Tuesday, April 29, 2008

The Arrival Pt. 5: A Star Is Born

After that the pain was pretty much constant. To help alleviate it Julie got to Randi’s side and started to rub small, concentric circles on the inside of Randi’s knee. Amazingly, it helped alleviate the pain. Then Julie encouraged me to follow her lead.

“C’mon Dave, like this,” she said, correcting my movement. My circles were a little too big. Again, to my astonishment, it actually helped Randi feel, if not better, at least distracted from the ongoing contractions.

A great, but unexpected benefit of this knee rubbing was that my “spot,” for lack of a better word, in the delivery of my child, became absolutely ringside, with excellent sightlines, and little in the way of obstruction. I was right there, right in the middle of it, next to my wife for the whole ride. It’s funny, I’d always imagined that during the actual birth I would be in the room, but kind of looking over the shoulders of other people—such as nurses, or midwives—who’d do the real work. But the midwives were so cool, and understanding that they allowed me to claim my position at my wife’s hip. The hospital nurses were the same. At one point I asked if I should move out of the way, so the aforementioned kind-hearted nurse could get in, but she absolutely understood that the spot was mine to claim. And I claimed it, there for the whole thing.

It was now a little after 6:00 a.m., and just the night before we had the fear that we would have to get Randi induced by now. But maybe her body was just smarter than we ourselves knew; we were in the midst of it all, the way we wanted to be. The timing was astonishing, but there was no way we could think of that now.

Also, forget any thoughts of sleepiness from before, we were running on pure adrenaline, more wide awake than I had ever been. Every ounce of my concentration focused on my wife, and what had to happen. What we needed to have happen. What I feared could happen if we couldn’t get what we needed to happen to happen. It had to happen. It had to.

To help relax the mood between contractions Julie make still another bowl of hot water and scented essences of something, and this time Randi pushed it away from her face. She wasn’t in the mood for anything, except for the final action, the big push.

Anne felt the same way. “Okay, honey, now we’re going to get you to start pushing, and we’re going to push that baby out.”

Now we reached the beginning of the end of what this thing was all about. The lower half of the bed was removed, so Anne would have better access to where the baby would emerge. Eschewing stirrups Julie and I held Randi’s legs up and apart. Talk about close, this was like nothing I had ever imagined.

But the pushing was slow. Agonizingly slow.

At one point Randi let out a scream. Anne, unflappable, told her to channel that energy in a different direction.

“Not a high-pitched scream,” she said. “But lower, channel it into your gut, to push.”

Randi, now already nearing a state of semi-coherence nodded, and understood. She did as was instructed.

The pushes generally came in threes, and were as long, consistent and slow as Randi could make them. Along the way we gave quiet encouragement, although the stream of complimentary words was constant, like the water from the shower.

The effort was draining Randi right before my eyes, but she kept on fighting. Only on one or two occasions did she give up before she completed the third, long push. (And the third one was always the hardest one. It was the one that took extra, extra deep breaths, and the surmounting of pain.)

It was hard to talk to her, of course, I should’ve known that. At one point, to offer encouragement, I talked about an extremely hard hike we did last summer at Yosemite up a peak called Sentinel Rock. It was 4.5 miles almost straight up unceasing switchbacks in the baking sun, the whole way. We were exhausted after about the first 15 minutes, but we kept on going, inch by inch. At the end, in a feet that impressed me to no end, Randi ran the last 15 yards or so to the summit. There we both enjoyed our respective frozen treats. It was a tough hike, but compared to childbirth? My attempt to draw parallels between the two was not well received.

“Honey, remember that time at Sentinel Rock, that time when you ran up to …”

She cut me off.

“Don’t talk to me about that now, just don’t.”

I dropped it, but I have to admit that it hurt my feelings right then. Then I realized I probably needed to get over myself, and I shrugged it off.

After that I kept my encouragement kind of generic. I told her over and over that she can, and will do it. But she herself was not so sure.

After about 45 minutes of pushing, with no sign of a baby yet, she, at least in word, gave up.

“I can’t do this, I just can’t, I can’t do this!”

To which we showered her with encouragement. Then they slipped an oxygen mask across her already wet brow. And she kept on pushing.

