the 129 unit building was completed in 1935. it’s called, ‘the collonades.' the brochure said 'every apartment facing the street.' the brochure also boasted views of new york harbor and the atlantic ocean from the roof gardens - dining balconies, stall showers, garage arrangements, a gym, handball courts, a children’s playroom, a ping-pong room and a ballroom. the building is shaped like a 'u’ making a giant courtyard containing a still beautiful sunken-terraced garden. that is the only thing left as it was from the brochure. there are no balconies, or garage parking, or a gym, handball courts, playroom, ping-pong room or ballroom. the playroom, like most of the other rooms in the basement, is stacked floor to ceiling with refrigerators and stoves or chairs, dressers and end tables - stuff someone thought was nice enough to not throw out but is now not nice enough to keep and too much hassle to haul away. the ballroom is now the landlord’s personal man cave. there is a range mat with a giant net you can hit full golf shots into, a fully contoured putting green and a little jam stage with some drums and a bass guitar and an actual bar. the roof is now off-limits and an alarm will sound on the door if you open it.
we’ve lived here 5 years in 2 different apartments. i know a couple of people who have had their apartments in their family since the beginning. the landlord grew up in the building and raised his kids here. his grandfather designed the building and the one next to it. there are three wings, east, west and south, all with their own unique greco-roman lobbies. ours has the original floor lamps resting in floor to ceiling alcoves designed apparently just for them. all the elevators are original with hard, clear plastic covering the beautiful frieze panals underneath. the apartments are like homes with their generous foyers, high ceilings, yellow and black tiled bathrooms with the shower stalls that have the shower head coming out of the ceiling instead of the wall. there are solid wood doors between some rooms, arched doorways between others. and there are plenty of closets. the fixtures are brass and there is crown molding everywhere. our first kitchen was so big the rolling pin had its own shelf. our current kitchen has the original ceiling beams and chair rail moldings but was remodeled predominantly yellow somewhere around 1972. the floors of this and our first apartment are wood with a herringbone pattern. every apartment has a corner that is all windows.
this is the first large apartment building i’ve ever lived in, preferring a floor in a brownstone or 'a’ frame or an open loft space. we really like the collonades but because of it’s size, i was a little concerned that my daughter who is now 6 would grow up without those neighborhood things i knew - like the dog who you always had to pass on the way home from school that would come right up to the fence and bark. you’re afraid, at first, but once you realize he can’t get out you’re not. or the yard you’re not supposed to cut through but you do anyway. or the old lady who lives alone you never see. if the ball goes into her yard over the fence, you just leave it. it’s a romantic notion because growing up in suburban st. louis was actually more boring, trouble-inducing and chore-filled. in my mind it was bucolic but really wasn’t. it was just hot and humid.
but living in the collonades has provided it’s own romance. lucy has known a huge rotweiller named harley down the hall since she was born. he is still bigger than her but now she pets him and he rolls on the floor for her. so while he was never a menace, she got to have a relationship with a dog that scared her at first but is actually a sweetheart. and there are characters in the building, too, she will always remember. there’s the picker across the haul who leaves jazz records he thinks i might be interested in outside my door. there was the 400 lb hoarder that lived upstairs. she had so many cats that weeks after she had moved out and they had cleaned and were painting the apartment, they found a cat. nobody knows where he was hiding but he jumped out the 6th floor window when discovered and is now a neighborhood stray. there was the guy who lit the laundry room on fire putting a rubber matted rug in the dryer. there’s bob, the graphic designer. he and his wife are constantly at war with their upstairs neighbor who they swear puts on high heels and walks around to drive them nuts. there’s akiko and joe. they are musicians like me. she plays B3 organ and there is one in their living room. there’s anthony, the painter, who loves my daughter like his own. we send a tupperware back and forth with minestrone or sauce or cookies, whatever. he says he’ll take a baseball bat to any boy that bothers her. there’s howard, the landlord. everybody in the neighborhood knows him as 'howie wowie’ because he sold weed back in the day. and then there is 'the finger nail lady.'
we never have seen her much. we had, of course, heard about her but couldn’t really believe the descriptions - a hunchbacked older lady with 6-inch fingernails. the first couple times my daughter and i saw her in the elevator we didn’t say anything and neither did she. she had a big, floppy hat on and very large sunglasses that covered her face. each time after she got off, my daughters eyes would widen and she would put her hand over her mouth and say, 'omygod….the fingernail lady!!’
