For the past few weeks, I’ve been waking at exactly 2:47 AM. Not sure why or what the significance is of that particular time. Sometimes I’ll get up and putter about trying not to disturb anyone else in the house – maybe pick up a book and try to untie my knots with someone else’s myths and fables. But usually my own are best and I’ll return to bed circling back to what was and lose myself in the sights and sounds of what came before.
The first apartment we rented on East 75th Street came to mind. It was a five floor walkup shouldered between a corner restaurant and a laundromat – a determined climb since I lived on the top floor and most stopped visiting because they just couldn’t make the trip up the stairs. Sometimes steep stairways can be a true test of friendship.
It was a small apartment, only two rooms, two closets, and a sub-compact Pullman kitchen built into the living room wall with a refrigerator, sink, and narrow 4 burner stove. Though the stove was small I baked my best and earliest breads and pies with a specialty in quiche Lorraines. It was The Brunette’s influence that brought me to that. Although we were both from The Boroughs – she from Queens and me from Brooklyn – she knew far more about the world than I did. I was rye bread. She was baguettes. But we both loved Keitel nd DeNiro in Mean Streets. Go figure.
I learned my baking from tasting. The Brunette took me by the hand across Third Avenue and introduced me to Bonte’s, a French patisserie I’d never noticed before. I didn’t know what a patisserie was since I was raised in neighborhood bakeries like Leon’s and the Ocean Breeze in Brighton Beach, about a block away from Forty Thieves where we drank egg creams . But at Bonte’s I saw crisp white uniforms and displays filled with brioche au chocolate, fresh croissants, fruit tartlets, and thin crusty baguettes we would buy and save for lunch. In turn, I introduced her to fresh bagels out of the oven on a Saturday night, real hot pastrami on seeded rye at Katz’s, and thick sour pickles picked out of bins and barrels.
I had first moved into the apartment on my own and the furniture I had was sparse with only a couch, donated rocking chair, and a formica table with vinyl chairs left by the previous renter. In the corner was a vintage laminated desk my brother had given me that I had been using since junior high. On the top was a fading picture of Alfred E. Newman that I had made from a stencil found in Mad magazine and filled in with a red felt tip pen. An aging portable typewriter half out of the carrying case sat on top.
The bedroom was a single six-drawer dresser bought from a moving company storage facility a few blocks away, a queen size matress on a steel frame, and a thickly knitted orange and red scatter rug that I had stapled to a dowel and hung on the wall as art. One complete side of the bedroom was covered with books neatly arranged on half a dozen long shelves that I had drilled and mounted into the wall. When The Brunette moved in, she took the other wall with her collection of classic literature and art next to my assembly of science fiction and poetry. It was a good blend. I remember it taking a large tub of spackle to repair the walls when I finally took the shelves down when we moved.
I don’t remember food shopping well although I do remember a Gristede’s around the corner. There was also a David’s Chicken filled with rotisserie cabinets that I would choose from at least once a week. A small chicken and two sides was less than ten dollars. Worked well into my budget. Then The Brunette moved in and taught me how to cook.
I did my own laundry usually taking it down to the laundromat on street level. It was a small shop with small machines and it gave me time to sit on the narrow bench and either read or study the passers-by. Eventually the family that owned the business turned it into a drop off service only and I couldn’t afford the extra dollar or three it took. So I would heave the soft duffle over my shoulder like a sailor going to sea and brought it to a larger laundromat on Second Avenue. I actually enjoyed sitting there, planted in front of the oversized spinning dryers, hypnotized by the swirl of color and sound. To some it was just the pump and drone of machinery but to me it was a calming celestial hum. I was a cheap date.
The Brunette and I only lived there for about five years and when we came to the decision to raise a family we knew it was time for larger space. We ended up in a two-bedroom apartment in Queens with a subway stop right down the block so we could commute to the city easily to our jobs. When Baby Joe was born, we planted him into a stroller and took him on the subway with us for a ride into downtown.
Leon’s is gone, and so is Bonte’s and David’s Chicken. The apartment building on 75th street still stands but now the laundromat downstairs is a French cafe. Yet they can all still thankfully be called up to help an old man sleep, lost in cars and coffee shops with myths and fables of his own.