Zoe Heller in America: Of moving apartments, obscure objects and desires

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The Independent Culture
SOME TIME ago, I was having a conversation with my friend Claudia about how good the chicken sandwiches at the Time Cafe are, and she said, 'You got a real voolly for those sandwiches.' 'Voolly', it turns out, is an Italian-American corruption of the verb volere - to desire. To have a voolly for something is to have a crush on it, or an as yet unsatisfied craving. I am completely enchanted with this word and have been trying to slip it casually into conversations ever since: 'That woman certainly has a voolly for Hershey bars . . .' and so on. Right now, I have a big, big voolly for my new apartment.

Last week's housing crisis was resolved at the eleventh hour when the bottom half of a duplex turned up in Tribeca (the TRIangle BElow CAnal street). It has a flesh-pink, concrete floor and lots of white-washed brickwork and room to do little Olga Korbut routines if the fancy takes me. It is the first building I have ever lived in that has an elevator. (The elevator itself is of no use to me since my apartment is in the basement, but it is strangely comforting to lie in bed and hear the melancholy wooshing noise of the elevator motor every time someone on the upper floors is ascending or descending.) I also have a nice English neighbour whose phone line I am sharing until New York Telephone installs mine.

This is rather embarrassing, since it involves revealing to a stranger just what a loony portion of my average day is spent with the phone clamped to my lobe. I have done my best to imply that the volume of telephone traffic is due to Extremely Important Work Matters, but the other day he picked up the phone when I was in the middle of discussing a girlfriend's new mohair cardigan ('Yeah, it's like this fabulous greeny-bluey colour, kind of like a gemstone, but softer . . .'). So I think he's cottoned on that I'm not a mogul, just a phone moron.

The pathetic fantasy when you move from one home to another is that your life will change, that you will start afresh as a new person. You will no longer eat your dinner out of tuna cans while painting your toenails; you will always hang up your clothes when you take them off; you will rise with the lark every morning and go for healthful jogs in the empty, sun-dappled streets; you will pay bills on time. But as I write, there is a great pile of clothes lying by my bed, several open tuna cans in the kitchen, a pile of unopened bills sitting fatly on my desk and my running shoes have not yet been unpacked. To borrow from Horace, they change their ceilings, not their minds.

One of the reasons why this is so is that wherever you move, you tend to take all your old crap along with you. I don't mean 'emotional baggage', I mean real crap - junk, gew-gaws - stuff. I left the Village with bags and bags of semi-garbage: a fridge magnet of Michelangelo's David with magnetised garments to dress him up in; a wooden postcard imprinted with the words, 'Protect me from what I want', a copy of Taxi Talk, the New York cabby's paper of record, a letter from Hugh Hefner telling me how much he disliked the article I wrote about him ('One thing is for certain, I am not obtuse.'), a pack of incense that infuses everything near it with the smell of a Catholic mass; a phone tap bought from Radio Shack that doesn't work; a paper bag full of romantic souvenirs - matchboxes, restaurant bills, movie tickets, empty packs of cigarettes. (Note to myself: stop listening to Billie Holiday and grow up.)

I had fondly imagined that I could get all this, and everything else I owned, into a cab by myself, but when the time came I surveyed my 20 or so suitcases and realised it wasn't going to happen. When I rang a removal firm, I stressed that this was a small job, but the message didn't get across, because an hour later two strapping Israeli men turned up in an enormous truck. They tramped upstairs, rubbing their chunky hands together, preparing for feats of strength, and when they saw my pathetic load they guffawed in a rather humiliating way - 'Hoo hoo ha ha.' To add to my embarrassment, my poorly packed possessions kept falling out of the bags. When I walked out on to Bleecker, to ride with the Israelis down to Tribeca, I found my bath brush and a bag of cotton wool lying forlornly on the sidewalk. There was quite a bit of hoo hoo about this, also.

Because the futon I ordered had not turned up yet, and because the paint was still drying on my pink floors, I ended up having to stay one night at the Gramercy Park Hotel after all. It all came rushing back, the minute I got into my crappy room - the frayed pillow cases, the one nasty little scratchy towel in the bathroom, the sounds of strangers' feet out in the hallway. In the room next to mine there was this group of weird Seventies types - guys with massive Afros and flares and clompy shoes, dancing about, like Shalamar imitators,with the door open.

In the evening, I received a visit from a friend. We ordered room service and watched Mrs Bush tout her memoirs on Larry King Live. (Where do the Americans get off thinking Mrs Bush is a lovely lady? A more sinister creature I've never seen. For all her cosyism - 'That darn Hussein' - and her horrible, slobbery dog, Millie, she seems patently a gruesome faker.) Just as Mrs B had got on to discussing the depression she suffered during the final year of George's presidency, the door to my room swung open with a loud bang. By the time I got to the door - all indignant in a bedspread toga - the intruder had fled. My friend said it was the wind. I said it was the weirdies next door, hoping to find us, as the Mitford sisters used to say, 'rolling and rolling and rolling around'. In any case, it made me very grateful to be able to return the next day to the new place, where my neighbours are quiet as outer space and the only intrusions come from Michael, the chief builder. Michael is charming and extremely handsome and always covered, becomingly, with a fine layer of white dust, like a frosted sponge cake. Another voolly coming on, I suspect . . .-