City Habitats



Neighborhood: Lower East Side

City Habitats
Photo by Tom Thai

My partner and I found an apartment with one bedroom—one more bedroom than either of us had in our old places. The new residence did not, however, have a bathtub. The bathroom—an extension of a hallway that also served as the kitchen—was too small for a tub. The space left for a tub measured about three feet by three feet. A tub would have required at least three feet by six feet. A shower was the only fixture that fit. So we decided to do without the luxury of a sit-down bath fixture. When we became richer, we thought, we might get a place with a tub. Or when we became poorer, we might move to a place with a tub in the kitchen, next to the sink.

Our new place featured a long entranceway that served no practical purpose. It led from the front door to the living room. We figured we would put the sandboxes for my partner’s two cats in the useless corridor. The cats would not perceive the corridor as useless. It would be their favorite area, where they could scatter sand in privacy whenever they wished.


After I told my landlord I was going to move, a real estate agent showed my studio apartment to prospective tenants. Early one morning, dozens of people came in and viewed my home while I watched. The apartment seekers inspected the refrigerator, tested the stove units, opened and shut the windows, and kicked the floor moldings. One of them checked the plumbing by turning on the water in the bathroom sink and flushing the commode. Another asked, “Is it noisy here?”

“Well,” I said, “there’s a city street right outside.”

I didn’t mention that the apartment was on a fire route. Engine trucks regularly sped past with their sirens screaming.


I dismantled the floor-to-ceiling bookshelves I’d installed next to my bed. While sleeping next to the shelves, I often thought they would come loose and fall on me. I thought I’d be buried under tons of texts. But as I unscrewed the pine planks, I could tell they’d been solid. I’d done a good job.

I had also worried about the door lock giving way. I often rose from my mattress on the floor and checked the top device, lockable from the inside and the outside, to see if it was still attached to the door. It always was. It was so reliable I decided to transfer it to our new apartment.

Just before I left, I got a call from the woman who’d signed the lease for my place. “Can I buy those bookshelves and that door lock from you?” she asked.

I remembered her as the person who’d tested my plumbing by turning on the faucets and flushing the toilet.

“Sorry,” I said. “I’m taking them with me. You can buy my mattress, though.”

She wasn’t interested in my three-inch-thick, rollable foam pad.


I helped my partner move out of her room in a painter’s loft. As we carried boxes and pieces of furniture out, we noticed that one of her cats was missing. We didn’t worry about the animal until everything was loaded onto a truck. Then we looked behind all of the canvases propped against the walls.

Unable to find the pet, we drove off with only one cat.


Our new block had a couple of stores on it. One was called Last Rites. Its small front window contained a tableau of tree roots invading an untended crypt. The roots were covered with mold, and the inside of the crypt was lit red. A mummy lay on the stone floor.

When I saw the scene, I had to check out the store. I went in and saw black mourning scarves, other religious paraphernalia, and a full-sized coffin. The store’s proprietor greeted me. “I’m available for custom work,” he said.

The other store on the block specialized in body arts. It had a comfortable-looking front room, with carpeting and couches. Next to the furniture was a glass case holding jewelry that could be hooked through the skin. In the back of the store, I guessed, were the operating rooms, where skin was pierced and jewelry inserted.

I wanted to be a piercenik, so I asked if I could join.

“You can join,” said the main activist, “if you care about needles, punches and rings. You can be one of us, if you want to perforate your virgin skin.”

“Okay,” I said.

“Welcome to the pierce movement. We demonstrate tomorrow.”

“Where will you demonstrate?”

“In the sterile studio, of course. We’ll start with eyebrows and navels, then move on to tongues and nipples. Study your pierce literature.”

I wasn’t sure if I was ready to return. I just didn’t know if I’d be prepared to tool leather with my new brother.

When I got home, I looked for a place where I could set up a pierce area, or at least a last-rites chamber. But with my bookshelves installed, the furniture positioned, and the cat boxes in place, there wasn’t an inch of space left.


My partner’s former roommate returned her missing cat. He said he’d found it behind a painting of a mouse.

I kept both cats away from our bed at night by closing a door between rooms. Each morning, the cats would wake us by howling outside the door and scratching the wood. The door would rattle against its frame. Even so, I would not get up and open the door.

