With a Rent-Stabilized Lease, Finding the Line Between Luck and a Life Sentence

Eryn Loeb recalls the tiny, decrepit tenement where she lived for a decade, and the cool aunt who passed it on to her.

Eryn Loeb | Longreads | March 2018 | 16 minutes (3,988 words)

 

The whole reason I had the rent-stabilized apartment on East 13th Street was because my aunt lived in it before me. Leslie first rented the place in 1981, when she was 23, for $345 a month. In the early ’90s she left and moved to Seattle, but kept the lease in her name. When I was looking for a place to land after college, she was quick to kick out a random subletter and turn the place over to me. The subletter, a tiny Japanese woman who was running an illicit hair salon out of the kitchen, had staple-gunned bed sheets up throughout the place as makeshift room dividers. The effect, when I first came to check out the place and negotiate her exit, was a kind of diaphanous claustrophobia.

The apartment was a dingy, naturally repellent kind of place that set me on edge even as it sucked me in. But it didn’t even occur to me not to seize on it: Here was a place in New York that could be mine, alone. All of a sudden I was one of those lucky people who inherit something that’s otherwise impossible to get, and have an easier life because of it. (That last part, though, didn’t strike me at the time.) I was 22 when I lugged my boxes in on a stormy-sticky July day in 2004. The rent by then was $775.

It was a railroad apartment, somewhere around 300 square feet — a long, awkward space, cave-like and crooked, in a deep funk of cracking and peeling and generally breaking down. Horizontal surfaces sloped dramatically; all the furniture on the west wall had to be propped on blocks to keep it from toppling over. The light fixture in the tiny, sink-less bathroom was half-detached from the ceiling in a way that might have seemed dangerous if I thought about it seriously. Early on I chipped some paint off the bathroom door, exposing cross-sections of something like a dozen layers of paint beneath the most recent coat: turquoises and taupes alternating with the layers of white that signaled periodic fresh starts.

The kitchen floor — cloudy, black, sticky linoleum tiles Leslie told me she had laid over plywood some 20 years ago — was coming up in patches, ragged chunks of it breaking off and clinging to my bare feet. The only sink was in the kitchen, and so it was the site not only of always overdue dishwashing but also of twice daily toothbrushing. I paced as I brushed, returning to the wobbly sink cabinet to spit mouthfuls of spent paste without regard for any plates and utensils blocking the way of the drain. A heel-sized hole formed in a spot right in front of the sink, exposing an archaeology of the floor: layers of wood and particle board and laminate laid down and covered over and then covered over again.

The whole building was like that, a place of pilings on, of covering up, of semi-smoothing over, of barely acceptable surfaces coming undone. Five stories that were safe in the ways that mattered, and sketchy enough to confer some cred. Along the narrow stairways the walls were covered with proof of comings and goings, arced scuffs and deep abrasions from thousands of oversized objects being dragged up and down, in and out.

***

Leslie was my dad’s younger sister and only sibling, and I’d been awed by her since I was a little kid. Back then, when she was living in the apartment, she worked as a stage manager on Broadway. Sometimes we’d drive the hour-and-a-half to the city to meet her for dinner or a play she’d secured us tickets to. To visit us in the suburbs, she had to take the bus, and her lack of a car marked her as mysterious and immune to the rules I thought governed adulthood. She wasn’t the usual kind of grownup anyway: She wore a leather jacket and smoked cigarettes, rolled her eyes with abandon and spoke with a laid back vocal fry. She cultivated a casual androgyny, wearing her dark curly hair buzzed short, or slicked away from her tanned, freckled face and corralled into a ponytail. She’d met and worked with lots of famous people and disdained more than a few. She always remembered birthdays and gave the best presents. She had no kids and lots of friends. It wasn’t until I was a teenager that I figured out she was gay.

Leslie, my aunt, first rented the place in 1981, when she was 23, for $345 a month. In the early ’90s she left and moved to Seattle, but kept the lease in her name.

