NEW YORK, NEW YORK
All Original Written and Photographic content is Copyright MEL BIRNKRANT
We drove from Michigan to New York City, in July of 1960, via the Ohio, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey Turnpikes. Miles before reaching our destination, we passed through a seemingly endless area of New Jersey that redefined unsightly. It was an austere industrial wasteland. The impression it conveyed was that of Planet Earth, as it might appear in the aftermath of an apocalyptic Third World War. Coming from the green and fertile British Isles, Eunice had never seen, or smelled the likes of this before. The heavy stench of burning sulfur permeated the air, as if someone had left the Gates of Hell ajar. And this they called, the Garden State? It was Purgatory, incarnate!
We began to wonder if this journey we had undertaken might be utter madness. Here we were, heading for the ultimate big city in my mother’s Cadillac, with little money, a new baby, and all our worldly treasures in a medium-sized U-Haul trailer, attached to the rear bumper. We had no plans, no final destination, only an invitation to stay with Bob and Verta, until we found our own apartment.
As we traveled through mile after mile of desolation, our apprehension turned into depression. Then, amid this vista of industrial ugliness, buildings started to appear, cropping up in ever increasing quantities, becoming cities: Edison, Elizabeth, and Newark. And, suddenly, like Dorothy, emerging from the field of poppies, there, before us in the distance, we saw the fabled towers of Manhattan. We were out of the woods, out of the dark, out of the night. And we drove straight ahead for the most glorious place on the face of the earth or the sky, eager to begin the rest of our lives.
Moments later, the road dipped down, and took us through a secret passage, underneath the Hudson River. When we reached the other side, we stepped into the light, ready to be Manhattanites. We drove directly to Bob and Verta’s, which was in the 30s on the East Side. I can’t remember where we parked the car that night, or how we managed to find a place to keep the U-Haul, with all the treasures of our life inside, safe from harm for the next week.
By the time we got to New York City, Verta, too, was pregnant, She soon gave birth to a baby girl who she named, “Kali.” I’ve always wondered if she was aware that her infant daughter’s namesake was a fearsome Hindu Goddess, who symbolized empowerment. Knowing Verta, that’s probably why she chose the name. Kali was just a few months younger than Samantha, and with her ambitious mother’s prompting, she published a book of poetry at the age of nine, "Poems by Kali." Meanwhile, Princess Verta of Tabinguila had done a number on our antique Egyptian chair, in the short time that it was in her care. By some mysterious means, she managed to tear a large hole through its woven linen seat. I believe the Princess, who was more than reluctant to let it go, had been using it as her Royal Throne. Now, with the newly added hole, it was suitable, throne-wise, for matters regal and fecal, both. Because this inestimable antiquity was all original, we never dared have it repaired.
Three days later, we found an apartment on Perry Street in Greenwich Village. It was a railroad flat on the top floor, five stories up. It also happened to be a sublet with just a six month lease. The rent was $100 a month. I can’t remember how we carried all our stuff up those five flights of stairs. Bob must have helped. Then we put an ad in the classifieds, and found a man who needed a ride, to drive my mother’s Cadillac back to Detroit. Ten years would pass, before I’d ever drive a car again. In the moving process, the heavy U-Haul had damaged the rear bumper of Leila’s Eldorado. Rather than having it repaired, she traded in both her two year old Cadillacs, and, no doubt, supplemented by the pocket change she’d made by scrubbing floors, purchased a brand new one, instead.
The next item on the agenda was to find a job. Following a suggestion offered by my friend Art Warheit, who I knew from Pratt, I went to my first interview, within two days. Having passed up a job at Disney when I was seventeen, I now sought employment with the reigning Queen of Christmas Windows, Cecelia Staples. The company, “Staples and Smith,” was named after Cecelia and her husband, who, years before, had passed away. It was the equivalent of Walt Disney in the world of animated displays. Cecelia did the annual Christmas windows for all the major New York stores, from Macy’s to Lord and Taylor, and their equivalents across the nation, including the JL Hudson Company in Detroit. The week-long interview that I was required to undergo was memorable. And then, she hired me. The job, itself, lasted three days! This curious experience is chronicled, on a previous page.
