It was when our cokehead roommate decided to move out of the place on North Sixth Street, that Lauren, my best friend, and I decided we wanted a change, too. I was twenty-one and Lauren was nineteen. We’d been living in Williamsburg, in an apartment originally found by my brother who’d since moved to Berlin. Lauren and I wanted something new. Something of our own. And we wanted that something to be in Greenpoint.
Lauren and I were falling in love. We were just on the verge of codependence. We impulsively jumped into the East River together. We smashed our phones on the street or dropped them into Margaritas and then said things like, “I just did that to make you laugh.” We shared a Sim card. We laid on the futon and had Flight Of The Conchords marathons, saying, “They’re just like us!” When my friend who worked at the Strand bookstore killed himself, it was Lauren who drank too many shots with me and held me on the nights I sobbed. When one was down, the other made sure to be up. “We keep each other’s egos warm in the winter,” Lauren once joked as we walked home together, shadows and shoulders touching. We left each other “have a good day” notes on the kitchen table. Whoever woke first would brew the coffee and choose the music, (either Animal Collective, Broken Social Scene, or Bon Iver). We chose each other over men. We chose each other over everything. We spoke in song lyrics. We slept in beds just a couple of feet away from each other. We walked at the same speed, we shared jeans and bras, and we read the same books. “You guys are like an alternative couple,” the gay guy I worked with would often say. It was true. It was like we were dating without the sex.
Early on a Saturday morning in October, we stood outside of 156 India Street, in Greenpoint, with six other people, trying to keep warm in the crisp breeze. While waiting for the broker named Bart to come give us a tour of the apartment, we overheard one woman call her boyfriend and describe the place. “Baby, it’s a complete shit-hole,” she said, her face aghast, her eyes never leaving the building. She went on to describe the careless way 156 was painted onto the door, the front door’s lack of lock, trash trimming the stairs and rats running around on the sidewalk. Lauren and I looked at each other and cracked up. We hadn’t even gone inside yet but some people had already given up on the place. When we did go inside, a couple of people left immediately, mumbling “thank you,” their heads hanging low, losing hope on the apartment hunting game.
But we loved it. We found it to be hilarious. Sure it was a shit-hole. We wanted it. And we needed it. It was the only place we’d seen in our price range. It was $1200 per month. It was a one bedroom apartment. We would share the bedroom and pay $600 each. Lauren was working at the Strand bookstore and I was the manager at a jewelry store in the West Village. We were both getting around $9.00 per hour. We got the “it’s yours” phone call from Bart about a week later and we hugged and jumped up and down — delirious with joy. Our very own apartment. Lauren made a sign that read “God Bless This Mess.” We moved in on the first of November. We moved in with moxie.
India Street. We painted the living room teal and the kitchen coral. We hung bright blue Christmas lights and a disco ball. We hung Lauren’s neon paintings. We hung a huge mirror by heavy chains. We hung up gauzy yellow and purple curtains. We borrowed heavy-duty expensive speakers from my father’s music store and put them up in opposite corners. When I say we blasted music loud, I mean uncomfortably so. After we made the apartment look like disco fever, we had our version of a housewarming party. We left out a bucket of black paint for people to paint on the walls. We were sort of pretending we were Glasslands Gallery in Williamsburg. It’s experiential art! we told people. Paint whatever you want, we said. We had the rager of the year. The tiny apartment filled from wall to wall. People were climbing onto the counter and then onto the small refrigerator and jumping off. People were painting cocks on our walls. People were stripping and singing and at the end of the night people were fucking. After that, we were notable for having the apartment where you could go to act like a complete amateur. 156 India Street rolled off of people’s tongues. “I heard about your party,” they would say.
The repercussions of that party were rough. It was difficult to completely get the apartment back to normal, not that it ever was normal. We lived with ugly, almost to the point of scary, loud black graffiti on our teal walls through the coldest months of the year. We didn’t have a couch. We had a table and we had a trunk and we had a mini trampoline. Most nights I would come home from work and sit at the table, half-heartedly reading New York magazine and trying not to get creeped out by the walls, while waiting for Lauren to get home from the Strand at 10:30 p.m.
