Inventorying Hidden Spaces

by

03/07/2011

Neighborhood: Harlem, Upper West Side

Inventorying Hidden Spaces
photo by pharos

In the basement of the Museum of American Indian there was a caretaker’s apartment. You got to it by walking down a side stairwell, beyond the main entrance of the museum, or by going past the work space beyond the gift shop, through a utility room, and then down a side hallway. The door was always locked and the space was unused, but it captured my imagination. It was one of the hidden places that were tucked away all around New York, like the manager’s apartment at the old Thalia Theater, or a suite of rooms that were off the network of tunnels under Columbia University, or the custodial rooms in the basement of the Ethical Culture Society. And those were just the hidden spots that I knew about, that I’d stumbled upon through a fluke or someone’s inside dope. I could imagine hundreds and thousands more scattered all around New York.

My secret hope was that I would live in one of those secret apartments one day. I wasn’t the kind of writer who hoped for a garret. I wanted a warren, a private place inside a big structure that would be utterly silent at night. The moment I found the apartment in the basement of The Museum of the America Indian, it became my apotheosis of a writer’s warren.

I had unfettered access to the basement because I’d gotten a part-time job at the gift shop in the Museum. This is back when the Museum was up on 155th Street, sharing one of the grand Beaux Arts buildings of Audubon Terrace with the American Geographical Society, the American Numismatic Society, the Hispanic Society and the American Academy of Arts & Letters. The compound was an elegant testament to the retro-classic architecture of the early 20th Century. The people who ran the Museum of American Indian chafed to get out…the dated sensibility of Victorian anthropology clashed with the enlightened post-Modern interpretation of the native American cultures.

I was happy because the job was on the Number 1 Line and midway between my apartment way uptown on Wadsworth Avenue and the Columbia campus, where I was finishing up my junior year.

My primary qualification for working at the gift shop was that I had wrapped packages for a letter press shop was I was thirteen. The hours were flexible and the setting fed my need for eccentric and out-of-the-way New York experiences.

As dated and stodgy as the Museum was, the gift shop was vital and energetic. The manager was one of the most sophisticated buyers of Indian jewelry, Navajo rugs, modern native American painting, pottery and Hopi Kachina dolls in the New York area. The shop also had an extensive collection of literature and research about native Americans.

I was intrigued by the expertise of the people who came in to the shop and began to read all of the books about Native American art that I could sneak out with me at the end of the day. Soon I was allowed to work the counter, and in time I became one of the most confident people on staff talking about the pottery and rugs that we carried.

Nancy, the shop manager, encouraged me to learn as much as I could about the things in the shop. My enthusiasm began to attract her attention. Dane, another guy who worked in the shop with me, didn’t seem happy when Nancy invited me down to the stockroom to see the new shipments that had come in from her last buying trip to the Southwest. Jane, the girl who worked the admissions counter and handled the phones, told me that Dane and Nancy had a thing going, and that I’d better watch out for myself. I wasn’t sure whether I was all that interested in Nancy: she was in her thirties, had stringy blonde hair that she kept in a business-like cut, and her hips did an odd, mis-aligned seesaw switch when she walked.

I was sure that I was interested in Jane. She was a couple of years out of Michigan and lived in a ground-floor apartment on 79th Street, just off on West End, by the entrance to the West Side Highway. She always had an apologetic smile on her face, but her eyes twinkled mischievously, and she wore her bangs over her brows, so that when she didn’t want to look at someone all she had to do was tilt her face down. She favored nice wool skirts and silky blouses to work the admissions desk, and she always had a book to read when things were quiet.

The best thing about Jane was that she wasn’t Janet. I’d been trying to wind things down with Janet in that rocky, unclear way that incomplete relationships fall into.  We’d been boyfriend and girlfriend, and then we weren’t, and then we kind of were again. By the time I started working at the Museum, we were in a suspended state of weren’t.

One day I told Jane about my fascination with the custodian’s apartment in the basement. I wondered if she had any idea who I could talk to about using it.

“Why would you want to live here when everyone was gone?” she asked.

“I could play my saxophone as late as I wanted,” I said.

“I could come and play my cello then too,” she laughed.

The die was cast. I didn’t know she played the cello. I was fascinated. I wanted to know more.

One day I asked Jane if she wanted to go over to Trinity Cemetery and picnic at lunch. I figured that this could be a kind of trial date. I could use the time to figure out whether she liked me that way or not, and what her deal was with her boyfriend.

