Down The Hall And On Your Left



Neighborhood: Upper West Side

Down The Hall And On Your Left
Photo by Morgan Holmgren

In the spring of 1989 I rented an apartment on 75th St., between Columbus and Amsterdam. The apartment, if you can call it that, was approximately the size of your average fitting room at TJ Maxx, but not nearly as nice. Though I was thrilled to be paying next to nothing for this space (a mere ninety dollars a week), this particular setup came with one minor setback: no private bathroom.

The building, one of those depressing residential hotels, housed a variety of colorful wayward denizens, including destitute students (like myself), drug addicts, alcoholics, and the elderly. There was one communal bathroom per floor. I shared my bathroom with an oddball cast of characters. One of them was a forty year old Male-To-Female pre-op transexual named Crystal.

“Are you getting off on sixteen?” A deep James Earl Jones-like voice reverberated from Crystal’s thin-lipped mouth like a bassoon. The elevator doors could never open up quick enough for me.

I always felt bad for Crystal because she was not attractive as a man and it was pretty obvious that she wouldn’t be any more fetching as a woman. Crystal was infamous for wearing loose fitting hospital pajama bottoms accompanied by a sheer yellow bathrobe that clung tightly to her gangly body. The robe’s billowy, faux-fur sleeves added an appropriate element of femininity to Crystal’s otherwise manly persona. Donning thin, drawn-in, eyebrows and just a hint of pink lipstick, Crystal took appearances very seriously and, despite the deep baritone voice and thinning spindly hair, Crystal made a concerted effort to always appear ladylike.

Crystal’s body language and flirtatious vibe made me feel ill-at-ease, but that didn’t stop me from admiring her. “How brave,” I always thought to myself after encounters with her. She was undergoing a major life transformation in front of all the building’s residents and staff. This was a gutsy thing to do. I thought so anyway.

One summer evening after an exhausting day of classes, I was on my way to use the communal facilities. I needed to take a shower and get ready for work (an evening shift of scooping ice cream at Ben & Jerry’s). Crystal suddenly approached me in the hall …

“Don’t bother. It’s locked from the inside. He’s been in there for hours. I think he’s shooting up again.” It was common knowledge that the Russian residing in room #1605 had a penchant for heroin and other hard street drugs.

“Oh. OK. Thanks.” I said.

Defeated, I turned around and sheepishly walked down the hall towards my crackerbox-sized room, my toothbrush, washcloth and towel all in hand. My shift was to begin in less than an hour. What was I going to do? I was a complete wreck. I was dripping with sweat (not to mention the smell) due to the challenging tap dancing class that had just ended moments before.

“Now what?” I muttered under my breath. I was just about to reach for my room key when I heard Crystal’s voice again …“Don’t go. I want to show you something. Come here.” Like a mystical sea nymph, Crystal waved me on. She wanted me to come inside her room.

Call me crazy, or just plain naive, but something told me it was safe to follow Crystal into her apartment that evening. There was something so genuine about her overture and, I have to admit, I was a bit curious.

Crystal’s room was a pathetic little chamber facing the north side of West 75th St. The space was packed to the gills with women’s shoes, scarves, and stacks of hospital pajama bottoms. Plastic Rubbermaid containers on the floor housed dozens of prescription pill vials. But what I saw in the corner of this 100 square foot space took my breath away. Inside Crystal’s humble little boudoir was a fully operational sink!

“You can clean up in here,” she said. “I’ll stand outside, in the hallway, and give you some privacy. I don’t mind. I need to make a phone call anyway.” She shut the door and sashayed herself down to the rotary pay phone located at the end of the corridor of the sixteenth floor.

Crystal had saved the day.

As I turned the faucet knobs of Crystal’s modest wall sink an overwhelming sensation suddenly came over me. The feeling was so huge I had to turn the faucets back off and collect myself. I almost began to cry. With one genuine random act of kindness Crystal had rescued me from the embarrassment and humiliation, of showing up at my job looking and smelling disgusting. But it wasn’t just that. It was something deeper. In that moment, at Crystal’s humble, avocado-green sink, I felt a sense of appreciation and gratitude that I had never experienced before in all of my nineteen years. It was like something right out of Buddha’s teachings. The strangest thing about it all was my epiphany was not occurring under a tree, or by quiet stream in the woods. It was at a transsexual’s sink on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.

I embraced the experience. I lowered my head into Crystal’s chipped porcelain sink and allowed the water to douse my hair and alleviate my worries. I had reached my personal nirvana. “Maybe tomorrow I can go to the building manager and request a room with a sink in it, too,” I thought to myself as I gave my entire body a much-needed washing. I took liberty in using some of Crystal’s sweet scented soaps. I didn’t think she’d mind.

While drying off, something occurred to me. This was the first time since moving to New York City that I felt things were finally beginning to look up for me. I thought maybe, just maybe, I’d be able to stick it out and survive after all. I wiped up the remaining water and exited Crystal’s apartment.

On my way back to my room I mouthed the words “thank you” to Crystal. She was still on the phone.

“Anytime handsome. Anytime. Now don’t you work too hard!” she said.

“I won’t.” I replied back.

“Hey! You wanna know something? You clean up pretty good! Too bad I like older men.”

“Me too!” I replied.

Crystal let out a schoolgirl laugh and played with the pay phone’s long spiral cord in a coquettish manner and then blew me a big kiss from down the hall.

She was right. I felt like a million bucks.

Jackob G. Hofmann has lived and worked in Manhattan
since 1988. He is a theatrical director, produced playwright,
and essayist.

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