This is the first in a six part series entitled, "Moving."
If you googlemap my old address you can see a beautiful photograph of my former building on a gray afternoon. It must have been warm that day because my landlord can be seen standing pensively on her stoop in a black skirt, her bare forearm raised thoughtfully to her chin. She spent a lot of time at that very spot, chatting with neighbors she had known for decades, waiting for her shuffling but stern husband to pull around with the car, or simply keeping a watchful eye on her street.
Aside from smiles and pleasantries as I passed her on the stoop, I only ever had two real exchanges with my landlord. The first of these took place shortly after I first moved in. I had been fidgeting with the window in the kitchen until finally making the surprising discovery that it opened inward on an angle instead of sliding upward. It stayed that way for a couple days before my landlord caught me in the hallway and asked, in a thick Greek accent, just what in the heck I had done to my kitchen window. It was all I could do to try to explain over her insistent interrogation that I had sincerely thought that it was some kind of stylish window designed to open that way, but I told her that it would be great if she could show me how to open it some other way, especially if it would make her happy. When I unlocked the door, she slipped into my apartment and hurriedly climbed atop the kitchen counter. As she stood above me, tugging and pulling at the window frame with the full weight of her body, I resigned myself to the possibility that if she came careening off the counter to a violent death on the cool linoleum, it would probably be very difficult to explain to the authorities what had happened. Much to my relief, she finally got the window to do what she wanted, but before hopping back down, she looked at the hands she had placed atop the window frame, shook off the dust in disgust and exclaimed to herself, “I don’t know how people live like this!”
Months later, on the very last day I ever set foot in the building, I had my second and final exchange with her, and this time I was the one who went up to her apartment. It was Good Friday, and there was a late-afternoon stillness as I climbed each step one by one. I explained to my landlord that I had moved out the last of my things and only wanted to return the keys, but she started asking me about a window.
“She no tell you about the window?” my landlord wanted to know what my roommate might have told me.
“No,” I answered. The truth was that my roommate, never exactly a very forthcoming individual, had studiously avoided telling me anything for well over a month. Not knowing what my landlord was talking about, I wondered if she was still fixated on the kitchen window from so many months before.
“She no tell you about any window?” she asked me a couple more times, “any window?” eyeing me suspiciously before suddenly accusing, “You broke the window! You gonna pay for it!”
It was only then that I realized what had happened. This had nothing to do with the kitchen window at all. When I had first moved in, a metal beam in the frame of my bedroom window had been broken, and it looked like it had been that way for a long time. It might have occurred to me briefly that I should have asked to have it fixed, but the window still basically worked. I thought about the time that my roommate in Minneapolis had been left reporting that the wiring in the light to the stairwell had been broken for years, since long before I had moved in. After I had been living in the space for only about six months, we invited the landlord up for our Christmas party, and when he got in the door the first thing he said was, “Why didn’t you tell me the light was broken? Someone could get hurt!” We told him that only a handful of people had met a cruel fate on those treacherous steps, and none of them were particularly likeable to begin with, but he insisted, “You should have told me the light was broken! I’ll fix it on Monday.” Six months later I moved out, and if I had to guess, I’d say that stairwell is still dark after dusk. Anyway, I decided, whatever—a broken bar in my window frame doesn’t bother me, the window still sort of works, life will somehow go on. Months later, however, I made the mistake of pointing it out to my roommate, who, without even saying a word to me, turned around and told my landlord I had broken it.
So I was left standing there in my landlord’s kitchen as she pointed at me angrily, telling me how awful I was and how I would have to pay for my offense out of my deposit, a deposit I had long since assumed I would be swindled out of one way or another, any way you looked at it. Honestly, it was hard to blame the old woman. After a year of living upstairs from me, she still didn’t really know me from Adam (I never did learn to pronounce her name correctly). I felt exasperated, but after all of the abuse I had suffered at the hands of my roommate over all those months, it was impossible to really feel angry or defensive, or really to feel much of anything other than cheated. So I shrugged and said, “Look, honestly, I really don’t care. I can’t tell you I broke that window, because I didn’t. But, here’s my keys, I’m done.”
Suspicious people only ever meet potential liars, but they say you can’t con an honest person, and I sincerely believe that an honest person can always spot the truth when it’s told. My landlord looked across the table to her husband who had been watching the entire exchange in sober silence. They knew I was telling the truth. We could feel it.
As we got to talking, it eventually came out that I had been paying about $300 a month more in rent than my roommate, and this despite the fact that she not only kept her own bedroom but had also annexed the living room as her own personal space (I was never allowed to set foot in there). When all was said and done, she had two entire rooms to herself at well below the going price in any building for miles in any direction. I was paying a lot more money for a lot less space and subsidizing the cost of living for a roommate that was happy to turn me out as soon as she no longer needed my monthly check. This wasn’t the least bit surprising, and in any case I couldn’t possibly have felt any more cheated than I already did. My landlord, on the other hand, was livid.
“Why you no come and talk to me? Why you no ask me how much is the rent? I tell you how much is the rent!”
She repeated these phrases over and over again in various permutations, and each time I answered, “I don’t know, I don’t know. It never even occurred to me.” But she wasn’t having it, and she kept asking, again and again, imploring me to explain to her why it was that I had never come to speak with her in all of the time I had been living in the apartment just below her so that she could have told me that I was being ripped off before it was too late until finally I threw up my arms and surrendered, “I should have! I know, I should have. I’m just a fool!”
She drew her body back in her chair and solemnly shook her head.
“No,” she answered slowly in a crackling voice. Then, softly, her index finger raised knowingly, “You’re smart.”
Her husband let out one deep, gentle chuckle and looked at me from across the table with a twinkle in his eyes. How well he even speaks English I’ll never know, he never did say a word to me, but it wouldn’t have made any difference.
I gave them my keys, thanked them for being such good neighbors, and we wished one another a happy Easter. She gave me her number and insisted I call her to say whether my roommate ever returned my deposit. I never did get that deposit, and I never did call my landlord. There was something too filthy about the whole thing, something empty about conspiring with a landlord to get money from a roommate who had padded her pockets by getting the highest price she could get out of me—fair and square, as they say. In the end, it seemed a lot better to move ahead with my life. But there is something I hold onto from it all. It had been a cold, rainy spring that saw me riding my bicycle all over Brooklyn and Queens, trying, disappointment by disappointment, to find a new place to live. In that time, this city sometimes seemed like a wretched place full of wretched people. Yet in the end, for one brief moment in my landlord’s kitchen, something human was communicated. For all of the ways this massive place can make me feel isolated and alone, and despite the fact that this city was built by people taking advantage of other people, I find some lasting sense of hope knowing that on the stoops and sidewalks, at the falafel carts and dinner tables, in the museums and parks, this city can also be teeming with fleeting communities.