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Key Hole; Home; Jack Daniel's Towers; Everything Must Go; Hard Driven; Eventual Crisis

Key Hole

Recently Jill needed keys to the back door of our building. One key to open the red, industrial-style door that leads from our bare, gray cement basement, and the other to open a high iron gate, slopped with brown enamel, out by the sidewalk. This is the way Jill preferred to enter and leave our building when she is alone with Alex.

Alex's carriage is heavy, and he goes nowhere without a tank of oxygen. If she doesn't go out through the basement, where there's a ramp, she has to lift Alex, carriage and O2 and all down a flight of steps near the elevator. Jill knows she can get a key because there's a woman in a wheelchair living in a neighboring building, and this woman has a key.

I call the building management on Tuesday and ask how we get keys. I'm told to hold on, then a girl gets back on the line and says, "They said we don't give out keys because when they're out, then they're out."

I convey this to Jill. She utters a phrase common to native New Yorkers, then says she'll call. A few minutes she's back on my line and tells me to call management again. Turns out she can get a key, and there's even a meeting of the building co-op board on Wednesday night. What timing! I can get the details on the necessary paperwork from a guy named, let's say Steve, in the management office.

I call Steve. Steve says he needs a letter from us to show to the board. "Just tell him you have a child who doesn't walk and needs oxygen, and a wife with a physical condition," Jill says. I write a letter up and e-mail it to Jill. She says it's perfect, "just the right tone of need and legal threat."

I fax it to Steve. Time clicks on past 4:30, quarter of five. Steve said he'd be there until six or so. I go home to my weird building, many whose apartments are owned by guys who had the money during the recession of the early '90s to shell out for half a dozen apartments that they now rent for amounts such as $1,275. (It would now be $1,325 for our apartment if we had stomached the 11 percent increase they wanted to slap us with last lease time, but Jill called the management company and rationally pointed out, as only a native New Yorker can, that we'd been good tenants and had had a baby in the hospital for 13 goddamned months!

At 6:15, Steve calls. There's a form I can fill out and fax back to him. I can't remember whose idea this was, but I decide to keep the original of the form until we actually get the keys. He says he'll send the form, "an affidavit really," tomorrow.

Next day time again clicks on. Finally I call him. "I haven't forgotten. I just have to find it on the computer," he says in the afternoon. Eventually it arrives. One graph, single-spaced, telling me when the elevator's available to the basement, how management is responsible for absolutely no injury we might suffer in the basement at any time, and how Jill and Alex and I are now responsible for every break-in in our building. I sign it and fax it back. "Check with me after the meeting of the board," Steve says later.

I do. The keys have been approved and we'll have them Friday, Monday at the latest. Steve just has to call some member of the board who will call the landlord who will make the key. Great. Jill doesn't need them on the weekends when I'm around to lug Alex and the carriage and the O2 tank up and down the stairs. I should say that once or twice when I've done this, I've taken a step down or up the stairs and felt that arresting instant of nothing under my shoe, an instant when through my head burns the image of the dizzying whirl, Alex's face and the screams, the clatter of the carriage across the tiles of the lobby floor, the roar of the ignited tank of oxygen. We usually make it down the stairs fine.

Tuesday at about five it hits us that we haven't seen any keys. Jill calls the landlord. "Nobody told him to make any keys," she reports. We call the management, and we get in a guy in that office who's supposedly doing phone repairs. He takes a message for Steve.

Next day Jill calls me to say that Steve is out all day, and that nobody seems to know when he'll be back. We have only a rumor that a "Val" on the board of our building saw our letter requesting keys. We leave messages all day. Jill also calls the local congressman's office, and I reach an officer for the New York City Commission on Human Rights.

"Do we have any rights here?" I ask. We do, he replies, and there was just a landmark case in the Bronx where the landlord of a building refused to give a mother of two mentally retarded teens a key to a similar entrance. This mother was trying to lug two wheelchairs up and down lobby steps until a court ordered the landlord to not only provide back-door keys, but to swallow the price tag for renovating the back entrance. "He so much as stood up in court," the Commission officer recalled, "and said that was hoping that the two teenagers would eventually just get so bad that they had to leave his building and go live in an institution!"

