Sunday, July 23, 2017

310. 286 West 11th Street: Two fires, a Suicide, a Scream, Washington Crossing the Delaware, Toucans and Macaws

A note on Dark Knowledge (forthcoming from Anaphora Literary Press):

         Hundreds of shackled slaves crammed in below, weeping for their lost homeland and kin and pleading for water, till the crew, braving the stench of unwashed bodies, come down to remove the dead and throw them overboard to be devoured by sharks that follow the ship all the way across the Atlantic to its destination in Cuba.
         An elegant brownstone parlor with upholstery of silk and brocade, and carved ivory figurines and lacquerware that speak of the China trade, where a hostess in gold-embroidered black satin discusses stocks and bonds and gold with her guests, and the latest novel by Mr. Willkie Collins, the hit play of the moment, and fashions favored by the empress Eugénie of France.
         Is there a connection between the two?  What could possibly link parlors of silk and brocade to weeping slaves and shark-devoured corpses?
         More about this soon.  Now on to 286 West 11th.

         In New York City every old building has its history, its stories of owners and tenants, and 286 West 11th Street, currently the home of the Magnolia Bakery and Bond no. 9, a luxury perfume shop, at ground level on Bleecker Street, and of myself high atop those enterprises, is no exception.  Built in 1905, so the online real estate listings state, it was once a hotel, but in the 1930s it was acquired by the Terrell family, who joined rooms together to create one big and one small apartment on each of the four residential floors, with an entrance on West 11th, while renting out the two ground-floor commercial spaces that face on Bleecker Street.  

File:The Magnolia Bakery (869393359).jpg
The Magnolia in 2005.  The entrance to the apartments is around the corner on
West 11th Street, where a bike is parked.
Rob Young
         My acquaintance with the building dates from June 1, 1970, when my partner Bob and I moved into the top floor back apartment (5B), which the landlady, Rita Terrell, had described to us as the best.  It was indeed the best, for the building was one story higher than its neighbors on Bleecker Street, giving us, and no other apartment in the building, a southern exposure as well as a western one, so that the apartment was flooded with light from mid-morning until evening, when a look down West 11th toward the river gave a view of the setting sun. 
         How did we get the place, and at a reasonable rent at that, since it was stabilized?  Sheer dumb luck.  It was available, and someone had to get it, and by sheer chance that someone turned out to be us.  The fact that it was a four-flight walk-up bothered us not at all, except on the day of the move-in, for we were still young and hardy ... at least, hardy enough.
         Adding to the apartment’s charm were beams that emerged from and then disappeared back into the walls, doors that wouldn’t close, surfaces that were anything but level, and two fireplaces at opposite ends of the apartment, each visible from the other.  (Not that the fireplaces were usable; they weren't properly insulated.)   We soon installed Salvation Army furniture, which back then came at bargain prices.  The star attraction was a chest-on-chest charmingly nicked with age, the drawers with knoblike little lion-faced handles; friends from Washington marveled at it.  Viewing the whole apartment’s shabby charm, another friend from the West Cast said, “In California people spend a fortune trying to make their place look like this.”
         But this was the 1970s, a time of high crime, as we well knew, since Bob was almost mugged in the vestibule, hurrying with key in hand through the locked second door as someone lunged in through the unlocked outer door.  All our windows were secured with locked iron gates, and we soon installed a police lock on the door to the hall as well.

         So who were our neighbors?  This being New York, they came and went silently, often at times other than when we came and went, so it was a long time before we got to know any of them, and some of them we never did connect with.  Our first contact was with our next-door neighbor, Pat, a young woman from England who did costumes for Off Broadway plays, and whose roommate was a chow that on occasion barked up a storm.  There was also a family with two young children in one of the big back apartments, but they soon moved out, and that was the last family to reside at 286 West 11th; from then on it was Yuppies.

