged into the air, half-built, the achievement of the fits and starts of funding.

I crossed one block west to Broadway and continued downtown. In the ’90s — the streets, not the decade — I passed familiar places, having lived here briefly in the 1980s. Soon, I crossed 86th Street and noted that the Citibank branch, where I had my first bank account when I moved to New York, was still there on the southeast corner. This had been my neighborhood.

My first apartment was on 87th Street between Amsterdam and Columbus. I couldn’t remember the last time I was in this neighborhood, but I suddenly thought — I should walk the few blocks up and over and look at the building where I lived.

I don’t know why I hesitated. I was hungry and a little tired. I was feeling slightly guilty about not getting on with the work I had to do. I was right next to the subway entrance at 86th Street, where the #1 train would whisk me downtown and immediately home. The detour would be slightly out of my way. But really, none of these things were significant.; there was something else holding me back.

When I think about living on West 87th Street in my first year in New York, I have very clear memories, not all of them pleasant. The realtor who rented me the apartment was a blond-haired, blue-eyed, young preppy guy. I’d seen a couple of places that were more than I could afford; I asked him if he had anything cheaper.

He told me about the 87th Street apartment. “It’s the farthest north in Manhattan I’d want a white boy waking up,” he said. It was a fifth-floor walk-up in an old brownstone; a studio apartment — just one room — for $165 a month. I took it.

I moved to New York in August of 1976 from Lexington, Virginia. After graduating from Washington and Lee University, I’d stayed in Lexington a year, doing theater things with my younger friends who were still in school, teaching acting to high school kids, working in the Palm Parlor Ice Cream Cafe, and living in a one-bedroom apartment for which I paid $75 a month. My apartment had become a kind of drop-in salon near campus. Friends would hang out and study. Food would be made. There were long intellectual arguments deep into the night. It was a fun and stimulating time.

Several days before I was to move to New York, I’d failed the driving test to renew my license in Lexington for not slowing down sufficiently when the examiner took me through a school zone. A friend drove me to Roanoke the next day, about an hour south of Lexington, where I managed to pass and get my license.

I’d reserved a U-Haul automatic, mini-truck to move my meager belongings and my two cats up to New York. The cats were named Lunch and Mutispaugh (pron. moo-dis-paw), though I referred to them collectively as The Lunches. (On rare formal occasions, they also answered to Lady Luncheon and Mistress Mutispaugh.)

Mutispaugh was a local surname that always cracked me up; it just sounded like a cat’s name to me. The family I rented a room from for two years before I got my apartment in Lexington twittered when I introduced them to the cats. Apparently they considered the human Mutispaughs to be a few rungs down from them on the local social ladder, and it seemed totally fitting to them that a housecat shared the name.

When I went to pick the vehicle up, I was told the mini-truck had not been returned. All they had was a full-size, manual-shift truck. I drove this to New York, with my belongings occupying less than a fifth of the front of it and the two cats in the cab with me. I stopped to see some friends in DC and then drove into New York City, arriving on a hot August evening.

Somehow, I found parking in the neighborhood. I knew one person in New York — the boyfriend of a girl I was friends with in Lexington who was in his first year at a law firm. He’d hooked me up with the realtor. I slept at his place the first night. He helped me move in the next day. I returned the truck somewhere midtown way over on the west side.

I opened a bank account at the Citibank on the corner of 86th and Broadway. I had a check that represented the balance from my checking account in Virginia. Maybe my parents had sent me a check as well. I deposited both to open the account. Then they told me the account was on hold until Citibank got a signature clearance from the bank in Virginia. It could take up to two weeks. I had next to no money on me. My parents had sent me $20 in cash through the mail to help me out. But the management company for my building hadn’t given me a mailbox key yet.

On my third day in New York, I’d gone to a laundromat in the evening to wash some clothes and had bought a few groceries. I was standing in the ground-level entrance foyer of the apartment building with my laundry bag and the groceries, fumbling for my keys, when two young black guys rushed in. They couldn’t have been more than 13 or 14 years old, but were both about my size. One grabbed me from behind, his arm tight around my neck. The other stood threateningly in front of me inches from my face, poking me in the chest with his finger. “Give us all your money,” he said.

I was certainly frightened; I’d never been assaulted before by anyone. But the irony of the situation struck me even more. I had a dime in my pocket; not one more red cent to my name that I could lay my hands on. Later, I would walk into the Citibank and plead with them to release some small amount of my money while they were waiting for my signature clearance. It was only when I cried that the bank manager agreed to “advance” me some money from my account.

I reached into my pocket and pulled out my dime. “Here,” I said. “Here is all my money. Take it.”

There was a brief moment of silence as the finger-poker assessed the situation. “You have more money than that,” he finally said with total assurance. “Where is it?”

I pointed to the mailbox. “There’s $20 in an envelope in there,” I said. He said, “Give us the key.”

“I don’t have it,” I told him. ” The landlord hasn’t given me one.”

