“When the elevator doors open there is only one other person inside it, a homeless man with electric blue sunglasses and six plastic grocery bags filled with rags. “Close the doors, dammit,” he yells as soon as we step inside. “Can’t you see I’m blind?”
From the back, the homeless man shoves between us, his bounty rustling in his arms. “Stop yelling,” he shouts. though we stand in utter silence. “Can’t you tell that I’m deaf?”
― Jodi Picoult, My Sister’s Keeper
“Well, are you ready to call it a night?”
“Do you want to go to an after hours bar or something?”
“I’ve never been to where you live. Can we go to your place?”
“I still live with my parents, you know that. Their apartment is tiny, I sleep on a futon in my mother’s sewing room. I’ve never been to where you live either. You live alone. We have to go there.”
“But my apartment is… really small.”
“Is it clean?”
“Of course. But…”
“It’s big enough then.”
I had always wanted to live in the center of the city… on the island itself. I was tired of feeling like an outsider, a tourist. But rents were so high and I never had and will never have any money. For a year I rode that interminable train ride, rocking elbow to elbow with the other strap-hangers. I would look through the rental listings, hoping, hoping. Finally….
Walking to meet my new prospective landlord past the block after block of tents filling the sidewalk, most a bilious purple-orange color. The government has spent untold millions on buying thousands of tents to “solve” the homeless problem and distributed them – surprised when they were snapped up and the population living on the streets blossomed even more. I looked at the rows of nylon and filth and wondered if I could do that. I have camped a lot over my life but never on a sidewalk beneath the glass canyons of downtown. A lot of valuable parking was taken up by bathroom trailers provided by the city that had necessities and showers, but still….
The address on the listing was a huge hulking brick building. It looked like an ancient factory, divided up into a filing cabinet of tiny living spaces. There were very few windows and only one door. I was repelled at first, but realized that a place at this affordable price was not going to be in a new shiny glass tower with a grid of balconies repeating up into the sky. This was my dream, but it was going to be modified by the real world.
“You are right,” the rental agent said, “this used to be a factory. I have no idea what they made here, but whatever it was, it was huge, as you will see.”
We walked through a maze of sheetrock walls, obviously thrown up to divide some massive assembly room into a warren of rented cubicles. We arrived at a wall that was taken up by a giant steel vertical door with a peeling number “1” stenciled onto it. Of to one side was a single simple round button with an upward facing arrow. The rental agent pushed this. There was a heavy shuddering and a low loud metallic groan. After a minute of this the door slowly raised up, revealing a shallow space delineated off by a translucent plastic divider. In the middle was an ordinary door, with a peephole. It was labeled 1-12 A.
“Well this is it,” the rental agent said. She took out a key and unlocked the door.
“I don’t understand.”
“Like I said, the factory made huge, giant, heavy, something-or-others. They moved them up or down on this gigantic freight elevator. Other than the stairs, it’s the only way to reach the upper floors in this part of the building. Since it was now being used for pedestrians most of the elevator was wasted space. We built this partition and were able to rent out the area behind it. Come on in, take a look.”
“The walls are metal mesh?”
“The back and side walls, yes. But beyond them are only concrete. There is actually a kind of window in back between every two floors. It lets in a nice light as you go past.”
“Of course it does. All the other residents us it to get up and down. But there is the partition and a locked door.”
“The partition doesn’t look all that opaque.”
“Oh, there’s enough for privacy. And you can make as much noise as you want. You can play music. Folks on an elevator don’t care about that.”
“I see the stove and ‘fridge. But no sink. And no bathroom.”
“On eleven you have access to an old janitor’s closet. A big sink, and we put in a shower and toilet. It’s yours. Your door key fits. Just go up to eleven, get off, down the hall, one left, then a right. I’ll show you.”
“I don’t know if I can live in a place like this. It goes up and down. People at the front all the time. It’s crazy.”
“It’s the only place I can afford.”
“I’ve heard that before.”
Well, it turns out she loved my apartment. She liked the feeling of going up and down so much that, late at night, when the other people were all home asleep she’d go out the front door and push all the buttons. That would keep my place moving for a while. She loved watching the concrete walls slowly shift up and down.
She crawled out of the hatch on top and put plants on the window sills so she could watch those go by. She bought a watering can with a long spout so she could drip water through the mesh into her plants as we moved past them.
The only problem is that she likes to make a lot of noise in bed when she think people are in the elevator up front. She rearranged the lamps so that we sometimes throw obscene shadows on the translucent wall. It bothers me a little but nobody’s complained yet.
As a matter of fact I think she likes this tiny apartment more than me. If we broke up, I’m afraid she would throw me out.
And I’ll never find another place I can afford.