Different kind of aging for resident of NY townhouse.
NEW YORK -- I have a confession. I'm 47 years old, and I still live at home. Sort of; I do have my own apartment. But I still live in the house I was born into, a five-story Brooklyn Heights town house.
My mother lives there, too. She's been there longer than I have (by a few months, anyway), but I have what feels like a special status in the building. I'm the only one who has lived on every floor since the building was divided into apartments in the 1950s.
I was bathed in the white enamel kitchen sink of the garden apartment as a baby. I set my hair on fire blowing out the candles at my 10th birthday party on the parlor floor. I romanced my future husband with one of John Hersey's bluefish recipes and a large amount of tequila one night in the late '80s on the fifth floor.
Ten years later, I learned of my father's death -- in his sleep, one flight below me -- while working on my first novel at a desk on the third floor. And for the past eight Octobers, I've made princess, fairy, cat, bat, owl, dog, dinosaur and Ophiotaurus costumes for my daughters on the fourth floor, the top level of the duplex that my family of four now inhabits.
When my parents first moved to the Heights, in 1966, the neighborhood had gotten rather down at the heels -- meaning, it was affordable. There was a topless bar, the Club Wild Fyre, around the corner from the house, and several grand old hotels operating as single-room-occupancy residences.
The apartment they were interested in was on the ground floor, and had a garden and nice moldings. Still, it was dark, and the children's room -- for my parents were expecting their second child, me -- would be tiny, hardly more than a closet with a window. They wouldn't have rented it if my mother's friend Ginger hadn't said, "If you don't take it, I will.''
There's always a faint aroma to old buildings, something to do with the food the inhabitants have cooked over the years, plus the wood and plaster in the walls, and the makeup of the earth on which the foundations were laid.
My building, a Greek revival town house, was built in 1839. The first owner, Asa Worthington, lived there with his family and several servants for about 50 years. He owned a flour mill, and although I don't bake much, I like to think I can detect a trace of yeastiness from all the bread that must have been baked in the house in those early years. Whatever its origin, the ever-so-slightly musty scent had been brewing for 127 years by the time I came home from the hospital.
My parents had planned to move back to Manhattan as soon as they could afford to. Instead, in 1973, they bought the building and combined their basement apartment and the parlor floor above to create a spacious garden duplex.
They hoped to keep up with their mortgage, which was small by current standards, but a stretch for two recent art-school graduates, by renting out the top three floors. It turned out they needed a little help from family (all the apartments were rent stabilized), but they did it.
When my parents first moved in, the tenants included a French couple with an infant on the parlor floor; a single cat lady on the floor above; a newlywed couple on the fourth floor; and a middle-aged audiophile and his wife on the fifth.
Eventually, the French people returned to France and the audiophile retired to the country. The newlyweds raised their child and both died in middle age. The cat lady, with whom no one ever got along, finally moved away after my parents offered her money to leave. Over the years, we've also had a book-jacket illustrator, a prominent newspaper editor, two architects and various writers, nonprofit types, lawyers and investment bankers living in the building. Even a Google mogul has passed through.
As the years passed, the economy rebounded, and the neighborhood, like so many other parts of the city, regentrified. The Wild Fyre closed in the early 1990s. Some of the old hotels went condo. There was still one abandoned building on our block, but we made a project of cleaning out its front garden, which was filled with dead shrubs, used condoms and dirty syringes, and planting and watering it until someone bought and renovated the house.
When my brother and I graduated from college, we both moved into apartments in the building at our parents' urging. We were normal enough kids, with thoughts of going off on our own, but they hooked us by offering steeply discounted rents. He took the third floor and I got the fifth, a sunny two-bedroom that's sweltering in the summer but has a huge living room with floor-to-ceiling bookshelves designed by the audiophile to hold his LPs. (The 12-inch shelves are just as good for dictionaries and encyclopedias, I discovered.)
As a result, like our parents, we had the opportunity to explore careers in the arts. My brother got an MFA in writing at Columbia, although he eventually pursued another career. I went to work at The Paris Review, a job I held for 16 years, getting a literary education.
After a while, my brother went to live in another city. But somehow, with the exception of a couple of years when I lived in Germany, I never left the house. The rent was too good. So was the location.
And then I moved into a better apartment: the one on the third floor with the big deck. I started growing tomatoes and imagining children of my own to feed them to.
I've watched the city evolve through the lens of this building and its tenants. And it, in turn, has sheltered my own development, from childhood to adulthood, marriage and motherhood, from aspiring writer to novelist.
In fact, I'm so much a creature of it that I set my entire second novel, "When the World Was Young,'' in it -- or a building very much like it.
I embellished the fictional building with features like a dumbwaiter, borrowed from another house in the neighborhood where I've spent time, and anchored it in details from my building's life, like the Nazi flag that hung in the window just next door in 1939 -- a troubling piece of history recorded in a New York City tax photograph on file at the Municipal Archives, a copy of which hangs in my mother's kitchen.
As for my mother, she is still the landlord. But my responsibilities, as a tenant, are broader than most: I handle late-night exploding sewer lines and do computer troubleshooting.
My mother, who is now a grande dame of the neighborhood, lives downstairs and is our backup baby sitter extraordinaire. When my husband forgot his car keys the other morning, I was able to leave the children at home with her and deliver him from the traffic cops before they towed the car away. I keep an eye on her in the same way. When her blood sugar plummeted last winter, I found her unconscious on my routine evening visit to her apartment, but I was there in time to call an ambulance.
Why do I stay? For so many reasons, but mostly because I have the privilege of doing so. Do I ever long for different pastures? Yes, but when I think it out, I realize I'm as well situated as I'm ever likely to get.
After all, I could never afford the rent in this area if I weren't born into it.
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|Publication:||Telegram & Gazette (Worcester, MA)|
|Date:||Jan 4, 2015|
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