I was in the elevator coming down from work. “How long have you been in a shed?” a young woman asked a middle-aged one.
“About ten years,” she said. “And it’ll probably be another ten.” She rolled her eyes.
“God!” I thought. “It wasn’t just a paranoid fantasy, people in New York actually do have to live in sheds now.” Then my haze of insanity lifted and I realized that the question was, “how long have you been at Hachette?”—as in Hachette Filipacchi Media, the French conglomerate that employs many of us at 1633 Broadway.
Sheds were on my mind because right before I’d left the office, I’d had a tear-stained phone conversation with my husband that ended with my saying “Yeah, and then maybe they’ll let us live in a 300–square-foot shed in their backyard!” I had called him to calm what felt like the beginnings of a massive anxiety attack, upon hearing the gossip from a real-estate agent at an open house: the actors Peter Sarsgaard and Maggie Gyllenhaal were buying the four-story brownstone near Fifth Avenue in North Park Slope. The untouched-by-time, old-lady house of my dreams.
I want an old-lady house the way some people want to write a bestseller or have a baby. If I were a G.I. Jane doll, I would squawk, “Original detail! Original detail!” when my cord was pulled. I’ve come to believe that if I could just lasso my 30-year fixed around a dusty, dilapidated, circa 1850 to 1900 brownstone, near an express subway, and not more than 30 minutes to midtown, with knob-and-tube wiring, caked-on lead paint, tiny glass-fronted kitchen cabinets made for pre-supersized people, fireplace mantels, cornices, cracked wood frame windows, those crazy beautiful swirling flowers in plaster in the foyer, encaustic tile, light fixtures from any decades but the past four, tenement linoleum, etc., my life would be complete. I make pacts with the God I don’t believe in that I will never want another thing.
I didn’t actually get to enter the “diamond in the rough.” I stared at the pictures on the Corcoran Web site (“six original mantels…original hall sinks”) and peeked in the windows. I didn’t get inside the house because by the time I found out it was for sale, it had already received multiple offers. The real-estate agent claimed he couldn’t show it again because the seller didn’t want to deal with any more people. Best and final was tomorrow at 3:30 P.M. He expected it to go well above asking.
I know someone friendly with the lady who had lived in the house for 30 years. She mentioned it to me casually, as only those not eaten alive with desire for a decaying wreck—who wisely bought their four-story brownstones in 1996 and now have fantasies about sprawling nine-room, all-new-construction, one-level condos—can. “The house across the street is for sale, and guess who’s looking at it? Maggie Gyllenhaal and Peter Sarsgaard. Isn’t that weird? Oh, actually Miranda, you would love this house, it’s so you.” The woman who lived there, she said, had totally preserved it.
Thus began a heart-palpitating day of attempting to gain access to the house. My friend even went across the street to try and convince the occupant to let me in. The fact that my husband and I couldn’t really afford such a purchase had nothing to do with anything at this point. Panic coursed through my veins: “The last old-lady house in the North Slope, the last four-story for under $2 million, get it, get it, get it, I will save it, I will love it so much, the money will come, I will rent it all and sleep in one of the clawfoot tubs….”
The owner was intransigent, claiming exhaustion. I now see there was a multi-person conspiracy going on. The agent wanted to sell to movie stars. My friend wanted movie stars to buy it (her real-estate values). Even the innocent, tired senior wanted to sell to movie stars. “Best and final.” As if! Oops, did we forget to clarify that is was “best and final from the most glamorous bidders?”
I stared at the pictures longingly until Corcoran took them off the site, at which point I tried to forget about it.
But hearing that it was Maggie and Peter who would likely buy it felt like a punch in the gut. It seemed somehow more relentlessly unfair. “They could buy a mansion right on the park, why did they have to take this?” I wailed to my husband on the phone. “Don’t you see what’s going to happen? They’ll tear it all out. They’ll do a gut reno.”
“But Maggie’s stylish,” he said (of course, defending the cute girl star).
“Peter will sway her. He’ll want a new kitchen, then bathrooms. They’re actors! Dumb actors. They’ll get Svengali’d by some Jula.” (My parents had once been hypnotized by a sinister interior decorator named Jula.) “They probably bought under-budget so they could afford to really make it ‘theirs.’”
My hysteria escalated. “With movie stars there, the prices will rise beyond comprehension,” I said. “The market will never flatten. There’ll be an invisible wall between the North and South”—where we unfortunately bought, on a street replete with new trees and vinyl siding (though I hasten to add that one of the Strokes does live on it).
On the long F-train ride home, I thought about the first job I applied for in New York, in 1998. A grande dame editor at Grove Press, part of a Southern media-baron family, offered me a job as her assistant for $20,000 a year. I told her I was worried about paying rent. She said—very “let them eat cake”—“But your husband will buy a place here.” In my mind I responded, “Are you out of your beautiful fucking mind, lady? Buy a place? He’s a lawyer, not a financier-scion. Apartments cost half a million dollars!”
I wish, wish, wish like everyone else, that I’d bought then, but what I really wish is that I could go back to that era. When movie stars lived on the parks (Central, Gramercy, Washington Square), not in crumbly, crummy Brooklyn. When old-lady houses were everywhere and it seemed like there was time, because developers and gut renovators weren’t lurking outside every chipped stoop. When you did get enormously wealthy (by 90 percent of the world’s standards) because you’d worked Manhattan hard, you knew you’d buy a place—cramped but with dentelle molding, not in the West Village, but maybe Kips Bay. Or you just didn’t think about it all the time. Before the vile New York Times real-estate section, or the viler Key, which I had to instantly throw in the bin, the transparent forum for condo ads was so psychically damaging.
I want to be joking when I say: “I’ll never be able to enjoy a Maggie Gyllenhaal movie again.”