I’m just avoiding you

I have a new theory of parenting. (For those of you keeping score at home, this brings my sum total of parenting insights to: 2.) I think you are going to like this one, because subscribing to it requires very little effort on your part, and if you are anything like me, then that is exactly the kind of parenting theory you can get behind.

And it starts with nail clippers. Someone gave me a pair of infant nail clippers when I was pregnant and warned me that clipping the new baby’s nails would be the very worst part of my parenting experience (apparently, this person had a child who had not yet hit the dreaded threes, or she probably would have given me a bottle of whiskey instead to prepare me for the path ahead.)

So I took the nail clippers with some trepidation and gave them a place of honor among the baby’s stuff carefully arrayed in the soon-to-be-nursery (that’s right, we had a house then. It had rooms. I miss rooms.) and when the baby finally arrived and it took three of us to bathe, diaper, and dress him, I glimpsed the dreaded clippers and thought “Oh no! Not that, too! I can’t face it! I’m not ready!”

So I just didn’t face it. His nails never got particularly long, he didn’t cover himself in scratches. I figured his toenails would get long enough to resemble some hex from the Half Blood Prince, but they just seemed to never grow very much.

“Hmm,” I thought. “Well, if they get really long, I’ll give it a go, but since everything seems fine right now, I’ll just put these torture clippers away.” And I probably put them right next to the onion goggles.

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“Some have two feet and some have four. Some have six feet and some have more.”

And our second appeared also to have no real need to have anything clipped. Maybe they have some sort of non-nail-growing gene, I shrugged. And probably never thought about it again. Until this weekend, when I watched my older son wander over to my dresser, pick up my nail clippers and trim his own nails.

Avoidance, people. It works. 

I should go back in time and avoid potty training! I’m sure they would have picked it up on their own by now. We should just stop putting so much damn work into this.

Last week, at one of my various school pick-ups, I was eavesdropping on another mom tear out her hair over her kids and their insistence on singing that pop anthem “Shut up and Dance” (With me! Go ahead, sing along at home!) Apparently, use of the phrase “shut up” is verboten in their household and she is driving herself bonkers trying to keep her kids from singing this song. (Based on my own experience, it is impossible to remove this song from one’s head without surgery) But, she has tried to push a kid-friendly version of “Get up and dance” on them to no avail. And as she bemoaned this lack of success, I thought, “I don’t think I would go to the mattresses over this.” Because, once you go there, you have to pitch a tent and live there under your flag. Until the last fallen warrior is carried away.

And eventually, she’ll look back at the Battle of Walk-the-Moon. But I bet next time, she is going to embrace avoidance parenting.

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Joy, and Stuff

You guys know we live in a tiny apartment, right?  Perhaps you’ve also gathered that there are, at last count,  four of us in here–and two of us are kids!

And of course, all of us have stuff. Some of that stuff is toys. And clothes. And food. And books. And wine. So, we have the essentials. And there’s also an extra lampshade, with no lamp–don’t ask. And a sewing machine, giant volcano, tin can robot, postage scale, a basket full of rocks, a cordless drill, and several thousand of the Mister’s random bags of crap.

As you might imagine, the Fun Apartment can feel pretty crowded. Keeping a clear path  requires constant vigilance and many executive decisions made while everyone else is at school or work. (And no, I haven’t seen your bag with the old lock parts in it. Stop asking.)

I’ve written before about how I feel constant pressure to purge and unclutter.* So, it was inevitable, I suppose, that I would end up writing about Marie Kondo and her “life-changing” magic.

Have I read the book? Well, no, not the whole thing. But it is in the bathroom, and I’ve flipped through it. And yes, parts of it make plenty of sense to me. But not all the parts. “One theme underlying my method of tidying is transforming the home into a sacred space, a power spot filled with pure energy.”**  Yeah, I really can’t see that happening around here.

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Good thing we have shelves.

 

So we’re not totally converting to this new religion. But, like I said, it takes constant vigilance to keep the producers of Hoarders at bay. So I thought we’d just try to do some magic tidying and see how that worked out for us.

I’m not sure why I chose to take my organizational stand in the bathroom, with the wash cloths. But there they were: a bin overflowing with washcloths. Some of you may remember this pile of washcloths as the sea monkey mass grave. “Perhaps I could tidy those,” I suggested to myself. But there were a lot of them and rearranging them in the bin didn’t really produce the promised life-changing magic. So, I asked the man of my dreams about getting some of those tall odd-shaped drawers to curb the washcloths.*** But instead of agreeing to drawers, he suggested we just go through the washcloths and get rid of a bunch, until we came to a manageable quantity. Now, I am not one to quash the Mister’s purging urge, as he is only seized by this urge . . . Umm is there a word that means “every five years”? Quintennially? Maybe he has been reading in the bathroom, as well. Anyway, we dutifully went through our washcloth collection and decluttered. We were joining the choir. We were one step closer to a home filled with “pure energy.”

At least, we were, until the kids came down with pink eye.

(I will pause here so you can reassure yourselves that your eyes are not really itchy, but perhaps you should wipe down your screened devices anyway.)

That’s right, we suddenly found that what we needed were washcloths. Lots. Of Washcloths. Approximately the same number we had just unloaded. And we needed them right away. Suddenly, that decluttering urge seemed more like hubris or idiocy.