         One floor down from us was Hans, whom we came to know only with the passage of time.  His apartment was full of opera recordings – many of them rare – and photos of leading opera singers and conductors, for he worked for an outfit that managed singers, and his world was almost exclusively opera.  The first we knew of this was when recordings of great singers drifted up to us, caressing or hammering our ears.  Hans had known such stars as Joan Sutherland, Régine Crespin, Birgit Nilsson, Renata Tebaldi, and Luciano Pavarotti, and had stories to tell about all of them – stories that would make a fabulous book with great niche-audience appeal.  He has jotted down reminiscences at length and shared them with us online, but I wonder if that book will ever get written.  And if he meant it to be published, he would probably hold back all the juicy details known to the people where he worked, but not to be shared with the public.

         Our landlady, Mrs. Terrell, had the big high-ceilinged parlor-floor apartment, where she had lived for decades.  Elderly now and bedeviled with arthritis, she left the apartment only to sit at the top of the stairs, waiting for the mailman to come.  More than once, when I was going out, she gave me her keys and asked me to bring up her mail.  She alternated between two contrasting persona: friendly neighbor and professional landlady.  As friendly neighbor she was accessible, reasonable, chatty; as professional landlady she turned severe and demanding, warning us about the penalty for not paying rent on time – we who never once missed a payment or paid late.  Again in friendly mode, she once phoned me to ask if I had any male friends who might want to rent one of the big apartments.  “I’ve seen nothing but dizzy young females,” she said.  “I want a responsible male tenant, someone really reliable.”  It was a rare opportunity for someone, but none of my friends was looking for an apartment at the time.  And by “responsible” and “reliable” she probably meant a young man who could cope with such problems as cracked walls, quirky plumbing, broken sash chains, and all those other mishaps that plague apartments in old buildings. 

         That Rita Terrell had once been something of an entrepreneur came to my attention one day when I heard a commotion in the hall, looked out, saw smoke swirling up the stairwell, and a fireman knocking on doors.  “Do you want us out of the building?” I asked, and for an answer got a resonant “Yes!”  Out we went, descending into a smoky haze, aware as we did so of firemen ahead of us carrying Rita down the last flight of stairs.  Out on the street the refugees huddled, talking nervously, while the firemen poured water into the basement, where inflammable chemicals had burst into flames.  What chemicals? we wondered, and in time got an answer: chemicals from Rita’s former perfume business, stored for years in the basement.  Luckily, the fire was quickly contained, and once the building had been aired out, we were allowed back in.  Still unsettled, Bob and I and Hans accepted an invitation from our neighbor Pat to have a communal drink in her apartment.  “Just like La Bohème, said Hans, ever ready with an operatic reference.  “Or Götterdämmerung,” I said, thinking a cosmic holocaust more appropriate.

         A total contrast with Hans was Sam, a young Jewish guy who, after Pat moved out, rented the small apartment next to ours.  When not making love to his frequent female guests, his voice resonated; I once heard him, just back from a trip, on the phone: “Hiya, Mom!  How the fuck are you?”  Which gives you the flavor of Sam.  Every Saturday evening we heard loud jazzy music with a wild drumbeat blasting through the wall from his apartment, but we knew it would last only a half hour at most: he was revving up for his big night out.  Once, though, he and a male friend did assault us a bit more than usual with deafening blasts of jazz.  Our solution: play some grand opera and turn it up to a roar.  Immediately, groans from Sam’s apartment, since nothing can match grand opera played full blast.
         We and Sam got along fine, though there were a few memorable moments.  He got a kitchen job in a Village night spot that brought him home in the wee hours, often with a lady friend in tow.  One night we heard a piercing female scream from his apartment, followed by total silence.  Our assumption: Sam’s lovemaking had tried some novel maneuver that took the girl by surprise.  On another occasion, when I opened our hall door to put out some trash in the morning, I saw a young blonde, scantily clad, sleeping on the floor in the hall – the result, I assumed, of a lovers’ midnight quarrel.  Minutes later, when the super came to collect the trash, I heard a long pause as he lingered on our landing, gazing his fill, before taking the trash down to the curb for collection.  When I next looked into the hall, it was empty; reconciliation had been achieved.  The following winter, when Sam moved out, giving us a hearty farewell, it was in the midst of a blizzard.  Somehow, given Sam’s joyously raucous behavior, this seemed just the right weather for his leaving.

