Sunday, May 8, 2011

Sample Sunday: Martha, the drudge and Mary, the gadfly. 5-A and 8-B

Excerpt from One Hundred Open Houses

In the Bible, there are two sisters who are frequently visited by Jesus. Martha is the practical one, always cooking or cleaning. Mary, has a “life is short’ attitude and ignores the chores to socialize and have a good time.
8-B, the first apartment I saw at the Jardinium, was Mary. There was an actual apartment to view but it was secondary. This is the sort of twenty-first century building that capitalizes on the idea of cocooning (we all want to be coddled at home and not have to go anywhere to do anything). The apartments are marketed with amenities that most of us have never thought we wanted but now we do: heated floors, soaking tubs, rain showers. (I think the “rain shower” has taken the concept of a watering can with a humungous broad spout and substituted it for the regular showerhead.) These concept buildings separate the population into two categories: people who want personalized shelter and people who simply want to be given a lifestyle. The Jardinium provided a yoga room, a cafĂ©, pool (as in with an 8 ball), pool (as in swimming) garden, gym, and playroom for kids. You could spend the entire day using the amenities and never face your life upstairs. You could practically live in the public spaces and rent out your apartment. The building was a condominium, meaning there was no punishing co-op board to monitor everything you did to maximize the million and a half you dropped on 1200 square feet and the punishing $8500 a month it took to cover the mortgage and maintenance.
Once you got to your unit, here’s what greeted you. A small kitchen tucked into a corner of a large but not lavish living room with a counter surround for separation. Two bedrooms, two bathrooms, (one with a double sink). It’s been noted that an extra bathroom almost doubles the price of an apartment and that definitely seemed true of 8-B. The living room window wall went from floor to ceiling except for a couple of feet at the top and bottom. The agent kept stressing that it was dramatic space and ideal for entertaining. I tried to see it from her point of view but it did not feel like home. I’ve got to forget butcher block and Amana and get used to marble, granite and Sub-Zero. I agreed to see another apartment two floors below but it was more of the same.
5-A was two blocks south from 8-B in a smaller building. 5-A was the earnest Martha – little glamour but lots of value. You could live in 5-A for a monthly outlay of $1914 including mortgage and maintenance. You didn’t have a pool or a gym or a doorman but you had a live-in super who could potentially be more helpful than a doorman. You also had an on-site laundry, a bike room and access to a garden. I didn’t personally see the garden but the agent assured me there was one. 5-A had only one-third of the space of 8-B in the Jardinium, 400 square feet, but it was less than one fifth the price, 279,000. The best thing about 5-A besides the value, were the parquet floors - solid oak with a natural matte finish in perfect condition. The living room had two medium sized windows. The kitchen and bath had modest but clean fixtures and appliances and were both windowed. The reason 5-A was priced so low had to do with the bright blue paint on the walls and the odd wall treatments that muddied its possibilities and almost gave you a headache. If a home stager had prepared 5-A with a new paint job and better lighting it would be on the market for 379,000. As it was now, you had to look beyond the flaws to see that you could live in a decent place without – as the fact sheet said – “paying an arm and a leg.” You also had to walk up a few flights. All right, seven.
It was getting late and I decide to head home. On the drive, I’m aware that there’s been a definite shift. Evaluating those apartments and the lives that can be lived there has forced me to peek at my own life My life is like food I have purchased that clearly says, ‘refrigerate after opening,’ and I keep glancing at it on the shelf and think, ‘oh yeah, I really should refrigerate that.’ By the time I get home, I’m definitely uncomfortable and begin reading a hypnosis book I picked up at one of the booths of The Home and Garden Show. On the first page, after a bunch of disclaimers (check with your shrink, etc.), the author asks: What do you want to change? For about thirty seconds I’m elated. Maybe this is going to be easy. I can think of 20 things I want to change including my height, my weight and the plumpness of my upper lip, but I doubt that hypnosis can make me grow taller. Just to pick something, I write. I want to stop not writing. How long have you been doing it? I think back – oh my god, it’s been ten years. Why did you stop?
Because I was disoriented after my divorce. Because writing is hard. This is not going to be easy and it’s too late at night for this confrontation. Before I get into bed, I take a look at myself in the half mirror and wince (I love that word – it’s like a mental pinch) at the weight, the little puffy things under the eyes, puffy, yet shallow. I always think that if I could fill in those little gullies I would regain the innocent irresistible stare of youth. And, I could probably fill them in without much trouble with all the stuff they have now.
A few days ago, I saw Lidia Bastianich, the chef on TV who says ‘caramelized’ every few minutes and drizzles olive oil over everything but is so sweet with her mother. Lidia relates that every year she hires a boat and she and her three girlfriends go sailing on the Adriatic. She gives the viewers a snippet of the trip. We see Lidia on the boat, in her swimsuit, having a really good time with her girlfriends. I want to get some girlfriends like Lidia’s. It looks like Lidia has the perfect fulfilled life if you can ignore the absence of Mr. Bastianich. I have given up on too much. I have said “okay” to the absence of nurturing work and real intimacy and a reliance on love as a hub of life. Even though I’m in my sixties and a little overweight and can’t sleep without some media noise, I still have something important to do. Doing it will set my life straight and make me less afraid. But it’s not going to happen here in this familiar place, playing it safe.
I think of that soft orderly apartment I had seen a few weeks ago. The 9th floor, the G line of 242 East 39th street. The easy flow of the space, entering into that almost square room but with just enough of a vestibule to give it the illusion of delayed entry. The row of four small windows across the back wall letting in a contemplative half-light. A French door to the right leading to a one-lane terrace, no big planted deal, just a nice place to go early in the morning and see what kind of a day it was. The decent size bedroom if you ignored the thin mattress and bed that looked as if someone had died there. The terrace ran along the bedroom wall providing another row of four small windows. A place like that would set my life on a better track. The shock of transplantation – leaving this idyllic stultifying village street and rushing back to the wonderful dirty noisy city. I need an emotional jolt. I need to go to the unfamiliar. I’ll start writing again. I’ll make some money. I’ll test my courage. I will go to the city every weekend and see the open houses. It has to be the right place and I will know it when I find it. I need my own 9-G. I need to find out who I can be.


  1. I have this one and plan to read it soon. Consuelo, you have an awesome writing gift. I keep telling people about your books. Some of them listen and I wonder why the rest of them don't. Sometimes I think they're dense or lazy, but then I tell myself I shouldn't judge. I'm not sure why it's bad to judge, but people told me that a lot when I was growing up. Especially my mother—who is the queen judge. So I grew up confused, yet not so confused that I can't recognize great writing. People, read Consuelo's books.