Does anyone really live like this?

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The Independent Online

I am about to start apartment hunting again. Not for me - I found my nook here in the Gramercy Park neighbourhood last year - but for a good friend, Veronika, who has had enough of her minuscule Lexington Avenue studio. She is pining for doors. In other words, she has had enough of living in just one room.

Let me count. I have four doors, one that my landlord, after months of haranguing from me, finally had someone hang to allow me some privacy in the larder-sized bedroom. It's not bad as doors go - it's solid wood, at least - but he refused to have it subsequently painted, because he is the meanest man you will ever want to meet. So that is a chore which, one of these weekends, I will have to attend to.

These things matter more than you can imagine in this town. In Manhattan, we are defined above all by the spaces we occupy. First conversations with any new acquaintance always begin the same way: where do you live, how did you find it, how much do you pay, and was there a broker's fee?

It's a sort of test. I am not sure if my partner and I pass or fail with our apartment. "You've got to be joking," was the reaction of my 10-year-old daughter, Polly, who visits at weekends, when she first set eyes on it. But then anywhere without an upstairs is a mystery to her. She has no clue what we are up against in Manhattan, and why should she? Sometimes I think we are all mad even to attempt to live here.

What's infuriating, of course, is that everyone else seems to have a better deal than yourself - like Margo, whom I run into some mornings in The Broken Cup, my local latte-and-brownies hang-out. Like so many people, she is illegally subletting, but she pays a thousand bucks a month for one bedroom with a working fireplace. That's less than half what we pay. But she is unemployed, so I forgive her.

Recently, flyers have been appearing on the glass front of the pastry cabinet in the Cup with details and pictures of places in the area to rent. It turns out that Bob, who owns the coffee shop with his partner, Bruce, is running a little rental brokerage business on the side. Smart guy. He is actually human, best I can tell, which immediately puts him ahead of most of the other brokers in this town.

So it is in Bob's hands that I intend to place Veronika. That will mean paying him a broker's fee, but she will have to swallow that one. You can look for no-fee bargains on a number of apartment-hunting websites, like the housing section of the ubiquitous craigslist (www.craigslist.org). We tried that tack last year for a while, but without success. There is no avoiding the fact that having someone show you places is simply more efficient.

It is astonishing what people put up with just to preserve the privilege of living in Manhattan - like Jesse, who discovered a mouse shortly after occupying his truly dingy East Village studio. He bought a cat, but sadly cat and mouse have now become best of friends. Or like another friend who can't afford to move out of the bedroom that he calls home inside the apartment of a whole family. They have cats too, and he is allergic to them.

Margo took her place after abandoning digs in Chinatown that she shared with a 30-year-old woman who brought a different man home every day. And who preferred 70-something musicians. But what is most baffling is why so many of us in Manhattan rent in the first place.

I only have one real friend who owns, and that's because she was given her duplex just off Stuyvesant Park by her father. Of course, the prices are daunting. A decent one bedroom will sell for more than a million. It may also have something to do with the inability of most people I know even to think about actually settling somewhere long-term. Manhattan does that to you. We are conditioned always to be on the move, never to relax. So here we are, pouring half of our salaries into rent with nothing to show for it later.

Meanwhile, my weekend is mapped out. Bob will march Veronika and I from one disappointing, over-priced, daylight-starved lobster-trap to the next, until, if God deigns to look kindly on us, he finally turns the key to something that is vaguely inhabitable. With doors - at least two of them.

How I learnt to polish up my act

I know that at some stage in my adult life I had a shoe polish kit in a little raffia basket. I lost track of it long ago. But then I was never very good at opening it anyway. On first arriving in America, I was faced with a dilemma. I felt oddly squeamish about joining everyone else in climbing on to one of those high seats at airports and railway stations and letting someone kneel before my feet and polish my leather uppers. It was probably some liberal phobia in me, but you get over these things.

My latest discovery is Mauricio from Brazil, whose job it is to spend every weekday riding the lifts in three tall office buildings on Madison Avenue, including the one where The Independent has its bureau, looking for types as lazy as myself with slush-rim stains to get rid of.

We all have our little indulgences. For me it is chancing on Mauricio and having him huddle down beside my desk and work on my shoes for ten minutes while I carry on with my daily business of arguing on the telephone with my editors in London.

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