The thought of working in display had never occurred to me, but, suddenly, it seemed like a good idea. So, using the Yellow Pages as a guide, and beginning with the letter “A,” the following day found me, introducing myself to Norbert Austen, the creator and owner of Austen Display. I picked Austen, at random, because, in alphabetical order, it had the first big ad, and it was also on 19th Street, twenty walkable blocks from our new apartment in the Village. Isn’t it amazing, and frightening how ones entire destiny can be determined by the simple act of arbitrarily choosing an ad in the yellow pages!
Norbert Austen, was an impressive man; kind, brilliant, and paternal. He immediately became both a father figure and a mentor to me. He slightly resembled Santa Claus, with a neatly trimmed beard, and a full head of white hair. His surprisingly pleasant German accent was much like that of Henry Kissinger. And he had a powerful presence, like an operatic baritone. He could have played Wotan, King of the Gods and Brunnhilde’s father in the Ring Cycle by Wagner, without the need of makeup. Ironically, he had a daughter, who was currently attending my recent alma mater, Pratt.
The head of the production department was also German. His guttural sounding name was Mr. Gunther. He was small man with a bald head and a stern no-nonsense demeanor, who, at first, I saw as rather scary. Deep in my subconscious mind, the word Nazi, occurred to me. I could not have been more wrong. Mr. Gunther was a kind man, and, like Mr. Austen, he was Jewish. Both these men had been close friends from the beginning. And they became good friends to me as well. They had escaped from Germany together, at the time of the Second World War, and came to America, where they formed Austen Display.
Mr. Austen explained to me that he was not seeking another employee, as the design department was full enough already, but he saw something intriguing in my work. And thus, even though, nothing in my portfolio applied directly to what his company made, he would give me a chance to try my hand at display. What a charming insightful man! And so, two years with Austen Display began. My salary would be $100 a week!
The company was spread out, through several floors of an impressive building on 19th Street. One floor was a showroom, where the displays were displayed, and another two floors were factories, where they were made. Other floors contained offices, a shipping department, and a warehouse with a loading dock. On the ground floor, there was a studio, where three designers toiled away in pleasant congenial company. Apparently, due to lack of space, I was placed in a tiny room in the basement, on my own.
In spite of this isolation, I managed to make friends with the designers. One was a charming charismatic Englishman, named Colin Rose. Colin, being British, was soon introduced to Eunice, and it immediately became clear that they were kindred souls. The friendship clicked, and has continued to this day. Colin returned to England, many years ago, but he is a World traveler, and we have seen him many times, since then. In fact, he reads these little stories, and I heard from him by email, just last week. Here is a photo of Colin and I together, taken six years after we first met. Colorforms had discovered me by then. This is another one of those photos that suggest the word, “ventriloquist.” Nonetheless, I can assure you, Colin is no dummy!
There was also a young lady in Austen’s art department, whose name I can’t remember, and a third designer, who turned out to be highly instrumental in our destiny, John Ferguson. John was something of a loner, not particularly friendly or outgoing. Most of the time, he was just plain grumpy. He acted like he had something on his mind. Chances were, it was his hair. John’s thinning hair is the first thing I recall, at the mention of his name. His self-invented cure for this condition was, actually, his most distinct characteristic. The hair that still remained was black, sparse in the front, and all but gone on top, where there was a pronounced bald spot. His remedy for this situation was a daily application of black grease paint, painstakingly applied to his entire scalp, abruptly terminating at the hairline.
At first glance, the illusion was dramatic. Like Groucho Marx’s mustache in the movies, some might never notice that it was only makeup, and there was no hair there. The same was true for Charlie Chaplin, whose black mustache was painted on. Thus, John could almost get away with the illusion. Although, going to all that effort, just to sit in a studio with two designers, who could not avoid knowing his secret, didn’t make much sense to me. There was also a slight problem, a technical glitch, which, like John’s baldness cure, itself, was both embarrassing and amusing. On a warm day, or when he merely exerted himself, the grease paint began to melt, and run in rivulets, down his face. And, God forbid, he scratched his head; black fingertips!
