The Shtetl Next Door

by

09/26/2021

Neighborhood: Upper East Side

On the first of the month, I visit Benjamin Benowitz.

Ben lives three blocks north and three avenues east from the apartment I rent. 

The lobby of Ben’s’s building reads like the lobbies I have seen in movies about New York old money; all ostentation with marble and central air. 

The walls in my own apartment are made of thick plaster over concrete — once postulated by my roommate’s boyfriend to contain some kind of lath and steel latticing that fortifies them to such an extent that it is impossible for us to drill holes sufficient enough to hang our curtain rods. 

When signing the lease, the building’s management required us to initial a clause promising that we would not strip the walls and expose any of the buried layers of lead paint. The use of lead paint has been banned in residential buildings for almost sixty years now. It makes me wistful to think about what kind of people might have lived here back then; to imagine how much they might have paid in rent. 

I am used to single-layer drywall and whitewash and walls that buckle and leak in the rain. The Upper East Side is a real class act. In Bushwick, where I used to live, everything was new build— ugly vinyl siding and rooms split down the middle to turn an already cramped two bedrooms into three. 

But here there is plaster and steel and lath and Benjamin Benowitz, who lives on the thirty-second floor. There are fluffy little dogs that flit down the sidewalks with jangly collars whose tinny bells toll with each step they take. Delivery men on bikes swarm like worker bees around the fast-food salad hotspots, waiting anxiously and then rising as their cruciferous raison d’etre is activated. On the streets of this neighbohood, there are men done up in full suiting, even in the oppressive humidity of July; and there are the wives with blown-out hair and fresh manicures who walk with such confidence that the sidewalks seem to buckle in deference under their heels. 

I live on Third Avenue, above a Chopt Creative Salad Company. When my dad asks once, on a phone call, if my building has a doorman, I think it is funnier than hell. My roommate and I now joke that the men on the bikes waiting to deliver salad to the denizens of Yorkville are our personal doormen, ushering us from the dangers of the street into the stained carpeted stairs of our fifth-floor walkup.

I wonder how many years it has been since the landlord, Benjamin Benowitz, visited this building, or if he has at all. I do not even know what Mr. Benowitz looks like. His wife Roslyn tells us from her Yahoo email address that they’re not at their Boca Raton residence this time of year, and that we should deliver our checks to 82nd Street. So, when the time comes, I choose to walk. I do not feel like surrendering a stamp for an address three blocks north and three avenues east when the air outside is unseasonably cool and forgiving.  

I sign my landlord’s name on an envelope in big letters and begin on my way. I say his name aloud. Residual syllables swirl around my mouth and drain, fading completely. Benjamin Benowitz. Ben-ja-min. Ben-o-witz. 

With a name like that, it’s not a stretch to think that there may have been a time in the not too distant past when our families lived in neighboring shtetls of hard packed dirt and the scent of mules, instead of the black asphalt and toy poodles of our current neighborhood, with bekishes and shtreimels replacing Brooks Brothers suits and Zabar’s strudels. Instead of a city with nearly nine million people, the kind of place where everyone knows everyone, and landlords make their rounds knocking on doors come the first of the month. 

***

Penina Warren is an NYU senior pursuing a degree in Environmental Studies and Creative Writing. Find her in the Upper East Side admiring designer dogs in rain boots, or online at .

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