On “Falling Apart”

My apartment sits on the border of Clinton Hill and Fort Greene in an area that is actually called “Wallabout,” and is one of the oldest neighborhoods in Brooklyn. My apartment, which is falling apart, is also probably one of the oldest buildings in Brooklyn. I can tell because it is falling apart.

Here is a quote from a recent New York Times article about historic Wallabout, wherein a Wallabout resident describes the Wallabout experience: “‘To live there, you’re a little bit of a risk taker and an adventurer, because you’re off the grid a little bit,’ said Gary Hattem, a chairman of the Historic Wallabout Association, who since 1976 has lived on Vanderbilt Avenue in an Italianate 1850s row house with a wooden porch.”

Gary Hattem, also president of Deutche Bank, does not know what a risk-taker is because he lives in an 1850s row house with a porch, most likely restored, full of period furniture, and one block closer to the G train than me.  Gary has not lived in my falling-apartment or had to call my landlord at 8am on a Sunday.

The building itself is rent controlled and has original tin ceiling tiles that have been painted white. The walls are all painted different shades of blue haphazardly and the bookshelves are overflowing with books left behind by whoever has lived there and left them. Unread books and small statues of bronze horses have gotten dusty and sit there while my roommates and I work multiple jobs to continue to live in a space with other people’s leftovers where we barely have time to actually live.  My apartment on Clinton Avenue, which I rented a few months ago during my own falling apart, has been falling apart for decades. Whenever I tell someone a story about something that happens to me in this apartment they respond with something like: “That is so New York.” Here are a few of those exchanges:

“My roommate didn’t tell me about his sub-letter until she wandered out of our bathroom in a towel and introduced herself. No, actually, even then he didn’t tell me about her.”

“That’s so New York! It’s like you’re on ‘Friends’!”

“My landlord won’t fix the leak in our bathroom, so I had to go to his office in Williamsburg and threaten to call the city.”

“ That’s so New York!”

“There’s a rat living in my kitchen. Maybe multiple rats.”

“Gross!” Pause. Facial muscles change from disgust to acceptance. “That’s so New York though.”

If all of these bizarre, stressful, disgusting things are “so New York,” I thought during one of my panicked moments about my life in New York (an experience that is also referred to by other New York friends as “so new York”), then what am I still doing here?

My sort-of ex-boyfriend told me that my apartment was “a study in decay.” The building is owned by an older Hasidic man who wanders around sometimes like he’s lost something on the sidewalk, and won’t shake my hand because I am a woman. My roommate is almost ten years older than me so when I moved in I assumed that he would assume most of the responsibility for apartment-related issues, two assumptions I should not have made. When I told him about the rat, he told me in an exaggerated voice that he “can’t deal with rodents” and (almost literally) locked himself in his room until I resolved the problem.  I fear for my roommate when I am gone and he is forced to confront things on his own.

So because my roommate is kind but useless, my other sometimes-roommate and best friend (who puts me together when I’m falling apart) brought the landlord in to our apartment one day. She saw him outside looking for something on the sidewalk again, and thought he should be looking for the rat instead. As she showed him that the rat in our kitchen had been stealing bananas from us, she also told him that we had been disinfecting surfaces and setting traps, waiting for him to call us back (the landlord, not the rat) for four days. I stood in the corner of the kitchen and mumbled that it was a health issue.

After some pleadings he finally sent our building manager, (someone who we didn’t know existed), with a can of foam insulation to fill an eight-inch hole in the space between the counter and the wall (also known as the “dish graveyard”) and another one under the sink. After I found another half-eaten banana on the counter the next day, I called an exterminator on my own to fix and complete Patrick’s shoddy rat elimination job. He told me that the foam insulation could be chewed through in less than 15 minutes.

I moved in to my falling-apartment after New York made my relationship fall apart. He found a much nicer Brooklyn apartment after we left our upper-east side apartment where we fell apart for what we thought would be the last time. We are still friends sometimes, and we compare stories about how “New York” it all is over brunches that inevitably fall apart by the third mimosa.  He wonders when my study in decay will actually fall apart and I’ll move back home to California where things only fall apart during earthquakes if you haven’t had the foundation fortified.

The truth is, I like my Wallabout, things-strewn-about apartment. I like the way it’s weird and needs to be renovated and how my landlord never fixes anything. I like the 19th-century high chair in the living room that everyone thinks is creepy, and the dinner plate with a portrait of the Eisenhowers on the wall that hangs next to the slanted wooden cabinets. I like how I assumed that the plate portrait was my roommate’s grandparents, and how it is oddly sloping downward as if one day they might just fall face-first onto the linoleum floor. I like all the mismatched dishes and mugs left behind and all the jars of fig jam my roommate made in Alabama over the summer, even though they take up a good chunk of our very small (decaying) dining table. One day I’ll miss 24-hour sushi from Mr. Coco’s and the 10 dollar almond butter that I buy when I feel like splurging on fancy groceries. I like how short-term it all feels, and how it sounds when I write about it, and I like that someday soon when I move out I’ll realize that it was all really just falling apart so I could put everything back together.

(November 2014) 

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