Manhattan was burning up that Bicentennial summer, and those without air conditioners, those who could not buy refuge in the cinemas or bars, were driven into the streets. Far into the spangled night, welling up from the muggy cross streets and streaming avenues, came the noise of tape-deck anthems, revving motorcycles, breaking bottles, dogs, horns, cats in heat, bag ladies getting holy, and children going off the deep end.
I was beginning a new life. I was still on the Upper West Side, but every change of address within the 13.2 square miles of Manhattan was, back then, before I knew better, a hymn to starting over. So, two rooms with splintered, softwood floors and walls the dingy, off-white color of a boy’s jockey shorts after scout camp; two rooms at 262 West 95th Street in a small, shaggy building of only two apartments, rooms sanctified by rent stabilization.
The old brick held the mean heat, sun streaked through the windows and lit up the smoky dust that hung in the air. The pipes leaked, the doors were warped, spider webs formed intricate designs in the corners. The oven and refrigerator refused to work on days that were not prime numbers. In the mornings paint dropped from the ceiling like debris idly flung into traffic from an overpass. The bathroom tiles had buckled and the cracks in the plaster resembled outlines of fiords in a map of Norway. Roaches? O yes, the totemic guerrillas of urban homesteading were there.
None of this mattered. I was unpacking boxes of secondhand and overdue library books, fondling dirty envelopes of tattered letters, hitting my shins on milk crates of blackened pots, tarnished flatware, and chipped Limoges plates. In the new ascetic life I imagined I would not need much. I was not made for keeping up the perfect kitchen for the right sort of dinner party, not equal to the task of digging up that intriguing print for the gleaming, glossy-white vestibule. I was through with telephone madness at 5 PM—that calling and calling to find someone home while a tray of ice melts on the thrift store table. And the nights of the wide bed, of the mattress large enough to hold the combat of two, were definitely over. The seediness into which I had slid held the promise of a cleansing, monastic routine.
My rear window looked out on a mews, on Pomander Walk, a strand of two-story row houses done in a mock-Tudor style. The shutters and doors were painted blue, green, or red. The hedges were prim and tidy. Boxes of morning glories completed the scene. An odd sight, unexpected, anachronistic, I thought of it as a pocket of subversion against the tyranny of the grid and the tower. But Pomander Walk’s claims were modest, as were its proportions—a mere sideshow of a lane that ran north and south, from 95th Street to 94th Street. Its survival probably had something to do with its …