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Remembering My Years in a Small, $550/Month Chelsea SRO

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During the summer of 1995, I was living in a brown Chevy Caprice Classic that was 16 years old. I was not destitute. I had a job as a waiter, and a P.O. box, and a pager if someone needed to reach me, and access to a university gym for showering. The back seat of the Caprice was basically like a couch—it wasn't quite full-stretch-out length, but it wasn't uncomfortable. I had the bases covered, at least for the summer. But then autumn came. The Caprice left most of its exhaust system somewhere on I-95 in Connecticut, and pretty much all of its vital fluids just past the first toll booth heading into Massachusetts. But by then I had a back-up plan that was also an upgrade: a Manhattan address on 15th Street between Sixth and Seventh avenues—in an SRO. It was about 80 square feet, and it would be home.

I would drive into the city on Tuesday nights to get a jump on the new apartment listings that came out every Wednesday in the Village Voice. I don't remember if the ad for my new place said it was an SRO apartment, or if it just said the rent: $550 a month. So many people showed up to see it that the landlord ran out of application forms. Luckily, I had nowhere to be, so I hung around while he went to the corner to make copies. He showed me the place somewhat defensively, as if to say, "This is it." There was no room to walk around, nothing to tour. It was what it was. I imagine that, out of the many applications he handed out, not many came back complete.

The apartment was a single room, maybe 10 feet long, and narrower than that. The ceilings were 15 feet high. (Mind you, I am 6'2".) It had a sink. A sleeping shelf had been constructed above the door—placed high enough to walk under easily, but not so low that there was room for anything up there but lying or sitting. It had a ladder made of rough-cut 2x4s.

A previous tenant had covered the floor with a thick, globby coat of shiny metallic silver paint. Everything else was a muddy purple color. I tried to cover the walls with white primer once, but the purple bled through, leaving them pale salmon.

I shared a bathroom with the floor and its cast of characters. Across the hall was a reggae DJ-slash-pot dealer and, occasionally, his girlfriend. (He broke into my apartment and stole a lot of money. Valuable lesson: don't talk to sketchy neighbors about your work schedule.) Next door was a sturdy fellow whom I only saw coming and going, wearing a commercial pilot uniform. That apartment also seemed to house a Lucky Cheng's waitress. I don't remember seeing them together, so I'm not sure what their arrangement was. There was at least one other room on the floor, but I have little memory of the other neighbors, which may be because of simple transience. Or they used the bathroom upstairs.

My room had two tall windows. They didn't close well, but the radiator was so spitting hot that even in the winter I left them open a little. The windows looked out on the back garden. Everyone in the building could access the garden through the ground-floor hallway, past a track door held open by a giant cylindrical weight hanging from pulleys.

An upstairs resident had done a masterful job with the garden, cultivating rose bushes that would bloom, in a range of colors and sizes, creating walls around the edges. Also out back were plates of festering meat. Someone else, an elderly neighbor, would feed Chelsea's stray cats: "Here, Shadow... here, Shadow!" And breed flies.

The superintendent was a young guy—from Ecuador, I think. His English was poor, but he was friendly. He would exercise his pit bull by making it pull him on Rollerblades all over Chelsea. Another elderly neighbor, who had the proportions of a snowman, would sit on a folding chair in front of the building and listen to sports on a transistor radio that was clipped to his suspenders.

The building was a former brothel, or so the mythology went. That's why that ground-floor hallway had a no-longer-functioning panel of buzzers to ring the rooms. Also located off that ground floor hall was the only true apartment in the building, a one-bedroom. A couple lived there and they would have loud, screaming sex. And loud, screaming fights. He would cheat on her a lot—or she thought he did.

The building had—still has—three floors, and I was on the first. I almost never went to another floor's bathroom. Our bathroom was spartan: light brown walls; a toilet; a sink; a small mirror; a shower with a curtain. Not dirty, or anything. Just a bathroom. The upstairs bathroom, by contrast, had mats and fake flowers and pretty-smelling stuff and curtains on the little window that looked out onto an empty air shaft. The residents of that floor kept their toiletries in there. Using that bathroom felt like committing a home invasion.