Winter. We struggled with what many people living in shitty Brooklyn apartments do: No heat and no hot water. At the same time. That was the winter that we learned what 311 was, and we called it every single day. Once I called and was so stoned and drunk I had a spectacular laughing fit and had to hand the phone over to Lauren. There was one night that we were drinking a bottle of Beefeater gin (to keep ourselves warm, we justified), and jumping on our trampoline. At some point, I went to pee. I have a vague memory of knocking a hairbrush accidentally into the toilet at the same time I was flushing the toilet. For the next seven days, our toilet did not work in any fashion or form. We took the metal bowl we used for popcorn and set it on the toilet. Waking up in the middle of the night and pissing in a bowl in the cold, for seven days, does a number on the ego, no matter how you look at it. We went to the YMCA on Meserole Avenue and spent money on monthly memberships just so we would have somewhere to shower and shit. One morning, as I exited the stairs from the 1 train at Christopher Street, my phone vibrated in my pocket. A text from Lauren: “Dude. I just shit in a bag. In the living room.” We constantly called the number we had for Bart, for he was all we knew of a landlord, and we left him messages every day about how we were cold and needed someone to come look at our toilet. Being ignored like that was shitty and hurtful, but we didn’t know what to do. When our parents came to visit, we didn’t want to tell them of our troubles, or how the front door didn’t lock, so we would stand there, pretending to unlock it, our backs to them.
Regardless of the no heat and no toilet, we never really thought about moving out. We sent our rent off in a timely manner to Waterside Brokers. At some point that winter, we received a letter to stop sending our rent to Waterside. We were to make out rent out to a woman named Malina Nealis. We complied without thinking much of it. We became comfortable with being uncomfortable. Come April, we finally found the motivation to re-paint the walls. The teal covered the black up, though you could still make out the pentimento underneath.
On Saturday, May 17th, 2008, I left my job at the jewelry store and took the L train to the G train to Greenpoint Avenue. It was Saturday night and I was famished and needing to change my tampon. I remember feeling particularly burnt out that night — feeling homely, broke, exhausted.
I ran up the stairs from the G train station. I was glad to be going home, though I’d promised Lauren that I’d join her in at least one of two parties. There was one in Queens and one in Williamsburg. I wasn’t up for either. What I really wanted to do was stay in and clean and write and get my shit together. But I didn’t want to bail on her, so I planned on eating some oatmeal (I was punishing myself for all the liquor and red meat I’d been inhaling) maybe shower or at least change my clothes and then call Lauren and meet up with her. And I needed to charge my cell phone.
I ducked under the yellow caution tape in front of my building, assuming it was for the construction work that my block was undertaking. I leaned my weight on the door to my apartment building to open it.
“Excuse me! Ma’m! You can’t go in there.”
I whipped around.
Violet fluorescent lights made me squint. A chubby cop got out of his car across the desolate street holding a flashlight. Someone is dead. Oh my God, Lauren is dead. My thoughts went wild and I pictured Lauren inside — drowning in the bathtub, hanging from a rope, or ablaze in flames.
“I’m sorry. You cannot go in there,” he said again, calmly.
“I live here. What the hell is going on?”
“The back wall of your building began to crumble and the third floor jutted out. The fire escape is falling off. One of the tenants called 911.”
“Are you kidding me?”
The shock shaped a smile on my face. Obviously, our building was crappy — but a wall crumbled? A wall crumbled. Seriously?
“The Red Cross came and evacuated people to a shelter for the night if they had nowhere to go. Do you want me to take you there?”
“No,” I said, I have lots of places I can go.” It was somewhat true. The adrenaline was making me cocky.
He nodded, relieved, as if to say, “Conversation over.”
“So,” I began. “You’re telling me that I have no where to live, and that I can’t go inside, correct?”
“Well, that’s bullshit!”
I was yelling now.
“If you’re telling me that I’m homeless and have to spend the night on the street, then I need to go inside and get my shit! I have to work tomorrow!”
“The electricity is off.” He was so composed.
I motioned to his flashlight. “Can’t I use that?”
He hesitated, then shrugged and said okay.
Leading the way up the eerie crooked stairway to the second floor, I didn’t recognize my life.