Then, overnight , a miracle took place. One morning, John appeared in an extremely well-crafted medium brown Beatles wig. This was not a gag, but an expensive hairpiece. A Beatles cut was considered up to date in 1960. The transformation was amazing! John not only looked twenty years younger, but his entire personality, or lack of one, had changed. Suddenly, he was outgoing and friendly. And, for the first time since I met him, he seemed genuinely happy.
A short time after that, John left Austen Display and began his own business. He hired several of the girls from the factory to work for him part-time, making gift items that he designed. He also acquired a pair of sales reps in the Gift Building, 225 Fifth Avenue, two charming dynamic gentlemen, named Ross and Haber. Two years later, with John’s blessing and advice, we did the same. He introduced us to “Ross Haber.” And they became our reps as well. And much later, he even lent us some of his workers to help us on a part-time basis. Thus John Ferguson proved to be both the inspiration, and the means, by which we were able to create “Boutique Fantastique.”
But, for now, my time with Austen Display was just beginning. There proved to be no need for breaking in, or training. I immediately fit in. And I didn’t mind working alone, in my small room in the basement. I brought in my own radio. There were still three stations in NYC that played classical music, in those days, and I could choose whatever I wanted to listen to, with no one to please, but me. I carried the lunch that Eunice made me in a brown paper bag. And thus, there was rarely any need, or opportunity to emerge from the basement, or see the sun, until the day was done.
As designers, we were required to come up with our own ideas, or tailor our designs to meet a need. Then, with an endless supply of raw materials at our disposal, each of us transformed our own designs into handmade full-sized prototypes. These one of a kind prototypes were then placed in the Show Room. Throughout a special week not unlike Toy Fair, buyers from all over the nation would visit Austen’s showroom to order their displays for the following year. Then, a small army of craftsmen in the factory would fill the orders by duplicating our designs, exactly. The skill and accuracy with which they did this was uncanny!
Because I had experience in graphics, the task of creating an ad for this annual event was delegated to me. Here is a foldout brochure that portrays Norbert Austen as Santa.
It is followed by an advertisement that appeared in Display World Magazine, inviting the potential buyer to stretch his display dollars.
Again, because I had been schooled in creating actual art work, and the other designers had not, I was often required to create small decorative accessories that could be printed by silk screen, and die cut. Last week, I came across this band of angels in the basement. My first reaction, upon seeing it again, was revulsion. But on closer examination, I sort of like the way the wings were attached separately to fold out, behind the figures. Like so much that I got away with, working at Austen’s, these baby angels came from The Land of Two Dots and A Smile.
Most of the time, I just made stuff out of Styrofoam. The colors were created by applying sheets of colored tissue paper. At one time, I had a whole stack of these photos. I couldn’t stand the sight of them. Maybe that’s why they are hiding, now that I need them.
Here are some banners, made of felt and fabric. I can’t believe I actually fabricated these! They are decidedly dreck-orative.
So much of what I did at Austen’s has gone missing, but in an old portfolio I did find these drawings. They represent a circus parade. Each figure was blown up, larger than life, and mounted on a fine mesh screen, so they appeared to float in space. the factory was able to do that to perfection, and color them by hand. Here is one of many photos from Austen’s catalogue. A few of my original colored sketches are in the slide show below.
Most of my designs relied on a simple formula, mentioned above, that I called “two dots and a smile.” But, occasionally, I needed more. That was when I visited ”the morgue.” The morgue at Austen’s was a small room full of assorted images, usually clipped from magazines, over the course of many years. These were intended to be used for reference and inspiration. There was a time when I would have considered this to be, not only, unoriginal, but morally reprehensible. In the first few months that I worked at Austen Display, my feelings on the ethics of plagiarism changed. As I used up the ideas in my head, and needed to seek inspiration in the morgue, I realized that adaption of existing imagery can, in itself, be an art form.
Later, when I lived in the world of inventing toys, I learned the hard way that being too original doesn’t pay. To make something that is desirable in the world today, it helps if it’s familiar. Variations and updates on toys and stories that are old have a ten times better chance of being sold. Every once in a while, something totally new and original will beat the odds, and break through, in which case, it could be huge. But the battle will be all uphill.