For most of the time I lived there I had a mini-fridge, on which I placed a toaster oven, on which I (precariously) kept a hot plate. Eventually, I added a microwave. I worked at a restaurant, so often I'd eat there. Or, more typically, I'd eat after work—like nearly everyone else I knew in New York City—at the Waverly Diner. I seldom kept more than a single meal's worth of food around. I'd order a cup of tuna salad from the deli and eat it from that same cup. I'd eat beans out of the can. And Cup Noodles.

Sometimes I'd get a loaf of bread from the farmer's market in Union Square, cut a piece really thick, toast it in the toaster oven, put butter on it, and just eat that. I had a spoon and a big mug, both of which I still have. And I'm sure I had a pot with a handle. I don't remember having plates, but surely there were one or two. When we got the microwave, I learned to make scrambled eggs in it. The trick is to cook it for a bit, then stir it, then cook it a bit more. The liquid starts out like foam, but it ends up like regular eggs. I think we kept breakfast cereal around.

I had a small coffee maker, the kind you get for free when you subscribe to Gevalia. But I was more apt to go get coffee outside, and kill time there. I had no problem taking an hour to drink a coffee and read a book. Hanging around the house, no matter how big mine was then or is now, always made me crazy, and it's never been hard to go out and stay out in New York City.

Up in the loft, I had a full-size mattress. My father, a carpenter, built a long, counter-height table for me; shelves sat upon that. The whole thing was 10 feet tall, at least, so what I lacked in square footage on the ground I was able to get back in another dimension: height. He also made a table-height cabinet with a top that overhung one side so I could sit at it, like a desk.

As I've moved on to bigger homes, that space-saving furniture has come along, too. For subsequent apartments, my now-wife and I chopped the table legs shorter so the contraption would fit under regular ceilings. We trimmed the lower supports off the shelves. By the time we moved to Brooklyn 11 years later, the upper unit had also been cut down so much that I just mounted it to the wall. When we moved last year, it took only an hour for someone to spot both pieces, discarded on the sidewalk, and load them into a van. I still have the cabinet, topped with a different piece that doesn't overhang.

Back in the SRO, in the bit of floor space that remained, I initially had a burgundy futon, with its wooden frame folded into a chair. Later, to my great pride and satisfaction, I purchased a plush blue Laz-E-Boy recliner. Sheer luxury.

I lived there for five years. I never had a lease. The rent never went up. Utilities were included in the rent; I think it was because all of the rooms were on a single electric circuit. Occasionally, the fuse would blow, but it wasn't much trouble to trek across the basement's dirt floor to reset it. Any upgrades residents made were on their own. The pilot once rented a heavy-duty floor sander, making a racket pulling it back and forth in his tiny space. He would emerge periodically, covered in dust but for the ring around his mouth and nose where a paper mask had been, to go downstairs and reset the fuse.

Then I met someone. Under my lofted bed, I had screwed in two eye hooks and threaded them with a thick wooden dowel to serve as a chin-up bar. After I met the woman who would become my wife, she moved in and hung all of her clothes on it. So for a few years, we lived in a giant walk-in closet with a recliner and a loft bed. It was the happiest time of my life.

Obviously, my wife (and her patience) is extraordinary, but even in my uncommitted years, guests and trysts were not really a problem. Only once, when I had a girl over to hang out and watch TV, did I feel particularly disadvantaged by my living situation. The recliner was not, after all, a couch (or even a love seat), and so she had to sit on my lap—which did not turn out to be as romantic as I'd envisioned.

Before we were able to move on, we made our room as nice as we could. But a bit of seediness always seems to come with the territory of an SRO. Before there was a YMCA on 14th Street, and before there was NYU housing above that, there was a massive, hulking, dreary, cement-gray armory between Sixth and Seventh avenues. It was even more grim viewed from behind on 15th Street, across from my building. Most of the time, a man with a long beard and a wool hat would sit on the sidewalk, leaning against the cement wall, surrounded by bags of books and newspapers, reading and muttering and underlining furiously. Even at night under the sodium lights.
· Micro Week archive [Curbed]