A Lease In New York City
For 50 years my father sat in the same worn-out chair in a very lived-in apartment on the northern edge of Times Square. The place is warm, redolent of some masala of unknown spices. The iron radiators gargle and hiss. Books line every wall and are piled on every surface. But it is an ironic sort of home—surrounded by constant construction as well as most of the major Manhattan hotels, peered at by knots of tourists and surviving only through rent regulation.
It is a home amid a flux, full of thousands of books, of dust settled through the decades, and lived in through a mixture of choice and necessity. Yet it is a home not owned by my father—there has never been a possibility to own it—even though it symbolizes not only my father’s life, but my relationship to him.
This is my apartment that my father passed away in recently, the place where he wants his ashes tucked somewhere, where all his four children were brought back after birth. It’s always been a welcoming place where drink, talk, and song could go deep into the night with anybody that dropped by.
When he moved in, there were Ls running above Sixth and Ninth Avenues, a warehouse where the midtown Sheraton is, a greasy spoon downstairs, and you could roll up the car and park outside the front door. Myth has it at one point, many of the apartments lodged brothels run by a famous N.Y. “whoremonger,” as my dad referred to her. Now the building is a bit dilapidated, “third class” (dad again), and the doorman long gone (if there ever was one). Visitors from the world-over pass by the front door and dine at the touristy seafood restaurant on the ground floor. The building and its inhabitants are part of the vision of those visiting New York and they would sometimes see my dad and me, arm in arm, as I slowly led him to the barber on 57th street to get a shave.
I can say this apartment is also a special place—not by virtue of design or interior decoration, not by some special designation by the New York Historical Society (though I will fill out an application)—but because of its literary reputation and reverberation.
James Baldwin crashed there in the ’50s-–around the time my dad helped him get Go Tell It On the Mountain a publisher. Baldwin stayed there for a few weeks while my dad was away, and, to the dismay of the neighbors, had raucous parties. The underground cartoonist Robert Crumb stopped in many times, doodled here and there, and ended up taking a long bath once. Vonnegut, Styron, Capote, and Roth all used to hang out, and once Ginsberg and Corso raided the icebox and chomped down a coveted batch of ox-tail stew.
Anthony Burgess one night sat at the greasy kitchen table I know so well and talked about how he had gone to write a novel in Malaysia because he had a brain tumor and one year to live—the tumor was a false alarm but he wrote A Clockwork Orange and went on to success back in the UK. Then there were the Irish: Tom Flannigan, the poets Derek Mahon and Brendan Kennelly, and, of course, “Famous Seamus” who said, “It’s not just the Cole House, it’s the Cole Institution.”
It was the house of many literary parties, especially so when my mother, who ran the Poetry Center at the 92nd Street Y, lived there for a time. Such events were legendary, indeed. As Dan Wakefield sums it up in New York in the Fifties, “There were always writers you knew or wanted to know, and the booze ran freely and the talk was always funny, sharp, knowing, dealing with what we cared about most—books, magazines, and stories, the words and the people who wrote them…Nobody talked of advances or royalties or how much money any book or writer made.” When mom started Poets & Writers and its first offices took up two other long-lost apartments in the building, the place went into a literary frenzy.
I grew up surrounded by this aura, with the stories and the flow of writers passing through, laughing in the living room. And I’ve always taken it for granted as my home. Not some slow-to-call-it-your-own-joint with packed cartons waiting to move into The Place, but just the opposite: a place where childhood toys are found deep under beds and tables, where there are dishes forgotten for years at the back of a high shelf; a place where most of the books, photos, what-have-you have been in precisely the same place for as long as I can remember. A place I cannot consider any other way—A Home, immovable, something made from legacy.
But the politics of housing are different from the emotions felt for a home—they work in ways that cannot understand how the roots of my father and my roots have grown from the old floor-boards. Both my brother and I have come to grow closer to our dad there, tended him during his bypass surgeries (“the doctors cleaned me out, I’m fine,” he was fond of saying) and cooked for him until his last day. And lying beneath it all is the fact that he never considered moving somewhere else.
People say how New Yorkers are always moving—that this mobility is the nature of the city. But, to me, to be amid the cacophony of midtown is not a strange place—it is a place that resonates with a literary culture, a place where I can take one of the myriad books off the shelf and read pages long out of print.
This is not a plea for stasis, but for the understanding that a home cannot be calculated with numbers and statistics. Instead, a home fosters something strong and emotive—something fixed that many battles have been fought over. And this does not change from the old rural farmhouse to the crammed Manhattan apartment.
Unfortunately, the realities of private property hit in a very pedestrian way, along the lines of the dismal science of economics rather than the equivocal art of poetry. If my dad were an economist he probably would have understood this. But he was the opposite: a lover of great, witty, and profound minds; a lover of something deeper than the acres of numbers, formulas, and dried out language of money.
My father often said to us: “I don’t have much, but when I go, this place will be my legacy.”
Well, pops—whether we are physically there or not—that much is surely true.