After a little while Randi demanded that she had to switch positions, and kneeled on her hands and knees. Not for long, maybe a handful of minutes. Again, the midwives were completely cool with this; which makes me appreciate them even more. She needed to do this, and they let her. Randi was free of IVs, so they didn’t have to unclip her from anything. She had freedom of movement, and could drink water or even eat if she wanted to, all things that typical doctors in typical births say no to. I am no expert but this policy simply makes no sense to me. Birth is not surgery. At least it’s not if you’re lucky.

As Randi crouched Anne simply retreated to the un-recliner and relaxed. She made no sounds, said nothing, just let it happen. Then Randi went back into the classic position on her back, and Anne moved back to her customary spot in front of Randi: ground zero.

Now Anne periodically reached a well-lubed finger into Randi to feel for the baby. And soon she started to feel something, the baby’s head.

But it wasn’t coming quickly at all. Anne kept up with her encouragement, and kept on lubing the birth canal, but the baby stubbornly stayed up.

Soon another midwife, Donna, entered the room, and she and Anne conferred. I couldn’t hear what about, but there seemed in their miens and tones a certain sort of strong intent, a sense that this needed to happen sooner rather than later. It was palpable. Not that we could, or even should, rush. But that getting the baby before not too, too much longer would be better than good.

The pressure, now, was on Randi. No one could do it for her. She had to finish this marathon herself, with energy she wasn’t sure she had. Sentinel Rock, indeed. Labor, birth, they all seem like such routine procedures, until you realize how horribly wrong it could all go, even today, in 2008. The game was on, and Randi was the only one who could ice it. Now Randi’s breath became heavier, and her mind retreated to a deeper place, a more animal place, as she focused her will, all of it, on just one action: push.

Still, despite her ongoing pushes, she still pleaded for help, help that could never come.

“Somebody help me, get this baby out of me!” she screamed, in a scene that somehow reminded me of the climax of The Exorcist. Except without Max Von Sydow, or the Devil, for that matter. Although who knows what we’d hear if we played Randi’s screams backwards?

In any case, Randi, despite such protestations, kept up with her low, concentrated pushing, always making the last one count. I firmly believe this is the only reason we didn’t have a C-section; because my wife wouldn’t permit it.

But, as mentioned, it was agonizingly slow. The baby would take two moves forward and one and a half back. I had no basis for comparison, but I felt this was taking an awfully long time.

Still, her efforts started to bear fruit. After some time the vagina opened just enough and the baby was just far enough along that I could see the very top, the smallest little picture of the top of its head.

It was here that Randi issued a dictum to her camera-happy mother. “No vagina shots!”

The rule was obeyed.

The pushes got stronger, more urgent. Still controlled, but with more focus now, the baby could be seen. Randi would push, one, two, three, and it would gain another half inch of ground, only to be agonizingly sucked back in almost as much. By God, was it always this hard?

Anne kept lubing the canal, encouraging Randi, letting her know it was happening. Soon more of the head could be seen. It was covered in lots of curly hair!

Anne took a good look.

“It looks like we’ve got a redhead!” No one in my family has red hair.


A second later she corrected herself.

“No, it’s blond!”

I sighed. “That’s more like it!”

The midwives and nurses now were carefully noting the heart monitor. If the baby stayed too long in the birth canal, no matter what we did, we’d have to move on to whatever Plan B was necessary. But not yet.

“Keep on pushing,” Anne said. And then we all said together: “One! Two! Threee.” And Randi pushed, and pushed some more, all the action happening, it seemed, on that last, draining push. Now my wife’s hair was soaked with sweat. Julie applied a cool towel to it, I continued to look at ground zero, unable to take my eyes off it. Although we did have to put Randi’s legs down periodically, to give her and us, a rest.

For the final labors Anne instructed Randi to grab her own legs and help us hold them wide, to ease the birth. She did so, and after four or five series of pushed the baby’s head got closer and closer, though there was still a stubborn flap of pink cervical skin holding it back. I wanted to just reach in and fold it back like the cuffs on a pair of pants, but I realized that somehow that could be a horrible disaster. Instead I just kept up my steady stream of encouragement, knowing I never was more proud of my wife.

Sometimes I even led the countdowns for pushing, although I felt that maybe this was a bit out of my depth. Mostly though I held Randi’s hand, and just let her know I was there.

Finally the head was nearing the crowning, but all was not well. The baby monitor was starting to slow down. It was now a race against time. It dropped below 100—which is not good—right about when the final pushes were to be made.

