On July 17, Elvis, Spyro, Inky, Mitzi, Oscar and I packed up the apartment and moved from Williamsburg, Brooklyn to Jackson Heights, Queens.
While Williamsburg has been the butt of five bazillion jokes, I was born in New Jersey, so I'm used to being at the ass-end of a funny. Yes, Bedford Avenue has fancy cheeses to be sampled and boys in too-tight, ill-fitting women's skinny slacks to mock, but I'd lived there for 20 years and I was kind of attached; to the four walls I'd painted loud colors, to the ridiculously specific restaurants, to the little community my neighbors and I had become. I mean, how lucky was I to have one of my closest friends just one floor away?
Growing up, my family moved around a bunch, so until I landed on North 11th Street, I never really had any place that I considered a home. But this place was big enough for one person (though it eventually housed two humans, plus three cats) and cheap enough that I could afford it on my own, which was key as a freelancer with a rollercoaster-like income. After five or six years, I started to consider it my home and instead of freaking out at the committment, I liked it. I loved it, actually.
The apartment and I knew each other's idiosyncracies. I knew that the front door wouldn't stay shut unless you locked it and it knew that unless it swung right open, I probably would've left my keys in the door or locked myself out during the hard-drinking, party-girl years. I knew that the water in the shower could go from lukewarm to scalding in a nanosecond, so my reflexes were kept razor-sharp, waiting to hear the tell-tale "clank" that signified I'd better jump out of the way before boiling water exploded all over my head.
When I first moved to the neighborhood in 1994, there wasn't even an ATM. Weekends took preparation because unless you were felt like schlepping back into Manhattan for cash, you weren't getting any. Anyone who cares has probably now read about the trajectory of Williamsburg from a community of immigrants to artists to rich people, but to be living there while this was happening was alternately dizzying, amusing, and a little frightening. I know I also suffered from a certain amount of denial.
I hadn't wanted to move to Brooklyn. I was forced to after my ex-boyfriend left me for another woman. Walking up out of the L train that gray, rainy April day, I felt as though I'd been sentenced to some kind of purgatory; leaving behind the giant pre-war palaces of the Upper West Side for the rickety wood houses of Williamsburg. But its dumpy charm worked its magic and within a year or two I was smitten. That adoration only increased when a year and a half into my time there, I found my own apartment, just a half-block from the park.
Back then, realtors—especially Brooklyn realtors—didn't use the internet. So I sat down in Lenny's office one Saturday and waited for him to show me apartments. We saw some eh places, but nothing stuck. I went back to the house I shared on North 7th Street, slightly discouraged. I should mention that the entire HOUSE I lived in then, rented for $900 and we had a big back yard and we were only 1/2 a block from the Bedford Ave stop on the L.
Anyway, at about six or seven that night, Lenny called to say he'd seen a place that was perfect—in other words, no drop-ceilings, no wall-to-wall carpeting. He picked me up in his sedan and we drove to North 11th, between Roebling and Union. Unlike the mirror-walled atrocities he'd been showing me all afternoon, this one was sparse. Three decent-sized rooms, white walls, wood floors, top floor—all for $600. I asked the landlady what she needed from me because I wanted this with all my heart.
I'd already filled out a credit report for Lenny, but she said she needed to talk to him and would be in touch shortly. As I trudged home through desolate blocks lined by warehouses and cruised by slow-moving cars looking for tricks, I worried that I'd done something wrong. The next night Millie called and asked if I could come talk to her.
I put on my finest ass-kissing outfit and sat down in Millie's kitchen. Instead of quizzing me about my income, which was always a difficult question to answer, because my fulltime job entailed following heroin addicts around, she told me that she knew I was young and that she would only be asking $550 a month rent. What?! Who LOWERS the rent? But if any of the other tenants asked, I was to say I was a friend of one of her cousins. Rent had to be paid promptly, there'd be no lease, and the money had to be delivered via either cash or money order. This wasn't uncommon back then, so I quickly agreed.