         When time and mortality finally claimed Rita Terrell and left her high-ceilinged parlor-floor apartment vacant, a friend of ours named Joe happened to be the one who moved in.  He overlapped with Sam and told us of hearing Sam and a girlfriend talking as they went out of the building.
         “You mean you’re the only one?” she asked, dumbfounded.
         “Yes,” said  Sam, “I’m the only one.”
         Joe knew immediately what they were talking about, and so did Bob and I, when Joe told us about it with a grin.  Purely by chance, the mix of tenants had gradually undergone a sea change, and Sam was now the only straight guy in the building. 

         This gay phase lasted quite a while and coincided with the AIDS epidemic, which affected Bob and me not at all, since we were a closed circle, but targeted some of our younger friends.  We suspected that several of our neighbors were at least HIV positive, if not victims of full-blown AIDS.  Hugo, a young black man in the third-floor back apartment, had evidently lost his job and now, deep in the throes of depression, sat alone in his apartment morning, noon, and night, eyes glued to his television screen.   So immersed was Hugo in television, he paid scant attention to anything else, as for instance a lighted stove.  One day when Bob was off on vacation, I heard a rapid pounding on my door; opening it, I found Julie, our new next-door neighbor, a look of alarm on her face, as smoke poured up the stairwell again.
         “Fire!” I yelled, before she could utter a word.  “Don’t go down the stairs, Julie.  Go out by the fire escape.  I’ll see you down there soon.”
         She ran back to her room to get out on the 11th Street fire escape, and after a quick phone call to alert Hans, I went down the Bleecker Street fire escape.  We all met on the sidewalk below, as fire engines came screaming, and a crowd gathered.  Smoke was coming from the third floor, and Hugo, staring up at the building and looking distraught and dismayed, muttered tearfully to Hans, “I’m sorry.”  The fire had originated in his kitchen, where he had something cooking, while he sat watching TV.
         This time too, the firemen came quickly and put out the fire, so that, after an hour outside, we were allowed to return to our apartments.  For days after that, as I came and went on errands, the door to Hugo’s apartment stood wide open, so I could see inside.  Workmen were working noisily in the charred kitchen, cleaning it up and doing the necessary repair work, while Hugo sat at the other end of the apartment, eyes fixed on the TV again.  And one Christmas Eve, Joe told us, as Joe was going out to a party, he saw Hugo downstairs, alone.
         “I’m waiting for an ambulance,” he said.  “Christmas Eve, and I’ve got to go to the hospital.”
         Joe asked if there was anything he could do, but Hugo shook his head, then added, “I haven’t a friend in the world.”
         Joe left for his party, the joy of it tinged with a chill.  What finally became of Hugo, we never knew; he just quietly moved out.

         Another neighbor of that time, a likable young kid named Greg, we didn’t know well, just traded nods and helloes in the hall.  When his door was ajar, we got a brief glimpse of a scantly furnished apartment with a barbell on the floor and other body-building equipment in evidence.  More than once he locked himself out of the apartment, and by yelling up to us, got us to lower the 11th Street fire escape to the sidewalk, so he could climb up and enter his apartment by a window.  But then, sometime after the last of these incidents, we noticed mail accumulating in his mailbox week after week, till the mailman could hardly squeeze more in.  Then, seeing the box empty, we assumed that Greg had returned and retrieved his mail.  But one day Bob met Greg’s parents coming out of the apartment, and they told him Greg had died.  Even in that time of AIDS and mortality, that a kid so young should die shocked us to the core; all Bob could do was mutter condolences to the parents and shake their hand.  Greg had died in a hospital, we later learned, of meningitis, a painful infection of the brain.