So we had not nearly enough washcloths to gt us through the pink eye. But we did have protective eye gear! A few years ago, some well-intentioned soul gave me a pair of goggles to wear while chopping onions, to prevent one from crying. While I have cried in the kitchen, it is usually for reasons pertaining to the presence of a large mountain of dishes and the absence of a dishwasher. I didn’t really need the goggles, but we held on to them, because well, I guess they just became part of the landscape. Maybe they’d be useful someday?

And sure enough: their time came! When your kid has pink eye and isn’t allowed to touch his eyes, it turns out that onion chopping goggles are exactly what you need. Pretty smart holding on to them all this time, wasn’t I?

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Safety first.

I’m sure that this whole life-changing magic is great for a lot of people. It’s probably perfect for real grown-ups, people better at adulting. But it seems like it’s not for us. Pink eye has taught me that I am not all that interested in having a home full of pure energy.  I’d rather have a home full of people I love, the things we need, the things we love, and a pair of onion chopping goggles.

Sure, I’ll still man the guns at clean-up time, but it turns out I actually like living with a bunch of interesting, useful stuff. Would it change my life to simply toss out a bunch of this stuff? Sure, but not necessarily for the better. Here at the Fun Apartment, life is magical enough.

*Martha Stewart’s last email was downright bossy about it: “Eliminate clutter.” Anytime a subject line includes the word “eliminate,” it just gives off a sinister tone.I begin to think about the clutter taking its family, assuming a new identity, and going into hiding until the reign of terror has ended.

**p. 161. I can’t make this stuff up.

***I do realize that her method is not to buy more storage space (That is the job of the Container Store’s marketing department) but I thought even just trying to wrangle some of the chaos into tidiness might help with the magic and pure energy business.

 

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Tribal

You’ll have to excuse us at the Fun Apartment this month. We have birthday fatigue. Our Little grew a bit bigger a week or so ago and, well, the jump from four to five required quite a lot of effort and energy.

See, in New York, it is hard to just . . . have a birthday party. At least, it is hard to have a birthday party attended by more than one child. So we have been putting off whole the “birthday party with your friends” business because, well, there are difficulties to be faced. But we thought, if we kept it small in stature and size–only his three close friends–then it might just be manageable.

The main difficulty, as it always is in New York City, is space. It is at a premium, especially around the Fun Apartment where one kid coming over for a play date creates a standing room only situation. Also, all of our extra chairs are broken in various eyebrow-raising ways. We could go outside, of course. There are parks and playgrounds, but these will probably be too cold to sustain a party longer than half an hour — what poor planning to have winter children! We could try an expedition party and head off to some fun destination, but then one has to schlep a cake and gifts through the zoo or a museum, while still keeping track of the guests. (Telling another parent that you are sure that you saw their child somewhere in the room with the giant whale, an hour previous, tends to put a damper on budding friendships.) And our local restaurants will demand a rather exorbitant fee for the disruption that a party of five-year-olds would provide. Or they might just laugh in your face.

So our inner party-planners were stymied, and decided to sleep on it. That is, until we realized that the ideal party space lay not two feet from our sleeping heads! Our beloved neighbors recently decamped to Brooklyn in order to accommodate two new roommates: twin girls. Their apartment–Ready to rent! You could live there!–was standing empty. So they graciously allowed us to have a riotous party in their former living room.

Space problem resolved, we tackled the problem of theme. If only indecision could be considered a party theme. An early birthday present of a woolly mammoth convinced the birthday boy that an ice age-themed party was his heart’s most intense desire. But, just like last year, after I had already bought the sharks, he changed his mind, a mere five days before the guests were due to arrive. Wild Kratts, he insisted, was his one and only party idea. While I love these crazy bros, I was not so eager to embrace this new idea. But, because, I am able to see the bright side of everything, I did not collapse into a(nother) screaming panicking fit. Instead, I patted myself on the back for my foresight in accidentally holding onto our amazon prime membership I signed up for to get the Christmas presents here on time. (How was I to know that you had to actually cancel after the one month free trial??) Smart by accident again!” I congratulated myself, while clicking on the free two day shipping button! Soon, small quantities of various animal print goodies arrived at our door.

(Although, I will pause here to concur with a friend who thinks that it would be good for us all as a society, if we agreed to give up on this whole goody bag thing. Although I do like the idea of giving presents on one’s birthday, instead of expecting them. But what to do with all those random little items? I have a special bin, specifically for “small toys we got for free somewhere!” Perhaps I sort too much. At any rate, I digress too much.)

I even managed a crafty type thing I’ve been intending to do for years. “I know!” I thought. “I’ll clean out all these random broken crayons and melt them down into rainbow crayons! They’ll be perfect for the birthday party! They are recycled! There may now be room in the crayon bucket for all the crayons! I am a such a domestic demi-goddess / mad genius!” Naturally, this project was a disaster start to finish. After I wore my fingernails down to brightly colored stubs, the Mister asked “Why didn’t you just soak them to remove the paper?” Luckily we didn’t have to go to the emergency room to remove the crayons I stuffed up his nose. Chopping and melting the crayons was easy, but Martha Stewart neglected to mention that this process turn your previously-serviceable muffin tins into a brown field super fund site. And the rainbow crayons, while kind of cool looking, only color on one side. And they looked so interesting and unrecognizable that one unfortunate party guest mistook them for a colorful snack.

