New York City
A Great Place to Live
It was in 1958 I went to live under a tenement in the area of New York City
then known as the Upper Lower East Side, and later as the East Village. I do
not believe my moving there had any part in this change of identity.
In a time when one could hardly expect to rent even a studio apartment in NYC
for less than three figures a month, I enjoyed rubbing it in with the statement
that "I have a four room pad. I pay $35 a month, but of course that includes
gas and electricity." There really were four rooms, but they were somewhat
undersize. I came to think of it as three very small rooms and a dandy closet.
The living room and kitchen weren't too bad. Each was about 10' x 10'. The
other two rooms were about 7' x 9' and 7' x 7', but a three foot wide
path through each was taken up by walking space. It was a railroad (or
shotgun) apartment, each room opening into the next.
When I moved in, I knew the place was too small. It continued to be too small
the entire thirteen years I lived there. Aside from that, from the john being
in the hall, and from the only heat being provided by the kitchen stove and a
small radiator hanging from the living room ceiling, it was a great place to
The main reason this delightful abode was so inexpensive was that it was
illegal for anyone to live in it. That was the fault of the City of New York,
not the apartment. Although it did have an exterior window in each room, the
city didn't approve of the front one not reaching above street level. Nor did
they approve of the oil tank for the building's heat being under the living
The living room and kitchen each had to do multi-duty. The couch in the living
room became my bed at night and served as my typing chair by day. This was
quite convenient. My typewriter lived on a low table with wheels that I pulled
up to couchside. I could sit crossed-legged on the couch while I typed, and
spread papers and reference books out to either side. The radio and hi fi were
within reach on the foot-deep window sill immediately behind the couch, and the
front half of the TV was in the bookcase across the room. These rooms had
windows in the walls between them. Since the TV was twice as deep as the
bookcase, its hind half hung through the window into the second room. That room
was the one where the mimeo resided and sundry stuff got stowed for the time
being when there was no place else to put it. Lisa Johnson christened it,
aptly, "The Bone Room." The smallest room served as a closet and storage space
for things demoted from the bone room. I covered each end wall with an
industrial-strength steel bookcase, and put a clothes rod between them.
Then came the kitchen/bathroom/workshop. It had a dandy primitive version of a
double sink. Half was a bathtub. The tub was a long-legged model with a
step-ladder for access. It was a delight. Unlike the bathtubs I've had since,
it was deep enough and long enough for me to submerge my entire body up to the
shoulders. And some previous tenant had added the convenience of a shower ring
Because there was a window directly behind it, bathing could be a mite chilly
in the winter, but one could get heat in the kitchen from the oven of the gas
stove which was right next to the tub.
The other half of this double sink was a standard turn-of-the-century
porcelain-on-cast iron model, with a large chunk of the porcelain missing from
the high backsplash. The doorways through the apartment were in a line with the
sink, and a former tenant had used this long clear area for a shooting gallery.
He missed his target once. Fortunately he was only shooting .22 shorts.
I'd been living the apartment for several years before I discovered that while
the kitchen did have wall-to-wall linoleum, it did not have wall-to wall
I had noticed that the footing was a bit bouncy in front of the sink. I figured
over the decades a few floorboards had suffered enough dampness to make them a
little soft, so one day when I happened onto some aircraft-grade aluminum
panels in a Canal Street surplus store, I bought a couple. I planned to take up
the linoleum and put the aluminum over the weak spots in the floor. But when I
lifted the linoleum I discovered there wasn't any floor under it. Those decades
of dampness had softened it to the point of total disintegration. Removing more
linoleum, I found that the de-floored portion extended under the bathtub. One
of its long legs dangled high and dry.
Fortunately Aaron Rennert had come over to participate in my home improvement
project. He suggested we get some lumber to go between the beams and the tub.
We had plans to get together with Don & Jo Meisner later, and all go out to
dinner together, but obviously my floor job was going to take longer than just
tacking down some metal sheets would have. I called Don & Jo to tell them we
wouldn't be able to make it, we had to go find a lumberyard and buy a floor.