Eventually Jill speaks to Steve, who claims he never got paperwork from us. I fax the letter again. That afternoon Jill calls and says she just got off the phone with Steve. She says she screamed at him and he hung up on her. Could I please call him?

I do. He's quiet and polite, assuring me that the board has our information and he's just waiting to get in touch with the landlord to make the key. I get the feeling that if I made a crack about how excitable women are when they have a baby who can't walk and who can't live without an oxygen tank, he'd chuckle and we'd reach a manly agreement. I don't make that crack.

When I come home that night they're on the table, shiny brass. They shine bright as the idea that pretty soon we'll move. (June, 2000)

Home

"You live in the most exciting city in the world. Now what?" -- Ad on the New York City subway.

By the time you read this, Jill and I will probably have closed on an apartment in Manhattan, at 108th Street and Fifth Avenue. (Back in Maine, my brother says he's never lived anywhere with 108 streets.) For the first time I've plowed through all you have to plow through when you buy an apartment in New York in a booming economy. Tax returns, W-2s, investment and bank crap, insurance for a space you don't even own yet. We assembled the papers in early May in the middle of a heat wave. With the fan off. "No matter when you do this stuff you're doing it in about a million degrees!" Jill said, sweating on the couch.

The board that interviewed us was pleasant; I was impressed with their sense of community. The apartment has wood floors, built-in air conditioners, and a slice of Central Park outside the window. The neighborhood looks tough, but they're building a museum one door up and it could become a real home. I hope so. The kind of home I walked by in 1984 when I arrived in New York, and thought, "Who do you have to know?"

One person it pays to know is Jill's step-dad, a.k.a. Grandpa, who finds lifting Alex "good exercise." He gave us - we have the word "gift" in writing - the pile of money you need even to read today's Times real estate section. If not for him, there wouldn't be this home-to-come. I wish I had that kind of money to give my wife and son, but I don't.

I didn't in 1984, either. I came to New York from Maine and dropped my duffel bag in a YMCA room on 34th Street. My room was twice the width of a twin bed and one and a half times as long. The ceiling was 15 feet high. If I could've turned the room sideways I would have had a lot of space. That was a good first perspective on New York real estate.

Next I moved into something called the Hotel Continental on 96th Street. It was one of the city's last Single Room Occupancy hotels. Most SROs fell into a tax loophole for developers in the 1970s and were never heard from again until they commanded four figures for an efficiency. The Continental was still there in 1984, though but there wasn't much continental about it. The walls were thick, dusty stucco, the hallways dark. Four single rooms shared a kitchen that nobody used, the pots rusting and the sinks bone dry. Every discovery was tinged with a reminder of the city I'd gotten myself into, as when I hauled an old dresser from the basement and that night found it seething with roaches.

The heat of summer settled in, my first exposure to a million degrees; the drugstore ran out of window fans. That summer I learned how big a dent an oscillating fan puts in a city summer night, and how when you hit a roach with a sandal just right it sounds like a board breaking.

That fall I moved to a furnished three-room basement apartment in Brooklyn, in a one-family house under an Irish family with three teenagers. It had wall-to-wall Sears carpeting, iron kitchen chairs, and paneling appropriate for a 24-year-old writer. I slept on a fold-out bed, one homemade partition away from the middle boy. His mother woke him up every day at 7 a.m. by burring loudly down the stairs, "Tommy! Get up! Yerr going to be late for scew-el." That rarely worked. After 15 minutes I'd hear his father add, "Tommy. Get up. Now." One night when the parents weren't home and I was watching "Magic" on the late movie, one of Tommy's friends, wanting to get into the house and not knowing anyone lived in the basement, opened my window. I've often thought how my life would be different now had that night I owned a gun.

I returned to Brooklyn in the fall of 1986, to a third-floor walk-up rented by the owner of the ice cream parlor on the first floor. I found duck sauce caked on the kitchen walls, and we discovered the front door was installed upside down. With me were Sean, who was an old friend from the Y, and a girl who had ideas about our domestic arrangement different from mine. She left six months into the lease. The ice cream parlor owner tried to get us to paint at the end of the lease. I did a little. Sean didn't. We lost the security deposit.

I put an ad under "Apartment Wanted" in a neighborhood giveaway I freelanced for, and was stunned when the mother of an Italian-French family 10 blocks away answered. Sean and I moved in one day in a van-I traveled light in those days--and riding over with the side door open I couldn't know that it was my last move for five years.

