Photo by John Penny
Yellow police tape stretched across the doorframe of Apartment 5. I had walked past this door every day for the last two years, past its tortured wood, pockmarked like the cigarette-burned arms of its inhabitant. The door was so battered, a neighbor told me, from all the times Katya’s parents threw her out and all the times she returned and tried, without success, to bash it in. The stench was unyielding, a mix of body odor and garbage, the stale smell of disarray. When the EMTs found her lifeless body there the day before, it can’t have taken them long to put the pieces together.
Our bedroom windows faced the same alley, and I woke countless nights to the sound of breaking glass, the screams of people whose consciousness was clouded by opiates, by painkillers, by whatever substances they survived on, or didn’t. Katya (not her real name) grew up in the building, somehow inheriting the apartment after her parents left. She was friends with the crusties that hung around St. Marks Place, their hair matted, their clothing army green, their bodies unshowered. But she was trying, she had told me, to turn her life around.
The neighborhood bloggers were outraged that the Medical Examiner ruled her death an accidental overdose. On the night she died, she had been beaten in Tompkins Square Park by some teenagers from Alphabet City. They hit her with a bottle, with sticks, possibly a wooden bat. Supposedly the casket was closed at the wake because her head was so badly battered. The authorities, the bloggers purported, discounted the impact of the beating because they didn’t want to waste their time investigating the death of an addict who lived her life on the fringes.
Katya and I were the same age, give or take a year. We shared the same address, give or take a floor. But in her, I saw my reflection in a parallel universe, another dimension where maybe my parents didn’t love me as much, where my chemical makeup predisposed me to a different way of coping. In her, I saw what I thought was the East Village I had come to immerse myself in. By the time I arrived there, CBGB had been replaced by a high-end menswear store. You could still glimpse a smattering of pleather pants and creatively placed piercings on parade, but the neighborhood that inspired Rent and Patti Smith was long gone. Katya had witnessed this history, even if only a child for much of it, and through a drug-induced haze for the rest. She was the embodiment of grunge, of social protest, of “Fuck the police.” Her grit and suffering rendered her authentic in a way I could never be. She was a portal to a time and place I could never experience myself.
Even when I was living there, I knew I would look back on my first New York apartment as the kind of place you tell stories about when you’re older: drug addicts, bed bugs, a Ukrainian superintendent who spoke mainly in grunts. It was a building unfit for children, inhabited by twenty-somethings unfazed by the grime and by septuagenarians too old to move. Having gone straight from my childhood home in Suburban Boston to four years in ivy-clad college dorms, this apartment would be my first. I remember the way it looked empty, right after my roommates and I signed our lease. I gazed out the window of that empty ten by ten living room at the iconic spire of the Empire State Building. Only in retrospect did I realize how closely it resembled a syringe.
The six-story tenement building was inset from the corner of Bowery and East 6th Street by an empty lot, graffitied and overgrown. The doorman was a plastic, waist-high Mario who stood outside the ground floor video game store, waving at our comings and goings with a permanent smile on his mustachioed face. The iron fire escape that zigzagged up to the rooftop served mainly as a place to oust my roommates when they wanted a smoke. It offered a clear vantage point for a once-in-a-quarter-century lunar eclipse, and we nearly used it for its intended purpose when Katya left a cigarette burning between couch pillows one Sunday morning.
The door was red when we moved in, green by the time we moved out, colors whose symbolic meanings I should perhaps have considered. It was the kind of door where you looked over your shoulder as you unlocked it. It wasn’t that it was a dangerous neighborhood; the Bowery was no longer the blocks-long halfway house it once had been. Still, when you walked into that closet-sized foyer with its single dim light bulb, you got the feeling someone might just come up behind you with intentions that were no good. This feeling convinced my roommates and me to invest in a second lock, which we were glad to have when Katya informed me of the squatters upstairs.
“Hey,” her eyes locked on mine. “If anyone tries to get in and they say they know me, don’t let them in.” Her voice conveyed the urgency of a shepherd who’d just seen a wolf.
Our buzzer would often ring in the wee hours of weekday mornings, awaking in me an urge to shove my ancient behemoth of a TV out the fourth floor window straight onto the landing from whence the culprits buzzed. As close as Katya came to destroying that building – the fire, the battered door, the odor the landlord will never in a million years get out of those walls – her attitude toward it was nothing if not protective.
“They’re buzzing people’s apartments saying they’re my friends, and they’re squatting upstairs by the entrance to the roof.” She pointed up the stairs, her expression indignant. “They’re leaving beer cans, jerking off up there. It’s disgusting.”
I nodded, my eyebrows involuntarily furrowing to mirror the cringe on her face. Her family was Ukrainian, and she had a distinctly Eastern European look about her. Though my ancestors hailed from more or less the same corner of the earth, her features pronounced her infinitely closer to the motherland than mine. Her eyes were deep-set, her eyebrows plucked thin. The bridge of her nose fanned out into a slightly bulbous hub of cartilage. Her jaw was square and her tousled hair, dirty blonde, quite literally.
“I grew up in this building,” she said, speaking as though to some invisible audience. “Good people live here. This is a good building.”
