Everyone has a “first place” story (except those of you who never moved out of your parents’ basement). My definition of a first place is that it’s where you were in charge of your fate and rent for the first time, rather than your school or your parents. I maintain that whether you loved or loathed your first place, you never forget it.
There is a special tribe of “first place” survivors, and it’s those who were bold enough to venture to New York City—often with nothing more than hope in their pockets. Some had lived on their own in other cities; some were going out on their own for the very first time in NYC. Some lived in their first NYC apartment for 3 months; some for 30 years. To capture these stories before they’re lost in time, I decided to start a little “story website” called MyFirstApartmentNYC.com, much like Kevin’s My Media Diary. To get it started, I tapped my friends for their memories, and got a wide variety of stories—some tossed off in 15 minutes, others labored over for days; some humorous, others rather poignant. And all featuring cockroaches (just kidding, sort of).
I invite you to stop by that site and enjoy some of the stories… and if you know anyone who had a first apartment in NYC please pass along the link to them. I hope to continue collecting people’s stories, for no other reason than pure nostalgia and entertainment.
Below is my first apartment NYC story—the short version and the more leisurely long version. My story doesn’t have the shivers of Debbie Harry’s (cab ride with Ted Bundy), nor the grit of fellow Michigander Madonna’s (violence on a rooftop), but it is my own lens on my first encounter with a unique city, and a fine reminder of how far away and long ago those days were.
- My first apartment was a (barely) renovated loft in the Triangle Below Canal Street—a group sublet in the summer of 1985. Even coming from D.C., I appreciated what a huge space it was.
- I shared the loft with four others. I slept on a mattress on the floor of a tiny bedroom. (At least it was my own room with a door!)
- Tribeca seemed very empty, like we were at the edge of the world. The World Trade Center was our main orientation point—if you were walking towards the towers, you were heading south.
- We had tons of visitors during our 3-month sublet—but I can’t even conceive of where everyone slept.
- It was a bit like living in a dusty construction zone, due to the neighbors’ constant renovation/upgrading of their apartments that summer.
In May 2014, I was at a social gathering with my friend Maia, a lawyer living in New York City, and she produced a big brochure out of her purse saying, “Laura, isn’t this where you lived in Tribeca?”
I held the brochure gingerly in my fingertips looking at the amazing buildings it depicted.
Could this have been where I lived? It looked so perfect and pristine.
I opened the brochure and gaped at the photos of the marble kitchens and the custom white-oak vanities in the master bathroom.
Then I nearly fell over when I saw the discreetly listed price: “Starting from $5,350,000.” Whaaaa?
Memories of the long-ago dusty Tribeca loft I had stayed in my first summer in New York City flooded my mind…. (~cue eerie time travel music~)
* * *
My 24-year-old cousin Julie, born in Michigan a month after me, knew I had always planned to live in NYC after college, but I’d only made it as far Washington, D.C. She had a job in New York and in late spring 1985, she invited me to move up from D.C.
“I’ve found a great place for the summer,” she said, “It’s huge. I’m looking for roommates. You should come.”
I was in. I soon gave my notice to my boring job in Alexandria and packed up my room in the house I shared with 3 women in Friendship Heights, D.C. My Connecticut–based Aunt Joanne helped me arrange to have my second-cousin George drive down in her shiny white landscaping truck to pick me up. Apparently George owed her a favor.
I’d never met George, a handsome young college grad who had recently moved up to New York from Florida, but was impressed by how he fast stuffed all my bags and boxes into the back of the truck, and we were soon headed on our way north, chatting away.
As we navigated the crowded Interstate 95 we eventually became aware that a huge semi truck was tailgating us. It went on for miles—at one point the truck even came alongside us but would not pass. We thought we could dimly see the driver shaking his fist at us. It unnervingly brought the Dennis Weaver/Spielberg classic film Duel to mind.
When a spooked George finally decided to shake the truck by exiting the highway to get gas, the truck followed us. We pulled up at a gas pump and sat frozen in fear as the trucker, his face hidden by his hat, got out of his truck and ambled over.
He gestured to George to roll down his window. He leaned in and said, “Folks, your tailgate’s down and you’ve been droppin’ stuff all over the highway. I ran over a dresser full of underthings back there. Been tryin’ to tell you for a while.”
I’ll never forget the look of utter chagrin on George’s face as he slowly swiveled his head from the trucker to me, clearly petrified at what I would now say or do. Scream? Cry? Faint?
But what could I do but laugh in disbelief?
We didn’t go back for my paltry belongings—how could we? They were littering I-95. In fact at this point, we could only hope that there had been no accidents and that no one had reported Aunt Joanne’s shiny white pickup as the culprit.
