Lea Wait, here. The first time I was in Greenwich Village I was 12, and a classmate’s mother had invited me to join her family and see a play in New York City. My mother agreed, not thinking to ask any details. After all, going to the theatre was a wonderful experience! I’m sure she was envisioning the lights of Broadway.
The play was the Mikado (which I’d never heard of) and the theatre , on Bleecker Street in the heart of Greenwich Village, had a leaky roof, and only space for perhaps fifty (folding) seats. My hostess, an artist whose home I knew (but my mother did not) was filled with little furniture and larger-than-life sized paper-mache figures, insisted that we go back stage to meet the actors and actresses after the play.
I remember glancing at my watch and realizing it was ALMOST MIDNIGHT. My family went to sleep long before that. My mother would be worried. But my hostess laughed that thought off as she led us through a succession of galleries and other stores that were still open. “You should enjoy yourself! This is the New York for artists and writers.” She then bought slices of pizza for her daughter and me (pizza? what was that?) and proceeded to dance ahead of us down the middle of Bleecker Street, eating her own slice.
I fell in love. I was going to be a writer. This was where I was going to live some day.
And I did. In all, I lived in the Village for almost ten years. My college roommate and I lived in a converted loft building on Bank Street for less than a year before she left NYC for graduate school in Connecticut. I couldn’t stay there after she left. I couldn’t afford the rent on my own.
But a friend from work lived a few blocks away, on Grove Street. “Someone upstairs was just evicted,” he told me in confidence. “It’s rent controlled. I know the owners. Shall I tell them you’ll take it?”
I didn’t hesitate. I signed the lease the next day, without seeing the apartment. What did I need to see? It was a nice building, in a good neighborhood, and, most important, it was only $59 a month.
The first time I had the key in my hand it was evening. I walked in, with my friend, found the ceiling light fixture, and turned it on. We were standing in the kitchen. Graffiti was spray painted over all the walls (and ceilings,) the one kitchen cabinet was falling off the wall, the kitchen sink was a rusty set tub, the tin shower next to it was leaking, and roaches covered the walls and fell off the ceiling onto our heads and shoulders.
I remember thinking, “So, it needs some work.”
I spent every evening and weekend for over two months working on that apartment. Alone. Sometimes in the nude, when it was hot and I was scrubbing or painting. I covered the living room (big enough so a foldout couch would almost hit the non-working fireplace on the opposite wall) with heavy wallpaper that would cover the red obscenities on the wall. I tore out the cabinet (the wood was rotten), and replaced it with a high bureau topped with a small kitchen cabinet. I put new cement around the “step-up” shower. I bought two unfinished wardrobes for closets. (Did I mention there were no closets? Once there had been one, but it now contained a toilet.) I painted some walls and ceilings five or six times, trying to cover what was underneath.
When I was finally ready to move in, I carried as much as I could the six or eight blocks from my old apartment — boxes of books and kitchen supplies — and then friends from work borrowed a truck from an exhibit house our company used, loaded my couch, single bed, mahogany sideboard, 19th century pump organ, chairs, tables,lamps and bookcases, and drove them to Grove Street and carried them up to my second floor walk-up in the back.
In “my first apartment” style, I decorated my new home in black and white with touches of red.
I loved that apartment, although I never fully got rid of the roaches. I lived there alone for three years, and then with my (first) husband another three years. I worked in the Wall Street area during the day and worked on graduate degrees at New York University at night. Often I walked the 30-40 minutes between those places, to save the twenty cent subway fare. I wrote awful poetry and short stories, haunted second-hand bookstores, and sometime bought slices of pizza to eat on the street.
A fire ended my tenancy on Grove Street. After that I lived, alone again, on Christopher Street for two years.
I loved living in the Village. It was where my adult life began. I hosted parties, cried, laughed, taught myself to cook, learned to drink, had friends and lovers, and made many of the decisions that defined the rest of my life. When I missed Maine too much I’d ride back and forth on the Staten Island ferry, much as Edna St. Vincent Millay (who had lived about half a block from my home) had done.
I was young. I had my life ahead of me. My dreams were vivid.
Some days, and night, I still miss those New York days, despite loving Maine. To every age, there is a season. And a place. When I was in my twenties, my place was Greenwich Village. After all: I was a writer.