The Apartment: A Short Story

Ed. note: The characters and events in this story are fictional-as of now.

Diamond-bright, the late-November sun cut through the window without warming the room the least degree. Five stories down, the Greenwich Village street glittered in the waning light.

The radiator sputtered on, then off again. I could turn on the oven, Anita thought. But she only burrowed deeper into the afghan around her shoulders and hitched her chair closer to the drafty window. As her tiny mantle clock chimed the hour, she heard the skirl of bagpipes down the street, followed immediately by the four o’clock piper himself, turning the corner onto Barrow Street. He reached his spot in front of the music school, tossed his tam o’shanter to the ground at his feet and at the last chime struck up the strains of “Amazing Grace.” Giggling groups of students burst through the doors of the school, tossing quarters into the hat as they ran. Ambling teachers and parents placed dollar bills with more care.

Anita sat, bundled in the afghan, relishing the sight and sounds. Winter and summer, night and day, she had loved that Village view for-how long? Thirty-five years, she thought. Incredible. Thirty-five years last June. Of course-Danny had been five and a half, starting kindergarten in the fall, Rachel three and a half and eligible for day care. That was what had made it possible to move out of her mother’s house and get a place for just herself and the kids.

Finding the apartment had been such a coup. Even in 1962, there weren’t that many places in the Village renting at prices a secretary could afford but big enough for a woman and two kids. She had looked and looked. Anita had wanted Rachel to go to preschool at Greenwich House and Danny to P.S. 41 and to Greenwich House after school, and she had wanted-well, she had wanted the Village. She was thirty-two years old, and on her thirtieth birthday she had walked into her bedroom and found Larry the Loafer making love to the college girl next door instead of looking for a job. She had walked out on the spot and taken Danny and Rachel to her mother’s and then stayed, never really welcome, for two long years, because how could she pay someone to take care of the kids on a secretary’s salary and Larry’s rare-very rare-handouts? So when Rachel was old enough-and toilet-trained enough-for the high-quality day care Greenwich House provided for $5 a week, Anita had made a beeline for the Village, where she could maybe have some fun at last.

And then it had seemed it wouldn’t work, that there were no apartments in all Greenwich Village that she could possibly pay for, at least none that she could stand the thought of living in. Until she saw the ad in the Times that said, “Two BRs, walk-up, 1 blk from Sher. Sq., $90/mo., call after 6.” She had left the office at five, taxied down to Sheridan Square, gone into the cigar store and sat down in the phone booth-there were phone booths then, with doors and seats-and dialed the number. Then she propped the receiver on her shoulder and read a mystery-Agatha Christie, she still remembered-and let the phone ring for 45 minutes, so no one else could get through before she did. At six on the dot, a breathless voice said, “Hello?” and Anita said, all in one breath, “My name is Anita Morgan, and I want that apartment, I’m at Sheridan Square and I’m coming over right now, so don’t let anyone take it before I get there, what’s the address?”

Five minutes later, she had said, “I love it, I’ll take it,” even though the walk-up was five stories and the two bedrooms were closet-sized and anyway, she hardly knew how she would make $80 a week pay for food and clothes and doctors and $90 a month. But oh, she had loved that living room, with the white-painted exposed brick wall catching the afternoon sunlight that first day, just the way it was doing now

And she had managed. It had been fine. Anita had paid the $90 a month (which never went up because in those days rent-controlled meant rent-controlled). She cooked a lot of spaghetti, and on her vacations took Rachel and Danny to the Bronx Zoo and to the public swimming pool on Carmine Street-nobody traveled then, at least not if they had kids. She bought her clothes in thrift stores. Life in the Village had been fun, if not as romantic as she had expected it would be-who wanted a serious relationship with a woman with two kids always banging on the bedroom door? “Mommy, I can’t sleep,” “Mommy, Danny keeps making scary noises,” “Mommy, are we going to Daddy’s next weekend?”