So I arrived in NYC a bit more unencumbered than planned, but still excited as a few hours later we made our way onto Manhattan through the Holland Tunnel. It was now dark out, and I peered at my scrap of paper with an address scribbled on it as we bumped over the Tribeca cobblestones. (I think of how many of my early-day NYC stories would be different if I’d had a smartphone with GPS.)
Finally, George pulled up in front of a loading dock with a dark building looming over it. My excitement turned to alarm. Wait. This is where I was going to live? It didn’t look like my cozy rental house in DC. It… it… looked like an abandoned warehouse!
I got out and climbed up on the raised metal loading dock to gingerly ring the buzzer of the dark door. And then rang it again. Suddenly a voice from up above yelled, “Watch out below!”
Confused, I stepped a little closer to the door. Thank god—because a flying missile whizzed by my head and clanged onto the metal dock.
A black sock loaded with keys.
I picked it up and fished around in the sock to find the key to unlock the gray metal door. The door led into an empty space with a huge industrial elevator. I stared at the intimidating door of this contraption, covered with levers and pulleys, and then stepped closer to it.
A sign on it read, “Out of service. Yeah, we called.”
Behind me, George said, “Sorry, Laura, but I have to get this truck back to Joanne in Connecticut. I don’t know how long that’s going to take, so I have to leave now.”
He helped me unload my suitcases and my precious new tennis racket from the back seat, and my few remaining boxes from the bed of the truck. We took my bedspread and spread it over the heap of stuff, hoping that tomorrow someone could help me carry all of it up the stairs—the huge loft we were subletting was on the third (or was it the fourth?) floor.
As George sped off into the night, I grabbed my overnight bag and climbed the building’s metal staircase up to my new home. It’s funny how selective memory is because I don’t remember much else about my arrival that night, which I take to be a good sign.
But the next morning (you probably guessed this part already) I went downstairs to find that much of the rest of my stuff, including my new tennis racket, was gone, stolen. They’d left the old bedspread.
This was the first of my many “Welcome to New York” moments. But no matter: I never did figure out where the tennis courts were in NYC anyway.
Imagine a big room with… well, imagine a big room
So what was it like living in that loft? Well, there weren’t any Sterling Mason “Gachot-designed marble kitchens,” “hand-laid herringbone tile floors,” or “Lefroy Brooks soaking tubs” to loll around in. It was mostly one huge, dusty, open space.
The front of the loft had four tall windows (a very nice feature that I didn’t appreciate, not being from NYC) which provided afternoon light and some breezes on cooler days.
The elevator opened directly into one side of the room; the stairway entry was across from it on the other. In the back near the bathroom were two tiny bedrooms. These rooms each had plasterboard walls and a door, but there were no dressers, so you kept your stuff in boxes or a suitcase.
Most notable was the fact that the beds were mere mattresses on the floor (I guess we were supposed to bring bedframes), which put you in close communion with all the bugs walking through the place.
In a word, it was “cool.”
The dust—which gave a romantic, hazy look to the afternoon light which streamed into the loft—and the bugs were soon explained. The loft was owned by a husband-and-wife artist team who had gone to the country for the summer. I never met them, but now I realize they were homesteaders, basically, who had gotten possession of this loft but hadn’t done all that much to it yet. (Or maybe they had—it did have a kitchen area, bathoom and bedrooms, didn’t it?) The fact that they blithely sublet it to a bunch of recent college grads and their bevy of friends for the summer is a sign of both the times and the condition of the place.
But while these loft owners apparently hadn’t done all that much to their place yet, the neighbors were getting busy that summer. The high-pitched screams of saws and low thunks of sledgehammers resonated throughout the building all summer long. Whatever machine it is that sands and carves through brick walls and concrete columns—that was the sound that came to haunt my dreams.
All of this neighborly disturbance caused everpresent drifts of red dust in OUR loft. We were constantly trying to wipe up the dust, but it was a hopeless endeavor.
And while many of the other lofts were unoccupied because they were being worked on, we were cooking and living in our loft, which was tantamount to hanging a “C’mon in” sign for all the neighboring bugs.
By the time I arrived, Julie and her previous roommate, also named Julie (I’ll call her Julie 2) had moved into the loft—but not really. Both of them had uptown jobs and boyfriends and soon found that Tribeca was a bit out of the way and sketchy for daily commuting. Also it turns out that it gets pretty hot in Tribeca in July and August. The boyfriends’ apartments had privacy and AC. So, no contest: Where would you have stayed?
But because they weren’t going to be there that much, the Julies chose to sleep in the huge open sleeping platform near the front windows of the loft. It was arguably the coolest choice (in both meaning of the words), but I was grateful to get one of the bedrooms. I slept on the floor, but at least I had the proverbial room of my own with a DOOR. A lockless door, but still.
