Updated: Jun 13, 2020
EVERYONE NEEDS A SACRED SPACE TO FIND THEMSELVES
Without a doubt, sacrifices are made to live in a 78 square foot room. Ah........ 307 West 79th apartment #244 - my first apartment on my own in NYC.
First off, it was the size of a closet in most people’s homes. Some light creeps over the buildings beside you, but you never see the sun. You learn it’s hard to get things done in a "bunker." Something about it makes you sleepy. Not having a personal bathroom is also a major thing. Without that, your schedule is not your own. You wake up with thirty minutes to get ready for work. Someone could be in there that whole time. Even after they leave, you still don’t wanna go in. The musty damp bathroom holds scent like a sponge. Despite that, not only did I live there for 17 years, I loved it.
The climate inside the bunker is especially cruel. In the wintertime, it’s freezing. The exposure to the poorly sealed window makes a drafty space. It’s always warmer in the hallways. In the summer, it's the opposite. Humidity clings to the bunker like a Devil’s Island prison cell. You can go outside, and it be quite pleasant. But go back inside and it’s sticky city, baby.
The radiator was a massive problem. First, there is the noise. The Imperial Court heating system hadn’t been updated since its creation in the '20s. Radiators can be clangy, hissy, and rude. They are unfeeling pipes and metal contraptions with no heart for those trying to sleep. In a bunker, you are right next to the pipe.
Everyone in New York knows 48 degrees. That’s when the landlord is required by law to cut on the heat. So, what if it is 49 and you are in a drafty room? The answer: you’re shit out of luck. Some may say, “that’s not that bad. What? So, your place gets down to the mid-fifties or so." My family likes air conditioning like most people. They like it cold. They run their units down to 68 or so. That’s frigid for my bones. I like a nice 73, which turns out to be the norm among Americans polled for their perfect in-home temps. So, what do you think 55 feels like? Many nights, the temperature outside hangs at 50 degrees or sometimes, it’s almost evil to think it could stay 49 degrees all night - but it does.
The law says when it hits 48, the heat comes on. Who enforces that on a daily basis one might ask? No one. Many times, the temperature outside dropped below and no heat. Who do you complain to? The people at the desk? Do they care? Yeah, sure. Dream on. They seemed to enjoy watching you suffer. You pay lower rent than they do out in Queens where they commute from. You live on the Upper West Side!! They don’t want to hear you moan. Get a blanket.
The law also gives another break to landlords: they can cut off the heat between two in the morning and six – no matter how cold it is. Who created that bullshit law? Those are the coldest hours of the day. If the temperature is dropping toward 48, you’d better hope it gets to 45 before midnight so you get some heat before they cut it off again at two.
Bringing home a date is an experience. They are in for quite a shock. My heart rate always climbed opening the door and waiting for the reaction. One of the first was, “wait, what?” Another was, “you actually live here?” Sacrifices have to be made.
Yet, the bunker was a dream. It was freedom in a box.
My first job was at Coco Pazzo Teatro. That lasted six months. Fresh off the train from Alabama, I knew two words on the whole menu. But when the manager grabs you by the wrist and tries to haul you back to the kitchen to bitch you out, you gotta have some respect for yourself, pull your arm back and say, “don’t you ever touch me again, fool.” She looked like Sharon Stone but had the temperament of an addict without their stash. As mean as she could be. On the other hand, manager John was magnificent. He had your back. On a busy pre-theatre night, when your whole section is sat in minutes, he shows up and says, “what do you need?” And, he gets it.
I had just put my finger in Sharon Stone’s face and told her to never touch me again, and that I was quitting when John said, “let’s take a walk.” This was smack in the middle of a busy lunch. We walked across Times Square and over to sixth avenue. “Put in your notice. Don’t leave like this,” he said. “Think about the next job. Leave right.” I followed his advice and learned much more from him than just how to fillet a fish in front of Matthew Broderick.
When I got home. I sat back on the bed and thought about how I was going to survive. It’s then that I felt the arms of the bunker around me. “It’s okay,” it said. “350 dollars for rent, that’s all we need. We’ll make it.” The bunker was right. I felt my chest lighten. Even if I made only $500 a month, I could make it. Food can be cheap in New York. If you learn the ropes of the city, you can get by on very little. And you can walk everywhere. And I did.
I got on with a temp agency through an old roommate. Temp work paid the rent with just a couple of days a week of desk work. But if you didn’t get on with a company in a more permanent way, it was tedious. You had to arrive at seven in the morning to show up and wait. Most days you got something, and some, you got nothing. Going home empty handed after getting up at the crack of dawn was disheartening.
At the same time, I didn’t really want to work in another office that looked just like the last. Same bad coffee. Same boring conversations. Sitting in the office waiting on an assignment, trying to wake up, I daydreamed of going home and playing video games.
It was the Theatre that saved me. The company was called Theatre Refreshment. TR for short. You were a bartender, but you didn’t need to have any skills. If they wanted a fancy drink, you just said no. The pay was real low. $100 a week low. But you got tips. A good show brought in $20 a night. That’s another $160 counting matinees. Math: $260 a week equals $1,040 a month. With the bunker, that’s good living. On top of that, you couldn’t ask for less responsibility. Show starts at eight. You arrive at 6:30. Set up the bar in twenty minutes. Talk with your friends. Get dressed. The door opens. You work the 30-minute walk-in and a hectic 15-minute intermission, then close down the bar in twenty minutes and you’re done.
It was perfect for bunker living. Add to that the fact that you got to see a Broadway show every night, and it was damn luxurious. But you couldn’t convince anyone of that in a blog post. You just had to live it. (Maybe in a book?)
Bunker #244 is in my soul. It was my corner of a magnificent city in the center of the world. It was my home.