We went to the apartment a few times in the late 80s and early ’90s, my mom’s heart in her throat (she tells me) as we approached the door on a then-notoriously sketchy block. I remember the texture of the ceiling in the small front vestibule, like cake frosting, as I stared up at it. In the apartment itself, the torso of a mannequin was displayed in an alcove, painted pink and wearing a fedora. Sitting on the floor in the living room, next to a Christmas tree past its prime, I unwrapped a gift from Leslie, Song of the Lioness by Tamora Pierce — a YA fantasy novel about a girl who disguised herself as a boy to fulfill her dreams of being a knight. (I would read it at least 10 times.) Most vividly, I remember that my brother and I were playing on the lofted bed and I lost a toy, a tiny baby bottle that came packaged with a little rabbit doll wearing a dress. Its vanishing dismayed and mystified me.

I thought about the teeny bottle when I was moving in, wiping down the loft’s painted wood surface before sliding my futon in place. All those years later it was easy to see how a perfect miniature thing could be sacrificed to the dark of that bedframe, which I’d soon come to know as a dusty resting place for stray Advil and squashed earplugs. Where I’d once misplaced a toy, the hairdresser-subletter had left behind one lambskin condom and an army of hairpins. For months I’d find more of those pins throughout the whole place, as if the apartment were regurgitating them. I’d come home and one of them would have somehow made its way to the middle of the floor, offering itself up as some kind of sign.

Signs were welcome: I was looking for help in figuring out how to live alone, and sensitive to anything that seemed like an omen. I spent a lot of time worrying about two windows in the living room, overlooking the street. The one that opened on the fire escape locked nice and tight, and was attached to a rusty grate that could be pulled over it for extra security. The other window had a busted lock. This was the third floor and there was no real way for anyone to get in that window, save for scaling the front of the building, but I wedged a wooden dowel in to jam it shut while I figured out what it made sense to be afraid of.


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When Leslie lived there in the ’80s, someone had been murdered in the studio apartment tucked just inside the front door, stabbed to death in a drug deal gone wrong. She was home when it happened but only found out when the cops made their rounds and knocked on her door, two floors up. There was blood streaking the walls of the foyer, and in footprints on the floor, she told me, and the police tape stayed up for weeks. By the time we were talking about it, enough years had passed to turn the story into a legend, a companion to the one about getting mugged by a junkie on her own block. I felt a flush of pleasure watching her muse about it over dinner one night, proof of how fear can mellow into something like pride.

It was a railroad apartment, somewhere around 300 square feet — a long, awkward space, cave-like and crooked, in a deep funk of cracking and peeling and generally breaking down.

After Leslie left New York she was back in the city pretty regularly, doing big corporate shows for her own production company. Together we ate Italian food at a place on my corner, Indian on 6th Street, macrobiotic Dragon Bowls at Angelica Kitchen, cannoli at Veniero’s. We smoked her very strong weed and went to see Hair on Broadway. We talked about hefty books and exasperating family and how the city used to be. She gave me job advice. We hung out with friends of hers in their scrappy, covetable apartment above the movie theater on 12th and 2nd; they’d known David Wojnarowicz back when he lived in the building, too. We sat on my cat-clawed couch and drank through the 2012 presidential debates, yelling at the TV.

Like when I was a kid, I saw her regularly but infrequently enough that each time sizzled with specialness. Now, though, I made sure friends and family knew I lived in her old place. I was proud of it. It seemed like shorthand for our relationship, speaking to a kind of closeness I craved and felt mostly confident in. People jockeyed for Leslie’s attention, but she was choosy about who she let in. That she liked me and took me seriously, and laughed at my jokes, felt like winning.

