Housing miracles happen. I am living proof.
In spite of the heart-stopping atrocities that you are going to read, I have been blessed with the most perfect apartment in New York City. After living way too long in a rented midtown Manhattan studio where my only view was of two adult movie theaters, The Eros and The Capri (both now tony restaurants, by the way), I had decided in 1994 to once again look into buying a place of my own. I didn’t have a ton of money, so my hopes were not high.
To the amazement of all, the third place shown to me was a 600-square-foot, one-bedroom unit (with exposed brick walls and a working fireplace!) in Chelsea, which I bought for $85,000 cash. My maintenance was, is, and (hopefully) always shall be $397 a month.
The only possible drawback was that it was situated across from a huge public school, and the almost constant roar of children might have been a deterrent to most people, but not to me. I think of it as “young” noise, which is often very entertaining. Over a hundred years old, the building was deliciously reconfigured into apartments in 1971. It was picture perfect, the kind of New York apartment building you only see in movies and on such TV shows as Friends and Sesame Street.
My newfound bliss hit a nasty speed bump just one week after I officially moved in when I was unanimously elected president of the co-op board. At the time, I thought of it as a crummy “let’s stick it to the new guy” tactic, but looking back, I see that no real harm was intended nor came from this – but I did develop a lot of gnawing tension. I knew nothing of these matters and quickly found myself steeped in meetings, paperwork, and gossip.
I sank into an icy shock at my first co-op meeting when the other owners, many of them gray-haired and distinguished-looking, began screaming in each other’s faces like ferocious 12-year-olds, with all of their teeth showing and spit flying, while using highly vulgar language that seemed cartoonish, even by New York standards. I honestly couldn’t believe what I was seeing. It was way over the top, laced with hatred, probably the result of ancient grievances that had been slowly simmering over the years. I had never seen adults behave this way.
Things only got worse. Shortly after that meeting, the man in the apartment below me died. He had bequeathed his property to somebody who did not want it and who did not pay his maintenance or mortgage. Elsewhere in the building, one of the other tenants was having “jockstrap parties” with his buddies in front of open windows, while another owner moved to The Philippines and sublet her unit to a pair of Scandinavian flight attendants who were in the habit of throwing televisions at one another whenever an argument broke out.
Then, our super was hauled away by the cops, and the management company handling our building’s affairs couldn’t answer simple questions like, “Why don’t you return our phone calls?” One day, the firm just folded up and vanished, and our water was shut off the following morning. I was also awarded the box of keys to everyone’s door and have had to escort an inspector or two through the entire building over the years, sometimes without waking up the occupants.
I was lost in a nauseating spiral of chaos. Although I was new to all of this, I had a strong suspicion that other buildings had easier-to-solve problems or at least less melodramatic ones.
Well, I have always been a relaxed person, a twig floating in a river, but this was a true test of my good spirits. At subsequent meetings I gingerly introduced the notion of “a kinder, gentler co-op” where there was no room for vein-popping rants or calculated backstabbings.
In retrospect, I think I may have been the right person for my assigned board-president role because they listened to me. I seemed to be a new voice, a voice of reason, and the greasy Gordian knot of antagonism slowly became looser. I made a point of keeping the conversations on track, minimizing the weight of personalities, and not letting bitter history overshadow our current agenda. A civility was born and, over time, eventually flourished.
As it does in the natural order of things, many people moved out and many moved in, and those who have stayed have indeed softened appreciably. I don’t know how much of this is due to me and my soothing manner, but the difference is remarkable. I have been on and off the board many times since then, in various roles, and the surge in polite smiles and common courtesy is encouraging. A few touchy issues still pop up occasionally, but they are now met with chat instead of a tomahawk. I will probably never sell my home, even though it has increased in value nearly ten times since then.
Our future? It’s bright. We might even get new mailboxes before the next millennium.