She felt as responsible for getting these squatters out as she felt at fault for their getting inside in the first place. It was as though she were single-handedly to blame for the building’s decline, and she was the only one who could turn things around. As much as her presence was continually foisting itself upon me in the most intrusive ways, this was the first time she had actually spoken to me. My eyes wandered to her arms. They were maps, her past laid out clearly in the track marks, interstates connecting cigarette burns to bruises.
“I can’t see nothin’, I’m wandering around in the dark here. I’m trying to get Medicaid so I can get some glasses. I’m trying, you know? These people, they come into this building – this building where good people live. I worked hard for this, and it’s just not right that they come in here like they live here, trash the place.”
I wasn’t sure what she meant when she said she worked hard for this little corner of the city. As far as I knew she didn’t have a job, and I once saw her begging for money outside a nearby Starbucks.
“Do you want to come in?” The only prepositions I ever associated with Apartment 5 were “by” and “past” – never “in.” But it seemed the polite thing to do. I shrugged okay. I followed as she began down the flight of stairs to her apartment. It was immediately apparent that she could not, in fact, see very well. She held the banister for balance.
I watched the stairs turn over beneath my feet. They were marble, or a cheaper imitation of it, concave from a century of shoes ruthlessly wearing down their centers. The geometric pattern on the landings might have been lovely if not for a film of dirt, flecks of onion skins from stews made to feed children now grown old.
In the low light of Apartment 5 I could make out a narrow kitchen to the left, and a living room straight ahead. The wooden floors were worn, whatever sheen they once had completely dulled. Furniture was sparse. It was the kind of place where I imagined you would shoot up, if you were going to shoot up.
“It’s not much,” she interrupted my nightmare of tourniquets and syringes. “But it’s mine.” It was hard to see how someone could be proud of a place that seemed so neglected, destroyed even.
“These are my friends.” She tilted her head toward a couple of people leaning against the kitchen counter. I said hello. They nodded in my direction. I wondered what they thought of me, still in my workday attire straight off the rack at Banana Republic, my hair more or less in place, if not perfectly blown dry. Neither she nor her friends seemed at all fazed that only the fact of our precisely shared geographic coordinates had brought us together in this moment. Their lack of acknowledgement of our differences made me feel ashamed of my own self-consciousness. Or maybe they were just too high to notice.
It had been a few months since I saw her sitting cross-legged on the sidewalk in front of that Starbucks, holding a cardboard sign with some pleading, Sharpied message. It was a moral dilemma for which I had only a few paces to make up my mind: to give to my neighbor because that is what we do for our neighbors, or to keep walking because any money I gave her would end up in a vein inside her elbow. I walked by, avoiding eye contact, hoping she wouldn’t recognize me.
I told her the apartment was nice and to have a good evening. I waved to her friends, who once again nodded back.
“Remember about the buzzer,” she called as I backed out and headed upstairs.
I was out of town the weekend Katya died. My roommates informed me of her death via text message, the details initially evoking more curiosity than grief. Despite the bloggers’ assertion that nobody noticed her death, detectives had been in and out of the apartment all weekend, removing objects in sealed evidence bags.
A few weeks later, I saw a man walking down the stairs with a white trash bag. It was her father, I presumed, clearing out her belongings. That battered door had had me imagining a household in which drama was the status quo, screaming a main mode of communication. But his face – and how could it not – hung haggard with sadness. I imagined that perhaps their last conversation was a fight, or worse, hadn’t taken place in years.
This building had been the set on which Katya’s childhood unfolded. This, for me, rendered it a distinct piece of East Village history. It was an artifact, a modern ruin, a museum. I observed her like the cave people in the dioramas at the Natural History Museum, frozen in time in their natural habitats. I projected my image of a vanishing place and time onto her being. Unlike the cavemen, though, she was alive and breathing, quite capable of answering my questions should I have conjured up the nerve to ask. But I never did. I kept the fiction intact. I knew the truth would shatter the fantasy.
Neighbors in New York City are characterized by an unusual degree of geographic proximity. I imagined that this would translate to interpersonal proximity. Personal space and privacy are relegated to the suburban sprawl of my youth, where the ugly fights dissolve in the twenty-five grassy feet between houses. Living as a neighbor to Katya, I witnessed her struggles, but they were as clear to me as if I were looking inward through a peephole, its convex glass distorting the image on the other side. My fantasy East Village died when Katya died. I couldn’t make myself authentic by living in a certain zip code any more than the life she lived was not a symbol of anything. It was more and it was less.
So I left. About a year after Katya died, I moved to Cobble Hill. I traded the dingy entryway for a classic Brooklyn stoop, where impromptu hangouts take place, not when a congregation of would-be squatters attempts to gain entry, but when my upstairs neighbor holds a sale to liquidate his collection of African masks. Strollers are collapsed and expanded, invitations to block parties stapled to the tree out front. I am still awakened by neighbors in the middle of the night, but now it’s the teething infant or his older sister awaking from bad dream. Where the East Village clings to its gritty bohemian past, Cobble Hill has its own colorful history, its well-heeled men who still keep an eye on their respective blocks. Perhaps it is the fate of any transplant living in a New York City neighborhood, but even here I feel a pang of nostalgia for a history I never witnessed.