Maybe my attackers heard in my voice that things weren’t going so well for me at the moment. Things were not going so well for them either. My foyer was the perfect place for a mugging. It would have been a basement entrance under the stoop before the building was remodeled and the stoop removed. As such, it was half below street level, dark, and hard to see into from outside. I can just hear the boys’ bitter conversation later.

“Just our luck, man. We roll a honky in a perfect spot where no one can see us, and the mother-fucker has ten cents to his name. Shit, we got more than that!” They gave me a shove, told me not to look back, and were gone just as suddenly as they’d appeared. I guess they had no interest in food or clean clothes.

Eventually, my signature cleared, I got the key to my mailbox, and I started school with a work-study job in the costume department. I was a poor, acting-school student from the sticks, not quite starving in my artist’s garret, but on that edge. New York had welcomed me in a big-city way.

Being an attic-level apartment, the street-facing side of the roof sloped downward. At some point, someone had cut through it and enclosed it to build an alcove with a sleeping loft– a wooden platform about five feet above the floor, mounted between the walls at the head and foot.

In front of the loft bed was a plate-glass window, with a tall narrow window at each side that could be cranked open. Other than a two-foot square skylight vent in the bathroom, the two little windows were the apartment’s only source of ventilation.

There was no ladder to the loft bed. I had to climb onto the windowsill and from there up into the loft bed. It was about a three-foot rise from the windowsill to the loft bed., and I could easily hoist myself up. But the Lunches had to screw up their courage to make the leap. Once I was up, I’d lean over and encourage them — ” Come on, jump!” I’d look at their little faces, necks craned up to me, a look of anxiety in their eyes. Then their little bodies would twitch and ploompf! they’d land, hind legs pawing madly to get purchase on the wood.

Lunch was always first. Mutispaugh was heavier and moved less gracefully, but she always made it. Once in bed, they would lie on the pillows around my head, kneading my hair with their paws — “making biscuits” a friend in Virginia called it — and they would purr, the low trilling sound and the gentle head massage lulling me to sleep.

Otherwise, I would lie in bed, looking out the plate-glass window north toward the lights of Harlem, and hear the realtor’s words in my head. I would wonder if I would wake up the next day, or if in the night a wave of lawless rioters would sweep down from Harlem and just do away with me for spite because I was a white boy encroaching on their territory.

I got in the habit of taking the phone up into the loft with me in case I needed to dial 911. It had a long cord. Occasionally the phone would ring at 3:00 o’clock in the morning and an old black man’s drunk or drug-addled husky voice would say, “Baby, is that you?” Apparently, my number had previously belonged to someone of the opposite sex of his acquaintance.

“No, this is not your baby,” I would tell him. But it never seemed to register with him.

“Baby, whatchu doin’? How come you won’t talk to me?” he’d moan, with this incredible, frustrated longing in his voice.

“Because I’m NOT YOUR BABY! This isn’t her number anymore. You need to stop calling here.” I’d hang up. Sometimes he’d call back; sometimes he wouldn’t. Eventually, I just stopped answering the phone and let in ring until he gave up. It was a bizarre nighttime coda to my own loneliness.

Outside the loft window, there was actually a tiny terrace. I had a folding director’s chair I could slip through the window, and a tiny square nesting table. Then I could climb up on the windowsill and squeeze myself through one of the narrow windows to sit out and have a cup of tea.

The day I’d moved in, I’d opened the window to let in some air, and the Lunches made a beeline for it. Leaping from the floor to the sill, they were through the window and out on the terrace in a flash. I was paralyzed with horror as I watched them jump up on the balustrade of the terrace, balancing five stories above the pavement, and from there disappear as they leapt up onto the roof. I followed them tentatively out onto the terrace, where I turned around to see them staring expectantly down at me, as if waiting for me to join them in their adventure.

They were housecats in Virgina in a second-story apartment with screened-in windows. I’d let them wander out into the hallway with the stairs that went down to the front door, but there was nothing much to fulfil more than a few moments of half-hearted smelling around, and they would come back into the apartment on their own out of boredom.

This was different! An aerial world of maybe limitless novelty awaited them. As I stood there, I realized there was no way I could live in the apartment without the windows open, and I wouldn’t be able to prevent them from jumping outside. In that moment, I resigned them and me to our separate fates on West 87th Street. If there was a god, we were in his or her hands. When I left for school, I’d leave the window open just enough, so they could come and go as they pleased.

There was a fairly large skylight in the 5th floor landing just outside the front door to my apartment. When I would come home, often I could see the Lunches’ blurry shapes cavorting on it. I guess they could hear me coming up the stairs or could see me on the landing below. As I would open the door, they would come bounding through the window to greet me.

Sometimes, they’d be out when I returned, but I would find a little present they’d left me in the middle of the floor: a twig of leaves, a strange seed pod, a desiccated insect, even a small, dead bird. I was touched by their generosity in sharing their treasures with me.

One Sunday, I was hanging out at home reading and baking bread, something I’d learned to do in Virginia. (The baking, I mean. Fortunately, I’d learned to read before going to college.) The phone rang. A woman’s voice I didn’t recognize spoke.

“Do you have a small brown female tabby cat with a white chin and chest? And is she not with you at the moment?”

