I left for New York the next night. Mr. Ex, who I called on my way to share the good news, picked me up from Penn Station. He took me to dinner. Now that I was coming back, it was nothing had changed. But I wondered where he'd been the last time I was here. What— or better who— had him so busy that he could barely make time for me that week. He seemed to have a severe case of out of sight, out of mind. But I guess that worked in my favor now that I was back in proverbial sight.
He dropped me off at my friend's apartment in Harlem-- even though he didn't want to. When we pulled up, there were a group of sketchy guys hanging out on her stoop smoking.
"You want me to leave you here?" he asked incredulously. I think it was a rhetorical question.
As long as I got inside, I'd be fine. What other choice did I have really?
"You wanna stay with me?" he asked unexpectedly.
I looked at him sideways. Really? I wasn't expecting the offer, but I was glad he threw it out there.
"No, I'm good," I lied. For sure safety and peace of mind—-and um, other things— I wouldn't have minded. But he lived too far uptown to get to anywhere conveniently.
I needed convenience. I'd spent the morning before I left looking at Village Voice.com* listings for available apartments and realty websites. I'd called a bunch of realtors— not the most cost-effective way to find a place to live, but I only had three days— in Harlem and Brooklyn and made appointments to see places. I had a list of about 20. One of them had to work out I figured.
I popped my door. He told me to hold off and asked me to call my girl to come down while he parked. I did, and after he found a spot for his car, he grabbed my bag and my sleeping bag (I'd bought it that morning when I found out my girl from college had a one bedroom and no couch, so I'd be on the floor.) He walked me (shook) and her (unfazed) past the group of sketchy looking guys on the stoop and back to her apartment.
I don't remember much about the building… other than it was filthy. There was dirt caked in the grooves of the tiles and I wondered when was the last time it had been washed. If ever. There was an abandoned black skillet on the foyer floor. I was scared to touch the walls.
When we got to my friend's door, she left us in the hall to say goodbye and Mr. Ex asked again. "You sure, D?"
I wasn't, but I nodded. He made me promise to call if I needed anything, anything at all.
Her apartment was bare, but clean. I didn't expect anything less as I'd live with her for a few months back in school. She had the essentials, sorta. I'm from the suburbs—sunlight is a basic necessity, not a luxury. The window in her bedroom faced a brick wall. It was also August in NYC and she had no A/C (another necessity that NYC thinks is a luxury.)
I had a budget in mind for what I'd pay for rent-- approximately $850 for a one bedroom. That was about what something luxurious back home would be, so I figured I could get something decent, something Carrie Bradshaw-ish, in Brookyln or Harlem for that price.
I asked my girl how much she paid for the space after I got settled on her floor.
"It's pretty good for $750," she deduced.
If this was what $750 looked like, this was not an option. I added another $400 to my monthly budget and decided to work two jobs to live "decently."
The next day, I headed out in search of a home. The first stop was a third floor walk up off of 125th street. I walked in the brownstone, saw the torn up tiles and steps in bad need of repair and a cleaning, and walked right back out without seeing the space. It was $900 for a place that looked like, at least from the entrance, it should have been condemned.
I headed to Brooklyn. I'd had a work-study in grad school at a high school in Clinton Hill. I remembered thinking what a great place it was, so I headed over there. I saw some really cute oversized boxes that they called apartments.
I left and headed to Fort Greene and saw three more places. The first was across from the park. I knew it was out of my price range, but I wanted to see what $1500 would garner versus $1100 to $1200 I’d been seeing. $1500 was a slightly bigger box, a rectangle instead of the square. The price was so high because of the balcony, the agent said. Balcony?
He opened a door that led to a fire escape. It was 3x3, tops, and it had a guardrail. It overlooked the park. If I bought a mini-grill, I could sit it, and maybe me, out there.
"Nice, huh?" The agent offered. I shook my head and asked to see another spot.
Next up was a studio, spanking brand new. Second floor. Plenty of sun, no tub, just a shower. I really wanted a one bedroom, but this was adorable. I could climb out the window to lay on the roof in the summer. It was within the original budget and there was a train nearby and a park across the street. I was walking distance from Macy’s. (Brooklyn used to have two.)
Was it this easy??
An organ started up, then the chorus came in. It was like the Mississippi mass choir was holding rehearsal in my living room. I could sing along with the soprano soloist word for word.
I headed out to Bed Sty and found a quaint brownstone studio. It was bare and basic, but the building had been scrubbed spotless. When the landlady let me in, I was knocked in the face by the heat.
"The air's not on?" I asked. I don't know how I hadn't noticed before. Maybe the windows were open in the other places???
She looked at me curiously. "Uh, the window unit will go right there." I thought my girl's building was shoddy because it didn't have central air. Turns out that was just unheard of, even in some of the best places in Manhattan (like my grad school.)
It was small, but workable— if I didn't bring my bedroom furniture. I had a queen size bed and a matching five-piece furniture set. It would never fit here. Maybe I'd buy a twin with the money I was saving on the place. It was only $650.
$650? I thought about that. Something must be wrong.
"You got a lot of folks sitting on the stoop?" I asked her. That was a big concern for me. I didn’t like being harassed in the street as I walked by, much less as I tried to enter my own home. The guys standing outside my girl’s building had really rattled me. I’d never tell him, but I was glad— real glad— Mr. Ex was there.
"Nope. I don't allow that on my property."
I noted that. Black landlady and owner. It I had “throw money away” paying rent, then it might as well be to a Black person.
I'd walked a little bit to get here. Did I want to take that trek everyday? "That C train the closest stop?"
She shook her head. "3s closer."
Hmm. I looked around again, looking for that something I was missing, but couldn’t put my finger on.
The closet was small, but I'd get a trunk or that clothing rack they have at stores.
I looked over the door. Two good locks to keep trouble out, or in, depending on your perspective.
I didn’t bother looking for a dishwasher. I’d already figured out that, like carpet, was a luxury only afforded to a few.
“Who else lives in the building?” I asked.
“All working folks. Pretty quiet like this during the day. Never gets too rowdy at night.”
“Lot of kids?”
“One. She’s downstairs.”
I was on the second floor, good by my mother’s rules (“You don’t live on the ground floor. Those are always the first people to get robbed,” she’d said.) Bad by my father’s rules (you only want to live on the top floor. You will go crazy with people walking around on top of you.”)
I shrugged. A kid running around was the least of my worries. It was cute, convenient, cheap, and close to the train. Oh, and seemingly quiet and safe. You can’t ask for much more.
I was about to say, “I'll take it, when she said, "let me show you the bathroom." She went out into the hall.
She walked to the end of the corridor and opened a door. As she was showing me, she was saying that it was convenient and I’d only share it with another woman and a man who lived at whatever door she was pointing to. She cleaned it once a week. The rest of the time was on whatever schedule the three of us worked out.
Oh hell no.
I thanked her kindly and left.
It was then that I realized the hardest part about New York wasn’t getting here; it was living here.
*If I were to search now, I’d go through ardorny.com. They have pictures of the apartments so you know about what you’re getting before you get there.