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New York Stories...Princess Inat and the Hasidic Landlord...My 1st Apartment

My first glimpse of New York City!  A native New Yorker  had offered me the tour...  

My only experiences of New Yorkers thus far had come via the infamous summer invasion of the city dwellers.  The locals did their best to warn me, but nothing could have prepared me for the real thing.  When August turned New York  City into a blistering and fetid mess, the more intrepid of them landed on my doorstep on Cape Breton Island where fifty cents a night got you bed and breakfast at the rustic Cheticamp Hostel nestled between the highlands and the ocean.    

The culture shock was mutual, shall we say...                                                                 Nothing could prepare me for these loud and boisterous and rude people. They were beyond absolutely maddening!  But they had a way of getting under your skin somehow.  Over the course of a few summers,  I began to find them curiously endearing.  

I was spellbound as we wound our way south on Harlem River Drive, taking it all in. Gazing out the window at the rapidly passing scenery, I felt a lump rise in my throat. I went silent.  Never before had I seen tenements.  Endless rows of over-crowded, dilapidated poverty-bound slums. with laundry competing with grime and graffiti.   People languishing in ennui and despair.                                                      This was unimaginable to me. I was young, raised out west, and though not exactly sheltered, found this profoundly disturbing.  I couldn't believe that people lived their lives trapped in such circumstances.  There was no human dignity in this.

My guide was rushing towards Manhattan to show me the 'real' sights of New York. Glittery, sleek, sophisticated Manhattan, but for me, there was no unseeing or unfeeling what I had witnessed.  I remained subdued for the rest of that day.     When I was finally alone, I sobbed for 3 days straight.

If you had told me then that I would be living in New York City one day, I would have told you you were crazy!  It was unthinkable!

Funny how life moves us along...

Three short years later, I was going back...on my own this time.                                   On a deep level, New York had been calling me. Somehow I knew I needed to live there.   My fiance and best friend had offered to accompany me, but I realized that I would need to do this solo. I had friends in the city, but I would not enlist their help either.   In a way I wanted to pick up where I'd left off. That meant having a real, unvarnished experience of New York. Beyond that, the details were pretty sketchy.   I would intuit my way...

I left Cape Breton in a 16 year old Volkswagen with a box of books and a box of clothes.  1000 miles of road lay ahead of me.  With a sense of mounting excitement mixed with a hint of dread, I approached the city, wondering where I should go.        I passed the Bronx and then Manhattan, feeling inclined toward Brooklyn.                I stopped and pulled out a map...A bright patch of green caught my eye.       Prospect Park. I would need a bit of green after Cape Breton Island.  I ventured into Brooklyn and soon found the patch of green. I drove all around the park, getting my bearings.  I made a 2nd revolution, thinking 'Where should I be?'

A pair of tall apartment blocks had caught my attention each time I circled the park. There was 'For Lease' sign out front. This place felt 'right'.  When I stepped into the leasing office, I came face to face with the 1st Orthodox Jewish man that I'd seen in the flesh.  He barely looked up from his paperwork as I asked about the apartment for rent. Without so much as an acknowledgment, his curt response was 'There's nothing for rent."                                                                                                             Taken aback, I pressed on.  "But you have a sign out front..."                                       "As I told you, there is nothing available!"                                                                     Mystified by his response,  "But why would you have a sign out front if you don't have anything for rent?"                                                                                                     With that, he fixed me with a baleful glare. "Listen lady! We have 70 apartments in each of these building.  If I rented to you, you would be the only white face for 140 apartments. Do you understand now?  I do not have an apartment for rent to you!"

Bingo!  This was the experience I was seeking...  How was I going to make this happen?  I had an offbeat idea.                                                                                     "Well, sir, IF you had an apartment for rent, how much would it cost?"                         He had returned to his paperwork. '$550." was the terse reply.  He had no more time to waste on me.                                                                                                                 I reached into my pocket and fingered the folded bills.  I fished out the exact amount of cash, slid it across the desk in his direction and said "Sir, I believe the law says that if I have the money, you are obligated to rent me that apartment."           Ha!! The discrimination law in reverse!                                                                               He looked up at me in disbelief!  Imagine a white girl fighting to get into a black neighborhood!?  Grudgingly, he produced the paperwork and the keys to my new apartment on the 9th floor.  I carried my few belongings up the stairs past the littered and smelly hallways and found the battered door to my new place.  I stepped inside to find that it was unfurnished.                                                                                    "Uh oh..." The few apartments I'd rented out west were furnished, as was the house I bought in Nova Scotia.  I had not counted on this.     My heart sank a little as I wondered where I would sleep.  The sun was going down and it had been a tough day.  A few moments later, I was startled by a sharp knock on the door.  When I opened the door, a huge black man literally filled the doorway.  He introduced himself as the 'super', whatever that was.                                                                 "Where is your moving van?  You know...where are your things?  I didn't see you come in with anything."                                                                                                           I looked at him blankly. "Umm...it's coming tomorrow."                                                 He eyed me with suspicion.  I am not a good liar.  "You don't have a moving van coming tomorrow, do you?"                                                                                                     I hung my head sheepishly.                                                                                           "Listen...people come and go all the time.  Sometimes they leave things behind.          I keep it all in the basement.  You just sit tight and let me see what I've got going on down there." Twenty minutes later,  there was another knock at the door.  He had filled an elevator with things for the apartment!  He and his teenage son started hauling furniture inside.  First a bed, then a couch, lamps!  "We'll be right back!" he said with a grin. Elevator load after elevator load!  They finished just before midnight.  He set me up with everything that I would need. Not just furniture either!  By the time they left, there were curtains on the windows, silverware in the drawers, plates, pots and pans, everything imaginable.      I stood there dumbfounded by their kindness.  They asked for nothing...  Their grins said everything.

