Just as MetLife Stadium is still Shea to most New Yorkers and the Mario Cuomo Bridge is still the Tappan Zee, the names we use to identify apartments often don’t change as quickly as their current residents. In my Lower Manhattan building, for example, I recently heard from a former shareholder whose last name is still used among residents when referring to the unit she sold more than a decade ago. Although this space has since turned over two more times, it’s still referred to as the Smith Apartment.
It’s hard to know why some people leave an indelible mark on my building and others are rarely mentioned again. The Smiths lived in the building a long time, and they were good neighbors, but the naming wasn’t sealed until Mr. Smith executed his vision to spruce up the lobby. Residents who had been unified in selecting him for the project were equally united — and undiplomatic — in expressing their unhappiness about coming home to a sea of pinks and purples. The Smith Apartment was on the market soon after.
Dramatic exits can be an important factor in naming status, in my building and beyond. In the hundred years since an aspiring baritone began vocal training at a nearby music school, thousands of children, including mine, have plucked, blown and banged out notes in the Leonard Warren Rehearsal Room. Like Warren, some students went on to great musical success. But thankfully none achieved room-naming status the way Warren did — by dying on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera during the second act of Giuseppe Verdi’s “La Forza del Destino,” after nailing an aria that begins (in Italian), “Away with you, fatal urn of my destiny!”
Usually, though, the reasons behind names are more commonplace: the So-and-Sos were the best, the Whatchamacallits were the worst, she bred huge dogs, their kids were wild, their kids were a pleasure, she married that actor, he divorced that photographer. The Satin Doll Apartment is named after a subl-etter who knew only one song on the piano — and proved it several times every night.
Getting Back Together
The same is true in my neighborhood. Suggest meeting someone at the Michelin one-star Indian restaurant that replaced a beloved Greek diner, and the reaction will most likely be, “You mean over at Socrates?” Or ask directions to the atelier of a famous fashion designer in the building that long housed a flag manufacturer, and you’ll probably hear, “Oh, the Art Flag Shop.” I’m not sure why the owners of a new family social club even bothered coming up with a name. It’s on the site of the neighborhood’s first grocery store, the Food Emporium. When a different grocery store took its place, locals referred to it as “the New Food Emporium.” The new social club has been open for eight months and has nothing to do with groceries, but it’s still referred to as “the Food Emporium Space.”
In my building, I live below the Sidney Apartment. Its longtime owners, who steered our co-op through many changes and calamities, moved out just before the pandemic. From the sound of it, the large young family who replaced them harbors dreams of Olympic glory. And I’m OK with that. For now, their running and jumping and ball bouncing are signs of new life in the building. Once their gut renovation begins and my tolerance for constant percussion ends, that too will be a sign of returning co-op normality.
Except that the original Sidneys will still be gone. When they were moving out in December 2019, we made plans to get together often, staking out guest rooms in my apartment and in their seaside house. But COVID-19 put Carnegie Hall and kayaking on hold. Instead, our first year as non-neighbors occurred electronically, pairing the tiresome phone call question “What’s new?” with the worn-out answer “Absolutely nothing.” I pretended to be glad that the Sidneys had made a clean getaway. Mostly, though, I wished they were still living upstairs, seeing our co-op through yet another third-millennium catastrophe with their calm and reassuring ways.
And then, a year and a half later, when the COVID-19 indicators were down, the Sidneys came back to the building to stay in my apartment for one warm, sunny weekend. Trying to remember how to be a host, I rummaged for the guest towels under my hoard of toilet paper and hand sanitizer. I pulled cushions off the sofa bed hoping the mechanism beneath hadn’t rusted shut. I took the two-year-old emergency chicken out of the freezer, then stood at the front door and waited, excited for the once-ordinary sight of the Sidneys stepping off the elevator into my hallway.
“I had to stop myself from checking the mail when I walked in,” Mrs. Sidney laughed as we hugged. Yes, hugged. Later, after I made a mental note to buy a fresh chicken, we headed back downstairs, almost colliding in the lobby with the new kids from the Sidney Apartment as they raced scooters down the ramp to the delivery door. And then, as we had done dozens of times before, the Sidneys and I walked over to the site of the old Socrates diner. This time, we enjoyed a wonderful Indian dinner as we celebrated the extraordinary ordinariness of being together.