we first lived in a very large 2 bedroom. it has a dining room. what do people do in the dining room when there is an eat-in kitchen? don’t tell me that dining room table is just for xmas and thanksgiving and for piling shit on top of. for us it was just a big empty room. do you have a hutch? we don’t. it also had a great living room view of the narrows over the tops of trees. all the ships passed by our window. it was very nice. and expensive. but we wanted to get into the building so we took it. two years later, claudia, across the hall died and we moved into her 1 bedroom. at the time, lauren, the hot divorcee who lives under the fingernail lady took me aside in the courtyard and said,
'i’m so glad somebody’s going to be having sex in my vortex. maybe some of it will rub off on me.’
i wasn’t sure what she meant and she clarified that her vortex, the vertical space in the building above and below her, was stacked with spinsters. claudia, was in her 80’s and alone when she died. shara above claudia was over 400lbs and definitely alone unless you count the cats and the dog. below lauren was an old lady who would introduce herself stoically in a hepburn, mid-atlantic wobble,
'hellooooo. i’m janet goode.’
and on the very first floor was another hoarder i never actually saw. shortly after we moved across the hall that person died or got kicked out. i remember the guys put on haz-mat suits to clean out the place. and on the 4th floor, right below us, was the fingernail lady, ronni holiday.
here’s what we knew before we moved above her… ronni had a man living with her but he died several years ago. her mother lived in the building next door but she recently died. this coincided with a dramatic increase in the number of packages ronni gets each day - 3-4 is not an exaggeration - a lot from qvc. so she must have a television but i’ve never heard it. none of the supers have ever been in her apartment. she doesn’t answer the door. when they needed to get into her kitchen to check on a leak maybe coming from another apartment, she told them to just turn her water off. she doesn’t use the kitchen. she must eat out a lot. it’s new york. people do. i’d done google searches thinking 'ronni holiday’ is some sort of stage name but nothing came back.
when we moved above her, my daughter was 4. kids make noise. they run around. i’m a pianist. i practice. i thought it would be neighborly to officially meet ronni and maybe find out what her habits were so i didn’t bother her practicing or otherwise. my daughter and i went down to her door a few times with some flowers. that same black rolling valise with the big strap around it was and is always sitting outside. and always, no answer. we never noticed her underneath us walking around or heard her door close. the doors are very heavy and when they close on their own make a loud bang. we were thinking she maybe lived in her mother’s apartment next door and just used the apartment below us to store packages in.
the packages. one day i couldn’t take it anymore. i had to know what was in the packages. so i took a small one and opened it up. there were two identical gray, leather clutches inside. i wasn’t sure what this meant but i felt pretty stupid. i guess i was expecting to find something completely benign and mundane and when i did, it made me feel like the federal crime i had just committed was hardly worth it. i was sure she would never know with all those packages. i taped it back up and put it back down in the lobby but the next day there was a sign to the postman in a very florid cursive requesting that all her packages be brought to her door in the future because of tampering. i saw the mailman later that day as he just shook his head and pulled down the sign. i wondered how she was able to hold a pen.
one day, my daughter and i were in the elevator going down when the door opened up on 4. ronni shuffled in not raising her face to see us. i looked at my daughter. she smacked my thigh. say something.
'hi ronni. we’ve lived in 5H the last couple of years and have seen you around but now we live above you in J. my name’s dred and this is my daughter.’
i guess i was a little nervous because i couldn’t remember my daughter’s name just then so i said, 'my daughter.' ronni looked up at me through her oversized, jacki-o, rhinestone studded ray-bans and took my outstretched hand with her bony fingers, her fingernails wrapping all the way around to my thumb, covering my hand like a glove - a fingernail glove. i saw her directly for the first time and she had a lovely smile and a kind face. she bent down to my daughter’s level and said,
'and what’s your name?’
'lucy,’ my daughter managed to choke out.
i went on, 'you know, she’s 4 and we’ll try to keep it down. i play the piano. if you ever have a problem with anything being too loud, just let us know.’
she continued looking at lucy and said,
'hey. everyone’s got a right to make a little noise.’ then she put her hand on lucy’s shoulder and said,
'i know we’re going to be great friends.’
the door opened on 1 and she got out. we were going out through the basement. when the door closed, lucy and i looked at each other and said,
'whoah. cool,’ without actually saying it.
we haven’t become 'great’ friends. we see ronni from time to time and she is always very friendly and charming. she hired me to play what she called 'an old lady luncheon’ at barbetta’s one fall afternoon. she told me she had heard me practicing and that i must be a pro, it sounded so good. and she was on the entertainment committee so in her words, 'why not?’ she still gets 3-4 packages daily but now lucy and i bring them up to her door on our way upstairs. maybe she thinks the mailman is finally doing it because she’s never mentioned it to us.