So began my New York sojourn...                                                                                           I was about to experience the real New York...the raw and unvarnished experience that I had sought.  It was chilly in the apartment most mornings, so I headed outside to the deli across the street for coffee and breakfast.  The deli was run by a gregarious Polish woman in her sixties.  I learned a lot from her watching her interactions with the diverse patrons. She made me feel welcome and a part of things. My neighbors were a different story.  No one would return a smile or greeting...ever. Surprising.  I would try to understand why...                                      Meanwhile, the building never seemed to get warm. When I asked the leasing agent, he said they were experiencing boiler problems. It would be fixed in a day or two.  Their were brief periods of adequate heat and hot water...to be exact: 20 minutes in the early morning and sometimes 20 minutes in the evening.  Winter was coming on and I found myself spending more and more time walking the streets to keep warm, spending days in the library and wearing more layers of clothing inside the apartment than outside. The electric wiring was too sketchy for heaters.   I was becoming desperate even after the rigors of Cape Breton winters. Before long, I realized that I was getting the runaround from the leasing agent.   I saw the misery of the other tenants. The final straw was finding ice on the inside of the windows.     I started calling the authorities and chronicling the results.  The situation improved for a day or so now and then, but there was never adequate heat and hot water.         I made it my mission to lobby on behalf of the tenants throughout that bitter winter. It was inhuman to subject people to such conditions!   I made hundreds of phone calls to city agencies and authorities over the next few months.  I think we had heat and hot water for 3 days at one point. Then back to freezing.  For whatever reason, it was becoming clear that nothing would be done for these people.  

Then one late afternoon, as I was returning to the apartment for another long cold night, I was shocked to find the building surrounded by fire trucks.  As I approached the building, a fireman met me halfway. He already knew my name. He checked to see if I was the tenant in apartment 9G.  I was...

"Ma'am, there has been a fire.  Your apartment was torched...by one of the tenants.  Everything was lost.  You're going to have to find another place for the night."          I was dumbfounded.  I knew there was more to this story by his demeanor.      "What happened?  When can I come back to get my personal things?"                        I was stunned by his reply. "A young father...a husband and wife had just brought their 1st child home from the hospital.  The baby died from exposure 3 days later. He just went berserk and lashed out.  Your apartment was targeted...you were the only white tenant.  It's a good thing you weren't home at the time!"  A policeman joined him, corroborating the story.  I was asked if I wanted to press charges.  Under the circumstances, we all felt it best to not add to their grief.  The young father had broken under the strain. How horrible the cost of greed.  As I was to discover, most of those apartment complexes in the neighborhood were run that way. Bribes to the inspectors and authorities...just common practice.  The way of the world...

As Fate would have it, I held a key in my hand that I had gotten only an hour before. The key to a storefront on the other side of Prospect Park. Life was indeed strange... In the 4 months that I had lived in New York, I could not get a handle on what I was to do there.  I lived frugally and kept my eyes open for direction.  Many times I asked Spirit if I should take a job...any job...but the answer always seemed to be 'No.'  Having no direction, I spent my time getting lost in a different part of New York every day so I could learn the city. As the weeks and months went by, I started to seriously doubt myself.     My savings were running really low, despite my best efforts.  I was now down to $279. Something would have to break soon...very soon.

I had one perplexing spending habit during this time.  I felt compelled to buy a copy of the Village Voice every week.  I didn't particularly enjoy it and it was something I could ill afford.  For several weeks running, I had vowed to myself that I WOULD NOT buy it again, but when it the latest edition hit the stands, I forked over the cash yet again. ' I had to stop!' I told myself.  But on this day...the day of the fire, I had given in AGAIN!  'What was the matter with me?!  THIS IS IT!! NEVER AGAIN!! ' But the deed was done...