One time, a friend came to visit. He was using a tape recorder to preserve sounds of the city. He taped the cats’ moaning and scratching as a memento of his trip. He played back the recording so I could appreciate the sound. Amplified, the cats’ racket was unholy.


Oddly, I became attached to the cats over time. I knew the feel of their fur, the meaning of their expressions. I didn’t mind them sitting on the furniture next to me. I even welcomed them at night.


Thanks to some planning, our status changed from single to married, and everything else started to change, too.

When my spouse decided she wanted to get pregnant, my job was to give her shots. I liked giving the injections. It wasn’t the syringe—the barrel and thumb button—that turned me on; it was the act of plunging the needle into her skin.

These were fertility shots—doses of hormones that would help in the pregnancy mission. I wasn’t interested in puncturing deltoids or biceps. What drove me crazy was the bare glutei. An exposed globe was a magnet for my needle.

Needless to say, the shots didn’t work. My spouse didn’t get pregnant until we stopped trying. Then it happened. She got knocked up without getting dosed up.


As a half-baked piercenik, I wasn’t sure I was ready for a miniature person and full-sized cats in the same place.

At about the same time, however, the cats became frail. We could see they wouldn’t stay on our plane of existence long enough to be playmates for the child.


When we set to naming the baby, my spouse explained the process. “Her name should start with the same letter as the name of one of our grandmothers,” she said.

“Is that how you got your name?” I asked.

“Yes. Sari starts with an S. I was named after my grandmother Selma. You choose the name of someone who’s passed away.”

“How about Yi Ju, the name of my mother’s mother?”

“That would be OK. We can even use the letter J.”

We searched our memories and libraries for a name that seemed suitable, something starting with J. When we found Jade, we liked the sound of it.


Our newborn’s voice was much stronger than the cats’. She cried all the time, but why? Did she want to be played with? What was her notion of play? Did she want me to eat paper with her? Switch the CD player on and off just to hear the whirring of its wheels? Did she want me to help her stand, so she could balance on one heel and one set of toes, rocking at the pelvis like Elvis? Or did she want me to talk to her in her language, say “Da doh,” “Wiss wiss” and “Wudja wudja wudja” as if these words had meaning, when we both knew they didn’t? Did she want me to line up my books neatly on the shelf so she could pull them down one by one and fling them over her shoulder? Or did she want me to boot up the computer so that she could type at random for a million years, or however long it would take for her to produce the complete works of Shakespeare? Did she want to take a trip to the changing table? Was she going to twist and shout so that I had to pin her down before I pinned her up? Did she want a sink bath, complete with slapping washcloth? Would that cool her hot head? How about a new bottle of formula to replace the sickening one? Was there any way I could prevent her relentless head banging? A little back-and-forth in the rocker? Would that stop the sobs, tears and nose drips? A close hold next to the vest? Would that quell the whimpers, wails and lip droops?

I didn’t know. But I knew one thing: I couldn’t forget her for a second. I couldn’t turn off my infant radar, shirk my fatherly duty, turn a blind eye to baby doo-doo, or buy a one-way ticket out of town. The longer I ignored her, the louder she got.


She had a bassinet instead of a room. The bassinet was convenient, because we could wheel it from room to room. But the child was going to need her own room. We were going to have to move to another apartment, one with an additional room. So we found a place no larger than the one we had, but with smaller, more numerous rooms. One contained a bathtub.


I painted the child’s room pink, then decided the color was too pink and repainted the entire surface less pink. I studied a disconnected radiator, wondering how it could be reattached to the steam system. I got down on the floor with a brush and applied a volatile lacquer whose fumes made my head spin. In this manner, I prepared the area for moving in.


A cold rain was falling when we left. The movers were two young men who weren’t very large, but they were wiry. When I started to lug a table down the stairs, they took the table from me and gave me a flowerpot to carry instead.

When almost everything was accounted for, I asked my spouse to take our child to the new place. The child was only a few weeks old, so she could be transported easily. Her mother hesitated, perhaps looking for a last time around the place we had occupied, then went out into the rain with the child.

Thaddeus Rutkowski is the author of the novels Roughhouse and Tetched, both of which were finalists for an Asian American Literary Award. He lives on Manhattan’s Lower East Side with his wife and daughter.

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