Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Jennifer, Oh Jenny

I moved to New York in the fall of 1995, because I wanted excitement. My first taste of the city the previous year, helping to put on the first Tweefest, had really set my mind ablaze. So when the opportunity arose, I took it.

It turned out the opportunity wasn't there, and my friend Keith Testcard had already promised my room in his Hoboken flat to someone else. But things move fast in New York, and at a party in a restaurant for Sally, an old friend from punk-rock days in Seattle, I met a girl who needed a roommate. Her name was Jenny.

The fact that later that night she took a bunch of ketamine in a club in the East Village -- a club which I stumbled out of at four in the morning, still throbbing away inside, might have told me something about her, but I was desperate. A couple of days later I was on the A train to see the apartment.

It was in Washington Heights, on Fort Washington Avenue at 187th Street. There's a picture of the building on the Wikipedia page for the street; the tall dark six-story block to the right. I got off the subway at 181st, terrified at what slum horrors I might find above, only to come out in a tree-lined street in a lovely old Jewish neighborhood. One thing people who don't know New York don't realize is how close the neighborhoods are to each other, and how abruptly they change; just a block away, down a flight of stairs to upper Broadway, it was solidly and vibrantly Dominican.

The apartment was a shambles. Filthy, matted with dog hair, sloping floors, fifty layers of cheap paint on the doors, no cupboards in the kitchen, only slanting bare wood shelves. Two bedrooms, though, and my room was huge by New York standards, with high ceilings. I would have said yes no matter what it looked like, but it had promise.

Jennifer had promise too. Blonde, blue eyes, short but built like a tank, and brim-full of fire and light, she laughed constantly and deep, and never stopped moving. She was intelligent and well-read, with a case full of Peter Handke and other interesting books. This is not a romance I'm telling, but I'd be lying if I said she wasn't attractive. But there was something else there, too: a kind of recklessness that was also attractive, but dangerous.

I got my first taste of this side of her personality the day I moved my belongings in. I had been keeping them in a storage facility in Hoboken near Keith's apartment. Visiting the place to pay my bill was always interesting; I met an amazing fellow there once who got out of a big black Cadillac, wearing a black pinstripe suit, black shirt, mass of gold medallions in the open neck, and slicked-back hair -- straight out of The Sopranos. I didn't ask him what he was keeping in storage.

Anyways, the day of the move, my friend Keith helped me move the boxes from the sidewalk up to the new apartment. Jennifer didn't help much, but at one point she did spend a great deal of time fixing her hair, topless, with the door open. An opportunity that some little bell inside my brain said "don't take". Keith could hear the same bell. I had met her boyfriend, a six-foot-five black man who, while charming, could have broken me like a toothpick. I think she would have liked that, actually, just for the excitement.

Her old roommate had had to leave when her heroin addiction got out of control and she stopped paying rent. That's the story I was told, at any rate. That's apparently what happened to the cupboards; she'd ripped them from the wall in a violent rage sometime. She may have been dead. I don't know; I didn't want to know. More excitement I didn't want to come near.

Jennifer was a bicycle messenger. Every day she got on her bike and rode 187 blocks and then some down to her lower Manhattan messenger office, rode all day delivering packages, and then rode home. When she got home, she usually stripped off her clothes, put her favorite Madonna record on top volume, mounted her track bike on rollers in the hall, and pedalled furiously until the entire apartment filled with steam. This was not an erotic spectacle; it was explosive and insane. She rode for up to an hour this way, laughing and occasionally screaming out loud; then she'd stop, and jump in the shower. I would be cowering in my room.

Jennifer had a dog, a German Shepherd named Hojo. I never did find out if that was after Howard Johnson, the popular (at the time) New York Met, or Cujo, the Stephen King killer dog. I've never read the book, but Hojo did have some Satanic tendencies. The poor creature was mentally ill; imprisoned in a tiny New York flat all day, he was fiercely, insanely protective of Jennifer. One thing he liked to do was bite shoes; if you put on your shoes, he would bite them while making an unearthly high-pitched throat growl. Jennifer would calm him, but if you made a move toward the door, he'd be up and at your feet again, biting them hard enough to mark your shoes and hurt your feet inside.

