softening hard experience

I am sitting in a be-kippled apartment, archiving my evening

The battle between the forces of conservatism and the forces of change is being played out everywhere. Some want to keep things as they are, and the others just see the status quo as entropy. You don’t even have to look very hard.

[By the way, this, for some reason, is an mystifyingly long post, which I can’t really explain, and for which I apologise. It’s an experiment.]

Take this evening, for example. I am still looking for an apartment, and had made an appointment via Craigslist to see one at around 7pm in the neighbourhood I am staying in. (A neighbourhood, a fellow resident informed me earlier today, that is sitting on a lake of industrial waste larger than the Exxon Valdez spill.) The apartment was matter-of-factly described, and gave away few extraneous details beyond the building’s age.

The house, on a quiet street of terraced houses in historic Greenpoint, looked well-kept, solid, and typical of the two-family brick house of the area. I rang, and the landlady, and her tenant of ten years, came to greet me and ushered me inside – where I was met with a sumptuous hallway, with original fittings, sliding wood-panelled doors, carved banisters, and a reassuring sensation of solidity, craftsmanship, serenity, like being in a vintage Rolls-Royce, the Oak Room at the Algonquin, or a falconer’s glove.

I followed the tenant upstairs, into a simply decorated living-room around thirty feet long, with a wooden carved archway in the middle, panelled wardrobes down one side, and three windows giving onto the street. This led into a small-ish (in comparison) bedroom, maybe fifteen feet across, but still comfortably large enough for a double bed.

The tenant parted the stained-glass doors, and walked me into a room overlooking the garden, which he was using as an office, but which, at more than double the size of the bedroom, might on its own accommodate a small restaurant. “You could, if you wanted, use this as a spare bedroom,” he offered, tentatively.

Again this room had perfectly preserved original fittings, including a lockable cabinet, with a practically medieval key. Then a sparse modern kitchen, and a small clean bathroom, followed by another room, currently used for storage, with a massive and weighty wooden bookcase, and more large cupboards. Everything looked like it had been polished with decades of care and love, and the whole place exuded a tranquility in contrast to the increasing bustle on the streets nearby.

Spellbound, I walked through again, filming the entire place on my phone – which took around three minutes. Another prospective tenant arrived, let’s call her “Cesaria”, so I went downstairs to discuss with the landlady what the next steps might be. We began talking, but before I could ask about the practicalities, she said, “It’s not just about me being happy, it’s about the person who takes the apartment being happy. My tenant has been here over ten years, and sometimes it’s been four or five months that we don’t see each other or bother each other.” I nodded, and she continued.

“Life here’s not so great. I came here over 50 years ago as a displaced person from Germany, and had to work two jobs to pay the rent. I worked, then I retired when I was 65, and I tend the garden. My tenant moved in when he was just a boy, 22, and he’s leaving now to get married at 32 – I think of him as my baby! But people round here, you know they’re prejudiced against his kind, and it’s not like that in the UK, or even in Poland, is it? But I don’t want to go back to Poland, or Germany. Too many bad memories.”

“Vergangenheitsbewaeltigung”, I half-mumble, but she’s has already picked up another thread: “But you know the neighbourhood is changing. When I moved here, people were nice to each other, they’d do things for each other, but now, you’re afraid to get bullied in the street, and it’s no defence being old any more. My tenant wasn’t born here, and he was properly brought up, like you, and you can see the difference between that and the people who are born here. My friends tell me you can feel the difference in atmosphere when you get off the plane in London.”

At this point, Cesaria comes downstairs, followed by the tenant, and says she would take the apartment “in a heartbeat”, which concerns me. We vie weakly to be ever more charming, modest, polite, educated, knowledgeable, rooted in the area, struck by the beauty of the apartment (Cesaria comments winningly on the beautiful “moldings and wainscoting”, I resolve to bone up on architectural features before going to see any more apartments) and respectful. Cesaria mentions the historic district, and meets an unexpected reply:

“You know I don’t believe they should just preserve stuff because it’s old. Lots of houses in this neighbourhood are crumbling, but they have to be kept intact because you can’t do anything to the houses in the historic district without permission. You can change parts of the back, but you can’t change the front at all – everything has to be replaced in the original style. I mean, it’s not like we’re talking about the Houses of Parliament here… I think they should tear those houses down. And the apartment blocks by the water! Instead of putting up huge apartment blocks, they should create landscaped gardens and parks for the people, and a nice waterfront.”