I can't do those years justice. They had us in every holiday, and set the table as if we were their sons. I went to their daughter's wedding. Once when I gave her flowers, the mother cried. On their top floor my typewriter chattered nightly after "Hill Street Blues" as I built the foundation of what I guess today is my career.

I move to 108th Street with more baggage than I've ever had before: that career, a wife, a growing son. And the apartment will offer more than those before, because what it will offer is hard to find. To the east is a deadly neighborhood, but to the west Alex will totter to feed the ducks in a pond, and pitch back and forth in the baby swings. Of the 600 residents in the building, about 50 are kids. There are community events, committees, a newsletter. Neighbors seem to say hello. I guess I'm ready to say hello back. (June, 2000)

Jack Daniel's Towers

I have standing orders from Jill to stop by the liquor store on my way home every night. Only two kinds of people have to stop by a liquor store every night. Those with a drinking problem, and those with an even more serious problem. We're in the second group.

Because we are. Moving. Again.

This is move five since 1991. Each has been a sluice-run, starting slowly with a few circled ads in the paper, gathering speed with phone calls and appointments, then beginning to bubble around our ankles as Jill starts throwing stuff out. Then catching us up in a current that accelerates to the white-water gush of moving day. Down and down we go, blindingly faster until we hit the fall to the pool below. Then we're dumped to sit on the shore in a pant, surrounded by our belongings in the wrong places, our world twisted as it spews from the cartons from the liquor store. We look back up the long, long sluice and swear we'll never do it again.

Five. In nine years. "I've begun throwing stuff out," Jill said the other night.

Move 1991 wasn't "our" move. Jill took the place in Brooklyn on her own, the second floor of a brownstone, with ceiling fan, antique shutters, and windowless bedroom. I helped her move, along with a muscular husband-and-wife mover team. At that point, I stayed with Jill about four days a week, but somewhere early in "her" lease I decided to give up my apartment. I began to move in more of my own cartons, a few a week. I was still careful to insert them into inconspicuous nooks of Jill's space. Soon after, she married me, so I must have been sufficiently careful with her nooks.

Move 1993 was ours. I was looking for a job at a daily newspaper, and Jill mentioned that fact to a friend who worked at the daily of Ithaca, N.Y., and who happened to be leaving shortly. We went up for a week and found a place. A few weeks later I started two years of 12-hour days at the paper and began setting up house in the short evenings as Jill UPSed me the boxes. First thing she sent me was pictures of our cats. Plus the plates and cups, wrapped in newspaper. Suddenly my whole day was newspapers.

Move 1995 was probably our best move. I was looking for a job at a weekly newspaper and, since we loved the TV show "Homicide," we decided to move to Baltimore. We made hundreds of dollars on a yard sale. Friends from the paper helped - and took some of our stuff - and we ordered pizza. On the final packing night friends dropped by into the wee hours, seemingly in shifts, to help fill boxes. At one point our upstairs neighbor and newspaper friend Matt asked what should be done with all the stuff on top of the hutch. "This is all just crap!" he said. That Night of the Long Cartons was much like the whole Ithaca experience: hard work, little sleep, cracks between people who knew each other well, and never enough hours before the deadline.

Move 1998 was the only one Jill and I have made in spring, and it was the hardest and saddest by far. Our cat Monroe died a few days before the move. Our other cat, Mimi, was sick with a growing tumor. We packed alone. The moving truck broke down on I-95 on the way back to New York, and it was just as well we had no lamps as Jill had forgotten to notify Con Ed we were coming. The yellow squares of the streetlights crawled up the bare, dark walls, and our footsteps echoed. Mimi had to stay there while we slept two nights in a hotel. He stayed in the closet. In about a month we set the place up. But a few months later Mimi was dead, and Alex had only just begun his year in hospitals. In most of the ways that count, this apartment has always been dark and hollow. I look forward to leaving it.

Which brings me back to the liquor store, and Move 2000. Jill has done about four shelves of her books. "When are you going to do yours?" she keeps asking. "I'm throwing stuff out."

