I was standing on the south side of East 77th Street near York Avenue. It was late June and my first night living in New York City. Everything I owned—two bags full of clothes and shoes, travel-sized toiletries, two towels, a disassembled table, a bed, one pot, a laptop computer, and important documents—was in a pile on the sidewalk.
I hadn’t wanted to live that far from the hospital. The broker—tan, fit, and preoccupied—glanced at my documents[1. Formal brokers in New York City commonly want two pay stubs, your most recent tax return, and proof that you have a bank account before renting you an apartment.] and said, “You can’t afford to live near the hospital. But you could live on the Upper East Side. You could take the 6 or the M15 to work.”
Rents increased the closer the apartments were to the subway. I couldn’t afford anything beyond 1st Avenue.
My apartment was a “cozy” studio on the first floor. It was in a red brick tenement, built around 1940, that was four stories tall. White, vertical metal bars adorned the inside of the single window. Jutting out underneath was a rumbling window air conditioner.
There was also a small window in the bathroom that opened to a small, dark enclosure that was littered with cigarette butts and dented soda cans. When that window was open, the aromas of cooking food, the shouts and cursing of people watching football games, and the moaning of men and women having sex often floated in.
The kitchen had a two-burner stove, a miniature oven, and a short fridge. The sink was metal and shallow. There was no room for a table.
The main living space was just large enough for a full-sized bed and a small desk. I got the desk from the man I was dating. It was an old table, constructed of particle board, that he was going to throw out. The tabletop was white and visibly sagging; it resembled a hammock on four rusting legs. I eventually got a small bookshelf. To get to the window, I had to squeeze myself between the bookshelf and the foot of the bed.
The apartment was probably around 250 square feet. Rent was $1550 a month.
Before I learned that the heating pipe in the corner would often clang as the radiator overheated my apartment all winter, that, in this neighborhood, black women often pushed baby carriages holding white infants, that people would fish from the East River before 6am, that lights in the Empire State Building could change color, that up to 1000 people would pour out of Penn Station every 90 seconds[2. “… Penn Station, which is the busiest station in North America, funnelling 600,000 passengers through just 21 tracks, sometimes at the rate of 1,000 people every 90 seconds.”], that my then boyfriend and I would eventually get married in Central Park, before all that–
–I stood on the sidewalk on East 77th Street and looked around. People ignored me and walked around my pile of stuff. Yellow taxis, black Lincoln town cars, and men on bicycles delivering food rolled along York Avenue. Only a few stars dotted the indigo-charcoal sky.
I had a place to live, a new job that would start in a few days, and at least a year to learn about and live in New York City.