A Converted Loft Space at Essex Street and East Broadway

from the New York Times, September 3, 2006

In 1994, having lived one week in the city, I moved from a friend’s couch into a converted loft space at the corner of Essex Street and East Broadway, above a Chinese restaurant that smelled as if it had been stir-frying rancid organ meats in polluted cooking oil for several mayoral terms. The stink pervaded the three-story building and held my nose hostage every moment of the 12 months I called that place home.

The entry door was one of those forbidding metal slabs that appear on otherwise featureless brick walls and exude criminal intent. The building’s top floor teemed with an indeterminate number of indentured Chinese immigrants who worked at all hours and rarely materialized beyond the sound of their constant footfalls in the apartment above or their echoes in the stairwell as they came and went from invisible, terrible jobs.

My two-headed live-in landlord was a fractious gay couple who let additional rooms to a shy comics buff whose monastic silence magnified their bitter nightly squabbles, and to a 40-something cat fancier who left used tampons on the rim of the bathtub.

My room was a windowless 8-foot-by-10-foot drywall cubicle with a sleeping loft that I rationalized made the room bigger by half. My head avoided impact with the ceiling as long as I remembered to crawl to and from bed. I relied on the glowing numbers of my digital clock to determine whether it was morning or I was insomniac.

I had told myself that living in a windowless room would be like having my own personal sensory deprivation chamber, overlooking the fact that the omission of only one sense sharpens the rest. At night, I shared my futon with the stench of the restaurant and the bleats and brays of my live-in landlords. Failing the seduction of a deaf anosmiac, company of any other sort was out of the question.

In lieu of negotiating the apartment’s small, repulsive kitchen, I subsisted on $1 meals of shrimp noodle from a corner food cart. I became fanatically devoted to sugar-and-peanut-filled rice flour balls the size and heft of testicles, sold at a nearby pastry shop. Even today, I cannot visit Chinatown without craving the fleshy give of rice flour and the sweet crunch of sugared peanut.

The pastry shop is gone now, but the apartment remains, the arched windows of its front-facing wall overlooking Seward Park. The sight of those windows still fills me with fervent, feral pride. I bested a city of impoverished, underemployed, low-rent-seeking hopefuls for that $500-a-month sublet. If those drywall cubbyholes haven’t been demolished or condemned, I wish the occupant of the smallest, most squalid one the happiness that was mine.