Nostalgia for the mud

January 10, 2010 at 4:44 PM 5 comments


Back in the day, I lived in a pre-war rental building in the Bronx called the Carlton House. The bay window in my sixth-floor apartment faced south and — if you can believe it — looked out on unobstructed sky. When a heat wave forced me to install an air conditioner, the living room suffered a great loss of light. The upside and downside: I no longer spent blistering summer weekends prostrate on the sofa reading Jonathan Kellerman novels with a fan blowing hot air on me.

By my seventh year in the Carlton House, everyone I knew at work and in my neighborhood owned a co-op or a private house. Now and then, some galling individual — usually a spurned suitor — would remind me that my renter status meant I was poor, hadn’t gotten on with life or had made myself an object of pity. These comments said more about the sayers than about me — I know that — yet I couldn’t help but succumb to feeling like a second-class citizen.

My sense of myself as a bottom feeder colored my picture of my fellow tenants.

I divided them into three groups: The poor souls, the transients and the old-timers.

The poor souls. Shoehorned into this category: Damien Hilbert.* Since the late 1950s, Damien had been a studio keyboardist who had played with virtually every singer in the pop firmament: Bob Dylan, Burt Bacharach, Steely Dan, Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett, Don McLean and lots more. For a loser, Damien sure had had a winning way with music biggies. The super let him use a basement storage room as a studio.

I finally understood who this poor soul was after he and his wife invited me into their apartment. On a wall were several of Damien’s Grammy Awards that congratulated him for the tunes he helped usher into the platinum stratosphere. It just so happened that studio musicians in the ‘sixties and ‘seventies were routinely paid in goose eggs.

The transients. The sixth floor, where I lived with my son, had drawn members of this second group to apartment 6E. Halfway through my term in the building, a Korean family moved in. Mrs. Kim worked at a local nail salon. Mr. Kim occasionally left the building with a plastic bucket and a fishing pole. Their son Jung used to play video games with my son until he started hanging out with a gang of stray boys. They were a United Nations of unsupervised kids and I had the feeling that Jung’s passive temperament, more than any instinct for violence, brought about his induction into their crowd. Jung and his pals spent hours every evening skateboarding up and down 236th Street, indifferent to homework, oblivious to traffic. A couple of them vandalized the Amazon packages left outside my apartment door. A shift of the eyes, a grope of the crotch signaled a willingness to experiment with more than petty crime.

One Friday night, Mrs. Kim buzzed my door and pleaded with me in Korean-ized English to call the police on her son. I never did understand what fix Jung had gotten into or what that phone call was supposed to accomplish. I just wished the whole family would move away.

By the time Jung was fifteen, he was sleeping with a different gorgeous girl every week. He smelled like pot and smiled a lot. I worried that his pals would jump my son on his way home from school.

But Jung turned out to be an angel: He invited my son to join the skateboarding gang — and made sure nobody laid a hand on him.

Other short-termers in the building:

  • An Argentine guy who pummeled his wife whenever he got drunk. Several times a week I passed him sitting woozy on the fifth-floor landing.
  • A Matisyahu lookalike who invited me to “stop by any evening you like.”
  • A nurse who began living with her Irish mom after her sister jumped from a nearby building in a flush of post-partum depression.
  • A young, red-headed cop who walked up and down 236th Street with me when my son didn’t come upstairs immediately after returning from a Yankee game with friends. Despite his schedule and his family obligations, the cop also urged me to call him if Stanley, my next-door neighbor, kept jumping out from behind the front-yard bushes at my son.

The old-timers. A few members of this group consisted of long-time Bronx-ites who never bought into the idea of co-ops — letting renters “own” apartments as part of a collective that established by-laws, screened potential “co-operators” and paid into a fund for the building’s upkeep.

Some of them were like Mr. Moran, a real estate investor and a darling from a generation of men who tipped their hat whenever they saw you. Mr. Moran’s mother was made of the same stuff. She was an ancient fine-boned Episcopalian who boasted about the uproar she caused when she married a Catholic in 1936. Mrs. Moran used to stand in front of our building, leaning on a cane while she took the sun. One time in her ninety-third year, she watched me approach the building and walk up the steps to the foyer.

“Hi, Mrs. Moran,” I called to her. “It’s Barbara.”

“I can see you, Barbara,” Mrs. Moran said. “You are the best looking thing that’s passed by here in a long time.”

She was sincere, but she was also legally blind.

Some old-timers, like Mrs. Cohen, were cranks. Crabbiness was a point of pride for Mrs. Cohen, a Greek Jew who whiled away her summer days on a folding chair with a bunch of other seventysomething crabby ladies. “When my children were small, I sent them off to bed at 7:30 every night,” she said. “Me and my husband, we spent the night chatting and playing pinochle!” Mrs. Cohen’s husband died in a swimming accident before one Yom Kippur and forever after she dreaded the Jewish Days of Awe.

And some were simply sad:

  • Buddy, a fortysomething ex-HVAC technician who lived with his mom. He existed in an aromatic haze of pot and every year bought fundraising chocolate (munchies?) from my son. I saw his mom in the laundry room on the day a pipe burst in my wardrobe closet and caused me $400 worth of dry cleaning damage. She put my kvetching in perspective when she revealed that one of her sons died at twenty-six from leukemia.
  • The Silent Scoliosis Man, who was six feet tall when I moved into the Carlton House and eye-level with me – 5’1” – fourteen years later. He didn’t talk to anyone but his parents. I once eavesdropped on an argument he had with his mother: “You don’t care about me!” he cried. “My opinion doesn’t mean a thing to you!” In a calmer frame of mind, he once shared his vision with her for peace in the Middle East. His forbearing parents went to their graves knowing they had to leave their fiftysomething son in the care of some New York City social work agency.


