Life on a Park Avenue Balcony

by

01/16/2004

70th Street and Park Avenue, 10021

Neighborhood: Upper East Side

In his long running quest to be a perpetual houseguest, Sherban had developed a new strategy: balconies.

Something about a balcony reassured apartment owners that oneÕs presence was only temporary, enjoyable almost. And life on a balcony turned out to be refreshingly casual, al fresco. By contrast to a Ôspare roomÕ or fold-out sofa, one could be proud of a balcony, speak of it like a homeowner; ” Oh, I have a little balcony just round the corner from the Guggenheim.”

A balcony belonged more to the the city than the apartment it happened to adjut. Sherban relished this ambiguity of balconies, unclaimed by any party, free floating in status between civic ornament and domestic extension. A narrow lip of stone, an honorary member of the street masquerading as private property. On this thin ledge Sherban was safe, safe from the obligations of property ownership and more importantly, eviction. For even the most genteel host could, after a few months, object to oneÕs continued presence in their library, however carefully one folded away the bed each afternoon, put back last nightÕs books, brushed away the crumbs of a midnight snack. Nobody acted like that about balconies.

Balconies suited his marginality ( what could be a more literal margin than a balcony, shelf, edge, outer limb of property ) and were inherently friendly to supine inclinations. No zone of a house had more loungability. If any room embodied the dressing gown, the sofa, the eternal recliner, it was the balcony. Balcony, balcony, so rich with European associations of another era. The problem in Manhattan was finding sufficient balconies. Many were merely a metal balustrade with hardly enough room for an ice bucket let alone a resident. Others gave implications of grandeur seen from below but contained minuscule square footage, curlicues, rococo flourishes impinging on usable surface. Sherban had just spent weeks camped out on a fire escape, that proletarian balcony, and his back was tender from the barbecue effect of lying on its metal slats.

Ah, to move up in the world by ten floors into a perch of proper stone, a carved bow of his own. Thus he stood staring up at the magnificent curved prow that jutted from the Goldstein mansion. And Mrs. Goldstein seemed genuinely cheered to see him, having apparently forgotten the incident of the silver salt set. She even proffered an afternoon gin and pink. Her balcony was never used, the glass in the doors dusty, swagged curtains tired. Mrs Goldstein was surprised by SherbanÕs request to inspect her balcony but waved him ahead, to help himself to the vista.

The doors resisted with a creak, a light snow of paint flakes and then a burst of energy as they shot open, suddenly remembering this bold, theatrical gesture which was part of their genetic “doorness”, their verandah memory. And the sound of traffic rose up from Park Avenue like a greeting, the call and response, an ancient ritual, between any balcony and its city below. This balcony and all its attendant ÔbalconynessÕ had awaited Sherban to bring it back to life. The traffic only bothered to honk and shift, make its music, in response to the opening of doors, flags on the avenue cracked to life, pigeons swooped on cue, the wind shifted clouds aside to allow the brilliance of the sun. Sherban placed his palms on the cold solidity of the balcony, a coldness that spread through his fingers, into his palms like history.

Mrs Goldstein saw no problem in having the beach chair moved onto the balcony for Sherban. The chair had been rescued from her GrandmaÕs cottage but never reupholstered. The blue and white stripes were chosen in the first decade of the century and of all the many couches, daybeds, sofas and spare mattresses Sherban had sampled, from heirloom Beidermeir to rotating waterbed, this Sears Ocean Recliner was his favorite, big enough to live in. Its bulk had caused much huffing through the balcony doors. Sherban, supervising the operation with several helpful suggestions, had finally, with good grace, put down his Partagas, rolled up his Sea Island sleeves and given one strategic push.

Out on the balcony grandmaÕs holiday-horizontal looked at home. Little room was left for other furniture but SherbanÕs needs were modest. All he insisted upon was some direct reading light, provided by a nightlamp which he propped on the balcony. This made an even more cosy, domestic effect. He could lie down at night with the panorama of Park Avenue flickering under him and his bedside light switched on, casting its intimate glow on his pillows.

He relished the olfactory combination of musty pages from the Goldstein library and the distant salt tang of beach chair. It was own small world, his private eyrie. When tired of the book he would reach up to switch off his lamp, pull the sable covers over him and watch the dwindling red tail lights, taxi fireflies fading down the Avenue and lulled, let his eyes droop close.

He would be woken by the reflections of the rising sun in the myriad windows he lived amongst. Bundling deeper into the heavy mound of fur against the sharp daybreak, he would turn, nose pressed against a hundred Newport summers and cover his eyes against the dazzle of glass, fall back to sleep. The hum of traffic had not yet begun its song below.

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