For much of my first day in the apartment that comes with this gig, I lay on my back on the extremely firm (not to say hard) bed staring at the ceiling and marveling: “I left my French doors and 10-foot ceilings and sconces and cat for this?”
“It’s like high-end camping,” Pamela swears she told me when, back in New York, she showed me the pictures of her old apartment downstairs. After a week, I have to admit that she was right. At first glance, the apartment did resemble her pictures. It has the same oversized kettle on the double gas burner; the same massive, highly varnished dark-wood armchairs with zero cushioning; a one-armed section of what I remember from Pam’s pictures as a whole well-padded sofa. But the pictures did not prepare me for the electrical wires crisscrossing every wall (outlets are at shoulder height), or for the desk and armoire that lose another piece every time I pull a drawer, or for the dust – think the post-9/11 cloud, only yellower — that is everywhere, indoors and out. The bare white walls have not been painted in some time and show the marks of furniture-moving every semester or so.
Then there is the matter of the bathroom: there isn’t one, not as we know it. When I first walked in, all I saw was the toilet sitting by itself in a small room, and I panicked: don’t tell me there’s a communal bath outside? But no, there’s a showerhead in the toilet room, which means the floor is wet most of the time, requiring an elaborate system of slippers and towel-on-the-floor to prevent footprints throughout the apartment. (Maybe this is why the Japanese have dedicated toilet slippers.) There’s no sink, nor would there be room for one; face-washing and teeth-brushing are done in the kitchen. The mustard-yellow paint on the wooden door and trim flakes off like the side of an old barn from the constant moisture.
Eventually I roused myself from the bed and started singing my own little chorus of “Brighten the Corner Where You Are.” A week later, I can see all kinds of ways this apartment is just like home.
The computer desk now faces a double window in the living room, just as mine does at home. The vanity that incongruously stood in the central room has changed places with the desk that took up too much space in the bedroom. I’ve tidied up the various wires, especially the tangle around the two computers, my laptop and the resident desktop. Both are in constant use: the desktop for its quirky but reasonably high-speed Internet connection, the laptop as my writing desk and home entertainment center. The one-armed sofa segment faces its screen. Today I’m mulling how to create an exercise studio – enough floor space for my City Ballet and Pilates workouts via DVD, which I’ve been doing on the bed. One of those big wooden chairs just might work as a ballet barre.
The toilet/shower is just like the ones on sailboats; I’ve learned to use it strategically. Dishwashing, too, reminds me of boat life: since I’m living on takeout (and what Chinese takeout! More on that another time), I just wash a few pieces at a time, but here I don’t have to worry about conserving water. The tall, slender coffeepot holds just enough of my chilled bedtime tea for three nights, just like my little green pitcher made by Ruth Strauss. Leksi is half a world away, and doing fine, I’m told, but in his honor I bought the White Cat brand of dish soap.
The washing machine is modern, and works. (It drains to the bathroom floor.) So does the heater, except when I push the wrong button in the middle of the night; I can get the temperature in the living room up to the level of my beloved 90-degree apartment, though the bedroom remains chilly. The refrigerator is good, in fact too good: the eggs I hard-boiled for handy protein froze.
And I felt very much at home when, at 5:30 one jet-lagged morning, I found the kitchen flooded, just like at home. I’m still not sure if it the leak came from the drinking-water tank or the sagging ceiling board overhead, but it did remind me of my New York neighbors known as the Idiots Upstairs, who’ve flooded me more than a dozen times in four years, including the night of my going-away party. In fact, this apartment has given me insight into why that keeps happening: their washer, of questionable legality, must drain through an open hose like the one here.
And what could feel more like Hamilton Heights on a holiday weekend than the sound of firecrackers popping outside my window? Here, though, Sunday’s double celebration – marking the end of Chinese New Year and the beginning of the semester – went on for hours, white flashes in the daylight and bursts of color seen from my kitchen window in the evening. The only thing missing was a Dominican block party.