SLACKJAW by JIM KNIPFEL
November 17, 2019

Hunted by Apartments

 

The young Chinese real estate agent met us at the front door of a dreary gray cube of a building two blocks from our apartment. The eviction seemed inevitable, so we decided we’d better start looking for a new place now, rather than be caught off-guard a few weeks later. It was the very end of October, and a light drizzle was falling.

            He ushered us inside through a barren and echoing lobby, the same tile pattern on the floor you find in every lobby of every pre-war apartment building ever built. We then took a right and headed up four flights of grim, twisting, staggered stairs that seemed to have no rhyme or reason. The realtor, Danny, said nothing along the way apart from “be careful” every time I tripped on one of the random steps. I already had a bad feeling. Those fucking stairs would kill me. That said, I did kind of like the old New York vibe the place seemed to exude. It felt like a cinematic tenement from the Forties, the only missing element being a woman doing vocal exercises behind one of the closed doors we passed. That was another disturbing thing — the whole place was too quiet. For all the doors we passed as we made our way to the fourth floor, I hadn’t heard any evidence of human life leaking from behind any of them.

            Real estate agents, of course, have a coded language all their own, and the description of the apartment in question promised two bedrooms, a newly refurbished kitchen, and lots of windows letting in a flood of sunlight. Well, I guess most of those things were true, more or less. There were two bedrooms and a kitchen. If there had been any sun that day, it may well have been flooding through the windows. There was also a bathroom. But there was nothing else, and even with those four things I couldn’t picture in my head how they were laid out as Morgan led me around, describing the place to me. The windows all seemed to look down on a parking lot, and search as she might, the apartment seemed to boast only a single small closet. But it was cheap, I’ll give them that.

            Danny said almost nothing at all as we looked around. I think I made him nervous. A lot of people get nervous around cripples. When I asked if the building had a laundry room, he flinched audibly before admitting that no, it didn’t. He then quickly changed the subject by touting the fact that since we’d be on the top floor, there’d be no one living above us. I’d never heard that as a big selling point before, but I guess he had to come up with something.

            He stayed behind in the cold, dark apartment as we made our way back downstairs. Weird thing was, as we headed back down to that empty and echoing lobby, both Morgan and I were tempted to just take the fucking place and be done with it. Sure, we’d have to jettison most of our furniture, books, records, movies, clothes, kitchenware, towels, and lamps in order to fit what we could in the apartment, but it was cheap. Small and ugly and dispiriting, but cheap. And we could stop looking.

            By the time we’d made it the two blocks back to our apartment, we came to our senses and decided to keep looking. I left a cordial voicemail message for Danny, thanking him for his time and letting him know our decision, but never heard back.

            Looking for an apartment in New York is not the freewheeling, happy-go-lucky gigglefest so many people claim it is. I remember once a long time back, when I was working the front desk at the Press. A middle-aged woman who was in the process of moving to New York for the first time was sitting in the lobby, reading through the paper’s latest apartment listings, desperate to find anything, puzzling over the language and acronyms, asking me dozens of questions as she did so.

            “What’s ‘Elk’ mean?” She asked.

            I looked up from what I was doing. “Pardon?”

            “This one says, ‘one bedroom, one bath, elk, newly refurbished, and hardwood floors.”

            “Oh,” I told her. “That means it comes with an elk.”

            “What?”

            “An elk? It’s like a deer, but bigger.”

            “Your kidding.”

            “No, it’s a real thing. There are a lot of apartments around New York that come with an elk. I lived in an elk apartment myself a few years ago. It’s not so bad. You get used to them.”

            I never saw her again, but hope she found a nice place.

            It’s been thirty years since I tried to find an apartment through listings and brokers. When I was twenty-one and moving to Philly from Minneapolis, I was adventurous and foolhardy enough to take a place sight unseen. After a three day trip to Philly to find a place with no luck at all, I headed back to Minneapolis with copies of all the local papers. With my eviction date closing in fast, I had to find something, so I just responded to a random two-line ad that didn’t sound too horrific. I then worked out all the details with the owner over the phone, and they FedExed me a lease and the keys the day before I started driving East with my future ex-wife. It turned out to be a miserable and frightening bug-infested apartment with hostile and dangerous neighbors, but I loved it enough to stay there three years. I’m older now, and had a wife and cats to worry about. I could no longer afford to use “thrill-seeking” as an operative criterion when it came to choosing a new home.

