Our first shared apartment was on Amsterdam Avenue at 94th Street. It was a rundown walk-up tenement. We had cockroaches in the kitchen, ratty pigeons on the fire escape, and on Fridays the smell of the downstairs neighbors’ fish head soup filling our rooms. Several days a month we would be without heat and hot water until the landlord paid the overdue oil bill.
The landlady was an elderly Greek woman named Evelyn who sat in front of the building in her beat-up aqua blue Pinto for hours each day. She could barely walk, but she drove in from New Jersey to keep watch on her property. She told the Korean grocers on the ground floor that I was her niece. I thought this was because I was Armenian and as a Greek she felt some affinity, but I discovered that the Koreans had been lobbying for the apartment that she rented to us and she needed an excuse. We learned from THE VILLAGE VOICE list of New York City’s “Ten Worst Landlords” that her son Tony was known as the “Devil Landlord” because of the terrible condition of the apartment buildings he owned in Harlem. He had once brandished a gun at a city housing inspector.
I recently came across a photo James took of me at the time in my tiny study. Behind me are my poetry and theory books, as well as framed family photos. It reminded me of a poem I wrote during first days together in that apartment.
We thought we were alone at last,
escaping housemates and their cats:
fresh paint, unscratched floors, empty cabinets,
a new mattress with no one else’s stains.
Until my mother showed up in her housecoat
and bare feet. She scrubbed the stove,
disinfected the garbage pail. If you want it done
well, she said, you have to do it yourself.
The next morning I heard splashing
from the bathroom. My father left puddles,
bits of hair and shaving cream in the sink.
My sister did grand pliés in the hall.
Next came Grandma and Uncle Leo,
then the in-laws. Old lovers waited
in line for the shower, comparing stories
about me, elbowing each other in delight.
My piano teacher blocked the stairway.
Cocoa the cat was on the fire escape.
I thought it couldn’t get any worse
and then the shrink moved in.
It’s like a circus, all jostle and roar.
The spotlights are hot, the props in place.
They throw peanuts, we jump the hoops.
We bow when they applaud.
September 29, 2013