Julie needed still more roommates to cover the rent, so somehow in those pre-Craigslist days, she found the Houlihan brothers, two nice young New Jersey guys working summer jobs in the city during the week and looking for a crash pad. We didn’t know them from Adam, but they came with cash in hand.
They moved in with a nice set of dishes and a bunch of old furniture from their parents’ house. I remember the dressers especially, because when the brothers quickly took off at the end of the summer, they left behind those small, 1950s wooden dressers and someone had to take them.
Possessionless Laura quickly took possession. These cheap dressers made every subsequent move with me over the next three decades, eventually being painted and re-hardwared by me, because, what can I say—I had a sentimental attachment to them. Plus I’m cheap.
Thanks, Mrs. Houlihan.
“Fish and visitors smell after three days.” —Ben Franklin
So it was the Kelly cousins, the Houlihan brothers, and Julie2 hanging out in Tribeca together for the summer of 1985. Except when the Julies were off with their guys, and then it was just me and the Houlihan brothers. I began to eye my lockless bedroom door a bit nervously and fashioned a belt contraption to keep the flimsy door closed. It kept out uninterested boys but didn’t stop the bugs.
I quickly found out that the best thing about moving to New York and living in a giant loft was that everyone we knew wanted to come visit. (Everyone under age 25 that is. I don’t think a “grown-up” ever set foot in our place.)
Many pre-married-days friends from college came visiting. The Houlihans’ friends checked us out. My three siblings drove over from Michigan for a visit, as did Julie2’s wild younger brothers. Friends crashed there after a night out. I have no memory of where everyone slept or how we all made do with one tiny bathroom. I do remember one friend saying flatly, “Well, I could never live here.”
But most of that summer’s visitors absolutely loved it, deeming it, yes, “Cool!”
New York, even in the grotty mid-80s, pre-clean-up, was a wonderful playground, and we raced up and down the island in taxis and subways as we found every free happy hour we could, went dancing at Area, Cafeteria, Limelight, the Tunnel, and Palladium. Loved looking for bargains at all the Soho and lower East Side flea markets.
And in the neighborhood, we enjoyed Cajun-flavored sunsets over the Hudson River at the open-air How’s Bayou and late night burgers at the Odeon.
Because we had the space, we hosted dinners, with friends of friends stopping over. I see from my photo here that we actually set out placemats. How civilized.
Tribeca seemed pretty empty back then, especially in the summertime when people got the hell out of the city. It wasn’t until I moved to my next apartment up in Yorkville that I appreciated how quiet, sunny, and wide-open Tribeca felt.
We were one block away from the Hudson River, which we took for granted in those pre-Manhattan Waterfront Greenway days. My main river memory is making sure I stayed away from all the strange people who hung out on the dilapidated old piers.
I don’t remember any special clothing stores or restaurants in Tribeca then, as there are now. There was only one big grocery store; I have no memory of where I did my laundry (perhaps the loft, thus giving me a never-again-attained laundry situation in NYC).
One big change for certain—we used to use the World Trade twin towers as an orientation point—if you were walking towards them, you were headed south. They dominated the skyscape of Tribeca and made me feel like a real New Yorker every time I walked out the loft door. I guess people use the shiny new Freedom Tower for that purpose now—if they remember to look up from their smartphone GPS.
And there certainly was NOT a cute little cafe or spa directly across the street from the address, as there is now per this Google Earth photo taken last August. In 1985, it was just more really old, dingy apartments that I never really glanced at (actually it looks like they’re still there).
How the loft almost killed my job prospects
In case you’re wondering how I was paying my rent in Tribeca, it was with great difficulty.
I had left D.C. with endless student loans and no savings. My kind and generous Aunt Joanne had loaned me $1,000 to keep me going for the summer, which seemed like such an enormous amount of money that I’d never be able to pay back. But it was evaporating quickly. I needed a job.
In my one remaining suitcase, I had two summer suits. (Remember when young women—even liberal arts grads—had to wear suits to work?) I hung them carefully on the wall of my tiny bedroom (there was 2 hooks), dusting off the red brick dust periodically, in the hopes I could get some interviews.
I remember taking typing tests at Lynne Palmer, the midtown job placement way station that all young, female English majors eventually washed up in. I was a good speller but a terrible typist, especially when they forbade the use of that handy white correction tape. But apparently my test was good enough to get some interviews, including one for an “assistant” position in one of the public relations divisions at CBS.
When I returned downtown to the loft from that CBS interview at Black Rock, the people at Lynne Palmer called and told me to expect a follow-up call from the hiring manager at CBS.
I lurked around my steamy-hot loft in my droopy summer suit and tennis shoes, waiting for the call, crossing my fingers that I would get a job offer if I answered the final set of questions properly.
Note that there were no cellphones in those days. The loft had one (1) beige rotary phone attached to a big column in the middle of the open space.