“Reach down and touch your baby,” Anne instructed to Randi. Randi, wordlessly reached down and felt the crown of the baby’s head. At the time she immediately went back to pushing, only later explaining that this, this recognition, is what gave her the power to summon this baby into the world. The will to make it happen.

Staring at the crown, I saw that with a mighty push this wrinkled cap of skin began to take the shape of a human head, and then it got bigger. Then it started to finally slide, eased at last as it passed something, and the skin slid by some more to reveal the backside of the baby’s tiny, miscolored skull, detailed into the minutest perfection by a human right ear, the most unforgettable sight of my life, covered with matter from the canal, but immaculate, and perfect and definitely, absolutely, 100% alive.

Here Anne discovered the culprit, why the pushing, which usually only took 30 minutes had taken 90. The umbilical chord was around the baby’s neck. Calmly, before we could even become worried, she un-looped it from the baby, and pushed it aside in order to finally get this creature out.

After that the baby twisted as it slid forward, emerging with incredible speed now, covered in green from the waste, eyes closed. Then the whole baby was removed and held by Anne, here, in the world, at last. It was 7:48 a.m., Monday, April 14 2008.

“It’s a girl!” Anne said, with triumph. And the baby’s name was Stella Rae. It means star of the sea.

“Oh my god, it’s the most beautiful baby I’ve ever seen in my entire life,” Julie said; the doula who had never before seen a live birth. We were her first.

I started to cry, everything had changed, my whole conception of life had changed in one second, my whole conception of my love had changed, my whole marriage had changed, and all the change was better. And I cried as they hurriedly brought Stella to the table, they didn’t even give her to Randi because of the danger from the waste, and they calmly, but immediately, began to suction out her lungs.

After just a few moments Stella was cleaned from head to toe, and breathing, but upset, and cranky. They called me over to cut the cord, the first parent to have any real contact with the baby. Weeping I walked over.

Now, I had always considered the cord cutting a token procedure, at best. The wife does all this work, not the least of which includes actually carrying the child for the better part of the year. And then when it’s born, in order to make Dad feel included, they let him do the birth equivalent of when they open a new supermarket. But as they slipped the rubber gloves on me, and carefully instructed me to cut only between “there” and “there” (honestly, it’s pretty hard to miss) I took a moment, got in front of the baby, and spoke to her.

At that very second Stella Rae stopped crying, stopped moving, opened her eyes and looked directly at me. She already knew me, and I saw that her eyes were also my eyes. Now my world was eclipsed, and everything I thought I understood before seemed shattered. My mind exploded, and I cried, and was aware that I was crying and was unashamed that I cried. We held each other’s gaze. My daughter already knew me.

Then I cut the cord, or cut it in two attempts, as red, red blood squirted. These moments were the most profound of my life, and these feelings only deepened as they handed Stella, at last, to her mom. I joined them, and now we were a family. I was in love with something grander than I ever comprehended, and the world, in its majesty, had indoctrinated me into its most powerful secret; greater than the Pyramids, greater than Stonehenge, greater than my own beating heart.

And if you don’t believe me, take a look at the photo at the top of this entry, and decide for yourself. It’s worth at least 1,000 words, or however many I may write.

Friday, April 25, 2008

The Arrival Pt. 4: What's A Doula?

Glad you asked. A doula is simply a birthing aid; someone there to help the pregnancy go along better, to aid the mother-to-be in any way possible. Doulas aren’t nurses or doctors, and they aren’t in charge of the labor. But they are supposed to lighten the burden, or stress, on the laboring couple.

Our doula was a friend, Julie. Julie is not yet a professional doula, but she is interested in pursuing this path, and volunteered to doula us (is that a verb?) if we wished. Julie put this offer forward after she’d completed a full body pre-natal massage on Randi. You see, Julie is also a massage therapist.

And yet I know Julie not through the pregnancy world, but through the wholly unrelated world of improv comedy, which is also how I met my wife. So even if I never made it to the big time in improv comedy—which perhaps sounds oxymoronic to some of you out there—I got a wife and child from it, which ain’t hay.

And I also got a doula. Which is pretty sweet, because if we actually hired someone to doula for us it would have cost several hundred dollars. In case you haven’t read this blog before, well, we don’t have that kind of scratch.

In any case, Julie, our doula, lives in Brighton Beach, far away from the hospital. It was 4:00 a.m., the baby was finally starting to get ready for its birthday.

