Monday, January 1, 2018

Remembrance of early days.

My dorm at Columbia, 1979-1980.
I lived for a year, when I went from 21 to 22, in a dorm room in Columbia University housing called Johnson Hall. The building itself was on 116th Street and Morningside Drive, the very end of the block, where the President of Columbia lived in a large Georgian Mansion. (Dwight Eisenhower lived there when he was President of the University, I’d tell myself as I walked by it. After he won World War II and before he became President of the United States.)

The President's residence. Dwight Eisenhower lived here.
My actual dorm room was somewhat less than presidential. In fact, width-wise, if I stretched out my arms, I could touch both of my walls at once. Also, outside my window, a new dorm was being built. Most mornings I woke up to the noise of construction.

Dorm living in the 1970s was not as lush as dorm living has become. In fact, I’d imagine not much had changed in my accommodations since the building was built in the 1920s.
The worse part of the dorm was the bathroom facilities, specifically the showers.

Each shower had attached to it a small drying-off area that would fill with water that never drained. It was a trick to leap over that space and get into the shower without stepping into ankle deep dirty water.
It wasn't a bad looking car. But it never ran.

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St. John the Divine. 
When my final school year ended, I was not at all upset at having to pack up my belongings into my 1976 Ford Capri. The car’s rear-bench-seat folded down and I could fit a dorm room’s worth of junk into the back, I just couldn’t see out the rear window. I quickly found an apartment just four blocks away on 112th Street, just a long fly-ball down the street from the grey, foreboding and unfinished Cathedral of St. John the Divine.

112th Street was a dark street, about half occupied by Columbia students past and present and the other half occupied by large families of Puerto Rican descent living in subsidized housing. The block was surely louder at 9PM than 9AM and louder at midnight than at noon.

522 W 112th St
Not much has changed since I lived there. I suppose they renovated the roaches.
The noise, however didn’t matter much, because the two-bedroom I found at 522 W. 112th faced an interior courtyard and the back. The apartment rented for $340 a month—it was Columbia-run—and I occupied it as an illegal sublet. I quickly assumed the smaller bedroom—the one facing the airshaft. It teemed with swirling pigeons when the old lady across the way fed them. It was my room, however, and I rented out the larger bedroom for $250 a month. That meant I was paying just $90 a month in rent.

The apartment itself was not one I would wish on anyone, even an enemy. The hallways were old and dirty and the whole building had an unsafe aspect to it. These were the “bad old days” of New York and the neighborhood, block and rickety front door seemed to be stomping grounds for muggers, rapists and cat burglars.

Once inside the apartment things weren’t much better. The kitchen floor, for instance, was merely sheets of plywood painted an industrial maroon. Roaches lived in the cabinets, under the refrigerator, and most populously in the tilted oven. The bathroom had a similar agglomeration of roaches, and it was best to turn the lights on and wait a few seconds for the roaches to scatter before you entered either room.

Roaches were so prominent in my life back then, that I would often repeat to myself as a mantra the Spanish slogan of a product called Roach Motel. “Las cucarachas entran, pero no pueden salir.” The roaches check in, but they can’t check out.

The best part of the apartment, besides its price was that it was around the corner and down the block from a couple of really great places to eat.

Up on 113th and Broadway was an old newsstand/ice-cream parlor run by an old Jewish man who, you could tell by the numbers tattooed on his arm, had survived Auschwitz. He offered a dozen or 18 different flavors of Breyer’s ice-cream. Breyer's was the ice-cream choice of connoisseurs before ice-cream, and everything else got fetishized and gentrified. Just down the block, and also on Broadway, was a coffee-shop of the old school, called Tom’s—it’s still there. Decades later, its fa├žade became the establishing shot of the coffee-shop the Seinfeld gang would congregate in.

There were five more places on Broadway in the teens that are worth mentioning. Happy Burger on 111th served a nice, big burger for about three bucks. They boasted 100 burger options. Also on 111th sat Twin Donuts, a small donut chain in New York at the time who offered an old-fashioned donut that was exactly as a donut should be. Crunchy to the teeth on the outside, then soft, sweet and rich on the inside.

Mama Joy’s was a deli on Broadway between 113th and 114th that was manned by the meanest Caribbean sandwich-makers in New York. Their standard line was repeated in three-digit decibels, “Just tell me what choo wann. Don’ tell me what choo doan wann.”
If you asked for a “turkey sandwich on a hard roll, with salt and pepper, lettuce and tomato,” they would respond with “you want mayo on that sandwich, mon.” “No, no mayo.” “Just tell me what choo wann. Don’ tell me what choo doan wann.”

Then there was Samad, a small Middle-Eastern deli that made the best shrimp salad I have ever tasted, right across the broad avenue from Tom’s. Near 114th Street on the west side of the block, there was a cavernous bar and jazz-club called the West End. Old jazz players from the 30s, 40s and 50s would convene there nightly and play late into the night in a sleepy, eyes-closed style that put you deep in the land of the Lotos eaters. The cover-charge at the West End was just $2 and beer cost $1 a bottle, so you could listen to jazz of the sort you’d only previously heard on your parents’ old, scratchy 78s practically to dawn for four bucks or five.

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The fourth or fifth best pizza in New York.
Finally, way over on Amsterdam between 110th and 111th, there were two more places. One was Green Kitchen, an Hungarian restaurant with tilted tables, linoleum floors, big-forearmed waitresses and the best chicken paprikash this side of either Buda or Pest. V&Ts, just down the street was ancient even back then. It’s still there, still with prices that would have made more sense ten or 15 years earlier, and they still serve New York’s fourth or fifth best pizza. There’s is the thick crust variety, none of the coal-oven pretense for them, and you could walk home with a steaming pie, past a brick-filled abandoned lot, the home of assorted homeless men and junkies, for just $3.50.

V&T’s had, against the thieves and druggies and hold-up men of the day, a coat rack in the front of the place near the cash register. On the rack, they had invisibly wired a New York cop’s hat—the kind with the peaked front. This artifice (there were nine times out of ten no cops inside) kept the place safe from the encroachments of the criminal set.

I lived on 112th Street for one year until I got evicted for illegally subletting in Columbia housing and then found a one bedroom apartment in a nice building on 109th Street between Broadway and Riverside for $500 a month.

But more about that another time.

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