My intimate and artistically charged apartment — now pitch black and dead — hurt my heart. The doorknob was hanging by a thread. The locks on the door looked like wild animals had spent all day gnawing on them. The alarm that I saw on the cops face when we stepped in pleased me immensely for some reason. I looked at the apartment through his eyes.
Shit was everywhere. We had really, really, let the place go for the past few weeks. The living room was encumbered. Scarves. Loose white paper with my writing. Studded belts. Tambourines. Small bottles of neon colored acrylic paints. Jackets. Mugs still halfway full of coffee and tea. Markers. CDs. Backpacks. Hats. Indian headresses. Suitcases. We’d gone to Seattle at the end of April and hadn’t fully unpacked. Empty Jim Beam and Tanqueray bottles. Matchbooks. Lighters. Journals. Books. Friend’s books, my brother’s books, my books, Lauren’s books. A library handled by children. The futon was pulled out, bedded with Lauren’s art supplies. She’d had the day off and was working on a painting when I’d left for work that morning. It was pulled out because sometimes when Lauren and I came home drunk from a party or bar, we liked to lay on it and listen to music. We’d usually fall asleep out there. That’s what had happened a few nights earlier, and for no particular reason, Lauren continued to sleep on it for a few more nights. Kind of ironic, since the deteriorating wall and fire escape was parallel to her bed in the bedroom we shared.
The coral kitchen. Polaroid photographs of our life and friends trimmed the walls. They were held up by tape that had pictures of bacon on it. Dirty dishes were towered high in the porcelain sink. There was cold coffee still in the pot from the morning.
Then I remembered about my tampon. I looked up at the cop.
“Could I just have a few seconds alone in here?” This cop had a heart. He nodded, handed me the flashlight, and walked out.
I changed my tampon in the fluorescence of the flashlight, pretending I was camping, laughing in disbelief of my situation. I ditched my purse for Lauren’s Jansport backpack. Then there was an overpowering feeling of responsibility of what to pack. The cop had said we could come back the next day to get our stuff out, but what if he was wrong? What if this was my only chance?
My first thoughts: Lauren’s paintings? Books? My flash drive? Where the hell was it? Social Security cards? Where the hell were they? I opened the fridge. I was homeless now, for an unattainable amount of time — I’d need food. I saw the full carton of half and half I’d bought that very morning at C-Town. Surreal. My entire perspective altered. It felt like a movie set. Props. I’d been told this wasn’t my home anymore.
I packed: Whole-wheat tortilla wraps. Baby carrots. One banana. One pair of jeans and one pair of underwear. The Days Run Away Like Wild Horses Over the Hills by Bukowski, a book I was planning on giving to a guy I was falling in love with, for his birthday. (Fascinating how my apartment was crumbling but I made sure to grab that book for him.) Journal. Pen. Phone charger. Lauren’s navy blue zip-up sweatshirt with the red hearts printed all over it. That sweatshirt symbolized the beginning of New York City for me — I wore it every day the first month I moved to Brooklyn. Wallet. The latest copy I’d printed of the story I was working on about the Strand bookstore. Toothbrush. And that was it. I didn’t even need my keys anymore.
I booked it down the crooked stairwell. I thanked the cop and left.
Totally exhilarated; I felt rebellious as I walked down Manhattan Avenue towards Williamsburg. I was speed-walking. I didn’t know where I was going. I was so glad to be wearing my friend Skye’s black leather jacket and Lauren’s black lace up to the knee Doc Marten boots. Both pieces made me feel tough. The perfect homeless attire. Underneath I had on a black button up dress with white flowers on it.
All the things that had been nagging me in my mind were now gone. Late rent, utility checks, dishes, laundry. I patted myself on the back for not paying rent on time. This was the first month we were late with sending in our check. And who gave a fuck about laundry when I didn’t know where I’d be sleeping that night? It reminded me of that feeling when you wake up for school and find out that you have a snow day. All responsibilities for the day — gone. That’s what this felt like — a snow day — but in life.
I uncharacteristically went into Starbucks down the street. I wanted a more glamorous place to charge my phone and break the news to people, like a bar or one of my favorite cafes in Williamsburg. But I was too impatient and excited to walk the twenty minutes to Bedford Avenue. My stomach was tense. To think I’d been hungry on the train just thirty minutes ago seemed insane. I had no cash. I went up to the counter and paid for a bottle of water with my debit card. I couldn’t even drink it.
