Saturday, August 01, 2009

What I'll Miss About New York:
#11 — Our Building

You can tell two different sets of stories about our old building in New York.

The first set of stories concerns the structure itself. 216 W. 89th Street is a few years shy of 100, and it shows. Compared to its nearly identical sister building to the south, it wears a far darker hue of grime.

Making your way up to our apartment meant squeezing into our undersized elevator. When riding in the elevator by myself, I'd think of it as a kind of elevator version of the 7½ floor from Being John Malkovich. When riding with several others, I thought of those grainy black and white pictures of showing laughing 1950's types packing a phone booth.

The normal-sized service elevator next to the passenger elevator offers a clue to the building's former glory. Today, it looks like the service elevator for any number of old New York buildings: accordion gate, manual operation, worn wood slats covering the floor. A closer look shows its former life. On the faded walls of the elevator are beautiful faceted mirrors . Scrolled iron rims the ceiling of the elevator, and marble surrounds its entrance in the lobby. As originally laid out at the turn of the last century, each apartment in the building had servant's quarters, and I'm convinced that the elevator that I rode every day was the servants' elevator, with today's service elevator transporting the residents of yesteryear.

The second story worth telling about our building is the story of the people who live there. Living in an urban setting means a degree of engagement with the lives of others completely unlike the set of interactions a suburbanite has with his neighbors.

The slow awakening of relationships after umpteen elevator rides together. The fights of spouses heard in the hallway or echoing across the alley. The tenants on rent control and the younger tenants paying market rate. The physical closeness of knowing that someone else lives behind that wall.

The family of four in the one bedroom apartment (both kids approaching high school age). The person who made everyone's business her business. The addict. Some of our best friends moving into the building. The octogenarian tenants who have lived their whole lives in the building. The building super straight out of central casting. The simplicity of a dozen relationships where all you know about the people is that they have kind faces and say hello when you see them around the neighborhood.

Despite all the people in Manhattan, New York is a lonely place, you'll hear. In a sea of anonymous faces, my building was an island, a group of smiling, friendly, welcoming people who melted any preconceptions I had about New Yorkers. They made the city a smaller, friendlier place. They were fleeting family to me — I miss them and think of them fondly.

What's this? After living in New York City for three years, I'm returning to California. These are the parts of my New York experience that I'll miss the most.

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