Tuesday, March 12, 2013

The Rooming House

                                                                   c Charlie Messing 2013

In the winter of 1964-65, right after I left college, I first lived alone in New York City. I got a little room in a student rooming house at the southwest corner of West 88th Street and Amsterdam Avenue. I had visited there with a few classmates one weekend during my three months as a student at Bard College, which was a hundred miles up the Hudson.  Bard was a hotbed of liberal thought, and I liked living there, but I had very little academic concentration. All through high school, books had been the windows to the new world, and I read all the time, but at Bard, away from home, the new world was there whenever I put the books down. My mind strayed. After failing all five of my midterms (some more justifiably than others), the assistant dean, a stern woman whose hair was pulled back so tightly it resembled a crewcut, called me to her office and said, "You know, this is not a hotel." She assured me it was much more advantageous to leave school than it was to get kicked out. I wasn't happy to leave my friends, but I saw she was right. On the off chance I'd want to go back to school (which never happened), I dropped out.
The building at 88th and Amsterdam was a wild sort of rooming house, as any such place would have been in New York in the 1960's. Drugs were taken, doors were forced, things changed hands, and talk lasted far into the night. On my first visit, Terry Tankersley and I visited an older couple in a corner room overlooking the avenue. The woman was tall and beautiful. The man was also tall, and he was a composer, studying with Aaron Copeland. The two of them were good bohemian role models. I kept my big hooded wool coat on the whole visit, as I did indoors all that winter. I was eccentric, if not yet bohemian.
My dream was to be a successful musician, playing down in Greenwich Village. I didn't know how to get started doing that, except for practicing in my room, but I didn't want to do anything else. I dropped out of college, and after a few months back at home (in a suburb on Long Island), I had my army physical, and was found to be 1-Y (call only in a National Emergency). I decided to move to that rooming house and use up my childhood bank account, which totalled several hundred dollars. I told the managing agents of the house (who lived on the premises) what someone had advised me to tell them, that I was on leave from Reed College in Oregon. Reed was similar to Bard.  I had been correctly advised that they would not spend the money to call Oregon to see if I was really a student there.  I was given a room for $8 a week.
It was tiny. It had one window, at the bottom of an airshaft. When I stuck my head out the window and looked to the upper right, I could see a bathtub that had been thrown off the roof and was now forever wedged halfway down, suspended over the sooty and grimy alley below. It was a very narrow airshaft.
My bed was also narrow. It was the cheapest kind of 1950's couch, with long conical legs and a thin crumbling foam rubber cushion covered with rough polyester cloth. Across the room, eight feet away, was a matching desk, tiny and wobbly. The light, high up on the eight foot ceiling, was a 40 watt bulb. No curtains, no closet. I had some clothes, books, and my 12-string guitar. I wondered, whenever I practiced, how clearly I could be heard by my neighbors - the people I never saw everyday.
My room had the kind of cheap lock that could be thwarted with a plastic card. It locked automatically when the door closed, so on my second day there I was locked out and had to break in. It wasn't hard, I just put my shoulder to it and in I went. No one came out into the hall to investigate the noise, either. I put the screws back in, and fixed the lock. My door had seven other spots where locks had once been mounted; its edge was full of holes plugged with plastic wood - the door was like a swiss cheese, and its panels were thin to begin with. I tried not to worry too much about it. I guessed everyone knew I had nothing but a guitar. And I hoped they had enough guitars.
I had access to a squalid bathroom and kitchen; each floor had their own. Both those rooms down the hall were occupied at the discretion of a dozen furtive residents. I only found needles on the bathroom floor once. The kitchen had no door. It had four refrigerators in a row, with padlocks attached. Every resident was assigned a shelf in one of them, and given a key, but somehow I never got my key, so I used my sooty window sill. There was a stove and a sink in the kitchen too, but I never felt like using them. Everyone who did had to take over the kitchen completely, and I was still too shy for that. Also I didn't know how to cook.
I drank tea and ate sandwiches. I took the subway downtown and wandered around the village. I explored. That winter was the first time my hair got really long. It was about six inches, very wild and curly. Only about 50 other guys in New York had long hair at the beginning of 1965, so in general, people thought I was weird. Teenagers shouted, "Ringo!" and "Hey, Beatle!" and "Hey faggot!" and "Are you a boy or are you a girl?" It was scary, but I knew that people should look however they wanted. I paid for that privilege everyday, slinking around the streets and finally making my way back to my warm little room. Whew.
Twice, I straightened my hair in that room. I used the product black people used, "Perma-Strate," which was essentially lye. Its chemical heat made one's hair give up and go limp. One combed and yanked while it worked. My hair became straight, but was still wild and thick, standing out from my head like it didn't know what gravity was. I wore it that way a month or two, then let it be curly again.
The couple upstairs who my chums and I'd first visited went off to the Coast soon after I moved in. Sometimes I visited a friend of theirs in another room, a drug dealer named Angel. Another resident who had been their friend was named Carlos, who was dapper, and looked a bit smarter than he was. He visited sometimes, as did a college chum who lived two blocks away with her parents, though she spent a lot of her time at Bard. A few college buddies came over once, and we smoked a joint. Then we passed a loaf of bread around, and we all took bites, and my old roomate said, "Save the roach." We all laughed.
But I was alone a lot. I didn't know what to do. Once I actually tried to climb the walls of my little room. The New Yorker revival house movie theater was a block away. I went to an Ingmar Bergman Festival there and saw, in a row, Winter Light, Through a Glass Darkly, and The Silence. What a day that was. I also attended a Marx Brothers Festival, to cheer me up the day I climbed the walls. It worked.
I lived in that room for four months, till my money ran out and I returned briefly to my parents' house. They were not crazy about my long hair, which I didn't cut until I got married in 1968, three years later. Though I did play at one "Hoot night" in Folk City, where I was booed by someone at the end of the bar, I didn't really play music in the village until the middle 70's. I spent a long time growing up.
When I remember that rooming house, I think of how far I've come. Because of living there, I feel I know what it's like to be alone in a foreign land.  What does it cost to live there now?  Is another young man in my place there, on this very day?  I wish him all the luck in the world.

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