***

Over 10 years in the apartment, I took on one major renovation project: When John moved in with me during year four, I had the crusty beige carpet replaced. Almost immediately after, I couldn’t understand how I’d had made it happen: the decision, the logistics, the scheduling, the temporary relocation of everything in the living room to the kitchen. In retrospect it was a grand gesture. And had the carpet really been that bad — so much worse than so many other things we kept living with? Once it was gone, I could hardly remember.

I was dully aware that these things I took for granted; the things I watched with passive irritation as they fell into disrepair were all things Leslie had fixed. Long before she could imagine me grown, much less living there, she had put in the work required to make the apartment habitable, which in turn made it enviable. She told me about how she and her friends had laid down that laminate kitchen floor, installed kitchen cabinets where there had been none, built the loft bed in a canny space-saving move. All of these things were deliberate, marked improvements.

By the time I got to the apartment those upgrades had aged and mostly disintegrated, and I lived with the crumbling because I could. But I knew I should be going about things differently, better. When you decide to live in one place for awhile, it makes sense to get invested. To make little outlays of time and money on improvements. To solve problems that gnaw at you. If, for example, your apartment doesn’t have enough storage for pots and pans, you might install one of those metal bars to hang them on. If the floor looks like something out of a horror movie, you might ask the opinion of a friend who works as a carpenter, or call a contractor, or stop into one of the neighborhood’s many hardware stores and ask for advice. Or at least just replace the cheap laminate yourself, even if it refuses to lie flat.

She cultivated a casual androgyny, wearing her dark curly hair buzzed short, or slicked away from her tanned, freckled face and corralled into a ponytail. It wasn’t until I was a teenager that I figured out she was gay.

Instead, I mostly ignored the door with glass panes that separated the sleeping area from the living room. One of the people who had lived here between Leslie and me had painted it without even trying to stay inside the lines, and there was gloppy white slathered all over the glass. Sometimes I started to wonder who had done it and what they were thinking. Why bother applying a fresh coat if you’re just going to make it worse? Then I’d remember that I was the person who had lived for years with the evidence of some stranger’s carelessness, only occasionally realizing that it was something I could fix.

Sometimes when Leslie visited she’d look around and make suggestions about repairs and improvements. But she mostly shrugged and reserved judgment. Meanwhile I could spend hours inventorying my surroundings, tallying up what needed changing and what it would take. How amazing it would be to change things — for those changes to actually be made! This prospect of betterness was beguiling but stubbornly hypothetical, like someone else’s life.

After I’d already been living in the apartment for years, Leslie still called it hers. She’d refer in passing to “my apartment,” and I would feel half annoyed and impinged upon, half thrilled and flattered by the fact of her attachment. Being so lived in, haggard and used, its guts on display, the place was undeniably ours. We had a floor plan in common; our young lives had filled the same shape.

***

Being someone’s aunt, or being a niece, doesn’t suggest anything in particular. It’s not obvious shorthand, doesn’t come with its own meaning or merit. If that relationship matters, it’s because you’ve decided it does. As I got older, Leslie’s attention seemed to confirm that I was becoming the kind of person I had hoped to be — the kind of person someone like her would want to be close to. Someone hardy and adventurous, self-assured, exacting. Someone deliberate, who knew who she was and what mattered to her. To that end, the apartment was an opening and an obstacle: a source of endless opportunities to be decisive, mostly chances I couldn’t bring myself to take.

Despite her overall restraint, Leslie always had opinions about what I should do with the luxury of low rent: Save money for a little place upstate and get out of the city when you can, she urged. It was what she had done. I knew she was probably right, but I was years away from being able to wrap my head around that version of my life. In the apartment that summer, a mysterious bump had risen up out of the floor, blocking the path of the bathroom door. I watched it grow, frowning as it rose higher and weirder before receding entirely. We shaved down the bottom of the door to get it to close, and then the bump just disappeared. A weekend place was more than an abstraction.

Despite her overall restraint, Leslie always had opinions about what I should do with the luxury of low rent: ‘Save money for a little place upstate and get out of the city when you can,’ she urged.

