I moved into 292 Elizabeth Street in the fall of 1976. On a Sunday night. I was skipping out on three months rent at 242 E. 10th Street on the corner of 1st Avenue and figured it would be easiest to do when there was less traffic and not many people around. Unfortunately, the Maltese landlady lived on the 2nd floor just below me and in the middle of her Sunday dinner (I could see the family sitting around the table in the kitchen, which was the front room, just as in my apartment) opened the door on me and my friend Charlie carrying what I then had the nerve to call furniture down the marble stairs. These were the same stairs that customers climbed every day to the apartment next to hers that functioned as a 9-5 whorehouse but that’s another story. I owed $330.00 and was moving into an apartment that was going to cost me $55/mo.—in other words I was six months ahead (not that I had the money) and that had never happened in my life before. I was 25 years old and already thought of myself as a failed writer. I was a very competent baker with a full-time job and had already had an infinitesimally brief “career” as a theatrical lighting designer—the high point was running (but not designing) the lights for 70 performances of Charles Ludlum’s Camille at the Ridiculous Theatrical Company—but I really didn’t care about either baking or lighting design, even though they were fun but exhausting.
So I was moving and nothing was going to stop me—not the landlady’s attempt at shaming me: “Steve, why you do this!?” I’m sure that was a big motivator for her but it didn’t mean shit to me. And I didn’t care that I was breaking the law (I was wasn’t I? Isn’t it illegal not to pay your rent? Can someone tell me? Besides this was the tail end of hippiedom and breaking the law was something that felt like a moral obligation to me—I was only holding up my end of the bohemian bargain.) Twice already the landlady had called the owner and he had come down from his Park Avenue South office to bang on my door demanding his rent. I was not ten yards away hiding under the bed both times and was amazed he gave up so easily after a few minutes. It only encouraged me.
I’d wanted this apartment on Elizabeth Street for three years already—the entire time I lived on 10th Street. My friend Raymond (he now calls himself Ramon but that too is another story) lived on the ground floor and had the storefront and basement. He was then a potter and is now a ceramic artist (another story) and we had worked together next door at what is now the Parisi Brothers Bakery back when it was by day Good Mother Earth and by night Paradox Bakery, the only macrobiotic bakery in New York City. We worked for Paradox in 1971 and became friends. I would see him riding his bike in my nabe and one day he said there was an apartment in his building that might become vacant and was I interested. He said the rent was $55. If it was only the windowsill that was for rent I would have been interested. But it was better than that. He said it had four rooms and high ceilings and the current tenant was an absentee who didn’t pay the rent on time. That was the one thing the owners didn’t like. They didn’t care about anything else and God knows there was no upkeep. But once a month you had to go to the Palace Hotel above CBGB’s (which wasn’t CBGB’s yet but that’s another story) and give $55 in cash to a frog-throated guy named Frankie and go back to your apartment having done your duty by the owners. The absentee tenant was a strange guy whom I never met and whose name I don’t remember. He was a carpenter and lived most of the time in an SRO on Broadway below Houston (when Broadway still had SRO’s and Bloomingdale’s hadn’t even heard of LoBro--yes another story) and was not much of a domestic type in spite of the “improvements” he made. I saw them when Raymond showed me the apartment after the landlord finally told him that he was no longer a tenant. There was nothing like a lease so there was nothing to argue about anywhere, especially not in court. Once he had removed his belongings and was forbidden access to the apartment I was let in to see it!
292 is on the north side of Houston just a few doors up the street. The apartment was on the third floor, two flights up—an old, un-renovated cold-water flat, it had a small hallway that led into a kitchen with a bathtub hidden behind a wooden partition (one of the improvements) right next to the tenement sized stove and a big window facing the loft building behind us on Bowery. A half-size refrigerator sat on a cardtable. If I stood right at the window and looked up I could see the sky above the roof line opposite me but even still there was a decent amount of light. Off the hallway was a square living room with a vaguely art deco gas heater exhausting into a fake marble fireplace—the marble was standard issue, urinal grey. But maybe only men old enough to remember NYC subway toilets will know what I’m talking about.»
The living room had two windows with identical views to the one in the kitchen, and two smaller rooms on its opposite side: a small square room that could be a bedroom or a dining room and a longer one that I envisioned as a grand study/workroom. Other than the front door, featuring four panels of frosted glass, the only door was the one that gave some privacy to the water-closet, off the tiny hall just inside the apartment. Even the transoms had been knocked out in all the others. There was grey industrial carpet on the living room floor. The apartment was filthy and I would eventually fill two dumpsters with stuff that the carpenter hadn’t removed. I loved it. I wanted it immediately and I could have it as of October 1st.
Charlie and I had to rent a U-Haul to bring my stuff (mostly books and records and cooking equipment) over. I had moved into 242 E. 10th Street three years before in the summer, when I was living and working on Fire Island and all I possessed could be carried in a couple of shopping bags and a few boxes. Now I had a 12 foot van packed to the top. Still it didn’t take much time. I wasn’t going to un-pack right away. The only furniture I had was a mattress, a table, a desk and some chairs and there was plenty of room for the boxes in the long back room. I put my mattress on the floor and hung my clothes in the low-rent California closet the carpenter had built over the door connecting my apartment to the adjoining one on the same floor. They were mirror images of each other. My floor mate was a pleasant, friendly widow, Mrs. DiPerri, whose mother and father still lived one floor down, in the apartment directly below hers. Her short room abutted my long room and vice versa.
We could hear each other easily and there were many nights I overheard her sobbing into the telephone, complaining of her loneliness and explaining patiently that she needed to cry, it made it possible for her to go on. But every morning she would open her door at 7 am. Even though she had a phone, and her parents had a phone, she would shout down the stairwell “Maaa!! Maaa--aaaa!!” and in a few minutes Mrs. Millazo would open her door and shout back and the day would begin. I was already sitting at my desk writing by this time, having consumed one half of the quart of black espresso I drank every morning. I wasn’t due in at the bakery until 10 am and I liked to give myself the best energy of the day. This went on for ten years until her parents died and Mrs. DiPerri moved out to live with other family. By then the neighborhood had begun to change and the next tenants were more like me: a painter named Laura Demme would live with the percussionist David Van Tiegham directly below me for almost a decade. By then Raymond became Ramon and he’d been showing his art at OK Harris in SoHo for years. I stopped being a baker and started having to wear a suit and tie to work.
But that’s another story. In the meantime I was happy. I had an apartment twice the size of my previous one. I could walk to work, which then was a long-gone bakery/catering business called Montana Palace on E.9th Street. The rent was beyond cheap. My fancier friends (a couple of them fashion industry snobs who couldn’t imagine not having a doorman or a “good address.” When they sneered I reminded them of my rent. I figured, no matter how poor I was I could always come up with $55. I figured wrong, but it was going to take another 8 years and getting sober for me to figure out why (another story).
Steve Turtell is a poet. He has been Director of Public Programs at the Museum of the City of New York, The South Street Seaport Museum and the New-York Historical Society. He has an MFA from Brooklyn College where he studied with Allen Ginsberg. His first book, Heroes and Householders, will be published this year by Windstorm Creative Press. He is currently working on Home Address, from which this is taken, a memoir of the 16 different places he lived in before moving to 292 Elizabeth Street.