            Time was limited, and I guess I didn’t make things any easier for myself by being so picky. Having lived in both shitholes and really nice places, I didn’t feel much like going back to the former. I couldn’t see the pictures included in these online listings, so was working exclusively by address, rent, size and description.

            Neither Morgan nor I could stomach the thought of living in a big apartment complex, so if the apartment number had a letter connected with it (“5G”), I skipped it. In fact if the apartment number went above three, I skipped it. And if the apartment was referred to as a “unit,” I skipped it. If the only listed amenity was “freshly painted,” I skipped it. If it was under seven hundred square feet, I skipped it. If the nearby Starbucks or Footlocker were touted as selling points, I skipped it. If the ad said anything about parking other than “street parking,” I skipped it. If the ad didn’t say anything about laundry facilities on the premises, I skipped it. If they didn’t allow pets or smokers, I obviously skipped it. We were determined to stay in Bay Ridge where I knew my way around, but even if the place was in Bay Ridge, if it was too far south or too far east, I skipped it. Moving too far south or east would leave us close to the water, and given rising sea levels and how much of Brooklyn is already under evacuation orders whenever a hurricane comes through, well, I didn’t want to deal with the building being submerged a few years down the line.

            Just working with the numbers and language limited my choices considerably. That was all without seeing the pictures. That was Morgan’s job. If they only showed pictures of the outside of the building and the surrounding neighborhood, we skipped it. If the exterior photos showed bars on the windows which magically disappeared in the interior photos, we skipped it. One place seemed promising, until she saw the windows had a magical view of an industrial air conditioning unit, so we skipped it. We were scheduled to view one place that sounded good, until she found an aerial view revealing the building was in a desolate area surrounded by car dealerships and twenty blocks from the nearest subway station, so we skipped it.

            What we were looking for, to put it bluntly, was the apartment we were in now, though we weren’t holding out for the stained glass and the skylight in the bathroom.

            Five years ago when we were living in the Bunker here, the weird and creepy couple who lived on the second floor moved out. The night after they were gone, knowing the door would likely be unlocked, Morgan and I snuck up here to take a look around. Neither of us had ever seen the place empty. It was about ten or eleven at night when we figured the coast was clear, so we crept up the stairs to the second floor and opened the door. It was a matter of seconds before we knew we wanted to live there. It struck us both that hard, even at night. It was big and open, had views of the lush backyard, huge closets, and since the building was at the end of a row of limestones, we had windows on three sides. The damned place even had a small office. It was perfect, and we knew it. From the moment we moved in, we feared that someday the landlord would sell the house and throw us out. It was our home, and we knew we’d never find another like it. Our only distant hope was that we’d have a similar experience, walk into a place that struck us both immediately, though we kinda figured at this point we’d have to settle for something less. So we weren’t really going about the search with a sense of adventure and enthusiasm. Instead it was more an issue of, “well, can we put up with this one until we die or get evicted, whichever comes first?

            “On the bright side,” Morgan commented,“ we might end up in a place where the furnace works.”

            So we reacquainted ourselves with the frustration of tracking online listings. If you find a listing that seems perfect, it has inevitably been rented in the ten minutes since it was first posted. Even if a place is still available, the official description and the reality in front of you bear not even the vaguest familial resemblance. Some descriptions tell you all you need to know about a place (“Tenant must provide own refrigerator”), while others leave you curious to learn just what the hell is wrong with a place that it would be rented that cheaply.

            Things took an especially wacky turn when we expanded the search area to a few of the surrounding neighborhoods. Morgan found one listing for what seemed to be a nice two bedroom on the second floor of a private house over near Greenwood Cemetery. It had most of what we were looking for and we could afford the rent, so I sent off a query note.

            The next morning, I received the following response from the guy renting the place:

Thank you for the interest in my apartment. My family and i just relocated to Houston, TX. for a program called the Evangelical Financial Accountability Council (ECFA), you can see the link below for more information. There is some reason why our house is rented, the first is because I was transferred from my church to Houston, TX, where I work as a volunteer with the Evangelical Financial Responsibility Council (ECFA), and my wife is also a missionary dealing with Translation of the Bible and Literacy around the world. We currently in Texas now and we are going to stay away for about 4 or 5 years. So i want someone to rent the place as soon as possible in order to take good care of the property before we return back to town and the place is available to move in now.