But I was starting to entertain the idea of living somewhere else. It struck me one day that this was a possibility — it genuinely had not occurred to me before — and then sat in my mind and swelled. I engaged in the too-familiar internal debate about whether it was a good idea, whether I should revise my position and change my character and throw myself into fixing up the place where I was already so lucky to be. But something about the apartment immobilized me. I lived there with a confusion of gratitude and entanglement, the brightness of luck pushed up against a clammy sense of responsibility and inevitability that I was never sure what to do with. Sometimes I thought I could just stay there, with that feeling, forever. Or at least that, thus indebted, I should.

The only thing that seemed doable was starting over in a new space, one with less baggage. (Though I loved the baggage, half-wondered if I could hang onto it somehow.) After 10 years of filth and mice and crusted-over leaks and things that only sort of worked, what I wanted was to move.

I dreaded telling Leslie. Even after a decade, leaving made me feel guilty, like I was doing something wrong, or worse (and more likely), stupid. But when I finally broke the news that John and I were looking for a place in Brooklyn, she barely tried to talk me out of it. Maybe she’d just detached by then, moved on. By design, her life looked very different than it had when she lived in New York. She and her partner lived in West Seattle, in a house overlooking the Puget Sound and the snowy peaks of the Olympic mountains, that they’d transformed into an airy box of light. They had a house in a small town in Mexico, too, another place they’d spent years turning into a sanctuary, doors flung open to friends.

But her uncharacteristic reticence probably didn’t have all that much to do with comparative living situations or any hypothetical (and likely overstated) disappointment in me. She was preoccupied with other things. The main one was cancer, which had come on suddenly and aggressively, and proceeded to complicate her life in all sorts of offensive ways. She didn’t really want to talk about that either.

After so much buildup, moving happened quickly. John and I left in 2014, almost 34 years to the day, it turned out, after Leslie had moved in. We ended up paying a penalty fee for breaking a two-year lease, the same timeframe she, and then I, had been blithely signing onto over our combined decades, presuming perpetuity. The right thing to do, I knew, would have been to pass the apartment (and its still staggeringly low rent, which had crept up to $1,044.98) along to someone else. I told myself that considering the overall decline of the place, they wouldn’t exactly be lucky to have it. But it was also selfish: By then I mostly just wanted a clean break, and I didn’t have the stomach for keeping up a ruse with a difficult landlord.

In an absurd gesture at returning the place to its “original condition” after so much time, we got a handyman to break down the sturdy loft bed. And we spent a whole day cleaning. It had been a long time since we’d been so intimate with the place, sweatily scrubbing at surfaces and forcing sponges into crevices. Grime and dust coated everything, and wiping it all away was a tour of just what we were leaving and why. It also felt like penance.

On the rental application for our new place, under “reason for moving,” I’d written in block letters, “standard of living.” We moved across the river to an apartment with inlaid wood floors and big old windows that rattled when it was windy and let in both air and light. There were doors that closed, and the rent was double what we’d left. We bought furniture — a sectional couch, nightstands to bookend an actual bed. We hung curtains, shelved our books just so. We still maintained a barren fridge and I mostly failed to break my habit of throwing clothes on a chair in a growing a pile after I’d worn them. But we were mostly more deliberate, the change in spaces a lasting jolt.

***

Leslie died just over a year after we moved. She and I hadn’t talked much in the preceding months. She knew what was coming, and was alternating big-ticket travel and visits with friends with feeling awful, being laid up and checked out. It was hard to know what was happening, whether she was keeping me at a distance on purpose and what that might mean. At the end of the summer, she emailed to say that she was cancelling her long-planned trip to New York. “Reality is rearing its ugly head,” she wrote. Her way of dealing with that reality was by controlling what she could — which, thanks to Washington State’s Death with Dignity law, meant setting a date.