         Our landlord by then was Rita’s son St. John (pronounced "sinjun") Terrell, a handsome older man who lived with his wife and two daughters somewhere in the wilds of New Jersey, over near Trenton.  Though he was often in the building, by virtue of geography he was an absentee landlord, and a penny-pincher at that.  He himself was game for doing all kinds of repairs; in our apartment he once removed a heavy double-hung window from its frame, replace a broken sash cord, and replaced the window -- no small feat for one person without an assistant.  (I know because, having seen him do it, I attempted it alone myself.)  But when it came to hiring a plumber or electrician, or a contractor for a major renovation, St. John always hired the cheapest, usually with dire results.  When a leak appeared in our living room ceiling and became two, then three leaks whenever it rained, he had four different contractors look at the problem and state a price for the job.  Several weeks passed before he chose the cheapest, and more time passed, before the busy contractor got around to our job.  By then, the three leaks had become fifteen.  And when he hired a non-union plumber to do a job in our bathroom, which, being drunk, the plumber botched, he had to hire a carpenter to repair the work of the drunk.
         Away from 286 West 11th, St. John Terrell had a very different life.  Once, relaxing for a moment from playing lord of the manor, he told us of being, years before, a young actor here in the city and having as a friend another young actor named Ty.  Ty was Tyrone Power, who later went on to a stellar career in Hollywood.  St. John Terrell seemed not the least bit jealous; he had stayed in the East and done work on television and in theater, and was active in the cultural affairs of New Jersey.  Once a year, in a cape and a three-cornered hat, he still performed in New Jersey in a reenactment of George Washington’s crossing the Delaware on Christmas Day 1776 to surprise the Hessians in Trenton.  St. John of course played George, standing dramatically at the prow of a boat as it negotiated the imagined ice floes of the Delaware, a role he had created and for which his handsome WASP features seemed ideal.  His pose was inspired by Emanuel Leutze's famous painting of 1851, now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art -- a pose not recommended for real-life river crossings in small boats.

File:Washington Crossing the Delaware by Emanuel Leutze, MMA-NYC, 1851.jpg
Washington Crossing the Delaware, Emanuel Leutze, 1851.
         There was more to the story of St. John Terrell than that.  Hans told us of gossip passed on to him by friends in New Jersey.  St. John’s present wife was his second.  The first wife had quite by accident heard her husband talking by telephone with a woman with whom he was obviously having an affair.  Incensed, the first wife squeezed him financially for all that she could, before consenting to a divorce.  But when, on later occasions, we met the second wife, we found her quite likable and refused to be influenced by this juicy bit of local gossip.
         St. John's greatest blunder by way of penny-pinching came when he installed a new boiler.  Of course he got a host of proposals and picked the cheapest, tendered by a Latino in the distant regions of the Bronx, who needed hours to navigate traffic and come by car to the building.  The point of the new boiler was, of course, to declare it a major capital improvement (MCI) and so, quite legally, raise the rent on his rent-stabilized tenants.  The new boiler was a disaster, breaking down repeatedly, leaving the whole building without heat, and often without water as well.  As these disasters multiplied, in January 1990 I began a heat log that chronicled each and every failure, week after week, month after month.  When, as the law required, the tenants were informed of a hearing on the matter and were invited to respond, we all signed a letter detailing the breakdowns of the boiler, with a two-week quote from my heat log to verify our complaint in detail.  Time passed, and no rent increase was imposed; finally we were informed that the landlord had withdrawn his MCI application.  Victory was sweet, but the boiler was still malfunctioning.

         Unknown to most tenants are the nether depths of the building, the site of the boiler and the meters.  Just once, when the door was unlocked, I visited the boiler room, accessed by darkened stairs descending from the ground-floor hall of the residential entrance, or from an outside entrance reached by stairs going down from the West 11th Street sidewalk.  Descending the inside stairs, I discovered not just a boiler, but a complicated apparatus that determined when the boiler would come on or go off.  This was midwinter and it was wonderfully warm down there, and a swarm of houseflies had taken shelter in the warmth, awaiting milder weather when they could invade the apartments above. 

File:Magnolia Bakery, 401 Bleecker Street, New York, NY 10014, USA - Jan 2013 O.jpg
The Magnolia in January 2013, with the stairs to the meters on the right.
         The meters are accessed by stairs going down from the Bleecker Street sidewalk in front of the Magnolia Bakery.  Several times I have made this perilous descent, often banging my head as I did so, needing access to our meter so I could flick a switch and restore power to our apartment.  The meters are on the wall immediately to the left as you go down the stairs, and to reach them you usually have to remove a pile of empty cartons that block your way.  The cartons are from deliveries to the Magnolia, and one hopes that, being inflammable, they won’t be there long.  Another passageway leads deeper into the basement, but I have never explored it, being eager to leave this dim underworld and get back up to the land of the living.

