New York City

LilPeepul in bathtub
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 live.

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 room floor.

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 above it.

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 floors.

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.)

negative of Lil peepl

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

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