Outside the 9:00 to 5:00 world of Austen Display, life continued. Old friends from Pratt appeared. Foremost among them, was my best friend and ex-roommate, Harley Wolfe. His major, there, had been industrial design, and he was already working in the toy industry. It was soon decided that he would be Samantha’s Godfather. None of us knew exactly what a godfather is or does, but Harley got the honorary job. Arthur Warheit also came back into my life. Not that he was ever that close at Pratt. Art was something of an outsider there. He was a perplexing guy, who lived a life outside of the box of self-illusions that the rest of us were in. One day, he taught me a stunning lesson.
There was a going style in my illustration class at Pratt. A look that the three top students in the class, one of which I had managed, with difficulty, to become, were all in a pleasant competition to practice and perfect. As I’ve pointed out previously the style resembled the artwork of Ben Shahn. Arthur didn’t play that “game,” which was what he saw it as. His work looked nothing like the rest of the class. Clearly he had talent, but he always seemed to be pursuing a goal he had not mastered yet. One day, we were sitting in painting class, and Art was having a rant. He really got into it, decrying the easy formula adhered to by the “all-stars” of the class. Then, he picked up a brush, and demonstrated how it’s done: Start with a circle for the head. Add features that are too small, etc. And in the course of five minutes he produced the best looking piece of art that I had seen all year. Intended as a put down, it was a perfect parody of the style we three took seriously. That was sure a wakeup call for me, and a crash course in objectivity.
Meanwhile Samantha was growing up. In just the span of a few months, she had gone from looking like my father, to become a full-fledged Gerber baby!
We really were babes in the woods, in the big city, utter innocents, with a lot to learn the hard way. There was a curious shop on Bleecker Street, around the corner from our Perry Street apartment, called “The Little Match Girl.” Its owner was an almost ancient lady named Ann Ford. Ann really did consider herself to BE the Little Match Girl, or that fairy tale character’s reincarnation in the Real World. Of course, with Eunice on the loose to travel around Greenwich Village, pushing Samantha in a baby carriage, Ann Ford soon became our best friend. Her shop sold next to nothing, nothing beyond her own sad personal belongings. Ann led life on the edge, hovering on the brink of homelessness. The dark and dismal back half of her store, hidden from view by a curtain, contained a makeshift bed, and a sad old dog, who was on his last four legs. This was where Ann lived. In spite of how awful I have made it sound, there was, nonetheless, something fascinating about this curiously decadent place, with its big front window, facing Bleecker Street that captured our imagination. We entered into Ann’s fantasy. Arthur Warheit and I decided to go into business together, in the most unstructured casual sort of way. We intended to create handmade merchandise, and sell it in Ann’s shop.
Austen Display, apart from the displays they made, imported many unusual things. In their warehouse, I discovered several cases of unpainted papier-mâché masks, nicely sculpted in the likeness of Punch. Arthur and I bought a bunch. We painted them white, and decorated them with embossed gold braid that also came from Austen Display. Then, we added sequins, feathers, and other exotic accessories to make each mask unique. When the masks were ready, we set up a dramatic scene in the window of the Little Match Girl. This enormous window was as wide as the entire store, with just enough room, on one side, for a door. When our display was done, the entire window was completely empty, except for the antique Louis Vuitton trunk I got in France, which was open and overflowing with cascading masks. Beside it, stood the mysterious jointed mannequin that I also got in France. The headless figure held a mask up to its nonexistent face, with one articulated wooden hand. While its other hand grasped a second mask, as if it was deciding which to wear. Lit by a single spotlight, the scene was so dramatic, it stopped traffic. Alas, we didn’t sell a single mask. But this failed enterprise was, nonetheless, an important step on the road that led to “Boutique Fantastique.”
Ann Ford was a true Bohemian. She had lived in Greenwich Village since before the Roaring Twenties roared. If she had once been beautiful, all signs of that had disappeared, and been replaced by the telltale evidence of a hard life, one lived outside the norms of society. Now she was down on her luck, and more than mildly masochistic. Her oft stated fantasy was to freeze to death, one wintry night, like her namesake, the Little Match Girl, who died, lighting her last matches, one by one, in a futile attempt to create enough warmth to survive. When we met Ann Ford, her few remaining matches were almost all used up.