Another thing he liked to do was bite people, especially children. He only got a piece of me once or twice, but many times lunged at my hands. Only when Jennifer was there. When she walked him, or when I was roped into doing it, he would lunge and snap at people if they were foolish enough to come close enough to try and pet him. Kids were the worst, because the most keen on petting him. One night Jennifer came racing back into the apartment, slamming and bolting the door. "Hojo bit someone" she said, but nothing more. Later that week, groups of kids would come to the door while Jennifer was out demanding money for the doctor that a young girl had needed to see.

Jennifer had a succession of boyfriends. There was her steady boyfriend, the tall black radical in his army coat; but also a series of fellows she met through cycling or work or wherever, ranging from a nebbishy ponytailed accountant to the city's premier graffiti artist, whose name I wish I could recall. Her dates with him would be across rooftops with backpacks full of paint. She would frequently have sex with these men with the door to her room ajar, Hojo the dog wandering in and out, me in my room trying to drown out their sighs and moans with my latest finds from Other Music or Kim's downtown. Sometimes afterwards we'd sit and drink coffee all together in the tiny kitchen.

Jennifer liked to sit around and talk about her plans for the future. This mostly involved the bicycle trip she wanted to take to Italy. With Hojo, trotting along beside her. Pointing out how disastrous an idea this was, that a dog's feet couldn't possibly stand up to a high-speed run down a thousand miles of paved highway, only made her angry.

Some of our visitors were interesting. Rose, from upstairs, had lived in the building since the 1930s, and had grown up in an orphanage. She was in her eighties by then, and would sit telling stories of working in the garment industry downtown.

For all the dramatic happenings at home, the neighborhood was endlessly interesting. In the Jewish part there was an old-fashioned candy store, which in New York means kind of a combination candy store, newstand, and stationers; an old-fashioned deli, the likes of which had even by then nearly disappeared from most parts of what most people mean when they say "Manhattan", which served the best egg salad sandwiches in the world; and the most decrepit supermarket I have ever seen: an ancient A&P, about a quarter the size of an ordinary Seattle supermarket, with cardboard on the floors all winter long (for the rain and snow), and the most random and meagre selection of goods you could imagine. The produce section was simply appalling, sparse and limp and decaying at the edges, and I don't think anyone ever bought produce from them -- you went to the Koreans for that. The selection of Jewish foods was excellent, though.

A block away, and down to 181st Street, the neighborhood was all Dominican, and had everything you could need -- tiny hardware stores, a grand old Woolworth's with a lunch counter, Seinfeld-style restaurants, and all kinds of shops selling Dominican goods. I loved going into Woolworth's, and outfitted most of my apartment from there. I ate a few grilled cheese sandwiches for $1.15 there too; it was in a time warp. Across the street from Woolworth's was another, similar, but even cheaper five-and-dime store. I can't remember the name of it, but it was huge, and I remember on the top floor the ceiling was caving in and the rain pouring onto the linen section, draped with plastic. It seems grotesque but it was a wonderful place to prowl around, like being transported back to the 1950s -- I swear some of the merchandise dated from then. I wonder if it's still there? The Woolworth's isn't, of course.

One day I decided I was sick of the cockroaches and the filth, so I cleaned the kitchen. I took everything off the shelves and sprayed and cleaned, cleaned and scrubbed, scrubbed and sprayed, until the last of ten thousand roaches had emerged from their last hiding places. The sink was a double sink with a metal lid over one side; when I asked Jennifer why it was always covered, she said only "don't look in there". I looked, and it was pretty nasty, but sparing no amount of Ajax and elbow grease I made it presentable again. It took two entire days, but that kitchen was clean, dammit, and those roaches were gone. I killed thousands of them, literally trash bags full of the bastards. I'm a clean person.