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Me love cookies.

But despite my domestic demigoddess failings, it was a wildly, successful birthday party. And it was grand! My son and his three besties ran rampant. We opened the door to the Fun Apartment, and the door to the neighbors’ cool, enormous empty apartment and the guests immediately sorted themselves. The kids dove headlong into the Fun Apartment, pulling down every toy bin in reach (and a few I’m not entirely sure how they got to),  while their parents enjoyed some adult celebrating in the cool whiteness of the neighbors’ apartment. I have always maintained that the secret to a good kid’s party is in the cocktails. Thus, I found myself at Chelsea Wine Vault asking the rather unlikely question: “What wine would you recommend for a five year old’s birthday party?” They picked a winner!

“Should we go check on the kids next door?” I asked, setting down my wineglass. This naive statement earned me such withering looks of pity–looks that said “No, of course not, you foolish woman. They are fine and will find us if they are bleeding.”

“I could really get good at this parenting of increasingly independent children,” I thought, passing the bottle around again.

The lads eventually joined us to wrestle in a large pile at the center of all that empty space. Then they invented a game that involved throwing their inflatable animals at each other. I’m sure it was something totally sanctioned by the Wild Kratts: Living Free and In the Wild!

 

Keep on creature adventuring!

Our guests stumbled home when the threat of bed time began to loom. I even thought about how fun it would be if we woke up in the morning with the three extra kids in residence. But alas, or luckily, they all departed for home–hopefully two steps ahead of an impending meltdown.

But by the time the school birthday party rolled around, I had run out of celebration stamina. Fridays are rough around here anyway and when you throw in attempting to make rice krispie treats with uncooperative marshmallows, let’s just say that the bloody decimated bodies of Snap, Krackle, and Pop, or those of their bastard cousins from Trader Joe’s, were littered throughout the Fun Apartment’s kitchen. I kept expecting the Keebler Elves to show up with some crime scene tape. And I showed up late at school anyway. But at least nobody took a bite of the rainbow crayons.

Another reason to celebrate: this little guy’s birthday is also a party for all of us Fun Apartment residents, because it was on his first full day in the world that we decided to move back to New York, in a post-natal haze, with only a vague sense of, oh who the hell knows what to guide us. “If New York is in your heart,” said a friend, ” then that is where you need to go!” But for the longest time after we moved, even we–the Fun Apartment natives–weren’t sure that we had made the right call. After Little’s first birthday–a walk along the high line with balloons–even after champagne, the man of my dreams and I cried a little. “Did we make the right choice?” We asked. After giving up good jobs, an awesome house with lots of space, we weren’t sure we had arrived in Paradise. Instead the Fun Apartment felt more like Easter island. We moved here only to accustom ourselves to ever-increasing, ever-more expensive hardship. “Will he ever have a birthday where we don’t cry ourselves to sleep, in between kicking ourselves?” We wondered.

The long view won out, of course. This month, along with the Little’s birthday, it felt like we actually celebrated our 5th anniversary of Fun Apartment living, rather than just marking it by nodding solemnly at each other. Five years is more than twice as long as we planned to stay, but hey, plans change. We are finding our tribe. And loving it.

 

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Lots of love. I mean, LOTS.

Valentine’s Day kind of caught me off guard this year. Maybe it was the way it happened two days early. The school district used some sleight of hand to slip in an extra week off. In the middle of February. (Kid reaction: Yay! Parent reaction: Eek! What are you kids doing here? Shouldn’t you be in school? Learning?)

Anyway because of this smoke and mirrors break, I had to scramble to pull some heart-y type stuff together in time for school Valentine’s Day parties on Friday. Unfortunately, other, smarter parents with better calendar management skills had beaten me to the drugstore. So I trolled around for other ideas. (Thanks, Popsugar! I was almost starting to feel comfortable with my own inadequacy until you came along!)

And in my inadequate scramble, scrolling through 762 Valentine card ideas, I began to feel like Valentine’s Day is a little creepy. I mean, do we really want elementary school kids declaring their undying love for everyone in their class, like I did at parties in my twenties? (“I just feel so close to you guys right now. I love you all! Let’s hug! And have more wine!”) I’d be happy if we didn’t push the idea of romantic love on these kids until . . . well, I don’t actually know when I’ll be ready for that to happen. Grad school, maybe?

Anyway, this whole holiday just seems kinda creepy when you put it in a kid context, doesn’t it? Around the 538th glow stick card, declaring how another kids lights up my kid’s life, I wanted to shower, and then give the kids a bath. And I don’t think my seven year old can call all the people who gave him candy hearts emblazoned with “Call me!” until he get a phone. In middle school, if he’s lucky.

“This is kind of inappropriate,” I thought to myself. And then I thought of several, even more wildly inappropriate Valentine messages that would definitely call for my removal from the PTA’s sucker list. Now my mind is full of off-color glow stick innuendo and if either kid comes home with bubbles in their Valentine haul, I am going to need to be ventilated to stop giggling and snorting. (At least, that’s how the people at Party City revived me, with their balloon tanks.)

