(This post from May 2010 is being reposted to the front page in honor of Mittens Romney’s most recent outrage against America gaffe. As you can see, the first couple of paragraphs explain how my family’s good fortune came about as a direct result of government programs hand-outs which helped them to get stuff like food, shelter, health care, housing, education etc. which made it possible for them to join the growing post WWII middle-class where they contributed to the economy in all kinds of ways including by paying income taxes. Feel free to explain to me why this was a bad thing, and how this “dependence” ruined our lives as I’m obviously to ignorant to “get it.”)
My parents grew up during the Great Depression when even in New York, rents were cheap — though no one could afford anything. My mother was raised in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, on the Southside in cramped apartments –railroad flats mostly, four people in less than 400 square feet. They’d move whenever her mother found a better deal.
Despite coming from poor immigrant families, both my parents were able to get college degrees while living at home and attending city colleges, which at the time had free tuition and great reputations.
They married during World War II, and when my father came home he was able to go to optometry school on the GI Bill which also provided a rent subsidy. Plus the city had introduced its rent control program, so my parents could afford to start a family. At one point, they lived in the Queensbridge housing projects along with many other returning veterans and young brides. No one should underestimate how much these safety nets helped grow a middle class.
My father began his career working for another optometrist, but he bought some equipment and saw patients in his living room evenings after work. Eventually, my parents bought a 3-family home on 43rd Street in Sunnyside, Queens, just a few subway stops from midtown. My mother wasn’t thrilled with the house at first. She wanted something on the more fashionable north side of Queens Boulevard, closer to the almost tony, Sunnyside Gardens, but the wide two-way street was more commercial and would work better for my father’s business which they planned to run from the home. Besides, the houses on the south side were less expensive.
Our family’s sleeping quarters were upstairs. My brother’s bedroom had been a kitchen. They left the kitchen sink and cabinets, which he used for storage. The bed was placed where the kitchen table would logically have been. My grandmother had the bedroom next to his. My sister slept in what would have been the dining room had they used the upstairs kitchen. There was no closet, and the only window was off an air-shaft. It was necessary to walk through my sister’s bedroom to reach my parent’s bedroom behind it. My parents slept on a trundle bed, what they called “a high-riser”. There was also a couch and a piano in their room which served as a living room as well.
Downstairs, underneath my brother’s room, there was a working kitchen with an eat-in area. The room directly below my grandmother’s was used during the day as my father’s examination room and at night as a family room. In addition to the examination equipment, it featured a large console black and white television. The freestanding glass-slide projector for exams with its long metal snout became a moving object of terror in my nightmares. The examination chair which moved up and down was an enchanting as an amusement park ride. The office, where the frames were displayed, was under my sister’s walk-through bedroom. Years later, by the time I was old enough to have “sleepovers,” I would sneak down there with my friends to try on frames. There was an arch with a hard plastic room-dividing curtain (usually kept open) that separated the office from the waiting room (which was of course under my parent’s then bedroom). My father would sometimes host his weekly pinochle game in the waiting room, and on those rare occasions when we invited my cousins for holiday dinners, we’d open up a large metal folding table, put a cloth on it and turn the waiting room into a formal dining room.
Below the kitchen and examination room, there was a garage, barely wide enough for two cars. We rented out one of the spaces and tried not to scratch the tenant’s car when we got in or out of our own. There was a basement studio apartment more or less below the waiting room and office which we rented out to a single man with a cat.
After my grandmother was institutionalized, my sister moved into her bedroom. enjoying a brief period of privacy before I was born. My parents then tore down the wall between her old room and the living room creating a large space separated by only by an arch that made it seem even larger. They moved their trundle bed over to where my sister’s had been, added a hutch that served as their dresser but could pass as living room furniture. This room had huge casement windows as well as parquet hard wood floors. Like the waiting room below it and the studio below that, there was a nonworking brick fireplace decorated with faux-fireplace implements and electric logs that glowed and crackled.
In need of more lebensraum, my parents evicted the basement renter.and the studio became a laundry room/play room/family room. At one point in the early 1970’s, my then teenaged sister, painted the walls brown with royal blue doorways and ceiling. It served the same function for her and her friends as the Foreman’s basement did for that group on That Seventies Show.
