The Candy Box

by

06/24/2023

Neighborhood: Bowery, West Village

The bathroom was small, at first glance appearing to be a large closet that opened off the kitchen. A beautiful nautilus shell, almost a foot long with a pale-pink pearlescent chamber, had been placed in the bathtub. The tub itself was deep and old-fashioned, made of heavy porcelain; the wall behind it was protected with waterproof wallpaper depicting faded tiles in a Dutch-boy motif.

Later on, I realized that I had taken the beauty of the large shell and the oddness of it in this setting as a message. I could be at home here. For the thirteen years that followed, whenever I took a bath, I set the shell on the floor and then replaced it in the bathtub when I was through, as though it were a sacred reliquary.

The door to the top-floor apartment entered directly into the kitchen, which was roomy and square, with very high ceilings. Two tall windows at the back looked out at a narrow slice of airspace, tucked between my building and the neighboring tenement. Each morning, this rectangle of sky would bring me my first glimpse of weather.

Screw holes, showing where previous locks had been, mottled the front door. Two brass deadbolts still had enough shine to indicate they might be in working order. There was also a sliding metal attachment in the shape of a Z that acted as a barricade across the width of the door. A separate crowbar-like piece leaned against the wall nearby. I’d seen this sort of intimidating lock before on the Lower East Side.

A square of thin metal, painted a faded rusty red, covered the center portion of the door; the wood of the door itself was dark green, with a few other streaks of color that formed a pleasingly abstract artwork. Years later, when painting the kitchen, I left the door as it was. I liked the evidence of the accumulation of time, the weathered dents in the metal plate, the old screw holes, the mottled colors.

I asked Carline, the current tenant who was showing me around, about all the locks. The question of safety, or lack of it, was too ominous to overlook, even for me. I’ve always had a peculiar kind of optimism about living in spaces that make most people turn and run. She answered in measured tones, and said that the street people—she called them bumsters—had never harmed her.

We proceeded from the kitchen to the next room, which was quite small. Its width had been truncated by the bathroom on the other side of the wall, and was occupied by a tall homemade rack where Carline stored her paintings. An open alcove that may once have been a closet was at one end, and the far end opened into the next room, her bedroom, which was larger, with a deep closet. Between this room and the last, at the front of the building, a glass-less window space had been built into the thick plaster wall, so that light filtered through to the interior of the apartment. Carline seemed to take a particular pride in the capacity of the closet. Although it was unlit, I could see a long row of hanging clothing and more racks for her artwork.

The final room, in what was a typical railroad arrangement, was the same size as the kitchen, essentially a mirror image of that room. There was a fireplace, framed by a stressed and discolored but still lovely marble mantelpiece. The hearth was a shallow well; a bricked-up section suggested to me that it had been a gas fire only—at least in its last incarnation of functioning at all. Still, it was pretty. The floors throughout were wood—nothing special; it was a tenement, after all—but the place had a solidity that felt right. And it had good light.

I asked Carline about the dingy walls, and whether the landlord would reimburse me if I painted the place myself. She answered that she had repainted several times since she had moved in 11 years ago, and that he had paid for it. Then she said, “When I paint my little apartment, it is fresh and beautiful; it glows like the inside of a candy box.”

She was an interesting person, with her unusual choice of words, like bumster, a rarely used and more genteel name for what most people called a Bowery bum. Her way of seeing intrigued me. I told her I could imagine being here, my son in his crib tucked into the small room, with me close by in the next room. The past year had been so hard. We would take comfort here, I was sure; I could be happier. More than anything, more than I could find words for, I wanted to live inside a candy box.

We talked a bit about money and what she hoped I would purchase as part of the deal; some odds and ends of furniture, a mirror in the bathroom, a reading lamp near the bed. I agreed to her terms.

As we were chatting, she paused for a moment, and then turned to look at me, appearing to debate something. She then spoke rapidly, as though the words had been tightly held and were escaping from deep inside. “Susan,” she said, “It was really nothing, I wasn’t hurt and it was my own fault. I left the door unlocked one afternoon when I returned home with groceries. I was very tired and was resting on my bed. A man came into the apartment—with a gun. I gave him all the money I had, about 20 dollars, and he left. I had to tell you. If anything happened to you, I would never forgive myself.”

I gave Carline a check to hold the apartment for me. In August of 1978, less than a month after his second birthday, my son and I moved into 1 Bleecker Street, on the corner of the Bowery.

***

Susan T. Landry is a writer and an editor. For life-blood money, she is a medical manuscript editor, editing articles for medical journals; and for pleasure and less money, she is also an editor of other writers’ stories. She founded and managed an online literary journal about memoir, called “Run to the Roundhouse, Nellie,” which is no longer publishing; Susan previously edited the print journal, “Lifeboat: A Journal of Memoir.” She lived in NYC for many years, and on the Bowery from 1978 to 1991. Susan now lives in Maine.

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