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Monday, October 05, 2009

The East Village Disaster Part 1

By the time I met James, I had lived in Brooklyn for 6 months, and had recently discovered the joys of NYC couch surfing. This was because my roommate had apparently not paid the rent to the landlord during my entire stay, causing us both to be evicted with 3 days notice.

During this exciting time I was sleeping on various couches and trying to avoid leaving my toothbrush in someone else’s bathroom where it could be contaminated. I also experienced the joy of waking up one morning to discover that a concrete block had been thrown through my car window in the middle of the night because it was parked in Harlem and loaded down with all my worldly possessions.

For some reason, I had not realized just how bad an idea it really was to leave a car packed full to the windows, parked in a cramped urban area known throughout the world for crime. Who knew that cable boxes were such a hot commodity?

After paying to get my window replaced, I quickly found another place to hunker down and avoid temporary homelessness. Thank you Craig’s list. It was my intention while at this new location to either find some work or a stable place to live without a roommate who would scream at his mother on the phone at 6 in the morning about how she didn’t pick him up on time in second grade.

The next place was located in beautiful Carol Gardens (Brooklyn), in the sitting room of an old Jewish man who smoked Winston Salem cigarettes and had a bathroom loaded with travel size toiletries. I just can’t get enough of pocket sized mouthwash.

He was a helpful chap, quickly accepting my payment for what I could have sworn was 8 days in the ad, and then giving me 5. Also, he let me keep my mattress, which had been strapped to the top of my car just waiting for some homeless bum to sleep on it, in his basement, where it couldn’t be harmed except by dust that may have been there since the Civil War.

The only real problem with this arrangement, as I quickly discovered, was the lack of an internet connection for my computer which rendered me unable to use the location for my secondary purpose of finding a job and a more permanent place to sleep. Not to be deterred, I ventured out every day to the exciting world of my local public library where I was able to get 45 minutes of internet access a day for free. This turned out to be just enough time to not quite get anything done, and stress out about the person waiting to use the computer after me.

At the end of the five days I was taking all my things from the apartment out to my car at 7 in the morning with no one else in sight when I made the common NYC error of leaving something unprotected for longer than five seconds. I put a suitcase containing all my pants (fancy and otherwise) right next to my car on the sidewalk, and then went back inside to grab the last bag. This took me all of about 25 seconds, which was just long enough for a garbage truck to come by with men picking up the garbage who must have thrown my suitcase away. No duh, obviously a nice suitcase on a sidewalk is worthy of the trash heap. That’s just what I was thinking. When questioned about my missing suitcase, the trash men naturally had no recollection of it.

It was right around this time that James made me an offer that I couldn’t refuse.

Just before my eviction, I met James at a Christian-based artists’ group. We quickly became fast friends due in no small part to our shared love of using large words when small ones will do, as well as overreacting to minor inconveniences.

I started going to church services with him at a little place on Avenue A in the East Village. They specialized in reaching out to the urban community in the neighborhood, which can essentially be translated as “people who don’t work a lot”. The pastor had published a book about his experiences with the church, and the pictures on the inside as well as the back cover basically said, “I’m a white guy trying to be cool with the homies.”

After church we would often go out to eat at a local Greek Diner in the neighborhood that was usually full of older people. I’ve always been a fan of places where older people eat, based on the theory that they’ve been eating longer than we have and know what good food is. While we were there, we would have conversations over hamburgers and fries that at times was a little too stimulating for only having known the guy a short while. Questions posed to me during this time sometimes came out like this one, “So how is your relationship with your father?”

But I was grateful to have a friend at the time – okay any friend – and I wasn’t going to let the fact that he seemed a little weird stop me from clinging to any form of a social life.

I spent the day with him after one of those lunches and went to Queens to see his apartment. He shared it with a girl, whom he had confessed to me in one of those awkward conversations between bites of hamburger; that he was having feelings of lust over. Right after we got there, and I met the lust object in question, he wasted no time in bringing me into his shoe box size room, picking up his guitar and asking if he could play a song for me that he had just written. “I was trying to decide if my life was a tragedy or a comedy”, he said, “but I decided that thanks to Jesus, my life is a comedy!”

As I sat on his increasingly small seeming bed, I politely refused his offer of a serenade and wondered if my new friend was gay. I remembered a talk I had, before I moved to New York, with my southern born and bred father, where he expressed his fear of me falling into homosexuality. I told him that I hadn’t exactly fallen into heterosexuality yet either, but I don’t think he quite understood the joke, and it was never brought up again.