Trinity Cemetery ran up alongside the Museum, and was across the street from The Church of the Intercession. The cemetery was heavily wooded and ran down the hill to the river, surrounded by a high stone wall. We went in through a side gate and ate our sandwiches sitting on fallen grave stones so we wouldn’t get our pants wet. I finished my sandwich quickly and sipped on a seltzer. Jane put her sandwich down. We kissed. I had my answer.

Back then, one of my favorite things to do was to go to the West End’s jazz club and listen to Benny Waters play the alto saxophone. A few times I’d brought my horn and he’d invited me to sit in. He’d been brought back to the states by Phil Schaap, who hosted (and still does) a seminal show on Charlie Parker every morning on WKCR, the Columbia radio station.

I invited Jane to listen to Benny Waters that Friday evening. We hung out on the Walk at Columbia, sitting by one of the fountains, watching people walk by, enjoying each other and stealing kisses that became progressively more urgent, that dulled our eyes, lowered our lids, left our faces flush.

We walked over to the West End hand in hand and got a table at the back of the club. The 9:00 set was crowded with jazz buffs. Waters was swinging hard, blowing out the side of his mouth and egging on the rhythm section with quick glissandos and sharp honks. I was elevating: the girl, the music, the night, what might happen.

Jane squeezed my arm and leaned in.

“Do you know that girl over there?” she asked, turning her head.

I looked over to the door.

Janet was standing in the door. She had square shoulders, and her hair was pulled back from her head, so her forehead shined in the stage lights. She was staring hard at me. I hadn’t noticed. She started to make her way over.

“Who is she?” Jane asked.

“My girlfriend.  Ex-girlfriend,” I said.

Now she stared at me hard.

“What’s she doing here?”

“I don’t know. She’s not really my girlfriend anymore. We broke up. But I don’t know why she’s here.”

“Did you tell her we’d be here?”

I tried to remember. I didn’t know. I’d talked to Janet earlier that day. But I knew what the smart answer was.

“No. I don’t know why she’s here.”

Jane narrowed her eyes.

“I’m going,” she said.

“No, no,” I said, while I stood up. “Don’t go. It’s going to be all right.”

Janet stood next to us.

I introduced the two women. They stood there. I searched for that elevated feeling, looking for the escape that would come with floating away in the air, or a blinding moment of invisibility.

The women were silent. Then Benny picked his horn up from the stand. The piano player hit a chord — E7 — and then another — A — then vamped a little, picking up the shirring of the drum brushes, and Waters lifted his horn to his mouth, licked his lips, and kicked off a little run that took him in the center of the E chord, and the melody broke. A Jerome Kern standard, The Nearness of You. It would have been ironic if I’d known the words. I just knew the melody and the changes.

I sat back down. Jane slipped next to me, held my arm, leaned in. Janet sat on the other side. Waters played, the set ran on. I sat between the two women — the woman I wanted to sleep with, whose breast I’d tentatively caressed just an hour earlier, who had wrapped her tongue around mine, and the woman I had slept with, who I wanted to be away from, who I didn’t trust — and looked straight ahead, unmoving. I could have used that custodian’s apartment just then.

After the set we walked out onto the sidewalk. No one was willing to make the first move. Janet looked at me with wounded eyes. Jane looked a little away, like she was bored or had forgotten something.

“Stay here for a sec,” I said to Janet.

Jane and I walked a couple of steps away.

“I’ve got to talk with her. I’m sorry.”

“I get it,” she said. She whispered. “Come down to my apartment after.”

I walked Janet back to her apartment on 106th Street. It was a big building on the corner, a luxury rental once upon a time and well out of my price range still. She lived there with a roommate. Her dad paid the rent. She had wanted to go to art school, but was going to business school instead. I told her that it was really over. She cried a little. Then we got to the building and stood outside the door. She wanted to hug. I held her. The night was warm and sparkling. A cab pulled up to the corner.

“I’ve got to go,” I said. I skipped over to the cab. “I’ll talk to you later.”

I didn’t know why I said that. I told the cabby to go down to 79th Street. I hoped that Jane was still waiting.

J.W. Rogers grew up in Massachusetts and came to New York in 1977. He’s been in and around NYC, collecting stories and writing them down, ever since. You can read some of his work at www.drmstream.com.

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