But somehow, I did convince myself to try and find some simple valentines that would not require hours of assembly, cost the Hope Diamond, or make my kids seem weird. And they had to come in some combination that adds up to 30.

And we managed to tape a lot of construction paper* hearts to happy-face pencils, without undue discord on the marital front, because that would really go against the spirit of the thing,wouldn’t it? So I did it while the Mister was working late and I made the kids write all the names. For the little guy, this was sort of the equivalent of writing a volume  of Game of Thrones. But he managed it, so maybe he’ll be a wildly successful sci-fi/fantasy novelist someday. That’s something to look forward to!

And, upon awaking on actual Valentine’s Day, two boys who are all knees and elbows slipped into our bed. They had noticed the boxes of candy hearts on the table, but we’re worried that I didn’t have any Valentines, because there were no candy hearts at my place. It’s true, those clever other parents had already cleared the drugstore shelves of my beloved sweet-tart hearts, so I figured that I would just steal the white ones from their candy heart boxes and call it a day.

“Don’t worry,” I assured them. “I’m sure Papa has a great big fancy surprise Valentine for me.” The boys accepted this answer, but the Man of My Dreams choked somewhat hesitantly before he went on with his pretend snoring. Ah, marriage.

Maybe my gift is that he will remember to wipe down the countertops after he does the dishes. I will keep my fingers crossed!

In the meantime, a cozy day in the cozy Fun Apartment seems lovey-dovey enough for me. And I hope that feeling lasts all the way through the completely made-up winter break holiday.

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I wear my heart on a stick.

*Why is it called construction paper? Only one of the three little pigs would be stupid enough to build a house out of it!

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Containment 

With all of the holiday bounty comes another uniquely Fun Apartment moment: finding places to actually put away the new toys, all of which seem to be enormously larger than last year’s toys.

So, first comes the purge. I have been sneaking old stuff out of the fun apartment all week (hey, I’m basically unsupervised all day, what did they think was going to happen?) I have a sort of de-cluttering quirk that allows me to give away basically anything we own, as long as I know it is going to a good home. (The flip-side of this quirk is that I have a lot of stuff we are hanging onto because I just know there is a good home for it out there somewhere. Wow, do I hope my knocked up sister has a boy, because that would clear out half of our basement storage closet in a single shipment!)

Because things can really pile up around here. And I seem to be the only one who raises even one eyebrow at the piles. Sure, we live in a small place, there’s going to be stuff around, but sometimes a girl might want to see some flat unoccupied space, like a table top, without waiting for the accompanying unicorn or blood moon. We heard this study on the radio a few days ago (my bit is at the end) and I was basically jumping up and down pointing at the radio, while the man of my dreams shrugged charmingly at me. But science has proven: I am being neuro-chemically altered–in fact, poisoned!–by all this crap around here! Thank you Science! I am vindicated! Now, I have to go to the Salvation Army carrying these large plastic bags. And, no, I don’t know what happened to your magazines from 1998. Or Thomas the &*$#ing Tank Engine, but whatever happened to him, I’m sure he totally had it coming.

After the purge, more bins. Today I spent $35 on Lego storage. And I thought I was the one getting the bargain. I admit, I have a complicated relationship with this temple of organizational commerce. But it is the only place where I could remotely be considered a pop star. The clerk seemed to have his world-view shaken when I asked for “under-couch” storage bins. “Santa brought me several Lego storage problems,” I explained.

“Lego storage opportunities,” he corrected. They should give that guy a raise.

That’s what we have at the fun apartment: opportunities. Lots of opportunities.

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Ch-ch-changes

“We interrupt your irregularly posted blogs to bring you this.” Mrs. Fun Apartment was too much in overdrive for all of December playing elf – cookies, crafts, presents, and travel – to make any recent posts. To cut her a break while she recuperates with a glass of wine and the new season of Downton Abbey, her adoring husband has written up a bit of an interlude. . . .

Mid-November marked twenty years since I had closed on the sale of the Fun Apartment. For my own amusement if not yours, I wanted to take a measure of some of the changes around here since then:

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View through the railroad apartment just before demolition began on Day 3 of ownership. The little yellow stove is among the few things that remained after demolition was complete.

Today, the Fun Apartment is a sort of studio-one bedroom hybrid, opened up for the most part for light and air. In 1995, the railroad apartment was four distinct rooms that ranged from 70 square feet up to 140 square feet. The plastered walls, cracked and poorly patched, were all painted an all-too-chipper shade of yellow. The old wood floors had been covered over with vinyl tile. Everywhere! From kitchen straight through to bedroom. As now, one entered into the kitchen. But instead of having a bathroom walled off, this kitchen had a tub that was boxed in. There was no sink. At all. There was a small stove, also yellow, from about the mid 60s. That I kept and worked into the new design. And I also kept the claw-foot tub, after freeing it from its tiled wallboard enclosure. There was a refrigerator, belted with duct tape, that I had carted away before it might ever be opened.

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Behind the pipes for the missing sink is the claw-foot tub. On its underside, a stamp from the foundry dates it to 1924. After liberating it from this enclosure, I reset it in a new spot in a new bathroom. And it serves the boys (and ourselves) to this day.

