"You must be rich."
A grandfather who asked where I lived told me this, straight out. We were at the B&O Railroad Museum playground in Baltimore with our preschoolers, mine a grandnephew. I had unwisely confessed to living in Manhattan.
After leaving Baltimore in my early 20s, I gradually, by incremental steps, rose from a one-room furnished basement apartment in ungentrified Brooklyn to one room in a "luxury," "pet friendly" high rise 10 minutes from Lincoln Center. It's across from a public housing project. It is far from the subway. It is one room with entry foyer, for goodness sake! There are more dogs than people, and they are an eternal nuisance (step carefully).
But I have lovingly decorated my one room. It is my refuge and my nest. Many must approve of my décor — more on this later.
"Luxury"? The word luxury in real estate ads in New York means lack of obvious squalor. "Pet friendly?" See above.
Me — rich? I'm pre-retirement poor. I put all disposable and indispensable income into my 401(k) and IRA while I'm still working. I plan to retire middle class. This means earn, save, and walk right past anything bright, shiny, beautiful and for sale.
I lead a supremely conventional life in unconventional surroundings. Except for the time I passed a tiger roaming gracefully in the West 50s, free and untrammeled, perhaps an escaped guest from the David Letterman show; or the time, walking to work, I suddenly found myself surrounded by male and female models wearing — well, never mind. Aside from the odd encounter, I can easily slip into routine, which is how I like it. What interests me is a curator's lecture on a portrait in the American Wing of the Metropolitan Museum. Or the exhibit of Charles Dickens manuscripts in the Morgan Library. A quiet life.
My studio apartment features a kitchen you can actually walk into and move around in. A kitchen with expansive granite counters! In Craigslist ads, this is known as a "walk in kitchen," a phrase recently used in 30 Craigslist ads. Like "walk in closet."
Oddly, every visitor who sees my apartment wants to move in. (Could it be my decorating talents?) When am I leaving for Israel, asks an Israeli tourist with designs. She looks around and asks, "Where's the rest of it? Is that the bedroom?" pointing down a hallway. I parry deftly: "Would you like to see my walk in kitchen?" She has an offer. I can vacation in her flat and she'll stay in mine. Fair deal. Oh, and she has a 60-pound Labrador. How about June in Jerusalem?
A Baltimore woman I just met was almost giddy with joy when she learned I live in Manhattan; she immediately took my number. And called. Did I remember her? I did not. No matter. She needed to stay over since she'd be in New York that weekend. "I have only one room, and you would lack privacy," I suggested delicately. Does she know anyone in Queens? "I prefer Manhattan," she told me forthrightly, with that grasping air found in certain Anita Brookner characters. How could I question such a preference? Don't I prefer Manhattan?
People have all sorts of reasons for needing to be near Lincoln Center. I've dodged and prevaricated. I've learned to protect myself. I did not struggle to find one room of my own to hand it out to strangers. I am not heartless; I did welcome a mother and daughter, refugees from a driving snowstorm, as house guests. They were also, respectively, my sister and niece.
Since my apartment is coveted by everyone, perhaps I should reassess its virtues. Maybe it's not the location, not my decor. Could be it's the price: free. The expectation of "free" exerts a magnetic effect on out-of-towners.
Then, at night, I open the blinds upon a cinematic view of the Manhattan skyline, lit windows twinkling in the dark distance. A full moon presides, a glowing globe over all.
Perhaps I am living in luxury.
Eileen Pollock grew up in Baltimore and lives in New York. Her email is firstname.lastname@example.org.