(Lower) East Side Story
Earlier this week I was at the New York Eye and Ear Infirmary for an eye test. Since I was in the neighborhood, I then walked down the block to Little Poland and had some pierogi with onions.
I used to live around here, decades ago, just two blocks further down Second Avenue. Before that, my First Husband (FH) and I were living in a miniscule apartment on West 12th Street.
At that time, I was pregnant and early on a Monday morning I had my baby at what is now New York-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center. Try rolling that off your tongue to a cabbie while you’re in the middle of a contraction.
Fortunately I didn’t have to. We had a car – a turquoise VW Bug – and the hospital had a much shorter name: New York Hospital.
The deal was, I’d have the baby and then my husband would find us a larger apartment.
I did what I had to do and my FH did what he had to do. My job was by far the easier. He read obituaries, bribed doormen, drove anywhere and everywhere he heard of an apartment becoming available. East Side, West Side, all around the town. Everything was either gone by the time he got there or was a piece of crap.
Some stories never change.
Wednesday morning he drove to the Sheridan Square news stand to get the latest Village Voice. With an increasing sense of urgency he drove while our friend Margaret read the real estate ads and found a place that sounded promising.
“They only want a family,” she said.
“I’m a family,” FH said.
“We have to go to an office on East 14th Street,” she said. “To see an agent or someone.” They drove to the office and met with the agent. They were the first ones there but soon a crowd of interested renters began to form.
“You’re a family?” the agent asked.
“Yes,” FH said. “My wife just had a baby.”
“Oh, yeah?” said the agent. “Where?”
“New York Hospital. 68th and York.”
“I know where it is,” the agent said. “What’s her name?”
The agent called the hospital and verified that I indeed had given birth to a baby boy, just two days ago.
“Okay, you’re set,” the agent said. “Just give me two hundred seventy bucks cash, one month rent, one month security, and we’ll go see your apartment.”
That’s how it was done. Cash up front and then you saw the apartment. At least that was how our deal was done. My FH handed over the cash, the agent grabbed a set of keys, told the growing line of hopefuls they were too late.
It was the Second Avenue Deli building, the entrance on 10th. How could that be anything but great? FH knew he’d made the right decision by paying up front for matzoh ball soup, pastrami on rye, salami omelets practically on demand.
“It’s a good apartment,” the agent said, as he, Margaret and FH waited for the super. “Only reason it’s vacant is the previous tenant committed suicide.”
“In the apartment?” FH asked.
“Yeah, I think in the kitchen,” the agent said.
“Huh,” FH said.
The super’s Polish wife showed up. She spoke and understood just a few words of English, but it was enough for her to realize she’d made a huge mistake. A family of gypsies had come to her to see a storefront next to the Deli, but because of her limited English she misunderstood, and showed them our apartment instead. After all, they were a family. And now they had occupied it.
There they were, the father, mother and two kids. All were hostile and at one point one of the daughters pointed a pair of scissors at Margaret, who was already perturbed.
And then there was the décor. The entire apartment was painted black. Every room, every closet.
“I’d kill myself, too, if I had to live with this,” FH said.
The gypsies wouldn’t budge. And I apologize here if I sound politically incorrect, but back then it was gypsy, not Roma. And there were tons of squatters in the area. Runaways, users, dealers, gypsies, artists living in vacant buildings, especially a few blocks further east in Alphabet City. At least FH had the lease.
And this family wasn’t totally squatting. More like semi-squatting. They had come to see a smaller, street-level space. Who wouldn’t move into an airy two bedroom apartment five floors above street level, if it was offered to them by mistake?
The agent haggled with the father and ended up paying him fifty bucks to vacate.
Our very own home sweet home.
FH and his father spent three weeks painting every inch of that home with Benjamin Moore Empire Gold, a vibrant Mexican yellow. It took three coats to cover the black. A coat a week.
This is what we paid for: rent control, two bedrooms, windowed kitchen with brick wall, a bathroom with some water damage in the ceiling over the toilet , which caused a chunk of it to fall down on a visitor’s head at an inopportune time.
It was a great apartment, and I was so happy there. The East Village seemed like the center of the world back then. So alive and vibrant, even at a time when the Summer of Love had already begun to morph into something almost ominous.
It was an amazing time to be young on those streets. Tompkins Square Park. Gem Spa. The Electric Circus. Kiehl’s. Julian’s Billiards. Just walking around was enough. I didn’t mind the bullet holes in our bedroom window overlooking East 10th Street. I didn’t even mind the creepy man who regularly followed me into our lobby. “Ay, mami.”
I walked down those streets as if I was born to live there, pushing my baby in the navy blue pram my mother had bought.
A pram, on a street filled with tenements.
Such a long time ago.
Yet sitting in Little Poland the other day, it seemed like yesterday. Or maybe the day before yesterday. Little Poland wasn’t there then, but it could have been. The Second Avenue Deli, Kiev, Veselka and B&H Dairy were. Also Veniero’s and Di Robertis. Places of nourishment, all.
There was something about the East Village then. There is something about it now. There have been changes here and there, but those streets… Take away a few condos, a couple of banks, a Starbucks or two.
There’s a word for what the East Village is.
Comfortable. The East Village is comfortable.
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