Of the fifteen apartments in the building, ours was about the third to be owned by a tenant-shareholder. The rest of the apartments held residents living on old rent-controlled and rent-stabilized leases. A number of those leases were for less than $100 a month at the time! Today, only four remain as such. Among the folks gone now were:

Tom Hudson, apartment 4R. The next-door neighbor who moved in during the early 70s. He was the one who informed me that a woman who lived in our 480-square-foot apartment had raised six boys here, all of whom grew up to become NYC cops. At not that old an age, Tom died in the heatwave of July 1999. Sadly, his remains were found too late to be included in the tally of the victims of the heat.

Clarence and ?, apartment 3E. Below me was an elderly pair of men. One clearly suffered from Alzheimer’s or the like. He would yell viciously at his partner many a night, with the sound carried perfectly clearly through our common air-shaft.

Laura Gonzales, apartment 1E. The somewhat daft but entirely friendly old lady on the first floor was quick to chat and share gossip. Did she herself tell me that it was fetal alcohol poisoning that had made her son not quite right? In any case, her grown son, who would frequently come around, clearly had, um, issues.

Anna Pinto, apartment 5E. Well before my time, Barneys New York relocated a bunch of tenants from their buildings on Seventh Avenue to this building. That included Anna. Her severe osteoporosis, giving her posture nearly a 90 degree bend, made my own chronically slouched shoulders seem ram-rod straight. Getting outside only once per week, Anna had the smoothest skin imaginable right into her seventies. And she would wear her winter coat during almost every season of the year. Living on the fifth floor of an elevator-less building, she regularly accepted help getting her weekly haul of groceries up the stairs. But, if no one were around, she would get them up by herself, slowly but surely.

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Nearly the same view as above (on Day 3), but this might have been Day 70. The bars on the fire-escape window were a holdover from days when the neighborhood was iffier.

If the apartment and the building have undergone thorough transformations, so has the neighborhood – every bit as dramatic or more.

ON THE BLOCK
The block itself doesn’t look all too different – even as the population has shifted toward a more affluent set. Just next door, a somewhat pricey hair salon replaced a small bodega that sold candy and sodas to schoolkids. Across the street, the old local Intermediate School (I.S. 70) was phased out and closed. In its place came The Lab School, now one of Manhattan’s most competitive public middle schools. (Why is there jockeying for seats among fifth graders in public schools? Only in New York!)

Though I have heard of times when our mid-block playground was too much of a drug market for others to use, I never witnessed those days. As I understand it, much of that got shut down around the neighborhood after the Drug Enforcement Agency established a bureau at 17th Street and 10th Avenue. Still, some strains remained in 1995. A few doors down from us (different building but same co-op), there had been a dealer living on a rent-controlled lease. The laws so overwhelmingly favor tenants that it’s not easy to evict even a bad apple like him. But the co-op did succeed in getting him out, circa 1997, after one of his clients overdosed and died just off the public corridor. For real.

The most obvious changes on the block all occurred down at the corner of Ninth Avenue. When I came around, there was an outpost of Covenant House, the stopping place for run-aways. They had taken over the funky pair of buildings constructed in the 1960s as a retirement home for old merchant marines. Not long my arrival, Covenant House slapped a funny little façade along 17th Street for the bottom two stories of their twelve-story building. The intent was to make it look more like a row of brownstones. But the scale, accuracy, and craftsmanship all fell short. And the results were absolutely ridiculous. I just wish I had a photograph to show how dreadful it was. The next owner was an arm of the Chinese government, which used it for a few years as a dorm for visiting scholars or such. And then after them came the Maritime Hotel. And the Dream Hotel [Handel Architects]. Those boutique hotels remain there to this day. With everything else going on around here, I guess that their view to the Robert Fulton House projects across the avenue doesn’t much matter for their guests. But the more the neighborhood goes upscale, the more I appreciate how that stretch of public housing keeps the area anchored in reality.

FROM THE RIVER TO TENTH AVENUE
Chelsea Piers Sports Complex had only recently opened in 1995. North and South of there, the Hudson River Park – with its popular playgrounds and biking/jogging paths – was just in the planning stages. Even still, that park was further along than the Highline was. In 1995, the Highline was a hulking mass of unused and unloved infrastructure. This was four years before anyone broached the improbable idea of making it into a raised park that meanders down the lower Westside. I knew one person who had sneaked up in those days to walk along the old railroad tracks, where weeds and even trees had sprouted. I wish I’d done that same at the time when it could have been enjoyed raw and empty.

Among the sprawling brick warehouses and former factories lying west of Tenth Avenue, most were serving as industrial spaces or as nightclub venues in 1995. Now, many of them have been converted into art galleries. Or they’ve been torn down to make way for the high-rises for the uber rich. (See ‘Ins and Outs,’ below.) And Tenth Avenue remained fairly gritty. Industrial bits interspersed with the likes of The Roxy (closed 2007). I was reminded by a friend who lived on our block back at the time that, in 1995, Tenth Avenue was plied at night by transvestites (as opposed to the regular prostitutes who worked Ninth Avenue). These days, both avenues have gotten very well-heeled.

