Moving On Down
When home is the only place you can still afford.
The weather is warm the day we arrive. As a child, I would never have been in the city on this day. Like other privileged city children, I would have been evacuated to the country, away from the polluted air, the city pools and the open fire hydrants. I would never have been permitted to walk barefoot on steamy sidewalks, or to experience the gush of water from the hydrants, or sleep on a fire escape. The building where I lived as a child did not have fire escapes; it had marble floors, internal staircases and high ceilings.
After Labor Day we were back at school; the hydrants, pools and windows were closed, the sprinklers and fountains in the parks shut down. Perhaps we would have an Indian summer, but it would be brief. The warm weather would not linger into autumn, as it does today.
This has not been a voluntary re-entry to my childhood neighborhood. I had always assumed, as had my refugee parents, that my life would be more secure than theirs: good schooling, professional status, no persecution or war. But a recession, two job losses and illness led us to this 1917 co-op, a block away from 895 West End Avenue, on the Upper West Side, where I lived with my family until I was 12.
We lived on the ground floor. One room was the waiting room, another my mother’s office. I shared the third room with my sister. The rest of the apartment was in the back and faced the alley. We had a succession of maids, mostly from the Caribbean. Some were kind, others too heart-struck at the loss of their own children, left behind with grandparents, to be kind. I told my mother I could take care of my sister and myself, but she was a physician, delivering babies at all hours. My stepfather was establishing a new business, and I was only a child.
It is curious to be back in the neighborhood. The Puerto Rican migration began in the mid 1950s. My parents were already citizens, and had strong opinions about the newer arrivals. They didn’t bother to learn English, they said. Their food smelled. But I had never been afraid on these streets, and it was not clear to me why they had suddenly become unsafe or why we had to move to the East Side. Now these brownstones
been returned to the gentry, and the descendants of the Puerto Rican families have been transplanted into the projects on Amsterdam Avenue. The more affluent have escaped to single-family homes in Queens, Staten Island or Westchester. What remains is a neighborhood, again in transition, as real estate agents say.
When I left the city to go to college, I did not think I would ever live in Manhattan again. My parents were forced out of their homes in Europe at gunpoint. I have never seen the point of a gun, and had never even been a victim of a forced economic migration. Until now.
I walk along Amsterdam Avenue opposite the projects, a pocket of Latino culture with its vibrant hair salons and barber shops, fish stores, thrift shops and churches.
I cannot locate the source of my anxiety, though I know it resides in my family of origin, who fled a genocide, and then in my childhood at 895 West End Avenue. My parents were cultivated, educated and, eventually, prosperous. In the current downfall of the American dream, of aspirations dashed, of savings plundered by medicine and health care, their legacy has evaporated. I cannot afford what my parents enjoyed reguhave larly: theater, opera, concerts, fine dining. They would be dismayed to learn that all these pleasures are now out of reach for so many, including their daughter.
I avoid long conversations with my new owner-neighbors. I tell my husband, with an unfamiliar envy, that these new neighbors have an investment in the building whereas we are renters on a short lease: nomads, migrants, refugees, the internally displaced, passing through.
I have put up some pictures and made the small, bright apartment livable, but I have left several boxes in the closets. I continue to cull books, clothes and any household items I decide we will never use again. I have asked our daughter and son-in-law to store a bed, a granite tabletop, some boxes. My husband’s collection of old magazines and newspapers, carefully sealed in Mylar, has traveled with us. It would be upsetting to sell them off, and I would never suggest it.
New York is a city of staggering abundance, of restaurants where waiters recite incomprehensible menus involving long lists of food that arrive on oversized plates, of taxis cruising for customers, of shops that glitter and beckon. Is this luxury or decadence, I ask myself now that I can no longer partake of these luxuries.
We purchase Netflix. For less than $10 a months we can watch movies all day and all night and never have to go out again. We invite friends to share meals, two at a time because we have only four chairs and a very small kitchen. We open a bottle of wine. We celebrate. But our friends often go without us to the fancy restaurants we used to frequent together.
The apartment is high up, an aerie, and I watch the sun rise and set every day. Instead of 10 plants we have three, all of them doing well in the bright apartment. Life is simpler, uninflected, its joys oddly more accessible. The Buddhists are correct, I decide. When attachment ceases, when we no longer strive for material acquisition, we have arrived, we are home.
My parents were cultivated, educated and, eventually, prosperous. They would be dismayed to learn that all their pleasures are now out of reach for their daughter.