“Yes,” I replied, both things being true. Mutispaugh was sleeping in a basket by the kitchen; she was the lazier of the two. But Lunch was out adventuring.

“Well she’s here in my apartment. I live down the street at number…….” and she gave the number of a building that when I checked later was 6 or 8 doors down the block. Apparently, the cats climbed across the roofs of the adjoining brownstones and could get into other top-floor apartments that had roof access (at least for cats) like mine.

“She’s playing with my cat and eating. I didn’t want you to worry about her,” the woman continued. Apparently, she had walked the block following the rooflines until she ascertained that my building was the one with a window that would allow the cats to get onto the roof. A look in the foyer told her that “D. Hogle” lived in 5F for 5th floor front, and 411 gave her my number.

I offered to come and get the cat, but the woman said it was OK. Apparently this wasn’t Lunch’s first visit, and the woman said she’d leave on her own when she was ready.

Another time, when I returned home, the Lunches came bounding in to greet me as usual. Scratching Lunch behind the ears, my hand felt something rough on her flea collar. I discovered a piece of paper all folded up around her collar and taped in place. It was a note.

I opened it up and read: “Please keep these cats inside. They come into my apartment and get in bed with me at 3:00 in the morning.” There was no signature and no return address. It seemed the Lunches were making many more neighborhood friends than I. From that point, at night, I tried opening the windows just a crack, hoping they couldn’t squeeze through. For their own protection, I didn’t want them intruding where they weren’t wanted.

My first year of school was drawing to a close, when I came home one day in April to find my apartment ransacked. My drawers had been opened and their contents were spilling out. The closet had been rifled through, boxes opened, baskets turned upside down. I was baffled. The front door had been locked, the windows has been closed as it was still cold, and there was no sign of forced entry.

Then I walked into the bathroom to find broken glass and a square metal grate lying on the floor. Someone had kicked in the bathroom skylight and dropped down through the narrow shaft that cut through the ceiling. Whoever it was had to be practically a child to fit through it.

A full inspection revealed it to be a typical, apartment robbery: anything small that could be pawned or sold on the street — small electronics, a coat and a jacket; some cheap jewelry. And things of greater sentimental value unfortunately — my grandfather’s gold pocket watch, the only memento I had of him and my gold Phi Beta Kappa key.

The super taped a garbage bag over the broken skylight, but no one ever came to fix it, despite my complaints to the management company that I was a sitting duck with only a piece of plastic between me and a hostile world. As anyone does whose home has been burglarized, I felt violated. And even more vulnerable on West 87th Street than I already felt.

When an opportunity popped up to spend the summer in Virgina doing an intensive acting workshop with friends, I didn’t hesitate. I wasn’t certain I would return to the Academy for the second year; I had mixed feeling about my experience there. I had one acting teacher I adored; but many of the teachers seemed resentful of talent in their students.

It was very different from the artsy, save-the-world-through-theatre family feeling I had at the Troubadour Theater at Washington and Lee University. There we did the classics and some of the latest theater from London. At the academy, I recall one of my classmates who was really excited about a singing bit he was up for in a national M&Ms commercial. He thought he had just the right kind of teenage heart-throb look about him that they wanted. Of my talent, one old guy who directed me in a show said I might make it, because I had some charm.

And I had mixed feelings about New York.

I had friends at school, but none where I lived. To save money, I walked to and from the school — over 60 blocks one way — every day, regardless of the weather. Walking past the expensive boutiques and hotels that lined Fifth Avenue just below the Park, I’d fantasize about being rich and famous, shopping and eating and living it up with fabulous friends in all those places I couldn’t even think of entering then.

The last month I was there, I just didn’t pay the rent. They had a one-month’s security deposit they could keep. A friend of mine, who’d just gotten a studio apartment in the Village took my furniture and dishes and other household things to get started ; she had nothing. The Lunches and I left and went back to Virginia.

I did return in the fall to finish the second and final year of the program. Mutispaugh did not. She’d gotten pregnant; I could never afford to have them fixed. So someone I knew in Lexington with lots of cats and a farm took her in.

Lunch came back with me, and she and I lived with roommates and in sublets during my second year downtown where all my school friends were. I was glad not to be living all the way uptown, feeling anxious every time I turned the corner from Amsterdam onto 87th, my keys clutched in my hand, so that I would never, ever linger again in the foyer.

I took me a few minutes to identify the building when I walked up the block. The neighborhood gentrified in the ’80s. Trendy restaurants and bars sprang up all along Columbus Avenue. It looks much nicer today than when I lived there.

I couldn’t recall the building number. But I knew roughly where it was on the block, and there were only a couple of buildings with no stoops and street-level entrances. So I looked up for the terrace and the plate-glass window. I didn’t see one. #116 seemed familiar though, and then I realized what was different. Someone had closed in the little terrace with a slanting roof and skylights.

All the better for keeping the cats in, I guess.

116 West 87th Street, February 2012

2 responses to “Postcard from the Past: Welcome to New York

  1. Wow brings back memories!! THanks for sharing…

  2. So well told! Reminds me of my own artistic voyage to NYC.

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