NINTH AVENUE AND THE MEAT PACKING DISTRICT
Over on Ninth Avenue, Nabisco’s old factory complex was yet to be reborn as Chelsea Market. When it first opened in the spring of 1997, Chelsea Market seemed to me like a nice enough place but maybe not that great an idea. Mostly, I just liked the fresh milk I could get there in glass bottles. I had no idea of what a destination it would become. Today, we have to brave the throngs of tourists if we want to get produce from Manhattan Fruit Exchange. Across the street, Google has taken over the mammoth Port Authority Building. In November 1995, Larry Page and Sergey Brin hadn’t yet started their search-engine. Down the avenue at 14th Street, a three-story building had been occupied by a local outpost of Western Beef — not one of New York’s upscale supermarket chains. As of 2008, that same building has housed a spiffy Apple Store, clean and clutter-free.

Below 14th, the Meatpacking District was still a meat-packing district in 1995. Apart from the odd bar or diner, it would shut down and be nearly deserted after dark. I made my way a couple of times to the long-standing restaurant, Florent. Sadly, the French chef closed down his 24-hour diner in 2008. Maybe he didn’t like having Apple around the corner. Or the Standard Hotel [Polshek Partnership, 2008], where Jay Z and Beyoncé come to visit. A block away from Florent was the old biker bar, Hogs & Heifers. Though I had never patronized it, I reveled in seeing it hold out amid all the changes. All the rest of the block and the neighborhood had changed as quickly and as drastically as Cinderella. In stark contrast to the old meat-packing warehouses colonized by the toniest of boutique stores, Hogs & Heifers was the only establishment I knew of down in the Meat-Packing District that remained as was. Was was the key word there. I’m sorry to learn that Hogs & Heifers also closed its doors just this past summer. Oh well. Maybe it didn’t do well by the crowds drawn by the recently opened Whitney Museum [Renzo Piano, 2015] that stands now between the Highline and the river. (From a recent walk though the neighborhood, I realize that there are still a handful of meat wholesalers that have remained, off to one side. Perhaps they are kept around to give an air of authenticity.)

Further up Ninth Avenue, stores had always catered to a more working class clientele. Bodegas. Run-down laundromat. Fish Market. Cheap liquor store. Now, the avenue has tipped toward upscale restaurants, fancy wine stores, and pricey cupcake shops.

EIGHTH AVENUE
Around the corner from us on Eighth Avenue, there had been a string of eight stores: bar, cigar shop, restaurants, coffee shop, clothing stores. Each one was independent. Now it’s all chains and franchisees: bank, drug store, fast-food joint, wireless phone store, and coffee shop. No moms or pops in sight. One of the lost establishments was a little coffee shop called The Paradise Café. Now we’ve got four Starbucks in the half-mile between 13th and 23rd. This stretch of Eighth Avenue has always had an abundance of restaurants. Still does. But I guess even the best of them close their doors eventually. Not a single one remains from 1995. The one we remember most fondly? Sam Chinita’s, in an old style diner with the look of an Aerostream trailer. After closing, it was reincarnated down the block, if less flashily, as La Chinita Linda. For all the choices among the hybrid Cuban-Chinese menu, we only ever ordered four things. Black beans. White rice. Fried plaintains. And sweet plaintains. Oh, and beer. Five things.

SEVENTH AVENUE
There isn’t much on Seventh Avenue that has ever held my attention. I would skip it entirely except I’d like to give honorable mention to a hold-out dating from 1920! When I started renovating the fun apartment, there had been an assortment of little hardware stores scattered throughout the neighborhood. As handy as those small and cluttered shops were, I made plenty of trips – by subway or bus no less – out to Home Depots in Flushing, Queens, or Secaucus, New Jersey, to haul back all manner of materials and tools. Now, there’s a Home Depot on 23rd Street and, just recently, a new Lowe’s on Sixth Avenue. And all of the little hardware stores have gone. All but one. (Well, the great Prince Hardware is still going strong on Ninth Avenue, but they shifted down by one block in the late nineties.)

SIXTH AVENUE
Speaking of Sixth Avenue, it didn’t yet have Bed Bath & Beyond or The Container Store or Trader Joe’s or any of the other big-ticket tenants. However, it did have Apex Tech

– the trade school that routinely advertised during the afternoon reruns I had watched throughout my childhood. (“Remember: I can’t call you. You have to make the first step.”)

LAST BUT NOT LEAST
Here are a couple of other changes. One – the Empire State Building. Not new, of course. Nor Chelsea for that matter. But the Fun Apartment does have a decent view to it from one window. And, yes, it has changed in the last two decades. For untold years, the upper reaches of the Empire State Building have been bathed in light after dusk. And then it would go dark promptly at midnight. You could set your watch to it. I liked that. If you were up and out late, it reminded you (or reassured you) as much. However, during our Philadelphia interlude, they re-fitted the landmark’s lighting system with LED fixtures. I’m all for saving energy where you can. But this upgrade came with two major drawbacks. For one, they let the too-cheap-to-meter LEDs burn until all hours of the night. I wouldn’t mind it so much if they just picked a time. One AM. Two AM. But there’s no consistency. It can be found lit up at 4 AM or in the dark at 3 AM. So disappointing!