Normally doing an interview in the middle of the day in the loft wouldn’t have been a problem—everyone else was at work. But on this day, Julie2’s younger brother and friends were visiting from Michigan, and since it was drizzling out, they had decided to practice their skateboarding in the loft, getting up quite a head of steam as they careered from one end of the big space to the other. They were loud and rowdy and there was no way to get them to stop.
When the phone finally rang, I grabbed it and, stretching the cord as far as I could, I entered a nearby small closet for privacy.
I stood there in the dark next to a broom and mop and tried to sound “professional” while my prospective boss asked me a few more pro forma questions. Then just as she said, “Okay, Laura, I would like to offer you—” the phone went flying out of my hands.
One of Julie2’s brothers had skated blithely through the stretched phone cord, yanking it out of the closet and across the room. I scrambled across the floor in my skirt trying to reel back in the phone while not getting mowed down by a boy on a skateboard.
I finally made it back to my closet bunker, breathless, and said into the phone, “I’m sorry, can you repeat what you just said?”
“What’s going on there?” she asked with concern.
I thought back to what she must have heard—the phone skittering across the floor. Me yelling, “You have to STOP.” Boys laughing. My heavy breathing.
“Oh, nothing,” I said.
“But what’s all that noise?”
“Uhhhh. We’re having some work done.” Stupid. How could this woman think for a second that her poor new secretary (she knew how little she was paying me) would be having “work done” on an apartment?? But I couldn’t begin to explain that I was standing in a dark closet in a steaming hot, dusty sublet loft while a small gang of boys were skateboarding around the dining room table.
My prospective boss was a busy woman and decided it was all none of her business. She made me the job offer, and I started the next Monday.
My foothold in NYC, it seemed, was now secure. I was going to have a job. A measly one that I in no way wanted to do nor was qualified to do (dictation? what’s that?), but hey, a paycheck is a paycheck.
Yeah, sure, I read Triburbia but didn’t REALLY get how Tribeca had changed
It was at that first job at CBS that I met my friend Maia, the one who had received that super-fancy brochure for “The Sterling Mason • Tribeca” in the mail that sent me down memory lane.
Maia is one of few good friends who stayed in the city all these years. But she didn’t get the kind of job where she could buy a place til much later on—so it was now the bane of her life to receive glossy brochures for addresses that she could have bought back in the day if she were only making what she makes now. But that’s Maia’s First Apartment story to tell, not mine.
I brought the brochure home with me, and that night went to the building’s slick website.
I couldn’t quite remember the address of the loft I’d stayed in for 3 months, nor really what it looked like. But it could NOT have transformed into this sleek version of loft heaven, could it have?
So I dove deep into a box and dragged out my old photo albums (another thing that’s disappeared since smartphones). The magnetic pages have long since stop sticking but the photos were there.
I didn’t have many from that summer, but I did have a key one. A distant shot of me sitting on that metal loading dock in front of the door to the building. I scanned in the photo at the highest dots per inch and blew it up, and lo and behold, the number ‘467’ was crystal clear on the door.
And suddenly I recalled the full address: 467 Greenwich St. Not the same place as the Sterling Mason over on Laight St., but I figured it was doubtless just as fixed up now. I was curious to find out.
I now live in a suburb an hour north of NYC. My husband and I drive in quite a bit for restaurants or shows, but somehow we never find ourselves downtown. On a beautiful Sunday in July, however, we decided to spend the day riding Citibikes around the island, and we made a point of cruising by the old loft so I could see it again and take a picture.
I had forgotten how close we had lived to the beautiful river—now a parkland paradise with the Greenway running path, Chelsea Piers, and gorgeous Battery City Park. How close that loft had been to Canal Street, Chinatown, and the Holland Tunnel! And only a block from the subway—how spoiled was I? I had had no idea at the time.
Tribeca looks amazing these days—clean, beautiful, full of great restaurants, big and small, and lots of nice shops. Tons of construction still going on, although it looked to me like they’d already upgraded nearly every inch of the neighborhood already.
Here, I wrote a bit more about this visit, and how we ran into actor Edward Norton right in front of my old building (he might even live there). Yes, things have definitely changed since black socks full of keys were hurled out windows.
So that’s my first-apartment-in-NYC story
My next apartments were full of stories, too (like the place where the building’s hot-water boiler died for a week in frigid February; when I tried to wash my hair in the bathroom sink the water froze on my head, making crackly sounds). But nothing beats my memories of my first apartment in NYC.
If you got this far in my story, I’d say you’re interested in First Apartment stories, so please stop by http://MyFirstApartmentNYC.com to read more OR share your first apartment NYC story. (Don’t worry—you don’t have to go the TMI route, like I did. Just some short sketches will do.)