Friday, September 30, 2011

When apartment life was a project

There’s lots of yapping these days about owning one’s home as a way toward grasping the American Dream. I can relate to that, all right. Just the thought that every bit of mowing, raking, tightening, replacing, fixing, painting, weeding, planting, cleaning, watering, drying, trimming, oiling, and myriad other ings is solely ours to do is surely the stuff that dreams are made of. Nightmares, too.

Still, as someone who grew up in one of “the projects,” those New York City-subsidized apartment buildings sprinkled throughout the boroughs in the ’50s through the ’70s, I often think back fondly to my youth. Apartment living, I must admit, is something I never fully appreciated.

Even in the apartments Elena and I once called home, we learned early that we’d always have company besides one another. Almost like gated communities, both had sentries at the entrances. We certainly felt secure from the day we moved into our first apartment, when one accompanied us in to check the condition of the cabinets that had just been put in—but not into hers. (She was so, let us say, congratulatory.) In our second apartment, the other sentry cared so much about making us feel safe that we could bring nothing into the building without, all the way to our door, explaining where we’d gone and what we were carrying. You can’t get that kind of security just anywhere.

Once it was just the two of us, apartment life was only looking up; they were the first years of our marriage, after all. But in my earliest years, in the New York City-subsidized apartment I lived in with my parents and five older siblings, life was better described as a series of ups and downs. What else could it be since I lived on the 10th floor and needed the elevator just to check the mail?

After the kindness of most of our neighbors—I’ll get to the others shortly—the next-best part of the projects was the elevator. Regular readers of this blog will recall my everlasting appreciation for riding up with the next-door neighbor we affectionately called Mouth. But he clearly didn’t make that big a splash in my early years. No, the big splash is what seemed to hit the elevator floor, several times a day, moments before I stepped in to use the elevator for its intended function. Every apartment in the building, I was to learn, really did have a bathroom.

But I clearly benefited. Riding the elevator after such routine generosity taught me how to stand on my toes, a skill I’ll recall the day I take up ballet. It taught me to hold my breath for a whole minute, longer if the previous occupant had thought to press all the buttons before getting off. That will help when I become a deep-sea diver. And from the occasional instance when the entire elevator floor was awash, I exercised my biceps by pressing the opposite elevator walls while holding my feet aloft. Trust me…I’ll come in very handy the day we’re together pushed down a narrow, watery pit of snakes.

In my late teen years before I entered the military, I trained for boot camp by habitually going both up and down the stairs. For that, I have neither Mouth nor the wayward weer to thank. My true inspiration? The rampant practice of “stucking.”

Before you decide I’ve lost my grip on the English language—and welcome me at last to the Internet community—let me explain stucking. Most elevators today have inside and outside doors that open in unison, either from one side or from the middle. Our elevators instead had an inside door that opened by itself, plus a hinged outside door that required a person on the floor to open it.

Here’s where it got interesting. Once the inside door closed all the way, the outside door locked. But in the instant before the outer door locked, if you pulled it open only, oh, about an eighth of an inch and held it, the elevator’s passengers (typically me) would be stuck with the inner door closed tight and the elevator going absolutely nowhere. To these kindest of neighbors, I owe thousands of dollars of therapy for curing me, in advance, of any claustrophobia I’d been planning to develop.

As an adult visiting my parents, I’d sometimes run into some of the same kids, now grown with kids of their own, who’d delighted in stucking me. The obvious temptation, nice fellow that I am, would be to ask their thoughts on how life had stucked them from rising out of public housing. But it never was to come up: All smiles, they treated me almost like family.

Still, I’m still taking no chances. Someday, keeping up a house will get to be too much for us. That’s when we’ll downsize to a smaller place. But if it’s an apartment, I’ve just a couple of preferences. A first-floor unit…a secret entrance….