Jennifer's family came to visit once, from Erie, Pennsylvania. Her dad was a pleasant enough guy, and worked for the company that made a lot of the cables and connectors I use in my line of work, so we had something to chat about. Her mother was kind of mousey and worried-looking; and her brother was severely disabled with Down Syndrome -- a cheerful fellow but
obviously a great deal of work. It was apparent that the purpose of the visit was to encourage young Jennifer to abandon her bohemian lifestyle in the city and get back to the college she had abandoned.

One day in late spring, after I'd lived there for six or seven months Jennifer asked to borrow my portable cd player, as she was driving up to see her folks. This turned out to be goodbye, as she then announced that she was packing up and moving out. Everything was taken care of, a friend of her boyfriend's was going to take her place in the apartment. I never saw my cd player again.

A couple of days after she left, the landlord came banging on the door. He was demanding many months of back rent, nearly a year. I had been paying my rent directly to Jennifer, in cash, and it turns out none of it was making its way to the landlord. The nicest part of this was that my future wife was with me then, still in the early stages of deciding if I was reliable enough to be a proper boyfriend, and here I was frantically negotiating with a very angry man in a beard, a black fedora and a long black coat. I had never met him before, but I had seen him and a dozen men who looked just like him going in and out of a special room in the basement of the building.

After a bit of one-sided discussion, during which I discovered that not only had Jennifer not been paying the rent, but that the apartment wasn't in her name but in the name of the heroin addict who preceded me, and I heard a great deal of abuse of her as well. This man wanted me the hell out of there and he wanted me out now.

I learned a bit more about New York rental law in the next few weeks, and it turned out I did a very stupid thing: I moved out. If I'd stayed, as Jennifer had stayed, I couldn't have been evicted, especially if I'd started paying rent; he could come and bang on my door, but the sheriff would never come to put me out as long as I had possession. I also didn't understand at the time how valuable it would have been to have the super on my side. But alas, I knew none of this, and so back into storage all my stuff went, or as much of it as I could get packed up in a day or two. The one thing I left behind that I still miss is my Mussolini atlas -- a huge, beautifully drawn and printed world atlas made at the request of Il Duce in the late 30s, as a particular matter of Italian pride, and especially in the face of the world's best atlas, the Times Atlas of the World, printed in London. Mussolini demanded its equal or better, and he got it -- it was gorgeous, but it was too big to fit in any of my boxes. In a landfill somewhere, I suppose.

And that's the story of Jennifer, my crazy roommate in New York. I never saw her again. Several years later, she found me by email, and after breezily asking "I hope you're not still mad at me?" started sending me emails with pornographic pictures in them, or stories of weird sex with German Shepherds. I told her to stop.


Mr. Poe said...

Well that was an interesting story. I'm not going to lie, Jennifer sounds freakin' awesome.

Anonymous said...

I love this story! You are a great writer and it's so fun to read this stuff.

Your blog let's me post under anon but wont any other way.
I will figure it out later.

Matt from Denver said...

That's a great story. I visited NYC in the fall of '95 (stayed with a friend who lived on the 12th floor of an lo mein noodle factory in Williamsburg) and Brooklyn was a lot like you describe - one side of one street was Puerto Rican, the other was Polish, down the road were the Hasidim, and when we walked down to Prospect Park through Bed-Stuy (which was nothing like Do The Right Thing) we turn the corner to find gorgeous and expensive-looking (even by NY standards) row houses facing the park. Some people in the Polish section came up speaking that language to me, thinking I was a neighborhood boy. No, sorry. Bet they got used to the hipsters fast after that.

Mike said...

You know, in all the years I lived in and around NYC, I never actually visited Washington Heights. My sister-in-law moved to W. 171st St. a few years ago, though, so I stayed with her and her boyfriend my last couple of trips back home. They lived practically across the street from a hospital, so many of her neighbors were doctors and nurses, and the neighborhood was well-populated it was at all hours of the day or night. There was also a "museum of track and field" on Broadway, and you know which song kept coming to mind as I walked past it to the subway.