*The NYC Subway, 1983, and when I moved there in the fall of 1981, coming up the stairs from the trains underground, I had no idea which way was north, or south, or east, or west, a perfect metaphor for where I was in life as a whole… 

The first place I lived in New York City was 31 East 1st St., apt. C or D., I think, not sure. It was a small studio on the back of the first floor, with room enough for a single bed, a chair, a nightstand, a small bookcase, and a lamp, and that’s about it. The galley kitchen fit one uncomfortably, and the bathroom felt like the biggest room in the place, if only because it was full-size. The building’s super and his wife lived in the basement; they were very young, not much older than I was at 22, and they were both addicted to heroin. She was pregnant, and I remember they were from Connecticut. Weird what sticks in the mind. 

I moved in on Halloween and whoever thought that was a good idea, I don’t know, because it wasn’t. There were gun shots and screaming outside all night, and I was as alone as I had ever been, at the start of a long journey on All Soul’s Eve, or whatever, a journey of twenty-one years, one month and 24 days, as I moved out of the city on Christmas Eve. My dad took the day off to bring me into the city, dropping me at the front door of my new home, where he told me not to go out, ever, after 5p.m. I did that for a week, but then realized if I followed his instructions, when and how would I ever have dinner out, see a movie, or a show? I hated to ignore his advice, but he had treated the entire endeavor like a trip into the unexplored jungles of the Amazon. Plus, I was brave, wasn’t I? And resolute. Resolute in my choice, no matter what, like a lot of young, dumb things.     

East 1st St. just off Second Avenue. The landlords were in their thirties, and new to the business; it was their first building. I paid something just under $300 per month in rent, and after about three weeks in the city, I got a job working the counter at a place called Big Nick’s, a Greek diner, on 25th and 2nd. Big Nick’s Two, that is; Big Nick’s the original was on Broadway in the 70s, the west 70s, wherever that was. Eventually I’d be ‘promoted’ to wait tables at Number Two, leaving after about a year, maybe more, when I decided I’d had enough, enough harassment from busboys and cooks, customers, and cops on the beat stopping by for coffee and chats I didn’t know how to avoid, trapped behind the counter. There had to be something better? 

I had also been cast in an off-off Broadway play, Claire Booth Luce’s The Women, in the role of Mary Haines, an upper east side socialite and wife, or do I mean wife and socialite? I was twenty-three by then. The girl who played my daughter in the show, ‘Little Mary’, was seventeen, a harbinger of things to come, including my leaving the business because I was sick of playing women who had nothing in common with me, especially in student and indy films, male fantasies almost all. Spare me. 

My landlords, the newbies, didn’t have established credit, kept letting their bills lapse, including for heating oil, changing fuel delivery companies trying to keep the place juiced and warm. They failed more often than not. That winter was brutal, 1981 into 1982. The pipes burst in the studio above mine, destroying my kitchen ceiling, and I spent the nights, and my days off, under multiple blankets, with the stove on occasionally, when I dared, for a little heat. I must’ve bought a space heater, but if I did, it wasn’t much good. Not being able to take a hot shower, smelling like grease and coffee grounds, was almost as bad as freezing my ass off. I didn’t know anyone else in the city to ask the favor of a quick, borrowed shower. 

Upstairs there was a neighborhood guy, a real New Yorker, who was in his thirties or forties, but I’d discovered he couldn’t read. I offered to teach him, because how could anyone not read? Reading was my savior, my life, and buying whatever books I wanted after seventeen straight years of schooling was pure joy, and one of a very few indulgences I allowed myself. But, he took it as a come on, which it definitely was not. Finally, I had to tell him it was no good, he’d have to learn somewhere else, and that I was sorry. He was angry and, along with the freezing cold and unrepaired ceiling in my kitchen, his open hostility became another reason I started looking for a new place to live.

A gay man I quite liked lived next door. He was black and I think he might’ve been a drag show performer. Once, one of his boyfriends beat him horribly, and robbed him, even letting an accomplice in the back window to assist in the theft. I only found out about this months later, when he showed up after being away for an age in hospital, mending. It was not a great neighborhood then, although the grittiness of it appealed to me, and the history. I found out one night that the reason why the big trucks idled on Houston and 2nd was that it was a hot spot for street walkers. A cabbie pointed this out to me and we watched, the meter off, as a young woman in heels and a mini-skirt climbed into one of the cabs of a Mack truck to do whatever it was she did. What an education. I’d lived there almost a year by then and hadn’t noticed a thing except for the constantly idling trucks, which bothered me because pollution, hello! He told me this because when I’d said the address I needed taking to, he’d actually thought I was heading down there, to East 1st Street and 2nd Avenue, to ply ‘my trade’. After taking a closer look, I think he determined that I looked too healthy for that or something, so he told me about what he’d thought, at first, about me, and then about the prostitutes and the truckers.     

One of my fellow waitresses at Big Nick’s 2 was also addicted to heroin. Lulu. She was incredibly kind to me, showing me around mid-town and the upper west side, helping me orient myself, but I couldn’t reconcile her obvious intelligence, humor, and energy with the fact of her addiction. She was also pregnant. It all scared and unnerved me. She scared me, finally, the intensity of her need for money to support her habit, and her boyfriend’s. He was an artist – they both had been, once. But it wasn’t any of my business. I think the manager was giving her extra money, more shifts, because he liked her, and felt sorry for the coming child. We once laughed together at holograms of ourselves in a window on the east side. 1982. She was fired, ultimately, for stealing, and showing up late, or not showing up at all. I wonder if she ever got clean, and if the baby was okay. 

I finally moved out, finding another cheap apartment in another lousy neighborhood, but this time a two bedroom, on the fifth floor of a 6th floor walk-up, for $400 a month. The landlord preferred me and my fake boyfriend (‘we’re engaged, and getting married this fall back upstate!’), an actual friend of my little sister, to a young female attorney with a real job, a New York native who was black. He chose us even though the pseudo-engagement was just the start of our falsehoods and exaggerations, but he didn’t check our references, or follow-up on the info on our application. I saw the attorney realize she wasn’t going to get the apartment the moment we stepped in the room, white privilege in action. Hopefully she did better elsewhere, as the building was perennially unsafe, heat in winter again spotty, and maintenance non-existent. The street-front door didn’t have a functioning lock for years, and crack addicts, among others, let themselves in to smoke under the stairwell. There was no super, so trash piled up until the smell was unbearable, especially in summer. Still, I lived there for nine years; the cheap rent was a trap, impossible to give up, until again, there had to be something better than this? 

That first year in NYC in the east village was during the days of letter-writing, handwritten letters. I saved all of mine from childhood forward – all of them – until the summer after I left my second New York home, that cheap two bedroom, because moving a heavy trunk of letters and old journals three times in one year convinced me lighten up. Maybe I would laugh now, re-reading them, the old letters and journals, but the hot summer I shredded them all, 1990, all I felt was relief in letting go of a past that was literally weighing me down. There had to be something better, right?