            Um, what the fuck was this? I was finding that when I sent queries off to apartment brokers, maybe one in three responded, and when they did they only wanted to know two things: “When are you thinking of moving in?” And “When are you available for a viewing?” But an evangelical’s autobiography? “Stay away?” Yes, of course it was clearly a scam, but I ignored that for the moment. It was all so goddamned strange I actually wrote the guy back. I was too curious, which always gets me in trouble.

Thank you for the response. We just have a few questions.

1.   Can we see the inside of the building before making any decisions?

2.   If you are returning to New York in four or five years, will we have some guarantee we will be able to stay a certain period of time?

3.   Does the house have a super, or are we expected to make all repairs ourselves?

4.   If we are essentially housesitting, would we be precluded from making any changes or improvements?

5.   Is it a problem that my wife and I worship Satan, smoke, drink, use drugs and listen to heavy metal?

6.   Are you staying away from New York because you expect God’s vengeance to rain down here (but not in Houston) sometime in the near future?

7.   Why, exactly, does your attached application request pictures of me and my family?

Yours in christ,

Jim

            Okay, so I didn’t really ask him the Satanist question or the one about God’s wrath, nor did I sign off “yours in Christ.” no matter how tempting that seemed, but I did send him the other questions. The following morning I found his response waiting.

Thank you for your email. You can drive by to take a look at the apartment, but you can't going inside since i have the keys with me in houston Tx and i have already sent you pictures of inside the place to view. Yes the place is Furnished. and also you can stay in the place for long as you want. Kindly go ahead and fill out the application and email it back to me asap.

            Yeah, we decided to keep looking.

            The next place we looked at was too far south and east for my taste—definite evacuation territory—but again the price was right and the description sounded okay. As we tried to find it, though, we quickly realized how deeply isolated it was. It was tucked away on a weird little side street off another weird little side street, with no way to reach civilization without walking several blocks in one direction, then over a couple, then doubling back, meaning a trip to the nearest grocery store could take forty-five minutes or more. Even before we found it that first time, I knew I’d never be able to find it on my own.

            The building itself was another featureless cube, this one six stories tall, the whole thing encased in a mesh of scaffolding. A sign posted on the front door warned about construction noise, which would apparently be an issue for the next year.

            The young Hasidic real estate agent showed up fifteen minutes late and pointedly refused to shake Morgan’s hand. He led us inside through the dark lobby and around a corner to the elevator. Again the whole building was silent, save for the yapping of a couple of dogs.

            As we waited for the slow elevator to arrive, he listed the building’s various amenities, putting special emphasis on how clean it was. It was a very clean building, he repeated several times, giving me the impression he was looking us up and down as he said so. I started wondering if there was a kosher slaughterhouse in the basement.

            “And the owners are okay with cats?” I asked, just to confirm what he’d told me the day before.

            “No,” he said. “No pets,” pointedly ignoring that yapping dog in one of the apartments behind us.

            “No pets? But that’s not what you told me yesterday. If we knew that, we never would have come here.”

            “Well,” he said, ”I’ll have to ask about cats.”

            The elevator, as black and silent as the lobby, arrived and brought us to the third floor. The hallway was as dark as everything else, and the apartment door was in the middle of a long line of identical apartment doors. It was starting to feel like a hotel, but a really sinister and creepy one. The real estate broker unlocked the door and let us in, asking almost before we stepped inside, “So do you think you would be ready to move in immediately?”

            Despite the listings claims, this place was even smaller than the first, Another box cut up haphazardly with sort-of walls and windows that overlooked a cement courtyard.

            That wasn’t the real issue, though. The real issue was the stench. For as clean as the building supposedly was, the apartment was permeated by an age-old stench that would never clear out. It wasn’t piss or death, but something much more indefinable and disturbing. Neither Morgan nor I said anything about it at the time, but it was the final kicker for an apartment that already had nothing going for it.

            “So,” he repeated, “do you think you would be able to move in immediately?”

            I changed the subject and asked about the construction noise.

            “I don’t know,” he said. “I don’t live here.”

            We made some excuse, told a couple of lies, and got out of there as quickly as possible, hoping we’d be able to find our way home again. Later that afternoon while describing the place to our friend Laura, she pointed out that it sounded like Henry’s apartment in Eraserhead—isolated, dark, smelly and full of industrial noise. In our notes about the places we’d seen, it came to be remembered as “The Eraserhead Apartment,” and I immediately regretted not taking it.

            So we kept looking.

 

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