Every drawer, closet, and cupboard in this apartment remains full, as if somebody still lived here. Yet suddenly everything we own looks loose -- a little push could send it tumbling down the sluice. Even Alex pulls books off the shelves. Over by the air conditioner, a high-rise of cartons is going up, the "Jack Daniel's" tower. It's the first tower, because there are candlesticks and photo frames, stereo sections and VCR tapes, clothes, my chessboard, paintings, all the spoons and forks. All just crap we must put in cartons, and stack the cartons and stack the cartons until there's nothing else to put in them. Until once again this place is hollow for real, and we are gone. (July, 2000)

Everything Must Go

"It would be best tomorrow morning," said Jill last night, "if you just got out of here with baby as early as you can."

Today is yard sale day, when we will try to raise pocket money and simultaneously save ourselves stuffing a lot of bulky junk in to boxes when we move soon. The last time we did this was five years ago: We made a couple hundred dollars in half a day, though we did have to head off buyers from off-limits rooms and stop two from making an offer for our cats.

This time we again have disassembled our home and reassembled it for off-the-sidewalk retail. My back hurts. I toss books I want to keep into a box, along with the checks, pens, more books, the camera. The Easy-Bake oven is up front where the bills used to sit. The Snuggle baby knapsack and the fax machine we put on the "Big Stuff" area atop the entertainment unit. We still have to tape pieces of paper on the TV and stereo that announce NOT FOR SALE NOT FOR SALE NOT FOR SALE. I spirit the "Keeping" boxes -- oh, grab the Olde Paris platter -- away into the safety of our back bedroom. In the middle of this, Alex discovers the joy of opening and shutting the closet doors over and over and over again.

On Yard Sale Morning, I'm up at 7 and put $60.67 in an old Altoids box that will act as the cash drawer, with $60.67. By 7:45, I head out to tape up the bright orange, green and pink flyers in all the hot spots: big intersections, the grocery store, the movie theater, the library, the playground, the post office. I use just two pieces of tape, figuring the flyers will attract more eyes if the edges flap in the wind. I run into many of the flyers we deployed to our friend Heidi last night; Heidi is also selling stuff at our sale.

I return at 8:45. "Alex pissed all over bed," says Jill. He's been re-diapered and is up on the step ladder ($10) smacking the glass door of the entertainment unit. He climbs down and grabs the old cat dish ($1) and the Fantastik (NOT FOR SALE). I'm to take Alex out today from about 10 to about 2, since we can't trust him, as we could the cats, to cower under the bed during a yard sale. I figure to exhaust him with two trips to the swings and an hour of baby-shoe shopping. If I have to come back early, I'll wander in the back of our apartment behind closed doors, like Elvis' aunt who still lives in Graceland.

The Sale Area will two walls of our living room, plus a slice of the shelves in our dining room. Heidi comes over. "I've got to mark prices," she says. "You can have that whole area over there," Jill tells her, with a Napoleonic sweep of the arm. I load Alex in his carriage and wheel him out. I intend to grab Jill a bacon-and-egg on a roll, figuring that if I get it back to her by 10:30 she'll just have time to down it before the shoppers arrive.

On Queens Boulevard I see a woman with glasses and tight gray-blonde curls fingering one of our flyers that came untaped from a lamppost. I wait until she leaves, then press the flyer back up. I fetch the sandwich and head home.

At our door, I find the woman from the lamppost leaving my apartment with a fat plastic bag of stuff. An Early Bird. Jill says, "Look what we got!" and holds up three singles. "She starts criticizing me," Jill recalls, "saying we should put up a sign on things that aren't for sale. I said, 'Food for thought. Food for thought.' Bitch."

Back out with Alex for a clear and morning of swings, stairs and cement steps at the playground. I feel the sweat down the small of my back. We camp by the slides and eat Cheerios and drink water. The sun is high when I go back.

At the elevator I catch Aunt Julie and Uncle Rob going in. "How much for the baby?" Rob asks. In the apartment I find strangers near my couch, and Heidi counting singles. "I sold two things," she says. "Oh wait, no, I must have sold more."

Back out again, this time to Marshalls for baby sneakers ($7) and to Toys "r" Us, where I linger over the Ultimate Soldier display. Wow! A Kubelwagen Nazi jeep! Then Alex fusses in the cart. "Can't we stay longer?" I ask him. No. I can't wait until he likes this stuff. I wonder how Jill is doing?

