I promised to write and write and edit and write some more. So much for that. It seems the only time I actually write, it must be an un-defined, stream-of-consciousness, ramble of thoughts without any self-expectation of a theme or point. And apparently I’ve developed a penchant for hyphens. Then again, when asked what I consider myself to be last week on another random assignment, I stated, “I’m a hyphenate.” I’m also a procrastinator, falling into the frigid winter grasp on my happiness that reaches from the prematurely dark sky and encourages me to be a recluse. For many years, I wanted to get a dog to increase my interaction with the community. I expected that being forced out of my creative belfry, where I spend hours trapped away working (or procrastinating) would allow me to feel more a part of the city. Instead, I’ve become one of the Upper West Side pack of shivering dog owners, adorned in ten pounds of winter gear covering my pajamas, as I drag my obdurate pup along a cold sidewalk on which he would rather sit in protest. In lieu of my former desire to chat with other people about my sweet little Chihuahua, I would just as soon keep my eyes towards the frosty ground and keep walking as any interruption to the walk will simply delay the pooch from doing his business for another block or two.
My apartment has been frigid since this recent arctic blast has covered the city. My landlady, known to sport a thick winter sweater and puffy winter vest around the house, informed me to dress warmly because she only intends to heat the building well in times that she is sure her tenants are home. She must think that the entire building has vacated and the rent checks mysteriously appear beneath her door each month. The heat is rarely on now that it’s frigid outdoors, but when it was a balmy 55 in October, my apartment was as hot and arid as a summer in Palm Springs.
When I first moved into this rent-stabilized “gem,” I was forewarned by the woman who held the lease: DO NOT BECOME FRIENDLY WITH THE LANDLADY. I mistook the warning as an unfair judgment, as it seemed reasonable to become friends with the landlady, a seemingly innocuous lonely widow who was full of stories of a seedier time on this city block. I felt it was important to be on her good side, as taking over this apartment without a serious rent increase required some finesse and I really enjoyed living here. At one point we bonded when my door knob broke and she came to the apartment with her 3-year-old nephew, who was keen on brushing my hair. She taught him the proper way to do so as my door knob was repaired. It was an unusual moment in a typically New York sense. Then there was the time the city was overcome with a heat wave and I returned from a trip to LA. Being late as it was on my return, I procrastinated (there’s a theme) installing my air conditioner and opened the windows. Unbeknown to me, one of the screens slipped and at three in the morning I was awoken by a pigeon-sized bat flying towards my head. My first move, after hiding under my blanket and screaming for five minutes, was to locate some article of clothing and run to my landlady on the first floor. Unfortunately, she was in a deep sleep and being hard of hearing, she tuned out my screams, door-banging, and phone calls.
The next evening, the bat was still in the apartment. I thought he had escaped, as I left the windows open and could not find a trace of him. Once the lights went out, his silhouette appeared and I summoned my landlady. She came equipped with gloves and empty paint buckets, thinking she could easily lure the flying beast into captivity. When she saw the wingspan of the bat, her first impression of “Oh, what a cute little thing,” switched to, “Oh no! We better call animal control!”
While I pretended to call animal control in the safe confines of the building’s stairwell, my five-foot tall landlady swung in circles with a broom, standing on her tippy toes and having the time of her life. Eventually she scared the little devil out the window and I slammed the screen shut. Unfortunately, while all these bonding experiences have protected my stake on this apartment, they’ve also confused the lines of financial and legal responsibilities of tenant and landlady. Though I’m treated as a family member, it’s hard to understand after six years of inhabiting an apartment, she comes and asks for two months security deposit, claiming the deposit transferred from the woman who held the lease all the years I sublet, was nonexistent. Of course, there is no paper work on her end to prove things either way. Or when my ceiling collapsed in fifty pound chunks of plaster, instead of offering a hotel or to cover expenses as I fled the city, she insisted that I come spend five days and live with her. Those days of vacancy weren’t refunded to me nor were expenses accrued in the fiasco and damage to my things. It took quite a battle to convince her to watch my cat during this time, as she’s fallen in love with my dog (the same dog she told me I could not keep one week and declared as her “godson” the following week). Not to mention that upon my return, three inches of plaster dust covered the floor and she explained, “You have a beautiful new ceiling and a lot of cleaning to do!” At the very least, she offered use of her washing machine and cleaned and folded my blankets and underwear.
I’ve found myself in the delicate balance of an unnecessarily complicated relationship between me and my landlady. It’s hard to reconcile her financial demands with the general things I’ve yet (or suffered) to see such as a warm apartment, a working oven, or a ceiling. It’s also hard to understand her cry for money when one considers how high the rent is for the other tenants and the fact she owns and has sold three buildings in New York. And did I mention while my apartment was lacking a ceiling, her renovated apartment sparkled with marble floors? I’ve never been late with my rent once in six years and the repairs I’ve done have improved the apartment. I can’t help but become tense when her shrill voice calls from the hallway, beckoning me to the roof to help clean the gutters in monsoon weather. I can all but hide in the closet, when she comes banging on the door for an unannounced inspection of the new ceiling, leaving her muddy footprints along the side of the same bathtub I’ve scrubbed five times since the repairs began. While her voice cuts through my body, causing a chill up my spine to match the chill I feel in this under-heated apartment, I think kind thoughts about how she needs understanding and companionship, as all her family and friends live far away. She spends her time fussing around the building, watching Animal Planet to drown out the loneliness of her three-floor apartment and her vacant courtyard that she refuses to use should the wind come and blow furniture or plants against her sliding glass door. She pushes through the day learning Fur Elise on her little keyboard, her knotted, arthritic fingers hammering away at the melody that she can barely hear. She fills her day with a routine of herbal remedies and supplements, wondering if she can live to 120, since her aunt lived to be 107 and her father past 100.
As I find myself feeling for her and writing this blog, my heat has finally come on. I’m not sure how long it will last, but my pup and cat have taken to their self-designated radiators, one in the main room, one in the bathroom, and I take a deep breath. It will all be okay. I’ll write more, stop procrastinating, and maybe just one day, do something of worth. And yet I wonder, is it inevitable that should we live long enough, we will all end up like a variation of my old landlady?