I break the spell by remembering that I will definitely need wifi and cable TV, and ask the tenant whether they are installed (they are). It’s the perfect cue to leave. The landlady touchingly leaves us with: “If I had enough room, I’d house all the people who came via the internet to see this place, including you two, you’re so polite and educated. Not like the people brokers bring – they’ll bring anyone that’ll pay them.”

“Oh my God! That place was incredible, so beautiful! I’d pay a million to live there, and it’s nothing like the other shit you see from brokers or Craigslist that costs twice as much!” says Cesaria, as she and I walk away from the front gate. We turn down the main street together, and she asks me what I do. I tell her, and she rolls her eyes: “So you win on morality points…” I don’t draw her attention, for what it’s worth, to the fact that I am also an immigrant, with roots in the tenant’s country of origin. And I speak German. And that someone once called me, in a teasingly double-edged way, the “Cary Grant of suburbia.”

Cesaria is, it turns out, working on an encyclopedia of contemporary art, and is training to be a librarian/archivist. As we weave round slower walkers, I ask her what the biggest challenge for the profession is, and she says: “We’re thinking about how to deal with categorisation. The whole thing about folksonomies, people being able to tag and categorise things how they want to, is a real threat. How they do this shifts, and evolves, and that means it’s not static.” I tell her about the project I am working on, and how it was proposed that we allow users to tag freely when it comes to geography. What happens when lots of people miscategorise? Do the administrators go in to correct and standardise? No, she says, “the idea is that the community will eventually do that for you.” “Do you believe that?” She purses her lips. “I don’t know.”

Cesaria, with the noble sentiment that “one of us two should get the apartment”, heads into the subway, and I turn in my tracks, heading towards a well-established local restaurant. I walk in past three women, one of whom says, “Whoa, I feel like there’s a lead weight in my stomach.” Ordering the house speciality lead weight, something I have eaten with stunned pleasure before, I await my food by poring over my own work, an overspill from the day. I come up for air, sink my beer rapidly, sip my iced water, and look around.

The waitresses, since the last time I was there, have been coordinated into revealing, but curiously unsexy uniforms. They treat me with perfect neutrality, neither hostile, nor warm. The clientele is part Polish-American, young and old, part Jewish, Puerto Rican, African-American, Chinese, Thai, Indian, part neo-hipster, part construction worker. Many takeaways are issued to well-spoken thirty-something creatives. The walls are covered with photographs of a middle-aged and rather glamourous blonde woman, and a series of local celebrities, with room for plenty more. The woman in the photographs is sitting at a table behind me with two men, drinking a bottle of Merlot. A bilingual menu that looks like it was produced on a late eighties DTP program lies printed on Cartland-pink paper. Every time I glance towards the waitresses, they look at me suspiciously, as if I am trying to see up, or down, their dresses (I am not). Apart from the clientele, those dresses, and the accretion of new photographs, this place has clearly not changed in a very, very long time.

My food arrives, does not last long, and as I push back the plate, I deliberately meet one waitress’ eye for the first time. “That was absolutely delicious…” She smiles appreciatively, then broadly, also for the first time. I order and receive an impossibly weak coffee.

As I leave, both waitresses bid me goodbye, their smiles broadened, not solely by the 25% tip, I hope, but also by their pride in unsolicited appreciation. I wander back to the place I am staying, past the days-old vegetarian diner/deli, staffed by scatty hipster undergrads, decorated with a bathtub full of jelly beans, to streets whose decades-long view of Manhattan will within two years be a view broken by towers, whose residents will have exclusive access to the beauty beyond. I am momentarily overwhelmed.

So there it is: a perfectly preserved Victorian apartment (coveted by a woman who is concerned about the fall in the quality of data if media archival practices are influenced or overtaken by folksonomies) in a house owned by a formerly displaced person, who isn’t overly sentimental about the historic status of her district, but is dismayed at the change in the gentility of the culture around her (what Tony Blair would call the “respect agenda”), and by the prejudice shown by her countrymen towards non-whites, around the corner from a Polish restaurant that could be in 1960’s Katowice, walls covered with pictures of the owner with local celebrities, and with genuine waitresses serving coma-inducing food to a slowly shifting clientele, all living in peaceable post-prandial torpor, in NYC’s “latest hot neighbourhood“.

Until the OOZE finally bubbles up and engulfs us all, at least.


No comments yet»

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: