Apartment living in New York City is having only what you need. There is no room for the past in my tiny apartment. Precious space to house only the ever-present life condensed and distilled to contain only the potent now-life. Astonishing to those of us who grew up in houses. In New York, we go from rooms to closets to narrow representational crevices, and our lives are defined by available space and shelving. Life grows upwards as we search our walls for ways to expand our home life. It is a life re-defined. If three thousand years from now, our shells of apartments were to be excavated, what would be found that would define us and tell our story? What do we give up when we don’t keep? I think about my cousin Michael’s house and all the stuff that marks his journey through his life and work and the world spilling from every corner. The house oozes with evidence of life. Is that what our stuff is, evidence?
My cousin Michael’s kitchen is enormous. I can fit my entire apartment into his kitchen. Where would my kitchen fit into his beautiful DC home, the pantry? The half-bath?
Mine is not so much of a kitchen but rather the four square feet that the stove, refrigerator and sink could fit in relation to each. I never really thought that much about it until recently when I realized I might never move; that my more-or-less 400 square foot apartment is possibly it. Real estate in the ex-drug infested Lower East Side is at a premium, and this cute but tiny two-room overlooking a garden is something I’m apparently so lucky to have. I do feel lucky.
I grew up in a house with rooms full of stuff. I was taught that stuff was good. Actually my mother had a knack for collecting stuff that was so nice, they were things. So I grew up with things. Paintings, antiques, handcrafts from all over the world, ceramics and glass, unique things that even elevated from being a ‘thing’ to an object, or as my mother would say with a French accent, “objet”. An objet usually consisted of something handcrafted from clay, wood or glass. It had to be free standing and large enough to be considerable in space. It would be a work of fancy–that is to say something directly from the maker’s imagination, be it representational or other wise. And it was to have a very vague, practical application to human affairs except for being considered in space, describing space, and using it. I have a hard time understanding this concept. But my mother did not and neither did hundreds of thousands of crafts people the world over. So there is still something for me to learn.
In my twenties I had too many friends. We always traveled in packs and we made a lot of noise. My lifestyle and some of the people I shared it with had become too rough, too selfish. We didn’t care about things, we valued the accidental art that the street could produce, the found object. We were like big rough kids relentless in our presence and there was no place for us among the objets. So I gravitated to The Lower East Side where life was refined and defined in a more dangerous fashion to discover tastes of my own. Art was grimy and necessary amongst the decline and debilitation. It grew from the gutter, the lost and cast-off. I could see art happening in response to the environment, it was happening right in front of my face. This was evidence of a movement and to this I could relate. I had parties with my friends with furniture I found on the street. I had things that could be broken, remade and reused and eventually thrown away to be redefined again. I told myself, some other day in the future, I would return to the house with the objets–be it my own or my mother’s. Of course, it would always be there.
Trouble is, life is just not that simple. A lot of money goes into owning a house full of objets and our family finances were as delicate, whimsical and imaginative as the objets themselves. My mother built a beautiful dream, and that dream fed the kids while she remarkably made a living through the art of the dream. When she passed I was left with the dream, the objets, and no idea how to handle the mortgage I couldn’t afford.
I am still reeling from dismantling the evidence of our family life: boxes of childhood with my brother and boxes of mother’s young womanhood as it blazed a trail through the working world along with her triumphs and disgraces. Then buried deep in the basement, evidence of my father and the life she lived with him in the things he left behind like remains. All one had to do was to sit in the house and breathe the story of our lives, as if our house was a big book of us we wrote as we lived. In the end I had come to love what she had done, with her house and her life that overflowed like a magical museum of the not so ordinary objet. So I inherited her objets, and her love of objets, which are now all in storage. I long for the day I can house them.
Occasionally I have those dreams. The ones where you discover a secret room hidden behind a broken and forgotten wall, wrecked ancient and waiting.
My downstairs neighbor Susan has an apartment that is just like mine. The only difference is her design genius made it really chic. But we both agree, no matter how much style or genius that is applied to our places, they are still rectangles. And not multiple rectangles, just one. And she like me, has come to the realization, short of leaving New York City, this is it. So just how do I reconcile my life born into a house, with my life in a box? Short answer: forget what I know and concentrate on what I don’t. Bring with me into the future those things that best represent the best of my past and create something new. Look around and appreciate what I have and have made, the snow globes, the kid art, the guitars and the records, those things that say who I am, not who I was. And feel lucky to have a life that keeps me creative and requires reinvention.
I look around my place and like Michael’s home it overflows with evidence of me, and now, my daughter. Instead of rooms, we have areas. Her favorite tour for newcomers goes something like this:
“Here is our entrance / mudroom / kitchen / office. The next room is our living room / closet / loft bed / my room / my moms room / music room / library / TV room. Oh, and there’s our bathroom.”
It’s really amusing and we all get a big laugh. Of course inside I’m groaning with some kind of darker comedy. But I try to not let this overshadow Lily’s view too much, because this is her home and this is what she knows. She says, “Mommy, I love our cozy house, I don’t ever want to move.” That is not to say she doesn’t know what a house looks like or what it means to live in one, it just means she has the wisdom to love and accept what she has. For me there is a reconciliation of what Lily knows, and what I know. This is what helps me think the whole experience as a new place and try to figure out what comes next.
What is next?
To find out what is next, read Charlotte’s piece “The Shift” in the upcoming print issue of 12th Street.