          Sitting at my desk by a window, I have a good view out over the rooftops of the adjacent buildings facing on Bleecker Street.  In the distance I once saw the Twin Towers rising, then later the smoky pall of their demise, and today the Freedom Tower, which I call the Tower of Light.  I have seen rooftop parties, too, and workmen building a rooftop garden, and the towering flames that one night destroyed that garden.  And once I saw a young woman clad only in a bath towel appear on a roof three buildings away and come rushing across the roofs, obviously frightened.  Seeing me, she begged to be let in, so Bob and I let her in and shut the window behind her.  She then explained that, just out of the shower, she heard the doorbell ring, and when, expecting a delivery, she opened the door a crack to receive a package and sign for it, she saw a strange man in rags who pushed his way into her apartment.  Alarmed, she fled to the roof and so came to us.  We gave her a bathrobe and slippers and then offered to call 911, but instead she asked me to accompany her downstairs so she could flag down a cruising police car.  She did indeed find a police car, thanked me for my help, and went with the police to her apartment.  Later she came to our apartment fully clothed, returned the bathrobe and slippers, and explained that the man in her apartment was a homeless man with mental problems, very confused; the police had taken him into custody.  Later a huge bouquet of flowers was delivered to our apartment by way of thanks.

        Time and age claimed St. John Terrell, just as it had claimed his mother before him.  His brain got foggy, he at times had a childlike look on his face, and he was no longer able to manage the building.  “Talking to my husband,” his wife told me by phone, “is like talking to the air.”  When he died in 1998, he rated an obit in the Times and other publications that chronicled his cultural contributions and said nothing of his role as a landlord.  From them we learned that, Chicago-born, he had been the first Jack Armstrong on the radio, where as a child I may well have heard him, and a fire-eater in a carnival at age 16. 
         His widow continued to struggle with the malfunctioning boiler, on which she spent a small fortune, and finally she sold the building to its present owner, Margules Properties, a significant figure in Manhattan real estate who instituted a host of reforms: a lock on the outer vestibule door; an intercom, so tenants can see who is buzzing their bell; an indoor area for trash, to avoid fines from the city for trash spilling out of overfull cans on the sidewalk; renovation of the brick walls, a new roof, and new south-facing windows in our apartment; and a functioning super.  And, thank God, a new boiler. 

         Over the years other tenants came and went, Yuppies who moved in and out so frequently that we barely had time to get to know them.  I say “Yuppies” with no malign intent, for upwardly mobile professionals are what Manhattan is all about, and, given the ever higher rents, nonstabilized tenants are not likely to stick around, if something better comes their way.  But on one occasion our neighbor Julie, whose cat I delighted to debauch with catnip harvested while I was hiking on the Palisades, moved out leaving the rent unpaid, as did her sister and brother-in-law downstairs, the brother-in-law being a law student steeped in the niceties of housing regulations and the law.  And whenever a tenant moved out, workmen came to replaster the walls and lay down a bright new floor, even when the old floor gleamed in varnished perfection, since implementing these improvements meant another hike in the rent.

         The two ground-floor commercial spaces facing on Bleecker Street have their history as well, with one tenant following another over the years.  Where Bond no. 9 now marshals an array of square-shouldered little bottles of pricey scents, there was once a bookstore selling used books; the proprietor sat quietly on a stool reading into the depths of the night, seemingly unconcerned if no customers appeared.  And returning late one afternoon, I noticed a lot of parked police cars and a hint of excitement in the air, but thought no more about it.  Later I learned that the new tenant of a clothing store in the corner shop where Magnolia now reigns had hanged himself in his shop.  He had evidently come from another site where he had been wiped out by a fire and, having no fire insurance, was deeply depressed. 
         In 1982 that same corner site saw the opening of Bird Jungle, whose parrots and macaws and parakeets screeched noisily when being fed at 6 a.m., to the discomfort of our friend Joe, lodged in Rita’s apartment right above.  Managing the store were a Wall Street insurance broker and his wife, and their birds were a colorful bunch, so colorful that I went in several times just to look at them.  Uncaged and jutting their curved beaks merrily, some of them managed a few phrases like “Hello” and “I love you”; at times they even perched on a customer’s shoulder.  In no time the shop became famous, though its prices ranged from $20 for a domestic to several thousand for an exotic.  

