After Many Apartments, a Home in the East Village

Michael Clemens lives and writes in the East Village. Here’s how he ended up here.

apt1Michael Clemens

Apartments in New York City are like family members. We like some more than others. We go back and see our favorites and our most hated from time to time, and realize how far we’ve come, or not, since we were last there. I’ve had six apartments in the ten years that I’ve lived here, and my current one, in the East Village, is my favorite.

When I was a student, Columbia provided me with a decent-sized bedroom on 113th Street. They charged about eight grand for the school year, and graciously lumped it into my student loans which will haunt me to the day I die. It overlooked the snow-capped rooftops of Morningside Heights and smelled like paint when the steam heating came on. I lived in it alone my first two semesters of school, and I had no idea how lucky I was.

There, I made fast friends with Daniel, a member of a gay-friendly literally society called Alpha Delta Phi. The society owned a brownstone on 114th Street across from the campus. It had a billiard room, a full copper-topped bar, a backyard and a roof deck, and a working fireplace with a moose head above it supposedly shot by Teddy Roosevelt.

As a kid from Texas I loved space, and as an aspiring pseudo intellectual I longed for the wood paneling and secrets. I got invited to join the group. My first room there was half the size of my room on 113th Street, cost the same and overlooked the hulking mass of Butler library. Late at night, drunk after parties downstairs, I’d look across to the kids diligently studying at the long tables. From my room I’d hear my neighbor across the hall, Irene, being spanked with a paddle. She was into S&M.

apt2Michael Clemens

I was shortly elected president of the society and picked the largest room in the basement that had windows onto the backyard. At the time, my addiction problems were in full swing. There was a separate entrance to the basement that I’d use to usher in and out various dubious individuals. The diner down the street knew to always knock on this door in the mornings with my hangover food. I always knew I was the right kind of high when I would hallucinate a bright blue cat sitting in the window. It would look into the room and twitch its tail now and then.

At the request of the university, I took some time off to recover and returned to their latest accommodation for me on Columbus and 108th Street. My roommate was a recovering Orthodox Jew who was suddenly in an apartment with a gay recovering addict and alcoholic. He was earnest and hardworking and I was a raw bundle of emotions just trying to get through the year to graduation. It came, and somehow I graduated.

After crashing for free on my friend Richard’s couch and at his country house in the Berkshires, I landed at an apartment in what I call Park Slope adjacent for $800 a month plus utilities. A strong gust off the nearby Gowanus would have knocked this rickety place down. I shared the apartment with one of the sweetest men I have ever met. I, on the other hand, had lost my tenuous grip on sobriety. I would come home after binges and call out sick from work.

After I was fired form that job, I would lie on the bed, sweating out the chemicals and self-hatred. The floors were so thin that I could hear every note and every word of my upstairs neighbors playing Guitar Hero. They’d yell and scream and pound their feet as my brain throbbed and I went in and out of stages of insanity and delusion.

I was given the gift of desperation at a particularly low moment in that apartment, and, as often happens, I met a man. He was stable, sober and Italian with a hairy chest. He was also as crazy as I was and we both needed each other to get through the different stages of life we were in. I quickly moved into his small rent-stabilized two-bedroom apartment on Second Avenue and Fifth Street. I occasionally pitched in a grand or so for rent. We fought, screamed, ignored each other for days and had bone-rattling good sex. All day and night we’d smell Frank’s restaurant downstairs cooking their tomato and meat gravy. The apartment’s windows all opened onto shaft ways. It was depressing but the best place to sleep in.

Things fizzled out and it became clear that I needed to move out. His ex lived next door with the woman that he married so she could stay in the country. Her boyfriend also lived there. I moved into a small well-lit bedroom in the back of the building that is perfectly quiet for a thousand dollars a month. The bed and walls are white and it’s like waking up in a cloud.

People have moved out, and others in. I’m sure there will be many more. My roommate has held the lease for seventeen years, and I still meet people who have crashed on the couch for a night or have been to a party here or have had a one-night stand with someone who no longer lives here. The floors are so noisy that when I walk to the bathroom in the morning before I sit down and write, it sounds like a herd of elephants are running through the apartment. Con Edison feels the need to tear up the street out front every Saturday morning at 6 a.m., and the upstairs neighbor likes to have loud angry sex first thing Sunday mornings.

But, like a brother, I love this place despite all its imperfections and history. On my best days I love it because of these things. It’s been many things to many people, and it will continue like this until some developer buys it and turns into some flimsy glass cake for NYU students with rich parents. It’s a part of the East Village. It’s inextricably linked to the lady who is always bumming cigarettes in front of the Kabin bar, to the guy with the old ties who hangs out in front of the police station on Fifth Street, to the big queen who holds court in the front area of the diner, to Mosaic Man and to me.

In this neighborhood and in this city the first thing we ask is, “Where do you live?” In the ten years I’ve lived here my answers have been Morningside Heights, my friend’s couch in the West Village, and Park Slope. My answer now is my proudest. I live in the East Village.