How hopskotching through sublet apartments in Brooklyn helped one woman tackle her detachment issues.
Two of my literary heroes had written about this roaring, ragtag thoroughfare.
I wept when my husband and I had to give up our apartment in Brooklyn so I could go off and teach at the University of North Texas. My landlady simply would not let me sublet. “I’ll pay a year up front!” I pled. (So what if I risked my savings?) “I’ll let you approve the subletter!” (Surely we could find somebody on whom we both agreed.) It frightened me to have no home in the city in which I’d grown up—as if I’d become a stranger to myself. But the landlady was adamant: No, no, and no. She needed direct control of who lived in her building.
All that final summer I walked around the neighborhood, morose. Goodbye, fruit market on Atlantic Avenue, where sunset-orange mango chunks and beds of ruby pomegranate seeds gleamed, raising my spirits on difficult days. Two of my literary heroes had written about this roaring, ragtag thoroughfare. Frank McCourt lived for a year right over Montero Bar & Grill after his first marriage broke up. He’d both hated and loved the place. His apartment pulsed with music and seemed a shameful spot for a schoolteacher to live in, but the bar did have its charms: one need never be alone. And here was Montero still, with its creaking blue neon sign, its dusky interior.
And the nature writer Edward Abbey, on the very first page of Desert Solitaire, talked about the docks at the end of Atlantic Avenue. The fact that two of my favorite authors had referenced a street in my neighborhood made me feel a covert affinity with them, a secret strength—if they could find success despite real limitations, so could I. Oh, I did not want to give up this place! I was a mess that August day when the movers hauled my possessions down the stairs.
“But you can sublet places on Craigslist!” said my friend Sally, during our goodbye supper. “Sample other parts of the city during winter and summer break. It’ll be an adventure!”
I sighed. What a Pollyana! Didn’t she understand it was change itself I most disliked?
Yet Sally was right. For the past four years I’ve been the vagabond queen of Craigslist.com, hopscotching Brooklyn. And the adventure has been wonderful. While I live in each apartment, I study what it has to teach. I read its books, eat the food on its shelves, and consider the perspective from its windows.
Beyond that, I’ve been forced to undergo a spiritual education in acquiring and letting go. It’s as if I were a hermit crab inhabiting one distinctive shell after another, or a reincarnate who got to live through many life cycles while being allowed to keep her memory of each.
And something has shifted in me, thanks to this reiteration of loss and gain. I’ve begun to internalize that this is just the way of things: alteration, change. The tide washes in innumerable things—some marvelous, some mere hard grit—then sweeps them forth. Again. And again.
I appreciate with keener delight and observe more closely each fresh place. And when it’s time to return the key, it’s with a more transitory sense of regret, an almost bemused sense of the lightness of being. How often I’ve emptied drawers of my possessions! Why act as if my happiness is infused in these walls, interfolded with these books, dependent on the chirp of the particular bird who nests in this tree? Of course some part of me still believes that my happiness is all these things, totally synonymous with each place. But another part of me—brand new, marveling, even kind—gazes on and says, Yes, yes, of course. Get teary if you must! But haven’t you learned by now, you naïf, the gift of this experience? Ah, yes: you see it for a moment, then lose track of it again!
I nod to myself, blowing my nose, and do my best to fix my gaze out the cab’s front window, instead of at the receding image of my latest temporary residence.
My first winterbreak I found an apartment in Red Hook, near the Columbia waterfront, a loft owned by a graphic artist with a truly lovely eye. There was a Parisian kitchen with black-and-white floor tile and dangling copper pots, and a living room with dozens of seriously flourishing plants—a source of worry, since houseplants tend to wither under my care. I took pages of notes on when to water and learned to assess soil with my fingertips and notice the precise tinge of leaves. My first morning in that sequestered apartment I woke up and lay in bed, astonished. Opulent silence enfolded me, luscious as mink. Who knew the city could be this serene?
I’d always lived in apartments that were more centrally located and that carried the city’s clang; one of them even jounced up and down like an elevator with each passing truck. I’d no idea the city also had such pockets of silence.
The Red Hook artist’s space was so pretty that I was inspired to keep it neat, and that, in turn, led me to host a dinner party. I invited friends for New Year’s and ordered trays of pasta and chicken from Cucina Napoletana. My friends had never been inside any apartment with my name on the lease; I’m usually so messy that no one’s allowed in. Yet now, I discovered the pleasure of trying to give a beautiful evening to friends.
The shelves in that first apartment held a book with photos of Stanley Kunitz’s garden, accompanied by his poems. I read and reread the poems and gazed at the cobalt-blue irises and sheaves of lavender. The flowers rose out of soil that Kunitz had created himself from years of mulching seaweed.
After decades of reading only prose, the rediscovery of the concision of poetry! And after a lifetime of asphalt, the revelation that soil itself is something you can grow!
Gin stood poised on a high shelf in the kitchen of this apartment. If I couldn’t sleep, I stood on a chair and fetched the Beefeater’s, adding tonic water from the icy fridge. And then: blotto—a velvet sledgehammer delivered me into blank unconsciousness. I rarely drank gin. But the entire time I was in that apartment I allowed myself, if I woke up during the night, to sip. And to eat the crystallized ginger in the Mason jar. I was Goldilocks. What fun to try out everything!
The very last day I replaced what I’d taken, and a hollow sadness shook me. I looked out the rear cab window, confused by loss all over again, as the driver took me to LaGuardia. It didn’t matter that I’d known from the outset my stay was temporary.