Everyone I got close to at the Carlton House eventually emigrated to Israel: First a nurse practitioner named Jennie, who cooked a three-course meal for me when I came down with viral meningitis; then a public health researcher whose neurosis about driving a car and fear of locking herself out of her apartment nicely mirrored my own timorous make-up.

By our thirteenth year in the Carlton House, my son would not enter the building alone for fear that Stanley would kill him. I promised him that after I finished my Master’s Degree, I would look for a co-op.

And not a moment too soon. Stanley transferred his obsession from my son to me. Leaned up against the lobby mailboxes, he tried to engage me in discussions about religious practice. “Do you think I’m a bad Jew because I don’t go to synagogue? Tell me! Do you? Do you?”

The young redheaded cop moved out and our protection was gone.

Damien Hilbert, the penniless Grammy Award winner, died of hepatitis. He was waiting for a liver transplant that never came through.

Mrs. Cohen had a stroke. She was led around in a state of mute depression — more terrible than crabbiness — by a Jamaican aide.

A broiling summer brought forth an infestation of water bugs. One night, a three incher stalked me from room to room, even though I had done my horrified best to flatten it with a sneaker. I finally killed it in a state of broad-scale hyperventilating insanity after the creature crawled into the living room pullout sofa with me.

In November 2003, we moved to a co-op apartment three blocks north of the Carlton House. The upstairs neighbors have sex in their living room, right over my living room. The wife is a vacuum cleaning freak. I schedule my Bookpod phone interviews after 2:00 p.m. when her cleaning frenzy has usually spent itself. Most of the other co-operators are young couples with little children. It would have been nice to know them fifteen years ago, but now I don’t have that much in common with them.


“I saw Stanley on the street,” my son told me this week.

“I see him from time to time,” I said. “He says, ‘Hello, Barbara,’ like a robot. I mutter hello and walk fast.”


“This building,” he says. “It’s so –”



“At least nobody’s jumping out at you from behind the bushes,” I said.

“You ever think about Damien?” he asked.


“There’s nobody here like him.”

“There’s nobody like him hardly anywhere,” I said.


The kid and I shared a look of nostalgie de la boue. Tom Wolfe used the phrase, loosely translated as a “yearning for the mud,” in his essay Radical Chic to lampoon Leonard Bernstein’s dalliance with the Black Panthers. Now that my son and I lived in a more secure building, we were romanticizing the days of Jung’s skateboarding gang, Stanley’s mania and the water bug that loved me.

Nostalgie de la boue notwithstanding, I wish I could escape the vacuum-cleaner-freak-living-room-groaner. Maybe move into one of those glass-fronted buildings in the neighborhood with a view of the Hudson River, the ones that stand empty for lack of people who can afford to carry a million-dollar mortgage. I’d stretch out on my modular sofa in my temperate, water bug-free living room, missing my current building, as people on the street below look up at me and throw stones.

* I have fictionalized all names in this post except my own and those of celebrities.

Related link:

Bronx Bohemian




Entry filed under: Apartments, Bookpod, Co-ops, New York City, Rentals, Tenants. Tags: , , , , , .

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5 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Toby Winter  |  January 12, 2010 at 1:44 AM

    How wonderful to read your work again Barbara! Happy for any connection…
    Toby Winter

  • 2. Urban Renaissance  |  January 12, 2010 at 2:43 PM

    I used to live in a building just like the one you used to live in. I haven’t moved; it’s just that the building has become gentrified, and we have yuppies and would-be artists pretending to slum instead of the characters we used to have.

    There was Mr. Y, who had emigrated from Russia, and who had lost his wife and daughter in the Stalinist purges. He wore an Abraham-Lincoln style beard, and went out with his briefcase and down to the subway every morning. To nowhere, though; he just rode the subways back and forth. In his later years, when he became frail, he paced back and forth in the lobby with his briefcase. He was the nearest thing our building ever had to a doorman.

    In his place, we now have a perky blond couple. I meet her in the elevator going down to the garbage. (The mark of the gentrification of a building is how much garbage its residents generate. The boxes from Amazon and Pottery Barn and Fresh Direct… I am happy to say that my building seems to have been untouched by the recession.) She takes her little Pomeranian with her to work in her purse; he is relevant to her job, which is developing new doggie toys for the dogs of Yuppies searching for new ways to spend money. Her job has turned out to be more secure than many others.

    We are the lucky ones. It must be hard to write from one’s experience if all one has known is white-bread vacuum-cleaning freaks.

  • 3. modestine  |  January 12, 2010 at 5:07 PM

    Dear Urban Renaissance:

    I once complained to a psychotherapist that the people in my rental building were too colorful — and that their idiosyncrasies were a sign of my poverty.

    She assured me that characters don’t disappear when you move to a co-op.

    Maybe she’s right, and the woman with the Pomeranian in your building is every bit as memorable as, say, Margie at the Carlton House who managed to get just about everyone in the building to buy her a package of chicken thighs.

    Thanks for your great comment. — Barbara

  • 4. Rajan  |  January 14, 2010 at 6:03 AM

    Hi Barbara:
    I like your story. You have a keen eye for the people around you. I am sure you will keep meeting interesting people wherever you go.

  • 5. Shara Sokol  |  January 15, 2010 at 10:38 PM

    Loved this story, Barbara. You are such a wonderful writer.

    Love, Shara


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