I return with a napping Alex, and Jill peels $35 from the Altoids box and sends me on a lunch run. Somebody has posted a sign for our sale outside our building, but the shoppers are apparently beginning to dwindle. I return with lunch and as she tucks into her burger Aunt Julie says that when I went out with Alex last time, I should've taken Uncle Rob. "You could have looked like a nice gay couple," she says, "and explained to everybody that Alex has two daddies." No wonder nobody buys anything from this family! The fax machine is still atop the TV; the Easy-Bake hasn't budged.

The doorbell rings as Jill is midway through a French Fry. "Now I have to go see who the next awful buyer is," she says.

By 2:30 buyers still filter in, and our neighbor Hanna drops by and watches one woman going through Jill's clothes. "You should go to her apartment!" Jill tells the shopper, pointing to Hannah. The shopper turns to Hannah and exclaims, "You have more? How long will you be open today?"

Good question. By 3:30 Jill announces that she thinks our sale is over. There are boxes in every hallway. But Jill looked happy today, even as the cash failed to leap in wads into the Altoids box, she looked happy, as if dirt had been washed away. She didn't seem to notice the two 1997 World Almanacs on our bookshelf; when we started the sale, there was one. Another neighbor bought the fax, but the Easy-Bake hangs on. Boxes fill the floors of every hallway. Our bed is buried. We made $40. Not much is gone. Bad advertising, Jill says.

"Well know what?" she adds. "It'll just be a trip to the Salvation Army." (August, 2000)

Hard Driven

The time came, as it comes to all, for our home computer to go to sleep. Our old Packard-Bell was our first real home computer, bought in 1996 at a now-gone mega electronics chain. We paid hundreds and hundreds of dollars to have the memory doubled to 16K and to have a 5-inch floppy drive installed. Then we took it back to our apartment in Towson, Maryland, dug it out of the cardboard and styrofoam, and hooked it up tense with excitement.

Excited with cause! In the following months I found AOL and bulletin boards, blasted my way through "Wolfenstein," "Duke Nuke'em," and "Wolfpack," first mounted my Web page, garnered e-mail fans, and heard about pornography. On Old PB, Jill found support in the darkest days of Alex's hospitalization, tasted the thrill of ebay, scouted for an apartment back in New York, laid out her cooking newsletter, and heard about pornography. In 1997 we changed the hard drive fan ourselves, I remember, unscrewing the back and snapping off the panels. I can still see the wires inside, bright as flowers. Old PB outlived three printers.

But the Web stops for no man. About a year ago, pages started loading with labor. AOL kept crashing, taking our bookmarks with it. Watching Old PB try to digest the Microsoft program needed to update my Web site was like watching a 20-year-old dog climb the stairs. A spider moved into our 5-inch floppy drive. "OE Fatal Exception" messages began to appear, silver letters on fields of shocking blue, and we could deny the end no longer.

"Well, I'm ready," Jill said to me the other day.

For what? She pointed to Old PB.

"Well," I told Jill, "you lead it into the pasture and I'll get the .22." She said that was sad. I reminded her of the story of my grandfather, who took an old dog into the woods one afternoon to put it out of its misery. He tied the dog to a tree, stepped back with his rifle, aimed, fired, and missed the dog but hit the rope. The dog got home before he did.

No such reprieve here. Every day for a workweek I cruised the Net (I have a hot-rod computer at my office) for buys on hard drives. Manufacturers' sites offered little in our price range (less than a grand) beyond reconstructed machines, and "once a lemon always a lemon," as a tech-savvy e-mail buddy said. I checked the comparison-buyer sites and found a crop of Internet superstores that had agreeable bargains on suddenly critical gobbledygook: 666MHz, 20 GB, 64 MB, 56K. I checked PC World for reviews. I printed a stack of candidates and brought them home on the weekend. I sorted the list and picked out three finalists, finally picking The New Computer based on price, memory, processor, and price. I placed the order on Monday, online.

A Compaq. "Eeeeewww," said our e-mail buddy.

"I'm just letting you handle this," said Jill, who has her hands full with Alex, Alex's therapists, her mom in the hospital, the bitchy renovation on our new apartment, and making sure to dial up weekly for her three hours' of Hold music on the policyholder hotlines of insurance companies. A computer was the least I could do.