“If we want Julie here you’d better call her now,” Randi said. So I called her.

“Hello?” Julie sounded incredibly groggy, which only makes sense.

“Yeah, hi Julie, it’s Dave? Sorry about calling so early, but, well, Randi’s in labor, and we wanted you to come down for it if you could.”

Julie was up for it, but we realized that if she had to take the subway it would take forever, and be kind of sketchy, so we decided a car service was in order. Then she would call me when she got the hospital.

Now it was back to the waiting game.

As with any hospital staffers milled in and out of the room at seemingly random intervals. One nurse was especially excited to hear that Randi was going for a natural child birth, as she had had three children that way. She even brought in their pictures to share. This encouraged us.

As mentioned before the only thing that really helped Randi was the shower. She would periodically step into the shower, and just let it wash all over her. The constant drubbing from the water distracted her from the ongoing pain of contractions, making her only aware of the peaks of the contractions; the valleys were easier to ignore amidst the running water.

By 5:00 a.m. Julie popped in, quite literally a breath of fresh air. I can say this with confidence because the first thing she did was get some aromatherapy going in our room. She looked fresh as a daisy in comparison to our bedraggled crew, and soon the room had a pleasing, somewhat outdoorsy scent to it.

Mostly, though, Julie just added a pleasant, upbeat energy to the delivery room. She even offered to help me with whatever it was I needed, but I couldn’t think of anything, as she couldn’t sleep for me. Beyond that, though, there was only so much help we needed at this point, anyway. Most of the heavy diagnostics were to be done by Anne, who now checked in periodically to see Randi.

By 5:30 a.m. Randi was nearly fully dilated, and Anne was ready to start proceeding towards the actual birth. Randi’s water still hadn’t broken, so that was the first thing Anne took care of.

Randi laid back, as Anne took a long plastic device that looked kind of like a slim jim, and used it to rupture the water sack. I will say this: it didn’t look a whole lot like actual water.

Instead bloody fluid streamed from between my wife’s legs, perhaps a cup's worth, possibly more. I watched, riveted. There Will Be Blood, I thought. Indeed. And that was just for starters.

Anne, unfortunately, saw some waste product from the baby in the drained water, which meant that the little one was now not only overdue, but perhaps at some risk of taking in this now contaminated fluid. This is a danger with overdue children: that they will imbibe their own waste, which could make them sick, or worse.

“Let’s get this baby out,” Anne said.

They attached monitors to Randi’s belly, measuring the heartbeat of the baby; everything was right where it should be. They even set up the monitors so Randi could stand up while the readings were taken, which she preferred over reclining.

Even though the broken water was not ideal as far as its content Randi still felt a great sense of relief when it drained. This was nice to hear. Unfortunately it would be the last really nice feeling she would have until after the baby was born.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

The Arrival Pt. 3: Sleep With One Eye Open!

This didn’t go over too well with the pregnant one.

One example: our room included a shower. Originally we had wanted to try giving birth in a pool of water. In fact it has been a kind of fantasy of mine since I was a teenager—which might sound odd, but let me at least explain. Okay, this is kind of a digression from the main story, but I feel it’s worth it.

When I was a teenager I had a subscription to Sports Illustrated. I have never been a big jock, and have only a passing interest in the day-to-day of professional sports. (I have, and am obsessed with, a fantasy baseball team, for example, but I never actually watch any baseball games. I just like the fantasy league.) Well, being a voracious reader I usually devoured the magazine cover to cover, including articles about all kinds of sports I could care less about: kayaking, triathlons, surfing. This last one, surfing, is the critical one for this discussion, though.

I forget the name of the actual surfer, I even forget what the article was about. I do remember the photo they included in the article. The surfer, a 20-something blond god stood next to his 40-something mustachioed father. They were both totally ripped, although the father was about two inches shorter than the son.

The takeaway from the article, though, was that the son, the blond god, had been born in water, as part of a study. And some 20 years later they followed up on the water birth kids, and found that they were on average taller, smarter, healthier and happier than the control group. This blew my mind. You mean that just by giving birth in water you can do all these things for your kid? I vowed right then that, by god, my child would be born in water.

I kept this idea forever in my head. Then when we found out that Randi was pregnant I told her that I wanted to carry it forward, this plan, into real life. Randi was receptive to the idea, but we had to find out if the Park Slope Midwives could do it. It turned out they couldn’t.