Worse yet are the colors. Then as now, they pick colors to fit the day. Holidays, sport teams, whathaveyou. But the colors used to be simple and staid. It was often just one color. Sometimes they banded a second color around the highest tiers. Today, I am grateful for days when they use just one or two colors. All too often, they take their inspiration from candy-canes and juke-boxes. They pay no heed to the shape of the building as they tart it up in four or five or more colors. Worst of all are the nights when they rotate the colors like some pinball machine. New York City may not amount to much more than one huge amusement park, but they don’t have to make it so obvious. Ugh!

The most significant change in twenty years? Our two boys of course. When I designed the new layout and started work on it, I hoped to make the apartment cozy enough to fit two comfortably. Although it was four-plus years before I met the future Mrs. Fun Apartment, the idea crossed my mind that I might want the place to accommodate a, um, roommate. What had not crossed my mind was accommodating three roommates! Now, if we could only figure a way to start collecting rent from those little guys . . . .

 

INS AND OUTS – for a partial record of what has come and gone around the neighborhood in these last twenty years . . .

Out went a bodega next door to us (Circa 2002). In came a hair salon. (Circa 2002)

Out went the old local Intermediate School (I.S. 70). In came The Lab School, one of Manhattan’s most popular test-based public middle school.

Out went Mr. Pizza, a pizza joint at the corner. In came a hip noodle shop, Nooch, circa 2003. Out went Nooch, circa 2011, and in came a Koffeecake Kafe (which shut its doors last year and has yet to be replaced).

Out went Alley’s End – a cozy, windowless restaurant on our block where I had taken the future Mrs. Fun Apartment on a ‘blind date.’ In came Sueños (which we never tried). Out went Sueños. Now it still sits empty.

Out went Camouflage, circa 2014 (a stand-alone clothing store that featured stylish men’s clothing). In came a Caffe Bene (2015).

For the two brownstones on our block and countless others in the neighborhood, out went the divisions of one or two apartments per floor. Renovations have taken them back to being single-family residences. For several years, Kevin Costner lived in a Chelsea brownstown on 21st Street. Other sources tell me that Kate Winslet lived a block over from us for some time. I am certain that no A-list actors lived in these parts in 1995.

Out went Covenant House, the stopping ground for run-away teens. In came a dormitory of sorts for the Chinese government (maybe 1997). Out went the Chinese dormitory, and in came the Maritime Hotel (maybe 1999).

Out went Eigen’s, a big old plumbing supply store on West 17th between 7th and 8th (circa 2007). Decorated with years of filth and disheveled boxes, Eigen’s was geared for the trade. But they had everything plumbing, and served well for the random apartment renovator. After the old paint and grime was stripped down and an addition doubled the height of the building, in came a set of high-end residences.

Out went Barnes & Noble.com as the main tenant at the hulking Port Authority Building a block south of us. In came Google (buying the whole building in 2010 for $1.9 billion with a ‘B’). Out went a decent-sized post office along Ninth Avenue, relocating immediately next door in space that’s a fraction of the original size. The old post office space remains empty. At the other side of the building over on Eighth Avenue, out went a bank of Citibank ATMs (Nov 2015). Not sure what’s to come. Out-going is Banana Republic as the anchor retail tenant in this huge complex. I don’t think they were there in 1995, but they’ve been there for the vast majority of those years. They’ll be closed for good after Tuesday. Not sure what’s coming next. Maybe Google needs some retail space to showcase their glasses and cars and god-knows-what.

Out went a manufacturer that produced ductwork on 18th Street (circa 1999). In came the event space The Metropolitan Pavilion. On that same block, Midtown Electric has somehow held on through all these years.

Out went the switches & offices in the 1930s telephone building (circa 2012). After something like two years of renovations, in came – you guessed it – high-end residences. (‘High-end’ like how? Like penthouses were offered for $30 million or more. Or for rent at a mere $75,000 per month.)

Out went – not sure – low-end offices that had replaced old sweat-shops, in came Publishers Weekly offices (late 90s). Out went PW, in came the New York offices for Twitter (2015).

Out went Sam Chinita’s cuban-chinese diner in a vintage stainless steel diner exterior and non-descript interior at 19th and 8th. In came a Greek fish restaurant, reclad in an entirely blah façade. Out went the fish restaurant. After many years has been shut down and boarded up, something is finally coming back around. Not sure what.

Down around the Meat Packing District. .  .
Out went the restaurant Florent down on Gansevort Street. In came . . . not sure.
Out went Hogs & Heifers biker bar (August, 2015). In came . . . nothing as of yet.
Out went I don’t even remember what — a mix of nothing stores and maybe some industrial shops and boarded up storefronts with perhaps a hidden nightclub in the mix. In has come fancy boutique and splashy store for seemingly everyone: Apple, Hugo Boss, Pategonia, Diane Von Furstenburg.

Out went any number of low-slung warehouse and garages stretching long and wide between 10th and 11th Avenues. In came a series of new buildings that ring the river or the Highline. Many of the new buildings that have sprouted up are by star architects: Frank Gehry, Jean Nouvelle, Shigeru Ban, Neil Denari, a handful by Annabelle Selldorf, and another handful by Morris Adjmi.

Out went a medium security state penitentiary for woman over on West Street (2012, after Hurricane Sandy). Nothing new in yet, but plans are afoot.