Something about the apartment immobilized me. I lived there with a confusion of gratitude and entanglement, the brightness of luck pushed up against a clammy sense of responsibility and inevitability that I was never sure what to do with.

With a day to spare, she told my family she wanted us with her at the end. We flew out to Seattle overnight and woke up in her house on a bright, cool late-September morning. Leslie, exhausted and spacey from meds, held court from her bed. She slept on and off. My parents, brother, and a few friends sat around telling stories and laughing; I sprawled on the foot of her bed. We drank coffee, looked at old pictures. Tried not to look at the clock.

The day had an odd shape to it, all stretched out and leisurely, weirdly calm. In the afternoon, I went out to walk the dog with one of Leslie’s closest friends, who had also flown in from New York. I’d met him a few times over the years. He had briefly lived in the apartment, too, with Leslie when he was in his early 20s. She’d befriended him when they were both working at a Soho sandwich shop. He was sweet and adorable and also queer; they got married so that Leslie, a Canadian, could get her Green Card. As we walked and caught up I told him about the apartment John and I lived in, and how happy we were there. “It’s so important to feel that way about the place you go home to,” he said. I nodded. But I needed him to know that that was only part of it, that leaving Leslie’s apartment didn’t mean I had taken it for granted. That apartment would always be so special to me, I told him, explaining how grateful I was, how fraught the decision to leave had been. How I didn’t — couldn’t — take any of it lightly. I could hear how it sounded, extra thick and earnest. Guilty. He gave me a look. “Get over it, girl,” he said, laughing, and we headed up the steep driveway that led back to the house.

It got dark. We ordered Thai food. At 7:30 the unnervingly kind volunteers from Death with Dignity showed up and prepared the medication, as required by law. Half an hour later, when Leslie knocked back a shot of whiskey muddy with lethal powder, she was stoic. I was sobbing. Her death was peaceful and decisive. She was 57 years old.

Sometimes I close my eyes and imagine what it would look like if the old apartment existed inside the newer one, the one Leslie never got to see.

Get over it. Over the next weeks and months I sat at home and twisted her rings around my fingers and thought about inheritances — the things that are passed along and down to us, and the ways we take possession of them. I tugged at her silver bangle encircling my wrist and thought about the ways we get invested in places and people; how they get tangled up together in ways we recognize might be sort of crass, but can’t figure out how to separate. When it came to the apartment, there was no way not to wonder if I’d made the wrong choice. If I’d stayed there, it might have felt like holding onto a piece of Les. It might have seemed even harder to change anything, much less to move on. But maybe I would have surprised myself, looked around with new purpose and started carving out a home worthy of what she had handed me.

But I left; I don’t live there anymore. Sometimes I close my eyes and imagine what it would look like if the old apartment existed inside the newer one, the one she never got to see. I still have the old place memorized, and I think about where walls might line up and then diverge, where solid right angles would meet softened ones. With the new place as a shell around the old one, I picture alleys and alcoves, awkward spaces and pockets of light.

***

There are all kinds of ways to miss somebody. Not long ago, in my still-routine Googling of the East 13th Street address and unit number, I turned up a listing. There it was: our apartment. The place had been renovated and was available to sublet, furnished, for $3200 a month. The photos in the listing showed new doors, new floors, new windows replacing the ones that had thin, cracked glass and never sat right in the frames. Walls had been knocked down and rebuilt. There were new cabinets; smooth, even surfaces; drywall covering up the brick. Even the metal grate on the front window had been painted white. The shape of the space was the same, but I couldn’t find a foothold in it. There was no trace there of anyone I’d ever been or known.

* * *

Eryn Loeb is a senior nonfiction editor at Guernica. Her writing about nostalgia, books, and feminism (or some combination of those things) has appeared in Poets & Writers, Bookforum, the Los Angeles Times, the Awl, the Village Voice, the Rumpus, and the Millions, among other publications.

Editor: Sari Botton