And yet I was starting to see that the city itself brimmed with hidden treasures, and that my clinging to what I’d known had prohibited me from finding something better.
That summer I rented in Fort Greene, again from a graphic designer. She was a slight person who lived without one comfortable piece of furniture. The chairs were hard plastic, the sofa an Ikea cushion on wood ribs. But I loved walking around and around Fort Greene Park for exercise as the gigantic old trees blossomed.
My husband bought a handmade bowler at Malchijah Hats. Changing the hatband, if you ever wanted to, came free.
“You doing it! You doing it!” exclaimed a man on the street—smiling at my husband’s hipster style, but not nastily.
The night before we departed that second apartment, I sat on its brownstone steps. I was stricken again with melancholy. Saying goodbye was both easier than before and just as hard. It’s unfair, I protested with childish logic: I love this, therefore I should get to keep it. And yet despite myself, the city was teaching me that those treasures I most enjoyed were the ones I could least anticipate because they were devised by people whose personalities had different strengths than mine.
I was learning, too, that surprise was crucial in determining what I might fall in love with. The world was often better than I expected. I didn’t have to be so in control all the time, so on guard. Why, even something tiny can cause great pleasure! I recalled the Fort Greene neighbor who wore around her neck a bandana out of which one day poked a brilliant yellow triangle that cried, “Peep! Peep!” “Is that a bird around your neck?” I asked. It was. It had fallen out of its nest, and this woman was nursing it to health. She’d worn it everywhere: on the subway, on her dog-walking jaunts. She showed it to me, opening her bandana further: the plump black glossy grackle body, the gleaming eye above the urgent yellow beak. See, I told myself. You never know what beautiful surprise might come! Stay put, and you see less. That thought provided some balm as, the next morning, I hauled my suitcase down the stairs.
Eventually, the rhythm of going away and coming back had come to seem so dazzlingly quick that when I returned to the city, I was no longer disoriented. I picked up right where I’d left off, with just a slight amnesiac stutter in between, as if I were successfully living in more than one place at once, both Texas and New York, both in the past and present and almost the future, as if I were a Piaget child who’d learned the persistence of the beloved even when the beloved is out of sight. And yet—would loss always evoke a tormenting pain? Would that never fully change?
My next-to-last sublet was at the top of a brownstone in Clinton Hill. The owner of the apartment was a cinematographer, and everyone looked glamorous in his rooms. The light was diffuse, silky—no bulb, I soon discovered, was more than 40 watts. My first day I screwed in 100-watt bulbs so I could read, and the lamps remained beautiful but refused to part with their light: their shades were opaque chocolate-brown, although their brass bases glowed like Aladdin lamps. One shone up at a little book tucked on a shelf: Letters to a Young Artist, modeled on the famous Rilke book but with missives from contemporary painters and sculptors. I read it on a chair the cinematographer had set beside the window.
“If you want to be a person who can survive on your art, you must clarify what can be exchanged with society before society will repay you,” said the installation artist Xu Bing. “I was fearful and panicked … but I did it anyway,” said Jessica Stockholder, a conceptual artist, talking about taking an important risk.
These were new thoughts for me. I’d always assumed being panicked meant that you were doing the wrong thing, and that you ought to wait until you were calm before even contemplating making a change. So I’d actually relinquished the gift of my unhappiness; I’d squandered it, disowned it, telling myself, “Get calm. Don’t even think about change until you’re no longer upset. After all, you can’t think clearly when you’re so stirred up!”—and so I’d cast my life in emotional cement year after year.
I’d remained in relationships too long and worked on projects too long, I saw now, gazing out the window at bustling Washington Avenue. Fear had always meant, to me, Don’t do it!
And wasn’t fear also an aspect of my clinging? After all, what did that pang mean when I left a place? It was mere attachment, in both the psychological and the spiritual sense. And it was the illusion that I would never have the good thing again. It was the illusion that something was wrong because I was sad, rather than that nothing was wrong although I was sad.
I’m writing this from a shockingly quiet apartment in Clinton Hill. Owned by an international journalist, its walls are covered with maps, and its bookshelves must hold a hundred guidebooks. I think of it as the Invisible Apartment. It’s perched on the roof of a brownstone, an apartment so tiny it can’t be seen from the street, and it has no neighbors on any side except beneath its floorboards. When it’s time to leave again I know I’ll feel that pang, but I no longer feel a need to fight it. It’s even a kind of friend.
Life is all a sublet anyway, of course. We don’t fully own even the bodies we live in; we can’t stop them from changing. We cede them from year to year. And this knowledge of loss, I’ve discovered, is the salt that brings up the savor of all the rest—understanding that none of it is mine to keep. It’s loss that provides the edge that makes the world sharply beautiful. Without it, life would pall; it would be far less intense. The pang is the small price we pay.
I don’t think I’ll ever get to the level of real detachment—nor do I even seek it. Yet I’ve had these glimpses, as if I’ve taken a step back from my own life and can see the glittering pattern, all those scissor moments slicing us away from the past, letting us join the future, and I’m thankful for a perspective that makes the inevitability of change easier to accept.
Bonnie Friedman is the author of The Thief of Happiness and Writing Past Dark: Envy, Fear, Distraction, and Other Dilemmas in the Writer’s Life, which has been anthologized in six writing text books. Excerpted from Shambala Sun (November 2012), a monthly magazine inspired by the wisdom and compassion of Buddhist practice.