I plugged my phone charger into the wall. I really couldn’t stop laughing. I called Lauren who was at a party. She left immediately and said she’d call me when she got off the G train. I called my mom. I called my dad.
One minute you’re thinking how you are going to take a shower and the next you are in a Starbucks bathroom with a backpack wishing you remembered to bring a hairbrush. Lauren called me while I was still in the bathroom. I walked back to our “apartment” to meet her. She was talking to the cop. She was crying a little.
It started to rain while we walked down to Anytime, our regular bar in Williamsburg. The rain felt good. We stopped at Dunkin’ Donuts for Lauren to pee.
When we got to the bar, we sat down at a table by the window. Marcos, our usual waiter walked over to us.
“Two whiskey sodas,” I said.
“And two shots of Johnny Walker Black,” Lauren added.
“Those shots are expensive,” Marcos warned. He knew we only showed our faces during the happy hours when the well drinks were one dollar.
“Can you just get them for us?” I snapped after bantering back and forth about the price for a few minutes. I didn’t care how expensive they were. I didn’t have rent to pay, anyway. That meant I had an extra six hundred dollars. I could afford an eight-dollar shot. I was almost giddy with this whole adventure, and I couldn’t stop talking. My excited babble must have gotten annoying.
“Dude? Is it going to be okay with you if I’m not fucking stoked right now?” Lauren interrupted and glared at me. I toned it down. She cheered up after the Johnny Walker Black hit her system. We downed them fast. “Let me see what you packed,” she smirked.
We laughed at what I’d grabbed in a moment of panic. The heart sweatshirt, the Bukowski book, the baby carrots. It all seemed dumb but we ate the carrots and tortillas anyway.
We slept at our friend Chris’s apartment on Eagle Street. He was a friend of Lauren’s from the Strand. We woke up on an air mattress with a bottle of Tanqueray gin and Poland Springs water in between us. Books outlined me. Ceiling to floor. It was beautiful. Where was I? Was I in a library? Straight ahead the sun hit the bright yellow Strand bags in the kitchen. Lauren was to my left. Ah, that’s right. We were at Chris’s apartment. A book junkie’s place.
Lauren woke up. She lay there for a minute, taking in all the books too.
“This must be what it feels like to sleep in an aisle of the Strand, huh?” I said.
“Oh man… yeah. He really does have a book collecting sickness you know.”
We wrote a thank-you note to Chris for letting us stay. I went into the bathroom and was relieved to find Excedrin. I popped three.
It was a little after seven a.m. and sunny when we dragged up the hill in silence to India Street. To the yellow tape. The cop car. The cop told us we had exactly one hour to get out. No more and no less. Now that it was daylight I could see that the yellow tape actually did not read CAUTION, it read FIRE LINE DO NOT CROSS. A piece of paper on the door read:
HAZARDOUS: FAILURE TO MAINTAIN EXTERIOR BUILDING WALL. DEFECT IS: REAR WALL IS ROTTED, DEFECTIVE AND PULLING AWAY FROM WOOD FRAME. FIRE ESCAPE IS IN DANGER DUE TO AFFECTED REAR WALL AND COULD DISLODGE IF USED.
FAILURE TO MAINTAIN BLDG. NOTED: AT CELLAR OF FRONT BLDG=NO FIREPROOF ENCLOSURE FOR BOILER RM, MISSING FIREPROOFING AT CEILING AT VARIOUS LOCATION, ROTTED JOISTS NEXT TO BOILER RM, LARGE AMOUNT OF DEBRIS THRU-OUT
We began packing. We had no electricity, so we were listening to Elliott Smith on Lauren’s computer battery just waiting for it to die. We could barely hear it. We dropped our laundry off at the laundromat. Then we reclined on our backs on the futon and waited for my Dad and Lauren’s family. They were driving from upstate to fill their cars up with the stuff we wanted to keep. When Elliott Smith died — no pun intended — everything got too depressing and weird and quiet so we went outside to shoot the shit with the cop. We sat out on the stoop with our brand new bikes. Lauren had tripped on acid a few days prior, and while tripping had a revelation that friends were more important than money. Then she surprised me by buying us both bikes at K-mart. We’d ridden them once.