Years later, after my mother was sure that my brother was gone for good, his room was renovated back into a kitchen and the downstairs kitchen became storage space. This meant that my mother had to sacrifice her beloved Chambers stove which initially had been brought in with a crane and had required taking out the kitchen window. Given that the upstairs kitchen window had a fire escape, there was simply no way to bring the Chambers up. The Chambers sat unused and ignored. Here’s a picture of the “new” (circa 1973) kitchen as it looked shortly before the house was sold in 2006.
After I moved out, my parent’s bought a proper bed and a bedroom set and moved their things into the bedroom my sister and I had shared. Now that they didn’t need to pull out the trundle bed every night, they bought a dining room set and placed it in the front part of the living room.
During the mid to late seventies, my brother moved into the basement while he finished a degree and looked for a job. A couple of years after he vacated, I moved into the studio while “between apartments” for a few years. Despite the Too Close for Comfort vibe, it wasn’t bad, close to Manhattan, and walking distance from my job. On very sunny days, at just the right time in the afternoon, if I opened the curtains and sat under the window, I could even read without a lamp. I used the private entrance by the garage, and was mostly left alone. At one point, nursing a slightly broken heart, I painted the fridge yellow with black and white checks, something I might not have dared to do if I hadn’t been close to the landlord.
As my parents grew older, they didn’t maintain the place as they should have. . The waiting room furniture, mostly purchased in the early 1960’s including a sun-faded beige couch with clear plastic cover that was a hand-me down from the residence, remained long after my father retired.
During the final weeks of my father’s life, when he was bedridden, strange things began to occur. All of the air conditioners, except the one in his bedroom, stopped working. When it rained, water would come through the skylight. The downstairs bathroom light shorted out and the electrician discovered a potentially hazardous leak coming from the upstairs shower. Circuit breakers popped constantly and windows refused to open or slammed themselves shut.
My father whose cognition was by then bit muddled became agitated and kept muttering something about the house and the “clockwork running down.” He tried to give me instructions, but none of it was comprehensible. I’d rub his bony shoulder and ask him if he wanted more morphine.
My sister and I joked about the whole place imploding once he was gone.
As many of the relatives were elderly and could barely make it up the front steps, we sat shiva downstairs in the waiting room/parlor. My sister scurried my mother to her Albany home within a week of the funeral.
A couple of months later, I was in the living room supervising two men helping me load a truck with the furniture that would go to my mother’s new apartment in an assisted living facility near my sister’s. As they were bubble wrapping a glass tabletop, my father’s trumpet, which was sitting on a TV snack table in a far corner of the room, crashed to the floor. There was no vibration or anything that could have accounted for its sudden movement. I immediately apologized to my father and explained why we were taking the furniture and for whom. The men, from a culture where talking to the deceased is not considered odd, waited patiently.
The house was sold in early 2006, when the market was still good. With fancy luxary condos coming up in adjacent Long Island City, Sunnyside’s fortunes were rising.
I never stepped into the house after the sale, but passed by occasionally while they were renovating. I knew the buyers were planning to fix it up, and rent out each unit. From the outside I could see new walls and doors. The plan was for both the first and second floor to be functional two bedrooms. They fixed up the patio even adding lawn furniture and built a front entrance for the basement. I managed to find pictures of the renovated apartments in the rental listings on Craigslist. The asking price for the wider upstairs apartment was $2,400 which seemed absurdly high, and who knows what they got in the end. The bathrooms were redone, eliminating the distinctive stall showers with the glass doors which featured both sideways and overhead sprinklers. The kitchens were completely updated and of course the Chambers was gone. They kept the original parquet floor upstairs, and found the one downstairs buried below the ugly carpet. They left the fireplaces. There were no pictures of the renovated “ground floor” studio ($950 a month). I wonder if the radiator still sits oddly on the ceiling, and hope they didn’t get rid of the original concrete floor tiles.
I still stop by the house from time to time though I neither live nor work anywhere nearby. One day, when I can no longer stand it, I will knock on the apartment doors and ask to go inside. I will avoid the temptation to tell them I may have left something behind.