I know it must seem that, with my recent columns on John Keats and Hart Crane, I’ve had my head in the poetic clouds. But now I face a situation where I may have my belongings on the unpoetic street. Well, maybe not literally. But I do have an apartment situation , let’s say, and so I’m turning to my readers for help. This may seem somewhat unorthodox, but a public appeal for housing rescue is not unprecedented in my past.
I hesitate to tell this story, you’ll probably laugh, but put it down to the impetuousness of youth. Or chalk it up to that somewhat overused but often uncannily accurate remark by E.B. White about those who come to New York: the way you “must be willing to be lucky.”
The novel notion in that line is that one needs to be “willing” to accept good fortune. For many this will not seem like some insuperable obstacle, but for those of us with poor self-images who don’t think we really deserve to be lucky, this is a real problem. Still-once at least-I was willing to be lucky, and now circumstances compel me to gin up that willingness again.
Let me tell you about that first time, the first time I came to New York to live (I was born in Manhattan but left it as an infant). This was a long time ago, when I suddenly found myself the bewildered victim of an unanticipated piece of good luck: For some reason I’m still not sure of, Dan Wolf, the revered founding editor of The Village Voice , offered me, a person with little experience writing about anything beyond 17th-century poetry, a coveted staff writing job at the weekly.
He asked me if I could start right away, and foolishly I said Yes, figuring the unlikely offer would be withdrawn unless I started turning out stories immediately. I was facing an impossible task as well, following in the footsteps of the late great Don McNeill, the gifted writer who’d ended his life by walking into a pond on a New England commune until the water closed forever over his head. I mean, I wasn’t supposed to follow those particular fatal footsteps, but I suspected I was in over my head. Particularly since I didn’t have a place to live or receive phone calls.
I’d been staying precariously, through the grace and favor of a high school friend who was studying for the priesthood, at a theological seminary. I was grateful for any kind of roof over my head, but the place made me a little nervous because, in the spirit of the times, a number of the seminarians-preppy Cheeveresque scions of suburban Protestant gentry-had been inspired by certain spiritual experiments at Harvard to imbibe a (then legal) psychedelic with the communion sacrament. I had a feeling guys were having ecstatic Christian visionary experiences all around me, and I felt like an intruder. (I think they turned out all right: A couple of years ago, I saw one of the celebrants on TV in ecclesiastical garb-he’d become a minor bishop, I think-making an impassioned plea for help for the homeless.) And while the seminary kept me from being entirely homeless myself, I needed a real place to stay if I was not going to blow the extraordinary good fortune of my first writing job.
Feeling desperate, I was possessed by an unlikely vision. I got a sandwich board-size piece of poster stock from a stationery store and wrote upon it in large Magic Marker capitals: I NEED AN APARTMENT. I strung it around my neck and started walking around and around Washington Square and the rest of the Village. Believe me, I’m not the kind of person who does this sort of thing, but I was desperate.
Needless to say, not all the offers and suggestions I got were real estate-related, but people were generally encouraging. Still, as night fell and I trudged back toward the seminary, I had nothing really to show for my willingness to be lucky.
But then as I passed the Riviera Cafe on Sheridan Square, you know, that little triangle of seats outside it, a young woman saw my sandwich board sign and stopped me. She turned out to be a dancer studying with Alwin Nikolais and Merce Cunningham. She turned out to be looking for an apartment herself. We ended up vaguely agreeing to look together. In a few days, she called me and told me that, through dance-world connections, she’d come up with a real “find”: a great five-room apartment “just over the bridge in Brooklyn.” In fact, it turned out to be a 40-minute subway ride out to Utica Avenue in Crown Heights, but it was a find of a sort-five rooms for $110 a month. Which we decided to share because neither of us could afford the entire rent ourselves.
The apartment wasn’t that great, but the relationship that developed between us after we moved in was, and I’ve always thought of this as the one example in my life when I showed myself willing to be lucky, doubly lucky, and it actually worked.
Which brings me to my current situation when I’m compelled by circumstances to essay an updated equivalent of walking around with an I NEED AN APARTMENT sign around my neck. In other words, an I NEED AN APARTMENT column.
Here’s the situation. I’ve been subletting for six years, a one-bedroom place in a small quiet co-op apartment building in Turtle Bay. I moved to that neighborhood mainly because I wanted to be within walking distance of the indoor running track at the Vanderbilt YMCA on Second and 47th, but I’ve come to love the low-key peacefulness of the neighborhood and my building. Anyway, I’m now in the final stages of finishing a book I’ve been working on for more than seven years, I’m falling behind my publisher’s production schedule, and now suddenly I have to find a new place and move.
It’s nobody’s fault, I knew the situation was coming, and I’d hoped to have had my book finished before I had to move. But the owner of my apartment, a true patron of the arts who’s gotten me extension after extension on the sublet from the building’s congenial board, needs to sell the place, I can’t buy, and to make a long story short, I have to leave. So I need an apartment , and it’s a terrible time to find one.
