At Least You Have Pride



Neighborhood: West Village

At Least You Have Pride
Photo by Jeffrey Bary

My first apartment in New York was on the second floor of a seven-story walk-up on MacDougal Street, between West Third and Bleecker. It was a three-hundred-square-foot one-bedroom with a view of a chain-linked pen where the building kept the trash, always bags and bags of it. I was twenty-five and feeling very lucky.

I could hardly believe I was there. I was in the graduate creative writing program at NYU. I liked saying that outloud. I lived in the Village on MacDougal Street. I liked saying that, too. I was from Fort Smith, Arkansas. That I wasn’t fond of saying.

I decorated my apartment in a clean, spare style. That was how one of my neighbors–a good looking young man who often wore a boa constrictor around his neck–described it as he passed by. I had a bed with no headboard, a mirror, and a dresser, all bought from a Swiss guy who was moving out when I was moving in. I couldn’t believe my luck! I remember going to the ATM on Sixth Avenue by the basketball courts to get cash for him, feeling so urban. I also bought a light-colored desk and matching rug from Crate & Barrel. I remember trying to get a credit card there but being denied. That didn’t deter me. I had an American Express that my father had given me for emergencies.

I was broke. And my father was broke, but I didn’t know the extent of it then. My aunt and uncle had let me borrow five thousand dollars, and about all of that had gone for the deposit and first and last months’ rent. The landlord gave me the place, even though I didn’t have the best credit. I explained that I’d been irresponsible before, but that was long ago, back in college. The cards were all paid off now. He told me that he’d take a chance on me, and I promised that I would always pay the rent on time. He said I could work at Panchitos, a Mexican restaurant he owned that was on the ground floor of the building, if that would help me. I told him that I might do that, but that I had another job lined up at school, which wasn’t true. I’d gotten a student loan for school, but I hadn’t gotten the money for that yet. I would, though. I wasn’t worried. Everything was going to work out.

It’s difficult for me to be honest about how I got to New York. How I could afford that apartment. Sometimes I feel like I killed my father to get there.

But that day when I had my apartment all in order, clean and neat and everything put away, I was happy. I walked down the narrow dark hallway, down the steep stairs, and out to lively MacDougal Street. There was a pizza place next door. A slice cost only a dollar. The Italian man who owned it wore a gold necklace and bracelet and a white undershirt and was always sweating from the oven. He was my first friend in the neighborhood. At least he felt like a friend. He always waved, called me by name, and said something about my being from Arkansas, like Bill Clinton, whom he was a big fan of. I remember late one night seeing his wife there with a scarf around her head, looking like she was from the old country, and with a sleeping young boy on one hip and a sleeping baby on the other and being stunned that he had this family. That this was who he was working the long hours for.

I couldn’t imagine being married. I had been asked once before, and I was feeling especially pleased with myself for saying no. Marriage and children were very unimportant to me then. Being free was what was important. This was 1995, before Sex and the City on HBO, but I knew the dream of the single girl. I was going to go out to restaurants and bars, the theater and concerts. Just walking around was fantastic, with a view of the Empire State Building down one end of the street and the Twin Towers down the other. On my street, you could get Ethiopian, Thai, Italian, and there were three falafel stands. There was a jazz club, a comedy club, cafe after cafe, bar after bar, and then you could walk out to Sixth, where the subway was, where the best place to hail a cab was, and which seemed like a gateway to everything else.

I didn’t know anyone in New York. With school only a week away, I thought I could make friends there. I did have a number to call, though. A guy who was the college roommate of a friend of mine from Arkansas. He was from New York. He had grown up in Garden City, Long Island, which sounded exotic to me. When I called him, he was fast-talking and gruff, like a real New Yorker. I tried my best to hide my accent. We agreed to meet the next night. He would pick me up. He would be the first guest at my new apartment.

I was so nervous when I buzzed him up. Was it a date? Was I dressed okay? Did I look like someone from Arkansas? I think I had on black, probably black to try to look thin. I remember sweating, since I didn’t have an air conditioner. “You don’t really need one,” a friend of mine from home had said. I figured she knew because she once lived in Connecticut. But she didn’t know. I needed one.

“At least you have pride,” he said, coming in, inspecting the place. He was tall with wavy brown hair and glasses. He had on a T-shirt under an untucked Polo shirt and khaki shorts. When he smiled, you could see his top and bottom teeth.