All I had to do was pretend to be a friend of her cousin's? No skin off my ass. But over the years I learned that my former landlady loved nothing more than telling a completely transparent lie. Even if there was no real benefit to fibbing, she'd stretch the truth. And these lies always included any of several elements:
• a "cousin" to blame for anything from an unreturned phone call to an issue with the plumbing
• her failing health, her mother's failing health, her sister's failing health. . .
And so for 16 or so years, we lived in relative peace. Well, except for that time when she tried to double all the tenants' rents and we got together and hired a lawyer. I wound up getting a massive rent reduction because even at her discounted rent, she was still overcharging me as far as DHCR was concerned. But still, mostly things were okay. We didn't bug her for repairs, she didn't hire thugs to crack the building's foundations.
But when Millie started acting stranger than usual late last summer, we knew something was up. With condos clattering upwards to the sky around us, it didn't take a genius to figure out that she was selling the building. Around that time another "cousin" started coming around. And with that "cousin," came an annoying jerk named Avi.
Avi was a tool. A realtor/massage therapist (shudder), Avi moved into the apartment across the hall from ours and started asking questions—like how much would it take us to leave? My landlady, Millie—an unabashed anti-semite—tried to pass him off as a good friend of hers. Sure, she was an elderly Irish lady (who pretended to be Italian) who openly hated Jews and never left her stoop unless it was to go upstate to visit her ailing mother or sister; why wouldn't she be friends with an East-Village-dwelling, dick-swinging Israeli, forty years her junior?
She finally confessed that the building was being sold. To "The Jews," as she called the new landlords. Other than that, she feigned ignorance of their actual names, to prevent us from identifying them. "I think one is named Moishe," she offered. She warned us that they had "deep pockets" and that we would not be able to fight them, because they were so all-powerful. We might be able to get them to buy us out of our leases for ten or maybe even fifty-thousand bucks, but she wasn't certain.
As for Millie—she got at least $3.5 million, but probably more to sweeten the pot. And, really, who could blame her? If I were sitting on a ramshackle goldmine that had been paid off in the sixties, I'd probably sell it off too. But even though she was retiring from the landlord business as a multi-millionairess, Millie still simpered like a little bitch, as she packed up her cheapo furniture. She bleated about how sorry she was that we'd all soon be homeless. I asked her if she was going to go on a cruise or something to celebrate her mega-windfall. Nope. She was just going to hang out with her sister upstate. As pathetic as that was, it was probably the only truthful thing she said during the entire ordeal.
As soon as the sale went down, Avi slithered off, presumably back into the hole he'd crawled out of. The new landlords started calling before the sale even closed, feigning hurt feelings that we'd preemptively organized and hired a lawyer. "Lawyer? I don't have a lawyer—why do YOU have a lawyer?!" one of them had the balls to say to my neighbor.
In some ways, Millie was correct—none of us had the energy or unlimited funding to fight to stay in our homes. But in other ways, she was dead wrong. A confidentiality clause won't let me say much about it, but if you're a rent-stabilized tenant whose landlord wants them out, the first thing you should do is hire a lawyer. Or at least speak with one from a group like Met Council. Do not be afraid and do not give up. YOU are in the driver's seat.
Although leaving Williamsburg was sad and difficult, we're now homeowners in Queens. Sure, I can't find cashew cheese on my block, but I have a little patio and you couldn't even rent a studio in Williamsburg for the combined cost of my mortgage and maintenance. I miss having a seven-minute commute into the East Village, but I'll just start reading more books on my ride. This morning I logged into Facebook to find that some vile woman had posted a screed against the "underage slums" who played too loudly in the skateboard park across from her fabulous condo. It was on the "Friends of McCarren Park" Facebook page, which I had belonged to. But now I've moved on and I don't need to be friends with that park, or the type of person who would write such hateful words. I happily hit the "leave group" button. My move is now complete.