Once in a blue moon the answer to the wistful question would be yes, Larry the Loafer would have a weekend free for his children. Anita would watch the three of them go off down Barrow Street, Rachel and Danny skipping for joy. She had never let the kids know how rarely he actually came up with a child-support check. Sometimes when they went to Larry’s, she would even have a real date.

But the more times Larry remarried, and the younger his wives got, the less interested he was in seeing his growing kids. And then Danny refused to sleep in the same room with Rachel, and Anita had moved into the living room. That was OK, she came to like falling asleep with the TV on.

Then, suddenly, they were grown, grown and gone, and she, Anita, was on her own, and even that was almost 20 years ago now. She had made a new life for herself, taken a course to become a legal secretary, gotten a better job at a medium-sized law firm and made friends there, a couple of whom even lived in the Village.

She moved back into the smaller bedroom, keeping the other one as a guest room for when Danny or Rachel needed to spend a night in Manhattan. They used it often at first, wistful for the Village neither of them could afford by then; it was the early ’80s, and rents were skyrocketing as building after building went co-op. Sometimes in those years she had thought she should turn the apartment over to one of them, especially after Rachel got divorced and was left with two kids almost exactly as Anita had been in 1962. Poor Rachel, she seemed so lonely out in Queens with Michael and Heather.

But it always came down to the same thing: If Anita gave up the apartment, where could she go that she could afford? The building went co-op in ’83, with a non-eviction plan; she stayed on, the still “controlled” rent rising yearly now, her salary just about keeping up with it. By the time she retired last year it had gone up to $570 a month, which she could manage-barely-on her Social Security and the small income from the law firm’s pension plan

Thirty-five years, Anita mused. The music, the children and the sun were gone, and the drafts coming through the cracks in the window frame were bitter. I should ask the super to fix it, she thought. Sure he will.

She got up from the chair, pulling the afghan with her, and went into the kitchen and lit the oven. By January, she reflected, residual heat in the building would keep the apartment warmer, but this was the first cold snap of November, and she was at the landlord’s mercy. She had never seen him. He was one of the former owners of the building who had bought her apartment when the building went co-op and who had been waiting all those years for her to leave so he could rent it at some crazy “market” rent. She had seen ads in the paper for other apartments in the building: “Two BRs in co-op bldg., walk-up, 1 blk from Sher. Sq., $1,900/mo., call broker at “

She put last night’s leftovers into the oven and wandered aimlessly back into the living room. A little heat crept in from the kitchen. Yes, she thought, it’ll be warmer here in January.

She wondered who would be there in January, and whether the landlord would send up more heat when she was gone and the new tenant was paying triple her rent.

Probably not. The new tenant would be gone during the day, as all the others are now-tenants, not tenant, she realized: Two of them at least, maybe three, all young, all working 60 hours a week to pay the “market” rent.

She bent and picked up the piece of paper that had dropped from her lap earlier. “TAKE NOTICE,” it said. “Your lease will expire-” and then, in ink on the line after “expire,” “December 31st, 1997.” The rest was a printed form, with some items scrawled in ink in blank spaces: “Under the Rent Regulation Reform Act of 1997, your apartment will revert to fair market rent upon the expiration of the lease, such fair market rent to be determined solely by the owner of the apartment.

“Your landlord has determined that the fair market rent for Apt. 5F is $2,000 per month. Accordingly, enclosed is a renewal lease form for a two-year term at the said rent of $2,000 per month. Please sign and return by Nov. 30, 1997, or vacate Apt. 5F by the said expiration date of Dec. 31, 1997.”

Anita stared at the notice, remembering last year’s headlines: “LANDLORDS PREDICT END OF RENT CONTROLS.” That can’t happen, she had thought, and had ignored the flyers from tenant groups urging renters to fight back.

Anita’s hand opened, and the paper floated back to the floor. After dinner, she thought. I’ll eat, then I’ll call Danny and tell him. Pulling the afghan close, she sat down at the window and looked out at the Village street she had loved for 35 years.

Former Tenant editor Judith Mahoney Pasternak has written poetry and fiction for Tikkun and the Guardian.