On the other hand, Ann’s life was not totally bleak; she also had a lifelong lover. His name was, R. P. Shaw, or simply “Shaw,” for short. They remained a pair for half a century, but they no longer lived together. Ann and Shaw had both seen better days. Naturally, we invited them to Christmas dinner.
Ann had two wonderful possessions, an amazing automaton of an acrobat that did a handstand on the back of a chair, then, lifted one hand, and balanced on the other. The music movement played a lovely tune that I can still hum to this day. It was for sale in her store. I desperately wanted it, but there was no way I could afford it. Eventually, she sold it. The second lovely thing she owned was a delicate and beautiful By-lo Baby, a precious antique baby doll, with tiny little piggy eyes, and a magic aura that made it appear to be alive, and looking back at you. I could hardly believe my eyes when she gave us this enchanting doll as a Christmas present. In this house full of a thousand treasures, it still remains a favorite.
For the most part, I loved working at Austen Display. I left for work each morning at around 8:30, and arrived at Austen by 9:00. The walk was a pleasant one, and I enjoyed the sights, and the sheer excitement of being in New York City. But, as the weeks rolled by, the days grew shorter, and the nights, longer. All too soon, I found myself walking to work when it was still dark outside. Then, I‘d descend into my basement room, and not emerge again till 5:00, just in time to walk back to Perry street in the last remaining hour of daylight. Then, suddenly, it was November, and Daylight Savings Time arrived, and the clocks fell back an hour. It was still dark, when I walked to work that morning. And to my surprise, when I emerged from Austen’s basement at 5:00, it was as dark as night outside. And so, began a depressing time, in which I saw no daylight, except on Saturday and Sunday. In the darkest corners of my mind, I sensed the glimmerings of a remedy, but I was not in a position to suggest it yet.
Those first few months in New York City flew by so quickly that before we knew it, Christmas was on the way. Somehow, every year, we managed to get a photograph in color of the Christmas tree. I realize now, that bizarre painting that I did in France was kinda creepy.
Here is our little angel, with a pair of wings that, like all good things those days came from Austen Display.
We also shared Christmas Day, as we did most holidays, with Harley Wolfe, who we automatically considered to be a member of the family, and my friend from Detroit, Michael Stoller. Two weeks before Christmas, Michael unexpectedly informed us that he was coming to stay with us for his vacation! His is a complicated story that I may, someday, tell. I took a photograph of the event. It was a rather makeshift dinner. I don’t know what we were using for a table, but I do know that I should have snapped the picture before Harley and the other wolves had, ravenously, ravaged the turkey.
After dinner, Ann and Shaw treated us to Christmas carols, played on the violin and two recorders.
The friendship with Shaw and Ann did not last. The unraveling began when Art Warheit became discouraged and dropped out of our makeshift partnership, because nobody bought any masks. After that, Ann claimed that Arthur had made a pass at her! Which is exactly what Shaw tried to do to Eunice! More than a pass, he nearly raped her, insisting that Ann had given her to him as a gift! It all got horribly sordid. Clearly, we were in over our heads. And so, this spring and autumn friendship came to an abrupt end. I got my trunk and manikin back, but left the decorated masks for Ann.
Meanwhile, the six month lease on our apartment was ending too. We had to find another place to live, before the end of January. Living in this sublet had taught us that we definitely needed more space. Another railroad flat, like this one would not suffice. This present place was only two windows wide. The front room was about 12’ by 15’. Off of that, there was a wide hall that ran from the front to the back, partitioned into two open half rooms. Then, came a small kitchen, and after that, a tiny bath. All my paintings had been stashed in the storage area in the basement. In fact, we had moved all of the sublet owner’s furniture, including one of his kitchen countertop cabinets, down there too. Next time, we wanted a much bigger place. And, not being careful what we wished for, like it or not, that’s what we got!