“But we have showers that you can use, instead,” they said. This sounded like a lame compromise the first time I heard it, but there was nothing to be done about it. We didn’t want to ditch the midwives, who’d been so great in every other respect, because they couldn’t do a water birth. And we didn’t want to go to the few birthing centers that had pools in case of medical problems during the birth. And the idea of renting a kiddy pool and filling it up in our apartment seemed completely impossible as we imagined our two cats darting over it in successively wilder and wilder leaps until they inevitably fell into the water.

Anyway, back to the main story. It so turned out that a pool birth would have been completely impossible anyway, because there was no way that Randi could calmly lie on her back in water, while the pain shot through her like arrows. But the showers helped. Now this is where the part about me falling asleep comes into play.

As Judy and I sat, or slumped more accurately, in our respective chairs (I offered Judy the non-recliner but she demurred) Randi got up, turned on the water and got into the shower. She was in for about two minutes until she decided that something was definitely not right. Or she might've been in there more, I can't say for sure, becauese I was out. But not for long.

“Somebody has to get in here with me!” Randi pleaded. “I can’t just be in here alone.”

Coming to I wearily ran to the rescue, laying out a bunch of towels on the increasingly wet bathroom and now delivery room floors en route.

Randi, however, didn’t want me there to do anything, she just wanted me there. I was cool with this. I would stay awake, ready for anything she might need. Since she didn’t need me by the shower itself I propped myself up in the corner of the bathroom, ready for action.

It was there that I proceeded to fall asleep on my feet, for the first time in my life. Soon I was dreaming. The whole scene was reminiscent of something Cpl. Agarn would’ve done in an old episode of "F Troop." Asleep standing up! I hadn’t thought it possible.

I quickly nodded myself awake, aware that I could be called into action at any moment. I didn’t want Sgt. Baby Mama to put me in the marital stockade, so I kept nodding awake. Eventually I awoke, although I never have felt like more of a zombie.

Once dry and out of the shower I tried to see if Randi wanted me to do any of the neat massage techniques we had learned in the baby-prep classes we’d attended a month prior. Such techniques included rubbing a tennis ball on the small of the pregnant one’s back, or putting your fists into their lumbar region. The answer was a decisive no. In fact that only thing I ended up doing from that class was putting my hands in front of her face and counting down “One! Two!” while I made the corresponding numbers with my fingers. And I only did this because we originally saw a video where the husband did this during labor, and Randi warned me that if I dared do anything that irritating while she labored she would actually murder me. Well, timing is everything, because I had done it earlier in the night, and we both got a good laugh out of it. Or at least we did until another contraction set in, and then nothing was funny, anywhere in the world.

In fact by 4:00 a.m. things were so unfunny that she wheeled on me fiercely and demanded that I stop laughing at her, and that this wasn’t all just some kind of joke. I responded earnestly that I wasn’t laughing at all, and was just trying to help. She cast a penetrating gaze upon my person and decided I was probably telling the truth.

The only thing that helped Randi at all were these little hot packs provided by the hospital. The nurse showed us that you squeeze down on the plastic bag until you hear a popping sound inside, and then mix the chemicals until it produces a heated chemical reaction.

The only problem was that I had a hard time popping the bag when it was my turn to start a new one. Try as I might they just didn’t pop. And I feared that if I tried too hard it would burst everywhere, blinding us all.

After about ten minutes I finally got that satisfying pop sound and handed the warmed bag to Randi. She placed it on the small of her back. Her feeling was that it didn’t do anything to make her feel better, but she felt much worse when she didn’t have one.

We proceeded to go through those like cigarettes at an AA meeting until they were all gone. I think we used eight of them in total. Then I marched out to the nurses’ station to ask for more, but the nurse on call told me it wouldn’t be possible.

“We gave all the ones we had to you,” she said. “You’ve already used them all.” Meaning, no one else on our entire floor would even get one. We'd Bogarted the heating packs.

She told me I could try a hot towel, it would probably work better anyway. So back I went, soaking a towel in the hot water and draining it out. It was late. I was not thinking properly. But Randi was. And she reminded me that if we wanted our doula, Julie, to show up we had better call her now. Because we were finally in the last stage of pregnancy, she knew it. The baby was coming, and anyone who wanted to be here for the ride had better get onboard in a hurry.

Next entry: What’s a doula?