James was quite upset by my rejection of his singing in close quarters, and I gotta say that it darn near ruined his day. It didn’t do wonders for mine either since I had to hear about it over and over again, making me wonder if I could continue to be friends with a guy that I had to treat like a girl.

It wasn’t long after this that I was invited to a Bible study that he was hosting at his friend’s apartment in the East Village, located just a few blocks from the church and the restaurant. It was a very small one bedroom with just enough room in the den for 5 people to sit around and be comfortable as long as you didn’t move too much. There was also a small room to the side that was loaded down with Grateful Dead memorabilia and CDs of questionable taste. I never could trust people that really liked INXS.

These things would usually begin with James reading a passage of scripture and then the five or six of us that were there would talk about it as a group. The arrangement was going quite well until we were interrupted by Scott, the lease holder of the apartment, who would loudly announce his objection to Scripture because of some internal debate he was having over Old Testament commandments to the Jews, such as slavery or eating most meats. Then, he would go outside to smoke a cigarette then not come back up until we were done. By the time he poked his head back in the door, it was all over except for the prayin’.

It was near the end of my Carroll Gardens tenure that James approached me with the idea of moving in together.

“Josh” he told me. “You’ve been evicted, and I just got kicked out of my place too because I got involved with the girl (which is how he referred to his roommate at the time), and it didn’t go well and I don’t really wanna talk about it right now.”

“But” he continued, “Scott is moving back to Oklahoma. We’re going to take over the payments on his lease. He’s rented a moving van, and Jonathan and I are going to ride out there and see him home and help him get settled.”

Jonathan was another poor soul who had also been ensnared by James in this soon to be debacle. I never found out what his situation was but it must have been pretty bad to want to get in on this deal.

“It’s a great location” he said going in for the hard sell. “I know it will be a little crowded but I really think that we can make this work.”

At this point my quality control sensors for where would be a good place to settle were pretty low by having bunked down in 3 places in 2 weeks with everything I own parked in a car outside. This left me with the nagging feeling that I would wake up one morning and find that my car was simply not there. In other words I was desperate to find somewhere to park my stuff that wasn’t outside, naked to the world. But his offer seemed a little too good to be true. Why would someone willingly give up an apartment in the heart of Manhattan within walking distance of nearly everything you could want? As it turned out, one of the reasons that someone would willingly give it all up would be that he was a coke fiend and he had likely run out of money. I guess it is hard to hold down a job when you’re all stuffed up with nose candy.

The next day I came over to the apartment to help pack, and found the whole place nearly empty except for a huge amount of cardboard boxes which were being sealed up with masking tape. There was a bustle of activity as people were coming in and out of the door carrying things, and James was giving directions constantly: “Jonathan grab this”, or “Scott pick that up.” Apparently, everyone was eager to get started on this whole illegal lease jumping business.

In about an hour we had the rental truck full, and with the onset of evening, had a chance to sit down on the front steps outside and enjoy the area that we were soon going to be living in. All different types of people with colorful scarves, spiked collars, and band shirts going to and from clubs and bars and movies and poetry readings would walk right past us as we just sat there soaking it all in. It was pretty cool.

Everything seemed to be happening there at once. The East Village is a very eclectic artist’s hangout filled with hipsters with tattoos and overpriced sushi bars. It’s exactly the kind of place you’d want to live, if you enjoy art and the making of it and bad hangovers. Unfortunately the whole area has been priced out now and seems to be the near exclusive domain of trust fund babies going to film school.

And that was where I was going to be living, and it was just starting to sink in.
For the first time in a while, I let myself breathe a sigh of relief. It actually seemed like things were working out. Out on the steps, Me, James, and Jonathan ate sandwiches from Quiznos, and talked and laughed and shared our optimism for the future until it started to get dark. Then we realized that it was time for them to begin the really long drive to Oklahoma.

James handed me a set of keys and said I would have the apartment to myself for a couple of days till they got back. He also reminded me that our water wasn’t working so I would have to go to the empty apartment directly above ours to use the shower and sink facilities. It seemed like a strange setup, but after what I had been through it was so not inconvenient seeming at all. I mean what’s the big deal; you just go upstairs every time you want to wash the dishes, or take a shower, or brush your teeth. In other words, it was totally normal.