by Bethany Ball
A few months after I arrived in New York City, I was homeless.
My friend Joe, who I’d rented a room from, hadn’t paid the rent on his sublet and the locks had been changed. Joe, en route to Chicago, wasn’t too concerned. I was frantic.
A friend tipped me off to a building—a nearly burned out structure on the desolate block of 109th and Amsterdam—that a woman from Calcutta had just inherited from her uncle. When I first met Elizabeth, she was on her hands and knees in a simple colorful sari, hand-sanding the floor of one of the apartments. She wore a mask over her face, which she did not remove. When she stood up she came to my waist. Elizabeth was kind enough to let me live in one of the unrenovated apartments, until a renovated one opened up. The problem was the renovations never got done. The apartment had three large bedrooms, kitchen and a large living room with a fireplace. But it was all rubble, dust and debris and, it appeared after months of ‘repairs’, it would never be anything else. Elizabeth hired drug addicts and crooks. They tore down windows without reason, cut pipes, smashed tiles and pulled down the drywall. They put wood studs in the middle of living spaces for rooms they never finished. Keys to my apartment, furnished by Elizabeth, allowed them to enter my apartment whenever they pleased and I would often return home to find things left behind; a sweat jacket, a pair of jeans, that day’s New York Post.
I lived in the one room that locked. I covered holes in the wall with a photograph of my great grandfather with his violin. A water-damaged print of the Virgin and Child covered up another. The rest of the apartment was filled with bric-a-brac, bug-eyed Keane figurines, clothing and furniture, piled floor to ceiling in the other two rooms.
In order to save money, I lived off fruit and Cafe Bustello gobbled down in the grimy kitchen, its floor covered with broken tile, rubble and dirt. To flush the toilet, I had to fill a bucket full of hot water and slosh it into the basin. To shower, I took out a membership at the West Side Y, as the bathtub had a large hole in the ceiling above it, where nesting pigeons deposited their feathers and filth.
All this I did—for what? For adventure and a toehold in a city I hoped would eventually embrace me - if I could just hang on long enough. Besides, there was nothing to go back to. No friends close enough, no other cities or states calling me. Not Santa Fe, where my ex-boyfriend was—the one I thought I would marry, the one I’d blown off graduate school for, the one I’d moved to Santa Fe for. I’d left him in Santa Fe, the way one leaves old china, books and CDs.
My parents came to New York to visit me, but I didn’t expect any help. When I’d phoned my mother to tell her I’d lost the apartment, she told me, “I’ll send you a ticket home, but I won’t send you money.” Still, she arrived ready to help, buying cheap lace curtains for my bedroom and sheets to cover the rest of the walls.
She sat, later, on the dirty couch in the living room looking stricken. “Well,” she told me. “I’m glad you’re able to live with so little.” She was horrified for me, yet at the same time, proud. She had her own story of exile, coming from Southern Baptists in Tennessee to Detroit where she hung out in civil rights circles and watched the riots from her boyfriend’s high-rise. She had taught in the inner city for nearly thirty years before she retired. And, in a way, I shared her pride.
The strange truth was, my Spartan, solitary life suited me. It was like a song in my heart I’d only just discovered. It was a song I sung to no one. I had no friends in New York, since Joe left, and I was embarrassed that my life was in any way acceptable to me. That which had come to be familiar to me, would never be adequate to anyone else I knew.
In publishing, I made meager slave wages, yet I was lucky to have the job, to work in a house where Salman Rushdie and Tom Wolfe were published. Still, everyone around me, it seemed, had duplexes in Soho and fiancés ensconced in Upper West Side doorman buildings. My apartment squat on 109th Street was my secret, no one visited me, and no one, except my parents, knew I was there.
As a child, my teacher mother and I had spent entire summers traveling around America camping out of a tiny Chevette. We slept in two small backpacking tents, one for each of us. From the point of view of that lonely little tent in state campgrounds in Vermont, Ottawa, Colorado, and the lonely desolate places in between, the apartment on 109th was luxurious. The heat came on, and I never woke up in the midst of a terrifying rainstorm with wet feet.
I thought of my little room, with its sheets on the walls, tiny narrow cot and worn belongings, as a nomad’s tent. The wider world brought in on a tiny black-and-white television through a snowstorm of flickering images and static. At night, I would imagine I was in a Bedouin’s tent, in the middle of the Sinai. With the window open I could see a sliver of sky. Sharing the airshaft was a building full of music students from Juilliard and nearby Columbia, and I could hear the plaintive flutes, the struggling horns and the soaring violins of the students, practicing their craft. I would eat my little plastic container of cut fruit from the corner deli, drink my hot mug of Cafe Bustello and listen to Jimi Hendrix. I felt safe, contained, and completely self-sufficient.
I knew most would see my situation as desperate, pathetic even, and in moments of self-pity, I agreed with them. But there were other moments, when I felt brave and defiant, proud that I didn’t need what other people felt was essential. I never felt unsafe. I’d grown up outside Detroit and knew that the neighborhood, despite appearances, was a family one. It was full of Dominicans whose children I would step around on the way to the subway and whose flags hung from wires over the street.
They say the only certainty in this world is uncertainty. This was never so true for me then the day I arrived ‘home’, to find the walls of my cocoon had been torn down, my locked door removed and my things neatly laid out on the floor. My heart sank. My safe nest was gone.
It was time to go.
Bethany Ball lives in Nyack, New York with her husband, two children, puppy and pregnant siamese cat.