We found it by looking at the ads in the New York Times. And there it was, an ad that read: Living Loft 100 x 30 feet, East 26th Street, bathroom, kitchen, shower, complete, for $100 a month. Excited, I hurried over there. The loft was everything the ad had claimed. But, there was a catch. All these amenities, which were of the lowest quality imaginable, and used to death, belonged to the present tenant, an artist by the name of Peter Passuntino. It was he who had installed all the second hand stuff that rendered the place barely livable. To release the key, he wanted his money back, a thousand dollars. On the other hand, the space was incredible. To get space like that in NYC for $25 a week was unthinkable! I agreed to pay the thousand dollars instantly, but reluctantly, for that was the end of it, all the money we had left. In fact, I had to borrow some from my mother, who did not lend it happily. She saw this as one more misstep in my continuing folly. Now, beyond my salary from Austen Display, we would be penniless, without extras, or a safety net.
We spent a week packing all our belongings in cartons gathered from the grocery store. One by one, these well packed boxes were stacked up in the front room, ready for the move. When everything we owned was assembled there, I arranged for a moving company to transport our belongings, from Perry Street to 26th Street, on the coming Saturday. Unfortunately, the task would not be complete, until we put all our sublease landlord’s things back in place. Therefore, I carried everything from the basement storage area, up the stairs, singlehandedly. Then, I realized that his kitchen countertop cabinet was missing.
So, I knocked on the superintendent's basement apartment door to ask if he had seen it. Talk about embarrassing! I spotted it, behind him in his kitchen! All this while, he had been using it! Now, he emptied it out, as I stood there in the doorway, watching him. It came apart in two pieces. The countertop was one unit, pressed out of steel, and laminated with some sort of synthetic covering. That piece, alone, weighed a ton. The lower section, on the other hand, which was a boxlike affair with shelves and drawers was relatively light. The apologetic super helped me carry both of them, up all six flights of stairs.
By Saturday morning, our packing was all done. Everything that had to go was in the front room, except the queen sized mattress and box spring with its legs removed, and Samantha’s folding crib. These were in the small room next to it. I walked around the apartment, checking for last minute items. In the kitchen I noticed that the owner's cabinet had not yet been reassembled. The heavy countertop was still leaning against the wall. Its maroon colored laminated surface was facing inward, away from me. So, I could see the bottom of the unit, which was a rather complex configuration, with raised ridges to give it added strength, and a series of holes, evenly spaced an inch apart, along the outer edges to let the air inside it, circulate. This piece of pressed steel was painted kitchen white. Although, I dreaded lifting it alone, I intended to give it a try, when something caught my eye.
As I watched, a cockroach crawled out of one of the holes. Then, it turned around, and crawled back in again. I said to myself, “I’ll get that little bastard!” I knew there was a can of roach spray in our perfectly packed boxes, and I knew, exactly, which one it was in. So, I went into the front room, and got it. Then, I pointed the nozzle into the hole, from which I‘d seen the roach emerge, and gave it one small squirt! I think the Devil made me do it! And, in response, all Hell broke loose!
How was I to know this was the Roach Motel? And, who ever said: once they go in, they don't come out again? From out of that hole, and all the other holes as well, a thousand crazed cockroaches began to pour out onto the kitchen floor. This tidal wave of stampeding vermin quickly spread across the linoleum, like an overturned bucket of brown liquid. At the same time, a multitude of others hurriedly scurried up the walls, and began to crawl across the ceiling. When I felt some crawling up my leg, I went into Panic Mode, and vowed to become a Superhero, and fight this plague of cockroaches alone, while hollering for Eunice to come help me. Her assignment was to guard the open doorway to the next room, and make sure that not a single cockroach made it through alive, to hide, and hitch a ride to 26th Street, in our packed boxes that were lined up, like a fleet of waiting taxis, ready to go.
We frantically used every weapon and strategy at our disposal. This included, dancing a tarantella on the roaches on the floor, swatting those ascending the walls with any object we could find, and aiming the aerosol can of bug spray in the direction of the ceiling. This caused both cockroaches and DDT to shower down on us, like falling rain. Soon, the air was thick with poison, and I was running out of spray. I could hear Samantha, crying hysterically in the other room. I said to Eunice: “Get the baby out of here, and come back with more bug spray!” So, she grabbed Samantha, and made a run for it, bravely bounding through the kitchen, and out into the hallway, squashing several dozen roaches, on the way.
