This is a post about New York but, nowadays, you could apply a lot of the sentiments I’ve expressed to my life in Melbourne as well. Except my house now is a lot bigger and significantly less… infested… than my old apartment. With not as many steps. Be that as it may. This is also a post about space and city living and interiors and exteriors and worthwhile sacrifices and satisfactory compromises and, most of all, it is a post about home.
68 Thompson Street #36
New York NY 20016
When I lived in New York it was in a classic, shoe-box sized pre-war walk-up apartment. I lived on the fifth floor, which was as high as you were allowed to go without an elevator. There were 84 stairs between the pavement and my apartment, every one of them green and dingy and dirty, and I climbed them several times a day.
Inside my apartment was one big room with a tiny sink, a bar-fridge and a decrepit electric oven near the door; and, at the far end, two tall windows with bars protecting them, and a paint-encrusted radiator that hissed and banged and leaked water over the parquetry floor. A rusty fire escape outside one of the windows would offer escape to only the most desperate among us. There was also a bathroom complete with a full length bath – immeasurable luxury for New York – and a bedroom that, once populated with a double bed, was utterly without floor space.
There were also mice in my living room. And rats in the garbage-filled courtyard downstairs. And the echo of sirens and horns and engines, day and night, from the entrance to the Holland Tunnel only a couple of blocks away.
In keeping with my meagre budget, I decorated my apartment with a dubiously-hygienic bed and couch left behind by the previous tenant, a metal shelving unit found in the hallway, a vintage oak dressing table purchased from the side of the road near Bowery, and some cheap cushions, throws and bedding from a rather traumatic trip to IKEA. It’s a miracle I wasn’t covered in bed-bug bites.
I absolutely loved that apartment. It was home, my very own home in the heart of New York City. It was the hub of the life I lived in the city, a life that was all about art, adventure, and community. Yet I was barely inside the apartment.
Every day, I would tuck my computer under my arm and head out to one of a countless number of cafes and restaurants and parks to take advantage of the weather, the sometimes-good coffee, the free wifi; and to earn my living. At some of my favourite places, the wait-staff became friends. During my breaks, I’d wander the streets of lower Manhattan, exploring shopping precincts and alleyways draped in street art, peering in at secret gardens behind walls.
At night, I would visit one or more of my friends, most of them in equally-dingy and tiny apartments. We would cook together, and laugh, perch on the edge of couches with our plates on our laps, precariously resting wine glasses on window frames. Or we would head out to hear a band. One of my friends would be singing on Bleeker, or over in the East Village. Someone else would be hosting a party on a rooftop. A new show or restaurant or movie would be opening and one of my friends would have invitations.
On weekends, my friend Mish and I would put on our walking shoes, clip the lead onto my dog Oliver, and walk more than 100 blocks along the Hudson River, starting around Canal Street and ending up in the 90s, before turning around and walking all the way home. We’d walk through floral, landscaped gardens, past people sun baking on pocket-handkerchief sized grass lawns, tennis courts and water playgrounds. Past kayaks for hire and trapeze lessons and territorial geese that terrified Oliver as they waddled up and down the wooden boardwalks. After the High Line opened, we’d look up at all the tourists exploring the tall tracks. Or we’d leave our riverside path and join them, taking in an entirely different perspective.
At home at the end of this marathon walk, we’d hobble around, feet aching, ravenously hungry. We’d call our friends and meet them at Lucky Strike, where I’d order the steak frites and a glass of prosecco in a tumbler, and not feel guilty.
All of this is to say that a tiny, dirty, somewhat-infested apartment at the epicentre of one of the biggest and busiest cities in the world can feel like home. And more, a happy home. And more than that, a home in which you are never trapped, never over-crowded, never fenced in.
Because in New York, the entire city is your back yard. You have 18 miles of back yard in which to explore, play… hey, you can even eat, pray and love, if that’s your thing. And nobody questions it. Nobody who understands New York ever asks if you wish you had a bigger apartment, or a place to grow your own vegetables: there are community gardens for that, and window sills. Instead, they understand that the compromise is to sacrifice the space inside your home, for all that space and diversion and beauty and creativity outside your front door.
And then I moved to Melbourne.
(to be continued…)