My dad pulled up shortly afterwards. We went outside to look at the crumbling wall. He took some photographs. Lauren’s parents, sister, and brother arrived. The six of us took treks up and down the stairs. Lauren’s 5-year-old brother was scared shitless and confused.
“Hey Chloe, Hey Noell-ie, is it gonna fall on me now?” he asked, while cautiously facing his fear and going inside. His arms were above his head with his elbows out for protection. My dad kept making me go back in to double, triple, quadruple check if I’d left anything important. The whole experience was so jarring that I just wanted to get the hell out of there. I left my bed. My dressers. Clothes. Food. Kitchen utensils. Knick-knacks. Left it all in there to die, deteriorate, whatever. We wrote a huge Fuck You Melina Nealis to our non-existent landlord on the wall in bright orange paint. And we were off.
Lauren and I lost each other that next week. We had different work hours and we stayed at different places — me with a guy I’d started seeing and she with people from the Strand. The week was a blur of tears and other people’s shampoos. By the end of it, I was lucky enough to move in with a friend for the summer in Washington Heights. Lauren moved to Bushwick.
But we couldn’t let go. I don’t think we exactly had post-traumatic stress from what went down at 156, but it messed our heads up pretty well for a while. We just could not get over it. We mourned it. We inserted the number 156 into everything we could. We inserted the words “One five six — you’ve got the dreamer’s disease,” into the song “You Get What You Give” by The New Radicals. We bought mailbox stickers and stuck 156 on our computers and cars. We looked for the number everywhere — were plagued by it. Once Lauren purposely got her bank account low enough so that she had exactly one dollar and fifty six cents. Or we’d be at a bodega and would try to buy the exact amount of candy that would bring the total to $1.56. We were this close to getting it tattooed on our fingers. (We got worse tattoos instead.) One fifty-six gave us baggage. We couldn’t meet anyone without launching into the story. We were craving closure.
One year later we were drinking jumbo Styrofoam cups of beer at Turkey’s Nest and playing Big Buck Hunter when we decided we wanted to walk to India Street and break in. It was like going back to an ex’s house — you know it’s pathetic and that you should be over it by now, but you aren’t, and the brain says one thing but the heart says another. We walked fast, excited, and driven by nostalgia.
The building was exactly how we’d left it, except even trashier. It was boarded up but we were able to squeeze through a hole in the fence next door. Once off the sidewalk and on the other side of the fence, we saw there was a ladder propped against the other fence we would have had to climb to get to the back of 156. We climbed the ladder, and from the top, noticed a mattress in the backyard of 156. We were not the first ones to have done this. We jumped. The back door to 156 was wide open. We ran up the stairs, using our cell phones for lights. The door to our apartment was gone. We went in. The fridge was in the middle of the living room. Some of our underwear and old credit cards and photographs, still on the floor. A small shelf we loved that we’d painted neon yellow sat on the counter. We filled our backpacks up with our stuff that we didn’t really need: thongs and Polaroids and the shelf. We heard some movement and the saw some raccoon-esque animal run down stairs. Lauren thought she made out the figure of a sleeping person in the corner. We figured people squatted there now. We became frightened and ran out. We ran to Lulu’s Bar on Franklin Avenue. We laughed and spread out our “new” things on the benches.
156 India Street gave me anxiety to the point that for the next two years I didn’t go anywhere without a backpack holding an extra pair of underwear and a piece of fruit. You never know. I’ve yet to be in Brooklyn and not walk over to 156 India Street to see what’s going on with it, or to sit on the stoop and reminisce. Each time, it looks worse than the time before. A few weeks ago I Googled my old address. A competition on the website New York Shitty popped up. The website was holding a contest for “disgruntled Brooklyn renters.” Whoever made the best and funniest 30 second video explaining their situation would win $1,999. I would strongly advise anyone who resided at 156 India Street to enter this contest, read the last line. Alas, Lauren and I missed the deadline.
You would think that this experience would have nudged me to leave New York. But I wasn’t going to let New York kick me out. I would leave on my own terms, one year later. I was exhilarated and brokenhearted driving over the bridge, saying goodbye to the sign: Welcome To Brooklyn, Like No Other Place in the World.