I remember, when I was a kid, reading a story called "Leiningen Versus the Ants," in which a man named Leiningen, singlehandedly fights off a plague of ants. It was considered a horror story. Now I was learning why, first hand! “Melvyn Versus the Roaches!” By the time Eunice got back the first room had fallen. I was now holding off the enemy at the portal to the second, the one that held our beds. Eunice had managed to purchase several canisters of insecticide. She rolled them through the door to me, and then, waited outside with Samantha, on the lookout for the movers, who were due there any minute.
When they finally got there, half an hour later, the place was fully fumigated, and so was I. The floor was strewn with the carcasses of dead or dying roaches, some of which were still twitching. The moving men just walked on and over them, as they got our stuff into the truck. Then, I led them to the storage area in the basement where they retrieved my paintings. While all of this was going on, I knocked on the superintendent's door, once more, gave him the keys to the apartment, and told him what had just taken place. The cockroaches, being his to begin with, were now his to clean up.
And so, our moving day began. The moving van headed for the loft on 26th street. We followed in a taxi. Peter Passuntino was there to let us in. The trek up five loft size flights of stairs was a daunting one. The first warehouse floor, alone, was two stories high. While the moving men were struggling with our stuff, Peter showed us around the loft. Upon climbing the five flights, and arriving on our top floor, the first thing that a visitors saw was the toilet door, which was usually open wide, as there was no ventilation inside. It was located in the hall, facing the stairs, just outside the entrance to the loft. This was not what one might call a bathroom. It was only an ancient toilet in a small closet sized room that anyone who climbed the stairs could use. The front door to the loft was to the left. The staircase continued past it, and up another flight of steps that led to the roof. This exit had a heavy door, covered in tarpaper that locked with a latch on the inside. Thank God for that, for the roof beyond was linked to those of all the other buildings in the row. Anyone could easily step from those, onto our roof, and did.
The loft, itself, was just one huge unbroken empty space, 100 feet long, and 30 feet wide. It had four windows in the front that looked out onto 26th Street, and four more windows in the rear that faced the back of another building, 15 feet away. The middle two of the rear windows opened onto an enormous iron fire escape, with steps that led past all the other floors, and down into an alley. Unfortunately, the fire escape stairs also continued upward, and onto the communal roof. Because we were the last building in the line, there were four small windows in the middle of the open side. Some of the sights I saw through these, over the next four years, boggled the mind.
The ceiling was at least 12 feet high, maybe higher. It consisted of heavy wooden beams that supported the exposed slats of wood that made up the roof. These planks were covered, on the outside, by a layer of heavily patched flat roofing material, similar to tarpaper. There was no insulation, whatsoever. It remained for us to discover that the place was freezing in the winter, and blisteringly hot in summer. The ceiling and the bare brick walls had, long ago, been painted white.
The floor was rough bare splintery wood, stained dark brownish gray by half a century of industry, and unsuitable for a crawling baby. Along one wall, there was an array of almost comical appliances, installed by Peter Passuntino. All of them were ancient, now, and had been cheap and primitive to begin with. They consisted of small refrigerator, an oven that stood on four curving legs, circa 1930, a water heater, and a freestanding double sink. In the corner, separated by bamboo screen, was an ominous tin shower. This was really roughing it. Peter had hung a few old bamboo screens, suspended from the ceiling by wires, to create the illusion that the space was somewhat broken up. All these amenities were included in the price.
I know the place sounds really dreadful. But Eunice, having survived the Second World War in England, thought it was all right. And I, of course, was on Cloud Nine, one flight of steps away from Seventh Heaven. Having aspired all my life to achieve poverty, I was beside myself with glee! At least, that was the case, until Peter Passuntino handed me the keys, and said:
“Of course, you realize that you’re not allowed to live here? You do know, don’t you, that living in a loft in New York City is illegal?”