How much floor did we need, Don asked. I told him what we'd measured the hole
as a trapezoid about 4' x 6' at the far points. He said to hang on, he thought
he had a piece of plywood in his closet that might yield what we needed.
The piece of plywood Don brought over turned out to need only one small corner
sawn off to make it fit the hole in the floor with remarkable precision. I
jacked the tub up on my knee while the men maneuvered the panel into place.
They made quick work of finishing the job, and we all went to Chinatown for
dinner after all.
(This account originally appeared in Science Fiction Five-Yearly #10
in November 1996.)
ONE EVENING IN NEW YORK
It was around 5:00 that November afternoon in 1965, and I was sitting
at the kitchen table doing something handicrafty, when the picture on the
little TV started rolling. I got up and changed stations. Some of the others
were rolling. Trouble with the set? I went into the living room and turned on
the TV there. That picture was rolling too. And then the lights went out.
My first thought was that a manhole had blown up and the whole
building, even the whole block, might be out. That happened a lot in New York.
Groping, I found the flashlight-on-a-rope that hung from the hook on the door,
then pulled on my boots and peacoat. When I got outside, there didn't appear to
be a light anywhere on the street. I headed for the corner of Second Avenue.
The traffic light wasn't working. A man in civvies was directing traffic with a
flashlight. I was impressed by how quickly someone had filled that need.
Just how far did the blackout extend? I headed to Third Avenue. The
next traffic light was out too, and the next up the avenue. I went on toward
Union Square. It looked like the current was off in all lower Manhattan.
On Fourteenth Street, storekeepers had set up tables on the sidewalk to
sell flashlights and candles. Some people already had flashlights. One man had
a large illuminated snow globe he was holding before him in both hands as he
walked down Broadway.
It wasn't really dark. The lights of passing cars lit the streets.
There was plenty of traffic. It was early in the evening rush hour. The subways
were now out of commission so the streets were full of pedestrians hoping for
rides. There was a feeling of camaraderie in the air. New Yorkers were that
way. A shared trouble brought them together and brought out the best in them.
Cars were stopping to pick up hitchhikers. A garbage truck went by with a bunch
of young men in Brooks Brothers suits, attache cases in hand, crowded onto the
back step. Three well-groomed young ladies were walking down Broadway, arm in
arm, hopefully singing the hit song "Downtown". Strangers were talking to each
other about what was going on. Somebody told me the whole northeast coast was
blacked out. I didn't believe it. Down a side street, I could see the lights of
New Jersey glaring brightly across the Hudson. But in the other direction a
full moon was hanging over a darkened Con Ed building and I couldn't see
Brooklyn at all.
I walked on further and saw a small crowd gathered on a side street. I
joined them. They were in front of a radio-TV shop. The shopkeeper had rigged a
portable radio to a battery-powered PA system and was broadcasting the news
into the street. A newscaster was telling us how far the blackout extended.
With a few exceptions, it did cover the whole northeast coast.
I hung around Union Square a while watching the people, wondering how
long the lights would be out. When I began to feel hungry, I headed back.
The restaurants were pretty much closed down. They couldn't function
without electricity. But the delis had the makings of cold sandwiches. They
were doing a booming business. One with a gas grill was serving hot knishes. I
got one. The cash registers were electric, so for making change they had stacks
of coins on the shelf behind the counter, each lit by its own candle. One of
the men behind the counter said they intended staying open until they ran out
of food to serve. The blackout was a bonanza for them.
I finished my knish and went home. I had a gas stove, so I could fix
myself a cup of coffee.
I was a night person and it felt too early to go to bed. I devised a
primitive lamp out of a jar lid with cooking oil in it and several pieces of
cotton string for wicks. It gave enough light for me to read a while. Some time
after midnight, when I felt ready to call it a night, I looked out into the
street again. Pure moonlight filled it. There was no one else in sight. The
traffic was gone. Silent, the city seemed deserted. It felt like I'd stepped
into a scene from science-fiction.
When I got up the next day, everything was back to normal.
© 2021 Gary Ross Hoffman