Tuesday, July 11, 2006

"Evident merit" - Do they write this to everyone?

Dear Mr. St. John,

We're sorry to say that your piece, "My First Apartment," isn't right for
us, despite its evident merit. Thank you for allowing us to consider your

Best regards,
The Shouts Dept.

Monday, July 10, 2006

My First Apartment

There’s a certain amount of arbitrariness that goes into one’s career choice, let alone a kid just out of college. I fell into writing after some school newspaper experience, looking to my parents for advice (my father is a writer), and a realization that my (now ex-) girlfriend was moving to New York City.

I had played around with living in New York when I began to heed Horace Greeley’s anti-adage; after an entire life spent in Colorado, I decided to go east as a young man. That ideal put me in Boston for college, but New York still pulled me in a couple times a year. And, after a lazy post-graduation summer in Denver, I finally bit the apple and made “the big move.”

One of the reasons that it’s such a big move is the godforsaken apartment search. Broker fees, snubbed craigslist messages, conversations lost in translation, and furniture in cabs are all par for the 110 street course. What ultimately gets your ball in the hole is a bag full of compromise. I ended up - after more than a month searching and another at my ex-girlfriend’s – on the Upper East Side living with my college roommate’s girlfriend, Emilia. Our apartment itself was clean, the neighborhood was safe, the rent wasn’t astronomical, and there was a roof over our heads (not to mention exposed brick, oh my!). It was exciting and settling at the same time. The feeling of the latter didn’t last for long, but the former exponentially increased over our time spent on the fifth floor of kook central.

The first person that opened up this Dorothy’s wide blue eyes was Ralph, our super. Portly, Puerto Rican, and passive, Ralph took the “intend” out of superintendent. Contacting him to fix something as simple as a door handle was an arduous process - a surprise considering his ubiquitous Bluetooth bud. On a number of occasions he would arrive sweating and frowning. It seemed as though he was angry with me for the routine maintenance that almost any apartment would require. It made me wonder about the service that the other tenants (especially the older ones) were receiving if they couldn’t stay home on a Thursday afternoon or subject themselves to two weeks of phone tag with the management company. I soon learned.

A couple of months into our stay, Emilia’s cousin, Lucy, from Mexico City moved in. I didn’t know she’d be staying for three months, but I empathized over the dread of the b.m. One weekend I decided to go to Boston, boarded an infamous Chinatown bus early in the afternoon, and quickly fell asleep. I was awoken by a call from Lucy: “You know that smell in our kitchen? The lady in the apartment below us died a month ago.”

There was an evasive, fetid odor that lurked around our refrigerator and we had searched high and low for a dead rat (they were only to be found in infant form on our stairs), rotting fruit (only in the abyss that existed between our building and the one behind us), or yeast fermentation (only in Williamsburg). A neighbor had ended up calling the police after he could bear the putridity no more. We had, apparently, not gotten the worst of it. She was old, lived directly below us, and had collapsed in her kitchen - which was directly below ours. The NYPD sealed the case and the door on that one, but not on a laundry list of others.

One day when the dry cleaners in our basement had turned off our water, I went to the bodega around the corner to buy a bottle to brush my teeth. Upon my retreat I was followed by the bearded shelf-stocker and watched as he completed a covert transaction in front of my building. That accounted for the little baggies that had been accumulating next to the mini-rats on our stairs, but I didn’t think it had anything to do with the men in and out of our building (who accidentally knocked on our apartment door at 3 am and disappeared), the M√§nnenkalender (and various other types of pornography strewn across the landings), or The Titanic Trojan Toss.

This, I found, was all attributable to our next-door neighbor, a woman in her early 40s with an Eastern European accent, a penchant for house music on Sunday mornings, and a seemingly infinite supply of Huge Boss men’s underpants (our hallway was plentiful with their empty boxes). What was most impressive about her wasn’t her clientele or even their devotion to her – one admirer even taped roses and a love letter to her door. No, it was The Toss. I grasped her disdain for throwing condoms and their wrappers into the trash and tried to not flinch at her implementation of what David Cross so eloquently termed “an urban Johnny Appleseed” mentality. But, The Toss was the surprise of all surprises.

Somehow and at some point, someone transformed themselves from Johnny Appleseed into Johnny Damon and threw a contraceptive out the window, nestling it perfectly on a cable wire above the abyss. It has not fallen, nor do I believe that it ever will.

And, surprisingly, I haven’t fallen out of step with New York. I still like living here; I still like not knowing what to expect on any given walk to the subway. It’s always fresh and it’s always mysterious, just like my first apartment.