“What do you mean?” I said.

“You keep it neat,” he said.

“This is a nice apartment,” I said.

“Oh, yeah,” he said. “It’s got a bathroom the size of an airplane’s and has a fantastic view of the trash.” He laughed, kind of a guffaw, then removed his glasses and rubbed his eyes. “It’s so hot in here.”

I know I looked close to tears. I was ready to even defend the trash. You could only smell it when you opened the door.

“Don’t worry about it,” he said. “You have your own apartment in the city. I have two roommates and live in Hoboken. Living in Hoboken sucks.”

I smiled, but when I looked around the place, I finally saw what he was seeing, a tiny space in an old building, but clean, though that wouldn’t last. That was a lie. I had always been a mess.

It turned out to be sort of a date. I remember some awkward kissing. We met many times after that, and I now think of him as my first good friend in the city. He even installed my air-conditioner. But I certainly didn’t want to have a boyfriend right off the bat.

When school started, I did make friends. Instant friends who would call me, and I would think to myself, “I can’t believe all these people I don’t know very well are calling me.” And some of them were exotic. A girl from India who was Brahmin and often dressed in beautiful saris. An outspoken girl who was Bengali and a diplomat’s kid and who took to me right away. She believed that a third world country like Bangladesh was similar to the South. Yet most of my friends from NYU who called my apartment never actually stepped foot in it. They would buzz, and I would come down, afraid I’d hear another “At least you have pride” comment. But one girl–a wild, pretty blonde from Miami–had the opposite reaction. She said, “You know, you’re very lucky. Most people our age would be sharing this apartment. It’s huge.” I felt a strange and wonderful guilt then. Suddenly, for the first time in a long time, I felt rich.

So how would my family react to my new apartment? Even though my parents never got a divorce, I am from a broken home, with two half-brothers and a half-sister. I have been close to all of my siblings on occasion, more so with my brothers, and mostly not at all. But my first semester at NYU, both of my brothers came to New York. And they both saw my apartment.
My brother David, who is my mother’s son and five years older than I am, showed up first, in October. He had his own furniture company in Booneville, Arkansas, and was making church pews for several Harlem churches, which I thought was pretty cool. He just came to see me for an afternoon, so he saw the apartment in the daylight. Not the best time to see it at its best. He looked around a lot without saying much, except something like, “This is wild that people live this way.” I do remember when he was in my apartment that I got several phone calls from friends from NYU. One friend was in a play and that night was opening night, and we were making sure we were on the guest list, figuring out where to go out after. My brother couldn’t believe all the calls I was getting. Who were these people? I remember following him down the hallway because it was so narrow that we could not possibly fit side-by-side. He had on jeans and cowboy boots, and his figure was outlined in a dark shadow.

My other brother Brady, my father’s son, appeared about a month later. He’s a Texas lawyer and was in town working on a case against the tobacco industry (which would actually become a landmark case, since prior to that tobacco had never lost a case). He was twenty-eight then and married, but he could act older than his age or younger on any given day. That night he was young and was ready to hit the town. He wanted to go to the Tunnel. I remember he had a long black coat on over his jeans, which looked urban, but his white tennis shoes did not. He had a swagger as he climbed the stairs to my apartment.

“So, this is it,” I said, opening the door.

“Okay,” he said and nodded. “Well, when you have the whole city outside, this is all you need.” He smiled. “All right.”

I didn’t find out until years later what my brothers really thought of my apartment–that they had been worried about me, that the building looked run-down. How could I pay that much money to live there? Why would I want to live there? My mom told me this after she had seen the place, too, and after I moved to another apartment on Gramercy Park. Even though the new apartment was obviously nicer and the neighborhood was more civilized, I was angry and hurt, and I wanted to believe they were all wrong.

When I went back to Arkansas for Christmas vacation, my parents acted so proud of me. My dad told me that he had told everyone that I was a writer living in New York and going to NYU. He couldn’t believe how often it came up. My dad had lived in New York in his twenties as a Wall Street lawyer. He raised his chin with memory and his eyes shone with fondness when he talked about Manhattan. He had lived on the Upper East Side by Central Park. Had I been to Central Park yet? I hadn’t actually, only to the entrance by the Plaza. “Oh, you must do that,” he said.

