Neighbors

by

03/09/2024

Neighborhood: All Over

The Honeymooners

– Part 1 –

Before I moved to the apartment on the corner of Bleecker Street and the Bowery, before I had a child, before Danny, my husband, and I separated, we lived at 305 East 6th Street, between Second Avenue and First Avenue.

I was pregnant, and we’d decided that we needed a larger apartment. Another factor was my job; I was working as a teaching assistant in the Learning Center, a program housed in the building of the Children’s Aid Society on East Sixth Street,between Avenues B and C. The year was 1976.

Our apartment on East 6th Street was a fortuitous find. The top floor apartment that had recently emptied out was the only apartment not occupied by a tenant who had been there for many years. Everyone else was an old timer. Despite this, we were warmly welcomed by everyone.

Before moving, Danny and I had been living on East 15th in an apartment that was considerably grander than the various East Village apartments we’d lived in previously; the ceilings were high and the rooms were unusually spacious. But there were only three rooms, and with a baby on the way, we needed more space. Danny hadn’t liked the apartment on East 15th all that much, anyway; it was directly across the street from Stuyvesant High School, where he had spent four unhappy years. In fact, the only time I ever heard him mention Stuyvesant with a light heart was when our college friend Ed, who like Danny, had grown up in Queens and attended Stuyvesant, dropped by our apartment and suggested that he and Danny figure out a way to bomb the school from our building’s roof.

Ed, who had a sardonic sense of humor, also announced he was applying for a CETA Artists Project grant, a popular NY program, to blow up the relatively new World Trade Center. He thought it was hideous.

New York City neighbors are an iffy bunch: you can live side by side with some people for years on end, barely moving beyond a civil nod while checking your mailbox. There are others you never see at all. They live a ghost-like existence that leads to deep concentration whenever you pass outside their door to see if you might hear a sneeze or a cough, signs that they are still alive.

– Part 2 –

The man who lived in the apartment across the stairwell from us on the top floor was older and mysterious to me at first. We had introduced ourselves, but even after a month, I’d only caught a glimpse of him several times. In one curiosity- stimulating peek via his open door, I saw that he had a full-sized, bright-red British telephone box in his living room. Later, when we met in the stairwell, I couldn’t help myself: I said, “Hey Dorf, I happened to notice that you have a British phone booth in your apartment.” He said, “Yeah: it’s a pain in the ass; do you want it?

I thanked him for the kind offer, which I declined, but then boldly continued our conversation. I said, “I’ve noticed that the men in this building have unusual names: There’s Hesh, downstairs, and you, Dorf. I’ve never heard these names before” He looked at me as though I were the dumbest person on the planet: “First of all, my name is Dolf, short for Adolph; I thought you had a speech impediment. Second, Hesh is Yiddish for Harold. We’re all Jewish; that’s why we have funny names!” He retreated to his apartment with a scowl and shut the door. After that whenever I saw him, I’d give him a big grin and call out, “Hi, Dolf!”

Everyone in the building was Jewish, except for three of us wives. There was Danny Rosenblum, Barry Goldstein, Harold Shapinsky, Adolf, whose last name I’ve forgotten, and Susan Shapiro. Later, when Dolf moved out, Deborah Perlberg, who’d gone to Brandeis with me and Danny, moved in across the hall from us. Barry taught a bilingual class of 5th graders at the school on Houston Street and his wife, Sue, ran the program where I worked at the Children’s Aid Society, a few blocks further east on 6th Street. They became our closest friends and even decided to have a baby of their own, so there’d be two in the building. Hesh’s wife, Kate, often babysat for our little boys. Those babies are now 46 and 47 years old, and still best friends.

Kate and I became treasured friends, too, over the years — until she died in 2005. She liked me because I was artistic and, I suspect that although she had a son whom she loved, she would have welcomed a daughter. We also stayed connected with Hesh, who was a talented painter. My son is an artist and an architect, and during college breaks he helped Hesh organize his studio and catalog his artwork. Good neighbors. Almost like family.

– Part 3 –

When I moved into the top floor of 1 Bleecker Street, a three-story tenement, in 1978, there was an empty apartment on the first floor, opposite the apartment where the landlord’s uncle lived. The two apartments on the second floor were occupied by Jane, on the southern side, and Sandra, whose apartment replicated mine, and opened into her kitchen, facing west. Our apartments were classic railroad apartments, variations on those I’d lived in since moving to the city.

When Benjamin, my two-year-old son, and I first moved into our place on the top floor, a Puerto Rican family filled the apartment across the hall from us. After about a year, the family moved out, bequeathing their kids’ bunk bed to my boy, who was outgrowing his crib. Their emptied-out apartment remained unrented for all the years that I lived in the building.

Not long after I settled in, I walked over to Mott Street to finish up some paperwork with Joe Chinizzi, the landlord. Joe lived in New Jersey but kept a closet-sized office in what appeared to be an abandoned building. I told him I had a friend who was looking for an apartment and that I’d noticed the one on the first floor was still vacant. Could my friend take a look and maybe rent it? He didn’t even consider the possibility, and briskly responded that it wasn’t available. I knew Joe liked me, probably because I was not intimidated by his macho nonsense, so I pushed back and asked when it would be available. Then I got the tough-guy glare, indicating I’d gone too far. I handed over my monthly cash-only rent, and he walked me out the door. I really had no right to complain. I lived there for 13 years. My starting rent was $200 a month and the final rent was $360.

