Sublet on Thompson St



Neighborhood: Caroll Gardens, West Village


231 Thompson St. apt after renovation.

A friend from high school told me about a sublet on Thompson Street. It was a perfect location for a student at NYU. 

Norman Fayne, a heavy man with stringy hair and wire-rimmed glasses, showed me the apartment on the second floor. It was the one just above the barbershop with the large, sun-faded headshot of teen heartthrob David Cassidy. 

The apartment was tiny; a small kitchen area with a metal stall shower that was raised a foot off the floor and an old-fashioned water closet with a chain pull from a toilet tank mounted above the commode. There was a loft just large enough for a queen mattress and a wardrobe closet beneath it. The window opposite the closet looked down onto an alley and into the empty apartment of the building next door. The living room had exposed brick walls and two large windows overlooking Thompson Street from which I could watch the regulars at one of the neighborhood’s renowned chess parlors. I took the tiny sublet. It was 1980, and the rent was $275 per month.

It took me a few days to remember that I was in a loft bed, so when the wall phone in the kitchen rang in the middle of the night, I would fall on to the floor when grabbing for it. Sometimes it was a friend, other times it was my father telling me something I’d done wrong. Some of his criticism involved my talking to an old friend of his that I’d run into on the street. My father was extremely private and paranoid about who knew what concerning him. My mother had died only a few years earlier, while I was still in high school, and he was now my only parent. It upset me to feel I’d somehow disappointed him. I was also frustrated because I knew he was out of line, but he was in charge and I was trapped.

Norman Fayne’s mother had owned the building for decades, and he grew up there. I imagine he was immune to the building’s peculiar charms. There were four narrow apartments to each floor and only two apartments had their own toilets. Echoing through the thin walls, I could hear couples’ arguments and neighbors walking up and down the stairwell and crossing the hall to use the shared bathrooms.

I found it unsettling to listen to all of that activity from my bed. The combination of being financially dependent on my father and emotionally alienated from him put me in a fragile state of mind. I was worried about money and living in a sublet without a proper lease. 

This is when the voices started. Laden with dark and mean-spirited messages, they were impossible to translate. I couldn’t have told others what I was hearing even if I wanted. So I told no one. I heard these voices most when I was inside the apartment and by myself. They made me afraid of going out. While the voices were less common outside on the street, I found it impossible to leave the apartment. I procrastinated, taking deep breaths, and running through obsessive-compulsive rituals of debatable significance before finally opening the door to leave for class.

The Man in the Window

One day, after a shower, I was getting dressed by the closet under the loft when I noticed the face of a man staring at me from the window of the building next door. He looked like an old sea-faring type, with a broken tooth grin, either a homeless man squatting in the empty apartment or perhaps a construction worker there to address the deferred maintenance throughout the entire building. The exterior glass of both windows was filthy, but the combined layers of dirt could not fully obscure the view. The sight of his face, staring at me, scared me. How long had he been there? How often had he watched me? I scrambled to find something to cover the window. Finally, armed with a giant sheet, held up like magic cloak of invisibility, I approached the window and draped it over the frame. I never lifted the sheet to see if the man was still there. Forty years later, I can still conjure his face.

Painting the stall shower

I had seen bathtubs in the kitchens of old tenement apartments, even on Madison Avenue on the Upper East Side, but they seemed more prevalent downtown. But a stall shower in the kitchen was unusual. It was bad enough that I had to take a large lunging step to hop up into foot-high stall, but the shower was also rough and rusted out with peeling paint. I went to the hardware store to purchase supplies and set about sanding down the shower walls to prep it for painting. By the time I was finally ready to open the can of white enamel paint, it was about 9:00 pm. The fumes from the paint made me a bit dizzy, but I powered on until my derelict shower looked brand new. I finished my project at about 1:00 am and felt proud of my efforts.

A few days later, Norman spoke to me about the paint fumes. Several neighbors had complained. I hadn’t realized that anyone else could smell the paint or that it could be dangerous to sleep amidst such fumes. I thought I was in big trouble and that he was going to throw me out, but he merely smiled and suggested that painting was best done during the day when everyone was at work.

I’m not certain how long I stayed in that sublet. Eventually, Norman told me he planned to renovate and needed to me move out. He assured me that I could have first dibs on the newly renovated apartment for an increased rent of $400 a month and a proper lease. 

Instead, I found a much larger, railroad apartment in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn. Norman kindly offered the use of his van to move my stuff to the new apartment. I enlisted a few of my male friends to help with the heavy lifting, and off we went in Norman’s van over the Brooklyn Bridge. I treated everyone to pizza and beer for their help.

The new apartment was not perfect. It needed a little TLC, but it was more than twice the space for only a little more than my rent on Thompson Street. 

Best of all, the voices did not follow me to Brooklyn.


Jennifer Marcus grew up in Greenwich Village during the 1960s and 70s. She has been a communications professional in book publishing and in scientific and medical research. She currently lives in Los Angeles.


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