Out went Sam Chinita’s cuban-chinese diner in a vintage stainless steel diner exterior and non-descript interior at 19th and 8th. In came a Greek fish restaurant, reclad in an entirely blah façade. Out went the fish restaurant. After many years has been shut down and boarded up, something is finally coming back around. Not sure what.

The more things change, the more they stay the same. There are some 90 establishments fronting Eighth Avenue among the seven blocks between 14th and 21st street. By my count, only nine or ten are the same businesses that were there in ‘95. A Western Union below 15th. A neighborhood dive bar and a poster shop near 17th, a laundromat and a dry-cleaners near 18th, the Joyce Theater at 19th, a Salvation Army store, a pizza joint, and a bodega at 21st, and maybe a Korean deli or a second laundromat that I’m forgetting. Of the whole set of 90 shops, about 26 are restaurants and an additional 15 other types of food establishments. As a make-up of the neighborhood, that proportion has held steady. And that neighborhood bar (that makes claim to also being a restaurant) has been a constant. But all the other 40 have changed over at least once in the intervening years.

For any others who knew the neighborhood from back when, what am I forgetting?

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Workshoppy

Now that the holiday craziness is over, I have time to write everything I have been thinking about holiday craziness. So, guess what happened here at the Fun Apartment in Decmber? It was projects! A. Lot. of Projects! We were very busy in Santa’s Sweatshop.

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I have no idea why your hammer smells minty. I think you are imagining things.

For instance, there are the Christmas cookies. The fourteen kinds I made this December, and then forbade my household to eat. And now I have lots of leftover, slightly stale cookies. That was bad planning on my part, especially for my new January theme: “cleanliness is next to Momliness.”

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White chocolate. Peanut butter. Marshmallows. Grandma was right.

But Midwesterners often express their love through butter. And one thing I love about the holidays, among the bajazillion other things I love about the holidays, is that it is one thousand percent acceptable to invite people over and ply them with cookies and drinks and call it dinner! Cheers!


There is also this job I invented for myself: making embroidered felt ornaments for everyone. I love making them, but I have to make rather a lot, and I am running out of holiday themed items that can be reproduced in felt. Somehow I have a sad feeling that next year’s ornaments will be a mini felt Christmas potholder and roll of scotch tape. (Suggestions gleefully accepted!)

And let’s not forget these dudes. Apparently all the dinosaurs at the Fun Apartment never heard about that whole K/T barrier business. Or I am running some sort of dinosaur safe house in the Mesozoic extinction level event witness protection program.

Also, if I ever hear the words “shutter” and “fly” together, I will start to throw knives around.

But, really, I love all the doing. Because, for us, or well me at any rate, Christmas is just a lot of projects! In fact, the lads and I spent most of Christmas Eve engaged in one sort of holiday craft or another, largely because I needed them to be occupied while I was madly embroidering, and because the YMCA insisted that I spend the day with the boys, rather than dumping them in childcare while I went to kickboxing. But it was fun, because, well, they’re my kids after all, so they love complicated projects.

Because of this tremendous project list, however, I have very little energy to disguise my handwriting to fake correspondence from Elf on the Shelf. I wish he were back in Africa. One wise woman told me recently, “Don’t you know? All magical creatures type!” She’s right. They do (now).

However, we encountered one major holiday problem here at the Fun Apartment: the deplorable lack of good hiding places for presents. In a normal household, people just hide their presents in some secret, out-of-the-way spot. But at the Fun Apartment, those secret out-of-the-way spots were colonized long ago by summer clothes or sea monkeys and therefore cannot possibly accommodate a large Lego set. Mommy had to get creative. Sometimes, I had to rely on the fact that they are not overly curious about the piles of random crap err detritus that seem to form all over the place without any encouragement from me and at a rate that would alarm the CDC. So, I just arranged these piles more artfully around holiday gifts shrouded in many layers of plastic shopping bags. I’m a little discouraged to say that this approach worked pretty well. Perhaps they are a little too accustomed to living cheek by jowl with those random piles. But I spent the whole week leading up to Christmas cringing inside whenever the boys gasped or said “Mommy! Look!” Luckily, though, none  of my stash houses were raided.

But this was also a problem when, at 11:30 on Christmas morning, my older son looked at his payload curiously. “Hey!” he said, poking through his Legos and whiskey for a gift he had already glimpsed bringing it home from school (Damn you Scholastic and your ridiculous packaging, too !) “Where’s my weather station?”

I stopped mid-coffee swig. I had hidden the weather station, and its co-presents, the oft-requested remote control monster trucks, somewhere so secret that I had forgotten its location entirely. But, of course, I couldn’t exactly go on a room to- um, well, a room search anyway, because then I would be revealing all my hiding places and expressly destroying my children’s belief in Santa.

Happily, the lad seemed to accept my snorting coffee out of my nose as an answer to this query, and I was able at last to locate these stray items by surreptitiously searching the one cupboard that I can reach without a ladder. And Santa trotted them at the next Christmas celebration we attended (We had five. Check the Shutterfly calendar: It’s a big family.)

Actually, one of my favorite holiday moments was sitting at Fika with a cup of coffee and a candy cane while I wrote out my holiday cards. Never mind that this cozy “holiday” moment happened on January 6. It still had that feel.

And, your holiday card is (finally) in the mail!

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Filed under Home Ec, I make things, Living Small, Mistakes I have made