Sandra, on the second floor directly beneath my apartment, was an attractive light- skinned Black woman, perhaps with Hispanic forebears. Her son was young, 7 or 8 years old when Benjamin and I moved in. She rarely spoke to me but was not antagonistic. This appeared to be the code of the building, well established before my residency. We lived in silent harmony and minded our own business, unless something critical demanded a collective response.

– Part 4 –

And then there was Jane, Apartment 2B, across from Sandra. She was different but did fulfill the primary demographic for the single woman who lived at 1 Bleecker Street: she had a son. Jane clearly also had mental health issues.

I had an encounter with her soon after moving into the building. The incident was brief but clear; this was a woman whose sense of reality and my own were unlikely to overlap. I was walking home from the grocery store with Benjamin. As we approached our building, I saw Jane was standing near the door, but she seemed confused. The large purse she carried was wide open and her right hand was immersed within, stirring up wads of Kleenex and empty cigarette packets. I had my key ready, on alert as usual, as we got closer to the building door. Often there were men passed out on our steps or unsavory indications that the entrance way had been mistaken for a bathroom. I opened the building’s front door and then stepped back so that Jane could enter ahead of us. She was in a rage, huffing and perspiring as she hauled her body into the stairwell, trying to catch her breath before tackling the staircase several feet away. Benjamin was half sitting and already trying to climb up the lower steps so I tightened my arm on the grocery bag and held out my free hand to him. I said, “Let’s go, sweetie, this lady wants to get up to her apartment, too.” Jane steadied herself against the wall where the tenant mailboxes were anchored, trying to catch her breath. As we were almost upto the first landing, I heard Jane bellowing up the stairwell: “Miss,” she said, “Watch your thighs, Miss. Watch your damn thighs.”

It was difficult to know what was going on in her head. She often walked up the stairs to my apartment to bum a cigarette from me, swaying with the Thorazine shuffle on the threshold between the staircase and the entrance to my apartment. I’d give her several cigarettes and caution her to be careful going downstairs. Other days she approached normality, happily watching television with the door to her apartment wide open; I’d wave hello and keep climbing to the next level.

Jane’s son was a mystery to me. Someone told me — it must have been Sandra — after the night when the cops came, that he’d been sent “up the river.” That night was terrifying. I was alone and drifting off to sleep, it was during the weekend when Benjamin was with his father, and then was fully awakened by loud footsteps on the roof. To my distress, it sounded like more than one person running, right over my head. I called 911 and told the operator there were men on my roof, running and yelling — could she please call the police. To my shock she said, “Honey, those ARE the police. Stay put in your apartment and don’t worry.”

The next day I discovered that Jane’s son had been the culprit the cops were chasing across the roof after an attempted robbery. He’d tried to break into and hide out in his mother’s apartment, and he’d had a gun. We heard he’d been arrested, and later that he was sent upstate to prison. It was not his first offense.

Despite this dramatic episode, nothing else made me fear for my safety or that of my son’s for all the years we lived there. I managed my work situations so that I had flexibility and could drop Benjamin off and pick him up from a daycare program in nearby Soho, managed by smart, creative, and caring women. I made friends with other mothers. Many were, like me, living on their own. We arranged play dates to give each other a break, celebrated one another’s attempts to find romance, and consoled each other when reality set in.

When Benjamin was a young teenager, I got a call from Joe Chinizzi, saying he wanted to meet with me. He told me that he planned to turn the building into co- ops (hence the deliberately emptied apartments over the years). He offered me $15,000 to vacate my apartment. I said I wanted to think about it and drew up a counteroffer based on my research of what it would cost me to rent a comparable apartment for the four years my son would be attending a local high school. I called my wonderful tax accountant, showed him my paperwork, and we agreed that tripling Joe’s offer would be realistic. My proposal was accepted.

We moved to Brooklyn, a block from the L train, a quick ride into Manhattan to Benjamin’s school. I was working at the time on 42nd Street and 3rd Avenue, a pleasant walk each morning from the 3rd Ave subway stop on 14th. Sandra called me after I moved and asked me what I offered Joe. I told her, and hoped she would be able to get a comparable amount. But we never talked again.

Years later, I learned that the apartments, artfully renovated, had sold for between one and two million dollars.

***

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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§ 3 Responses to “Neighbors”

  • Love this New York memory. Don’t know if you knew, Susan, but I, too, am of the ornery tribe of Queens-born Jewish boys who suffered through Stuyvesant High School in a time when it was still all-boys. I finally crawled out of my coccoon at Brandeis. And now I am quaasi-normal.

  • Susan T. Landry says:

    replying to Peter L. Wortsman:

    Peter, please don’t aim for anything higher than quasi-normal. i love you the way you are. xo

  • anthony a markman says:

    “…before i had a child, before Danny, my husband, and i separated…” Peter, above, said it better than i could…or at least he beat me to it…”love this New York memory,” indeed. and just fyi, since this is a website for those who wish to write stuff…i had to google whether the comma (after memory) goes before or after the quotation mark…please don’t tell anyone…let’s keep this entre nous. cheers and thank you for your story.

§ Leave a Reply

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