The computer, New CQ, arrived on Friday. On Saturday we cleaned off Old PB, wading through Alex's old medicine schedules, freelance articles long forgotten, antiquated resumes, letters to gone friends. File by file, the documentation of our lives fell beneath the ax of the Delete. "Are you sure you want to Delete?" the old hard drive would ask us, as if stalling for time. "Are you sure you want to permanently delete this file?"

We were sure.

At last came time to power down. The monitor went dark in that inhumanly fast way and the fan--still the one we installed, just starting to wheeze--went quiet. Then came the unhooking and unplugging, and the dead dangling cords. This was no dog-into-the-woods moment. But what did I really know about my new hard drive? Two weeks ago I couldn't even spell "Compaq."

I set Old PB in the box, and from New CQ stripped away the styrofoam. The room filled with the scent of new electronics, and I looked at the back of New CQ and found that there's wasn't even anywhere to plug in a printer. (September, 2000)

Eventual Crisis

"To learn if you may need personal business management, place a check next to any item that applies to you. If you check off three or more boxes, then the details of your personal life are getting pushed to the bottom of your list -- and building to an eventual crisis." -- a noted New York business consulting firm

-- A stack of bills sits unpaid on your desk. Depends on what you mean by bills. Ever since the yard sale, I've had the household bills gathered and stuffed into my bag that I take to work. The yard sale displaced a lot in our apartment -- the bills' old nest on the bookshelf included -- and if I hadn't rescued the notices then Amex and Con Ed might disappear from our lives until the moment they blew in our front door. The bills that matter wind up in my office some lunch hour, married to a check and sent on their way. A stack of bills does sit unpaid on the bookshelf, but these are old hospital bills: X-rays, blood samples, tests on the uncertain little bags that were then Alex's lungs. Maybe because of the memories, we don't pay these bills. Instead Jill periodically gets on the phone to insurance, sparing me the hold music. She thinks I don't appreciate her doing this chore. I do, though, and the hospitals seem to appreciate it, too, because eventually the same old bills stop coming.

--You're looking to buy a car, but don't want to be bothered with negotiations. I'm looking to sell a car, but I still don't want to be bothered with negotiations, because they mean talking to people. Not sure I want to be bothered to get the car washed, either.

--Yet another credit card bill needs to be resolved. If only they were errors.

-- Bundles of unopened mail are mounting by the day. Only at my job, and it's not that the mail is unopened, but rather that it's unopenable. At least by me, any longer. Correspondence of any value has long-since arrived via e-mail, anyway, and mountains of that stuff evaporate under one press of Delete. The only person who still writes me personal letters by s-mail is my Uncle Bud. He was wounded on Omaha Beach in World War II. He's getting on in years, and his back is getting bad. I hope he still has some good years left. I feel like I haven't heard all the stories he has to tell me, so I open mail from him at once. And I write back to him quickly.

Actually mail long left unopened has good uses, such as becoming the subject of essays.

-- You still haven't gotten around to setting up a personal budgeting system. Untrue! Jill is getting on in her pregnancy and can't make lunch for me much, but still I never spend more than $5 on a sandwich. I buy new clothes maybe once a year (most recent big purchase: three pairs of pants for about $100). This site is hosted free. I usually buy Alex's diapers on sale or during no-tax week; I haven't told him this. But when he has to do his own personal business, I'm not sure he cares about this gap in the management of mine.

--You can't bring yourself to sort and identify documents and receipts for tax filing. No. Closely related to being unable to bring myself to identify the cash to pay owed taxes.

-- Managing the details of more than one residence is becoming too much. Tell me about it. For three months, Jill and I have owned a hollow box on the upper Upper East Side of Manhattan that we hope to turn into a home. Paperwork willing.

The management company needs what it needs in the ramrod-still way it needs it, however, and I am to filling out forms what the Soviet government was to running a space station. As the days of the summer past trickled into weeks, Jill and I did manage to assemble the thick stacks of testimonials, tax returns (sorted and identified!), and other crap. Of course, all without the fan on. "Why is it always a million degrees whenever you have to do this stuff?!" Jill wondered.

--You constantly say, "If there were only more hours in the day." If there were, I would spend them asleep.

If you answered "yes" to three or more of these questions, you spent too long taking this test. (September 2000)

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