I was so angry with myself!  I threw the darn rag down on the table at the coffee shop and yanked it open to a random page.  It opened to the classified ads. An ad caught my eye.  STORE FOR RENT $100.   What?!  I read it again.  In New York City?!      I made the call.  It had to be something really dreadful, but I would have to at least lay eyes on it.  I would never see another ad like it in this lifetime!                   An hour later, I was greeted at the door by an older Chinese gentleman. He ushered me into the storefront/carpenter shop.  There was lumber and sawdust everywhere. We chatted for a few minutes.  There was a kindness about him...  I felt inclined...  

I handed him $200 for rent and security and he handed me the key.  He and his son would clear the space within a few days and then it would be all mine.  Filled with excitement, I headed home...to the home I no longer had.                                       Fortunately, I had a sleeping bag in my car and a key to a door in New York.               I let myself in, found a broom to sweep up and made myself a place to sleep for the night.  It had been a big day...

With a new day dawning, I woke with a start and had to remind myself where I was. I took in my surroundings in the light of day. 'What on earth have I done?!  I just gave $200 of my $279 away.  I rented a store!!!  NOW what am I going to do with a store?!"                                                                                                                              A quiet light bulb suddenly turned on in my brain.  'Books!'  A bookstore!                  It struck me as the most perfect idea!  I have always loved books.  They have been my best friends and my best teachers.  I have been devoted to books all my life.       By this time, I had scouted out almost every bookstore in the city.  My natural habitat.  But how?  And with what?  What kind of bookstore?  An idea was forming...

What did I have to offer in this arena?  My years in Cape Breton had forged a new identity in me...a spiritually potent one.  By this time, I'd had a bellyful of religion,  but I was in good touch with my spirituality. I knew from experience that there was such a thing as genuine Christianity.  I defined it differently. I no longer relied on a church to spoon feed me inferior religious doctrine.  Circumstances had forced me beyond most of what church had to offer into an experiential involvement with the Divine.   And then,  a little-known modern Christian mystic, Watchman Nee, had helped me to the next level.  Through his writing I was introduced to others of a better era. I had experienced power unimaginable. A Force was shaping my life in ways I could never have imagined.  There was a more meaningful involvement if one wanted more... In the face of all the religion that fell short, I felt the need to make those teachings available.  We were entering the era of 'church as entertainment', 'church as big business.' Oral Roberts, Jimmy Swaggart, Pat Robertson, Jim and Tammy Faye Baker held sway.  It was embarrassing to be a believer and things were rapidly getting worse.  I knew other believers were suffering and seeking some reality.  Brooklyn was known as the borough of Churches.  I had done some visiting and was shocked at what I found.  There were many outright cults.  People were being preyed upon...hard.  I helped more than a few people escape their clutches.     It was more scandalous within the church than it was on the mean streets.             For the wayward preachers, there was no shortage of stressed and vulnerable people to snare.  This was something that was needed.  This was something I could do.         I would find a way...                                                          

Money was beyond tight.  My fiance and best friend were coming to visit in  2 weeks and I had only $79 to host them with.  But I was already in too deep.  There was only one direction to go and that was forward. I cleaned up the space.  I headed to all the used bookstores looking for stock.  It took a day of scouring to find 5 books.      I told a couple of friends in Canada and they told a few others. Someone sent $20. Small gifts started coming in over the next few months. Then some dear friends built bookshelves and flew them all the way from Montreal.    Slow, but sure, the bookstore was becoming a reality.                                                      At 11 pm one night, I was setting the shelves in place and arranging my meager stock.  There was a sharp knock on the door. I jumped in fear.  There was a man wanting to come to look at my books at that hour.  I took a chance and let him in.  To my great surprise, he bought 3 of my 5 books. I took the money and went out and bought 7 more books.   He became a regular supporter as well as a friend.       My visitors built a sleeping loft.  They stayed for a few weeks and took odd jobs to help out.  Many days we had to choose between books and slices of pizza, but we were making progress!   It doesn't get more humble than that...  I had found my work and my reason for being in the city.  I still had everything to learn, but it was unfolding....  

Inat...                                                                                                                                             To my knowledge, there is only one language that succeeds in reducing a complex chain of concepts to one four-letter word. The word is inat; the language is Serbian.
Serbs themselves will sometimes engage in extended discussions when trying to define the idea of inat. Probably the least wordy English version of the word is “deliberately cutting off your nose to spite your face,” although a more elegant definition I have seen is “defiance for the sake of defiance rather than to achieve a long-term goal.

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