We had a good time that Christmas. My dad and I played a lot of checkers and gin rummy. He mostly won and felt bad when he won, but my mother told me that at night in bed he had gone on about how smart I was. Apparently, he’d never known anyone who could play him so closely. My mom laughed at that.

I remember at the airport when I left, my father kissed me on the lips, something he hadn’t done since I was a child. His lips felt wet, and his face was hot and his eyes watery. I remember seeing him stretch his fingers as if they were swollen.

My mother told me later that he had sobbed in the car. And she had said, “Ben, what’s wrong?” And he had said, “I wasn’t ready for her to go quite yet. Not quite yet.”

That was the last time I saw my father. He had an insurance policy that would cover his debt and leave money to my mom, what seemed like a fortune to us then, but it wasn’t. Insurance policies pay off on suicides. I had to say that to people over and over. They do.

My father died on a Sunday and on the day before, Saturday, I had gone jogging in Central Park. It was March 30, and it was sunny, and the air was slightly cool, and I had jogged and walked all over the park all day. I saw the merry-go-round, the row boats, and I saw families. There weren’t many families where I lived on MacDougal–a street for the young.

The next morning, when I expected my parents to be lounging around reading the paper, I called home to tell my father about Central Park. My mother answered and said she’d have to call me back. Something was wrong in her voice, but I couldn’t tell what. When she did call back, she said my father had killed himself. He had sat in a chair, placed a rifle in his mouth, and shot himself. She did not find him.

My mom arranged for someone to pick me up and drive me to the airport. I would have preferred a cab, but I went along with her. I remember searching around that apartment, pulling out clothes, finding something to wear to a funeral. I was crying and screaming, and I remember a rejection letter from The Missouri Review flying onto the floor. The letter was handwritten, with praise for the story I had submitted, then with suggestions on how I could revise it. I bent down for the letter and put it on my desk, in plain view, so that this person who was picking me up and who I didn’t want in my apartment might see it and think that I was a worthwhile person, an actual writer, not a fraud wasting money.

I hate thinking about taking the last of my father’s money, charging on his American Express, asking my aunt and uncle for money when my father didn’t have it. I think I humiliated him then. What I knew was that he had two big cases he was working on and that surely at least one would pay off big. I know money can’t be the only reason he committed suicide, but it is the reason he gave in his note, and the reason I most believe.

New York is a wonderful place to grieve. I walked around the city everywhere. I saw movies and concerts and plays and musicals. I saw Savion Glover in Bring in ‘Da Noise, Bring in ‘Da Funk twenty or thirty times. That sounds crazy and obsessive, but I was happy seeing him. I loved his dancing, the loudness of it, the beauty. I loved going to the theater. I loved Times Square. I loved the cab ride from MacDougal. I loved the long walk home. There was a strength that was gained from walking block after block, walking onto Minetta Street, a quiet crooked alley of a street that led me back to MacDougal.

A year after my father died, I did a summer abroad program in Italy. When I returned to New York, my apartment had never looked more beautiful. A friend had stayed there, and he was very neat and had stylishly rearranged my furniture and organized my CDs so that they were all in their cases and grouped alphabetically by artist. The shade on the window that did not face the trash was raised and you could see light spiraling through the interior fire escape. My apartment was truly clean–like he had used a magical mop and vacuum. Everything shone with vibrant colors.

I was meeting friends for dinner, and I was excited to see them all again. I showered and dressed quickly in a short black summer dress and clicking heels. I was tan, and my legs seemed to glow walking down the stairs. When I opened the heavy building door and stepped out into the evening light, a hot slice of pizza came out of nowhere and landed on my leg–stuck, then unstuck, and fell on the ground. The pizza was so greasy that it was still attached to a thin paper plate and napkin. I looked left, and I looked right, and I saw I was in the crossfire of a screaming fight. I bent down, grabbed the napkin, wiped my leg clean, dropped the napkin, and raised my hand for an open cab that was appearing before me. I stepped inside and shut the door. I was smiling. I was confident. I loved how I must have just looked. I felt I belonged, that there was a place for me on this street and in this city.

Jennifer Paddock is the author of the novels A Secret Word and Point Clear, both published by Touchstone/Simon & Schuster. She received a M.A. in creative writing from New York University, and her short fiction and nonfiction have appeared in Stories From The Blue Moon Cafe, The North American Review, Other Voices, and Garden and Gun.

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