In other words, I want to get lucky again. Just an apartment this time will do, thank you, but I’ve been plagued by the usual thoughts that I don’t deserve to ask Fortune to intervene on my undeserving behalf. I am not worthy! And so I hesitated before writing this column until I shared my doubts with a woman I know who reproved me by saying, “What about the air-conditioned horses, Ron?”
The air-conditioned horses? It took me a minute to realize she was referring to my column last year on behalf of the great animal care cause Pets Alive, a sanctuary run by the sainted Sara Whalen, who takes in sick, aging pets and domestic animals whose owners have died or become too ill (often with AIDS) to care for them. An appeal which, due to the terrific generosity of Observer readers, raised close to $10,000 for animal care, some of which went to provide an air conditioner for the barn that houses the ailing horses at Pets Alive’s Middletown facility. (By the way, Pets Alive is still hurting for funds to care for hurting and abandoned animals, so let me take a moment off from my own selfish concerns to urge those of you thinking of holiday charity contributions to send something to Pets Alive, 363 Derby Road, Middletown, N.Y., 10940.)
In any case, my friend suggested that maybe I had built up some deserving karma for helping to cool off the sweating horses-and for all the time, effort and column space I’d devoted to fighting the Whitney Museum of American Art’s effort to remove Books & Company from its home. Which briefly gave me a stroke of inspiration: Remember how the Whitney was so eager to get Books & Co. out last spring, had to have them out, out, out right away despite anguished protests from book lovers throughout America? Guess what? Six months later, the space is still empty, vacant, awaiting, of course, the implementation of the Whitney’s grandiose Master Plan.
No, I’m not suggesting they move me in there, but while the extremely brilliant Whitney arts bureaucrats dick around, the valuable space lies fallow (they don’t even use it to sell the Mickey Mouse wall sconces available at their extremely classy “Store Next Door”). Why don’t they show some heart and allow the space to be used temporarily for sick and homeless pets? Maybe not horses, but it would be a shame not to put some sick animals in the empty store rather than let it go to waste. Perhaps this would be a way for the Whitney to regain some of the good will they’ve lost by euthanizing one of New York’s great cultural institutions.
But to return to my own problem (which I admit doesn’t amount to a hill of beans in a world full of suffering people and pets), my friend clinched the argument in favor of doing this column by convincing me that if I didn’t deserve to be lucky on behalf of the air-conditioned horses, at the very least I deserved to on behalf of my own animal companion, my cat Stumpy, a truly soulful creature who suffers from a chronic heart condition and requires beta-blocker medication twice a day. Stumpy got his name when he was found, a stray on the Brooklyn waterfront, with his tail nearly bitten off. It had to be amputated. He claims it was mob-related. Perhaps because of this, Stumpy doesn’t like change; he doesn’t like the outside world. After a couple of painful catheterization experiences at the vet’s, Stumpy regards the entire world outside my apartment door as the vast waiting room of a sadistic veterinarian. Which, come to think of it, is not far off, metaphorically. But the problem is: Stumpy refuses to move. He practically gives himself a heart attack every time I try to take him outside that door. The last time I tried to take him for a checkup, his slashing claws and frantic writhing made it impossible to get him into a cat carrier. I may have to have him sedated to get him out of here (I may have to get myself sedated as well), and I just can’t bear going through all that unless I can assure him he’ll be going to a decent home.
Here it goes then: For Stumpy’s sake, I’m willing to get lucky. My basic need at this point is a quiet one-bedroom place for under $2,000, which already, I know, is going to require a lot of luck. But I’m just going to put it out there (as the New Agers say), a dream of getting doubly lucky-of lucking into one of those dream apartment situations other people always seem to find but not me. Some special situation; it doesn’t have to be one of those fabulous grandfathered rent-controlled apartment deals that neoconservative opponents of rent control are forever exposing. But maybe the contemporary equivalent. Something that could become a real home.
My first choice would be to stay in this neighborhood, that is, anywhere within walking distance of the Vanderbilt YMCA and the Yale Club library: the two nodes of my physical and mental health. I’m not asking for a terrace (foolish Stumpy would undoubtedly hurl himself off it trying to snare a passing pigeon). But a view might be nice. I’ve never really had a view, which may account for all the television I watch.
As far as location goes, for a real piece of luck, a really good situation, Stumpy and I would be willing to move to other neighborhoods. I’m not sure I’m eager to return to the Lower East Side. And if I’m going to be completely candid, I’m not too fond of the Upper West Side (still, I suppose if I could move into a place right above Barney Greengrass, I’d probably be there in a minute). In any case, I know I’m not in a position to be too picky-I just want to be lucky . If you’re serious about a real place available December, January or February, write me care of The Observer , 54 East 64th Street, New York, N.Y. 10021. Don’t do it for me, do it for Stumpy.