File:Ara macao & Ramphastos tucanus GFDL.jpg
Our neighbors ... for a while: a scarlet macaw and a white-throated toucan.
Luis Miguel Bugallo Sánchez
         Bird Jungle was there for years but finally took flight, and in 1996 the Magnolia moved in.  “Sex and the City” followed, fame was achieved, and visitors even from distant and alien climes began flocking, taking selfies outside before entering to procure one of Magnolia’s renowned cupcakes, and then often sitting on our doorstep to gobble their goodies.  So there you have it: from screeching curved beaks and bright colors to silent sugary goodies on our doorstep.  And the crowds are still coming.  If earlier phases of 286 West 11th, often overlapping, could be labeled the Crime Phase, the AIDS Phase, the Boiler Phase, and the Bird Phase, since 1996 we have been in the Magnolia Phase and are likely to remain there indefinitely.   

         The Magnolia’s continuing presence reassures me, since Bleecker is now a high-rent thoroughfare lined with designer clothing shops that tempt me not at all, and whose displaced predecessors – charming little shops and restaurants chased out by rising rents – I heartily miss.  So thank God for the Magnolia, and may it outlast the fancy stores on Bleecker.  And well it may, for walking down Bleecker toward Seventh Avenue recently I counted at least ten  RETAIL  SPACE  AVAILABLE  signs on one side of the street alone, nourishing glimmers of hope that the local high-rent bubble may be about to burst.  At least, I can hope.


All books are available online as indicated, or from the author.

No Place for Normal: New York / Stories from the Most Exciting City in the World (Mill City Press, 2015).  Winner of the Tenth Annual National Indie Excellence Award for Regional Non-Fiction; first place in the Travel category of the 2015-2016 Reader Views Literary Awards; and Honorable Mention in the Culture category of the Eric Hoffer Book Awards for 2016.  All about anything and everything New York: alcoholics, abortionists, greenmarkets, Occupy Wall Street, the Gay Pride Parade, my mugging in Central Park, peyote visions, and an artist who made art of a blackened human toe.  In her Reader Views review, Sheri Hoyte called it "a delightful treasure chest full of short stories about New York City."

If you love the city (or hate it), this may be the book for you.  An award winner, it sold well at BookCon 2017.

Available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

No Place for Normal: New York / Stories from the Most Exciting City in the World

Bill Hope: His Story (Anaphora Literary Press, 2017), the second novel in the Metropolis series.  New York City, 1870s: From his cell in the gloomy prison known as the Tombs, young Bill Hope spills out in a torrent of words the story of his career as a pickpocket and shoplifter; his brutal treatment at Sing Sing and escape from another prison in a coffin; his forays into brownstones and polite society; and his sojourn among the “loonies” in a madhouse, from which he emerges to face betrayal and death threats, and possible involvement in a murder.  Driving him throughout is a fierce desire for better, a persistent and undying hope.

For readers who like historical fiction and a fast-moving story.


For six LibraryThing prepublication reviews of Bill Hope: His Story, go here and scroll down.

The Pleasuring of Men (Gival Press, 2011), the first novel in the Metropolis series, tells the story of a respectably raised young man who chooses to become a male prostitute in late 1860s New York and falls in love with his most difficult client.

What was the gay scene like in nineteenth-century New York?   Gay romance, if you like, but no porn (I don't do porn).  Women have read it and reviewed it.  (The cover illustration doesn't hurt.)

For Goodreads reviews, go here.  Likewise available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

Coming soon: Books That Change the World.  The Fountainhead, The Miserables, and Uncle Tom.  Or maybe:  WHY  I  LOVE  NEW  YORK.

©   2017   Clifford Browder

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