The Brief Return to City Living that Spoiled Me

It was the most generous gift anyone ever gave me.

Yesterday I published an essay in the Guardian about how much I’ve grown to miss New York City since leaving in 2005—especially this past year, when Covid made it impossible for me to get there. I mentioned fantasizing about being able to afford a pied-à-terre, but left out the story of when I sort of had a free one in Brooklyn Heights for nine months.

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For some reason, when people hear I’m a writer and New York City expat, they automatically assume I used to live in Brooklyn. I never did.

Well, not officially. A couple of my boyfriends lived there—one in Fort Greene, another in Park Slope—and while I was going out with them, I became a sort of defacto part-time resident. The rest of the time, I was situated in my East 13th Street apartment in Manhattan.

But when I look back on the nine months during which I had largely unfettered access to an absent couple’s apartment, it feels as if I have some history there. I’m nostalgic for that time as if it were my own place—my own brief Brooklyn life.

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In January of 2014, Brian and I took the Trailways bus down from Kingston for a perfect Brooklyn weekend. We attended the Zlatne Uste Golden Festival, an annual Balkan music and dance extravaganza at the old world Grand Prospect Hall in Park Slope, a catering hall with several different ballrooms, all with massive crystal chandelliers, which bounced perilously from their ceillings as revelers danced. Brian had been wanting to take me there since we met in 2003; he’d sort of lost the festival in a breakup, and wanted to take it back for himself. It was an interesting scene—crowded, frenetic, lively. Maybe too crowded and frenetic. I’m glad we went, but I’m not sure I ever need to do it again.

We stayed that weekend with friends in South Slope. Sunday morning, before heading back to Port Authority, we met up with friends for breakfast in Carroll Gardens. Our friends invited along a couple I’d met a few times before, but didn’t know well. They mostly lived elswehere, but recently started renting a place around the corner from the Brooklyn Heights promenade because they’d been coming to New York a lot for business.

I mentioned off the cuff that I was spending a fair amount of time in the city, still occasionally doing events for the first edition of Goodbye to All That, and working on its follow-up anthology, Never Can Say Goodbye. When I had a lot of appointments, I would stay over at 3B B&B, a bed and breakfast on Lawrence Street in Downtown Brooklyn run cooperatively by a bunch of writers, artists and musicians, which sadly no longer exists. I could rent a bunk bed there in a hostel-style room for $50 per night—and sometimes, with an event-night discount, for $38. It included a homemade, delicious breakfast tailored not only to my dietary needs (I have celiac) but to my pickiness as well (I hate milk and bananas and am viscerally repelled by any preparation of eggs in which the whites and yolks are separate). I really loved that place, and am sad it’s gone.

I talked about how I often purposely booked appointments over a day or two so I could stay in town, as opposed to the depressing alternative: going in and out of Port Authority on the same day, a two-hour ride each way, and how the worst part was having to take a late bus home, walking through the station after 9pm, when it transformed into the more dangerous, lawless Port Authority of the 1970s.

That admission prompted the woman to take a set of keys from her purse, reach across our breakfast table, and hand them to me. “We aren’t here as much as we thought we would be,” she said. “You can use the apartment any time we’re gone.”

I was stunned. It was one of the most generous gifts anyone had ever offered me. “Are you sure?” I asked. They were. The only caveat was that I needed to leave a set of my own sheets and towels to use when I was there. (There was a washer and dryer in the basement so I could keep them clean.) That, and I needed to occasionally rush down to the apartment from upstate to do an errand for them—search their desk drawers for a lost document and FedEx it to them, for example—which I was more than happy to do. In the beginning I would leave them gifts to thank them—bottles of wine, candles, flowers—but they insisted I stop. My “keep” there was literally free.

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I have only happy memories from that period when I intermittently stayed at the couple’s apartment. Typically I went down there a couple of times a month—only one time was I unable to use it because one of their family members had come to town and needed it.

Brian only joined me once. I like occasionally visiting the city with him, but he doesn’t relish the time there like I do, and doesn’t love walking around. I can amble all day from neighborhood to neighborhood, but he gets cranky when we’ve been out too long—his feet hurt, he needs a nap. So, the rest of the time I went alone, and really lived it up.

On the occasions I went down to Brooklyn Heights, I truly lived my best New York life. I made lots of work appointments, met colleagues and friends out for meals and karaoke, and attended many book events at bookstores and elsewhere. Every night, there were several events I wanted to attend. Nothing could be more thrilling for a writer who’d lately been feeling a bit stifled and stagnant upstate.

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One of my favorite events was a reading novelist Jami Attenberg hosted for then debut novelist Catherine Lacey—one of the founders of 3B B&B—at Jami’s Williamsburg loft. The loft was teeming with literary citizens, some of whom I’d met before, others of whom I only knew tangentially, or just through social media. It loved talking with them.

The place had views of Manhattan across the river, and from the rooftop, where we all hung out after the reading, there was an incredible view of the Williamsburg Bridge. My understanding is that new buildings now obstruct some of those views. (Jami left Brooklyn for New Orleans a few years ago. Btw, if you’re a writer and you aren’t already subscribed to her excellent “Craft Talk” newsletter, I highly recommend signing up.)

* (^^^The view from the rooftop of Jami’s former building.)*

After the reading that night, I walked all the way from Williamsburg back to the Brooklyn Heights apartment. It was a long, sweaty hike on a hot summer night. I probably gave myself blisters—was probably stupidly wearing clog sandals—but if I did, I don’t remember it, because I was so high on the city and its energy. It was a perfect evening, by my standards, one on which I got to strike a balance between the extrovert and introvert sides of me—chattering with others for hours, then wandering alone, even getting a little bit happily lost on my way “home.”

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In the late fall of 2014, the couple delivered the sad news: they realized they almost never came to New York, and were wasting money maintaining an aparment there. They decided not to renew their lease, and thus drew an end to my brief, sometime Brooklyn existence.

I was so disappointed, although, of course I couldn’t blame them. I took the bus down to grab my sheets and towels, and spent one last blissful night. I didn’t meet friends. I didn’t go to any events. I just took myself out for really good sushi, and went to a karaoke bar all by myself. Another perfect evening, by my weirdo standards.

I’ll always be grateful to the couple for letting me share their aparment for the greater part of a year. It was a wonderful gift, but also a bit of a curse, providing just enough of a taste of city living for me to get hooked on something I can probably never afford to have again.

*In other news:

I’m so grateful that LitHub ran an excerpt from Goodbye to All That 2.0—a brilliant and necessary essay by Emily Raboteau about what it was like to shelter in place in Washington Heights while her (mostly white) neighbors fled.

I’d love it if you picked up a copy of the book!*