Photo by Davidson Clinton Murphy
It was well after midnight. My father and I sat on the stoop outside my new apartment on Thompson Street eating burgers in the late August heat, unable to get in. A cockroach scuttled beneath my feet and up the small half-wall to where my fries lay.
“Ugh! Why?!” I jumped to the opposite side of the stoop. We had arrived in the city around 9 earlier that evening. It was a later arrival than we had planned on, but we had still thought by eleven everything would be moved into my room and we would be drinking Manhattans and enjoying the view over the Hudson on the rooftop of my father’s Manhattan hotel—a perfect New York City evening. But instead, at midnight we still hadn’t gotten the apartment door unlocked.
Earlier in the summer, while studying abroad in Russia, I had agreed to move into my friend, Shelby’s, two-bedroom apartment in Soho when I returned to NYC that fall. I had never seen the place, but I was sick of the NYU dorms. Not that they were cramped or uncomfortable—they were probably nicer than most affordable apartments in Manhattan. I just had dreams of independence, or being a real New Yorker, or something else equally delusional that I thought came with living in a real NYC apartment. Shelby had assured me the apartment was tiny, but livable. I assumed that meant there would be some sort of living space, even if it were only small enough to hold a loveseat or a kitchen table, not both. I love to cook and I imagined having friends over for elaborate homemade dinners or desert tastings on Saturdays. I agreed to take the smaller bedroom, and smaller rent. In photos, the room appeared no larger than my mother’s walk-in closet. I would only be getting back to America a week before fall classes at NYU began, and I didn’t want to worry about where I was going to live. I now blame my impulsive decision to move into an apartment unseen on both youth and desperation.
The night my father and I arrived in Manhattan, Shelby was visiting family out of state. A friend of hers, Chelsea, was staying in the apartment. It was a Saturday and she had plans for the evening, so she had left the keys at my father’s hotel for me to pick up. Miraculously finding a parking spot in front of the apartment, we nervously entered the building. The stairwell was far nicer than any I had seen in other doorman-less New York City apartment buildings. A beautiful heavy wooden door opened onto gray-blue tile flooring. Black, decorative metal railings lined the stairs at the end of the hallway.
“This is nice,” my father said.
We lugged the first load of suitcases and Ikea furniture pieces up to the third floor, Apartment 17. I slipped the key into its lock and turned left.
I turned it right. Equally disappointing results.
I turned towards my father, my face twisted, “I did say I was renting apartment 17, right?” My father, already annoyed from driving, nodded, but looked ready to release a deluge of profanities.
“It’s okay,” I said, fending off his hand attempting to take the key from me. “I’m just doing it wrong.” It’s my apartment, I thought, I need to be able to open it myself. He held back the deluge, instead, muttering.
But the next seven tries did not work, nor did the following nine. My hands sweated profusely from the stuffy warmth of the building. I imagined future hours of listening to my father’s rants over this and years of him never letting me live this moment down. I turned the key for the seventeenth time with no effect.
I yielded my place to my father. He had no better luck. We began taking turns at the door, each unsuccessful attempt resulting in further frustration. At one point the lock slipped a little. I started a happy dance, but the door still did not yield.
Consternated, I sent a text to Shelby.
She responded, Oh yeah. I always have problems with the lock. Sometimes it takes me a few minutes to get it open, but you just have to shove the key in there and jiggle it.
“Um, just keep jiggling it, she says,” I told my dad, who was currently trying his hand again at the stubborn bolt. Twenty minutes later, hands cramping, we still had made no progress. I decided to text Chelsea for help, feeling bad about potentially ruining her night. She assured me she was headed home and would let me in.
“Confession,” Chelsea said as she took my place at door, “I don’t even use the key. I just use a credit card to get into the apartment.”
I balked. Chelsea was breaking into the apartment every night like a burglar. Even Shelby needed several minutes to open her own door. The tolerance of New Yorkers to put up with ridiculous living conditions never failed to impress me. This is New York City, the pinnacle city of dreams in America. Questioning whether you will actually be able to get your apartment door open every night is not a standard of living one is supposed to just accept here, or anywhere, really. But neither of the girls had felt the need to do anything about it.
When I tell people, especially New Yorkers, that I studied abroad in St. Petersburg for 9 months, they laugh and suggest life (namely surviving the winter) must be difficult over there. It isn’t. In fact, in most respects it’s easier than life in NYC. The longest you have to wait for the metro is three minutes. The streets are large, the sidewalks broad and clean. Strangers recite poetry or sing songs together in parks. And the vodka is good and always shared liberally.
And yet despite the ease of life in Russia, I found myself missing the difficulties of life in New York when I’m not there. I get nostalgic for the summer stench of garbage on street corners and the curses the homeless hurl at you if you don’t give them your pocket change. I miss the fact that the only friendly exchange I’ll have with strangers for days on end is the barista asking if I want cream with my coffee or brief eye contact with fellow subway passengers. When I’m gone, I realize that I actually love how even the seemingly simplest tasks often become so damn difficult in NYC, like navigating late night weekend subway schedules—or moving into a new apartment. These absurdities, annoying as they often are, endear the city to me. When I rode the pristine subways of St. Petersburg, I found myself bemoaning the fact that I would never be able to use the subway as my excuse for being late and the lack of Chinatown with its stink of dried fish that burrows into the pores of your skin. So being unable to get into my apartment seemed an ironically fitting re-entry into the city.
Chelsea couldn’t get the door open either. It seemed her breaking and entering tactic finally failed her, as it had inevitably been bound to do. She left, informing us that she was only really keeping her stuff at the apartment, while actually sleeping at a friend’s. So at midnight, my father and I sat on the front stoop eating hamburgers with the cockroaches, waiting on a locksmith.
My father was all bluster, venting his feelings about the evening and the state of the apartment’s lock. But I just laughed at the absurdity of the moment. It reminded me of a story I read shortly after I first moved to New York City, about a girl who had always dreamed of visiting the Big Apple. When she finally got the chance, she rented a room on the Upper East Side, close to Central Park. That was what she was most excited to see—the park. So when she arrived in the late afternoon, she immediately dropped her bags in the hotel and set off to walk through the famous green space before dinner. But within minutes of entering this calm, green reservoir in the bustling city, a tree branch fell, striking her head and killing her.
The story is rather harsh but memorable because it was such the opposite of New York’s usual “city of dreams” narrative. The dreamer in this story doesn’t make it in the big city like she’s supposed to. Instead, she just dies. My experience is incomparable to hers. But the New York City that welcomed her and the New York City that was welcoming me were both irreverently unconcerned with expectations. If anything they were intent upon upsetting them, which was, depending on one’s view of life, either sardonically amusing or tragically annoying.
Once the locksmith arrived, it took him almost thirty minutes to remove and replace the lock. Finally, the door opened upon a cramped, though lengthy hallway. And that was when I realized my egregious mistake in the process of agreeing to live in the apartment, sight unseen. I had forgotten to ask Shelby about the communal space of the apartment. At the end of the long, cramped hallway stood a kitchen, too small for even a table, let alone a love seat or a fourth or fifth person. Three doors lead to the bedrooms and bathroom. That was all.
“All that effort for this place,” my dad said.
I laughed. At least now I was a real New Yorker.
Cat DeLaura spent the last four years studying the Russian language in hopes of finding an oligarch from Moscow who will pay for her ticket on the first commercial flight to the moon. In the mean time she’s serving coffee to residents of the Upper West Side and scribbling down her thoughts and experiences in hopes that someone might find them interesting.
Photographer: Davidson Clinton Murphy