The Arrival Pt. 2: Purgatory

After about ten minutes of this our midwife, Anne, entered the tiny room. Randi and I had chosen to use the Park Slope Midwives, instead of going the traditional doctor route, because we felt that they would be more attentive to Randi’s needs, and have a better understanding our want to have the birth without drugs. Doctors, we had started to feel, were mostly interested in getting home by dinner and/or golf.

Anne is a woman likely in her mid-50s, with short white hair, and an air of experience, which is something you’d like to see in a person who will help deliver your child.

She told Randi to get on her back, and then examined her cervix. Calmly she said that Randi was dilated, which was good, but only by two centimeters. Which wasn’t necessarily bad, but not near the 10 cm commonly needed to start the actual delivery of a child. This meant that it would be hours until we’d be close to the actual birth, or even the preparations for the birth.

Still, this was mostly good news, because it meant that Randi wouldn’t have to be induced. On the other hand, we weren’t exactly sure what to do with ourselves, and we were taking up a room that we didn’t really need.

“Relax, go home, drink a glass of wine,” Anne told us. “Do most of your laboring over there, and then you can come back in several hours and have the baby.” She also instructed us to keep timing the contractions until they got within two minutes of one another, and were almost two minutes long. At that point it would be go time. But our contractions were still three to four minutes apart.

Still, going home seemed like kind of a strange idea. Get dressed, drive away, go back upstairs to our apartment, walk around there, only to come back in five or six hours? I didn’t really want to, and I know Randi didn’t really want to either. Most importantly, at least for now, though, was that Judy also didn’t want to.

“The women in our family usually dilate really fast,” she told Anne, explaining that she herself went from being four cm dilated to ten within a handful of minutes. Meaning that when these Skaggs women are ready to go, they go!

Anne listened and nodded.

“Well then, you can stay here then and just come back up when the contractions are a lot more close,” she said.

Sounded like a fair solution to us. So Randi put her clothes back on, and we walked down to the lobby of the hospital. It was around 1:00 a.m. now, and we had a lot of time to pass before the baby would be ready to come out, but we were definitely on our way now.

Already exhausted despite the fact that we hadn’t even really even done anything yet we followed Randi down to where she would like to pace in the lobby. We found some small chairs and sofas in the middle of the polished floor, put our stuff down, and began to time the contractions. Randi was totally unwilling to sit, stand still, or do anything other than walk. Back and forth, in a small circle of about 15 feet across she walked, over and over again.

After not too long, however, she began to feel kind of sick. It was the pizza! Leaning over a garbage can, she then proceeded to vomit up her entire dinner; amazingly it smelled pretty much the same way it had when we’d all eaten it several hours before. I guess it hadn’t had much time to digest.

Following that she and her mother walked to the bathroom, while I sat in the lobby by myself, holding a notepad, and looking at our rapidly evolving table of contractions. They were getting down to being about two to three minutes apart, though they varied in length. It wasn’t time yet, but it was close.

When Randi returned from the bathroom I volunteered to get her something, anything, that would help her labor, but there was really nothing I could do. Periodically people would shuffle through the lobby, and I had to wonder how we looked to them. Some looked like they were simply killing time, like we were. Others looked like the kind of people you might see loitering at night court, or the lobbies of hotels. One man, a young hospital assistant of some kind ran within a few feet of Randi, and immediately earned her wrath. “Did you see that?!” she asked me, eyes flashing. “What the hell is wrong with these people?”

But mostly, though, she simply bore the brunt of increasingly strong and frequent contractions, often doubling over in pain, or leaning against a pillar or a sofa, when they got too powerful. To counter-act these, as best as she could she simply kept walking. Walking like I have seen few people walk before. Walking at a slow, steady pace, walking like a nomadic tribeswoman, walking like it was the only thing she could do. I got tired just watching her, although the fact that it was also almost 3:00 a.m. now probably also had something to do with it. The contractions now were just about on time, and the right length. We decided to go back up to the fifth floor, where babies are delivered.

Once back upstairs the check-in process was swift, and soon we were escorted to a private birthing room. It was surprisingly nice, with multiple chairs for folks to sit in, and a nice, comfortable bed for Randi to lie in. Except there was no way that this pregnant lady was going to lie anywhere if she could help it. Instead, now in yet another revealing hospital gown, she kept on walking.

I sat down in a reclining chair that wouldn’t stay reclined, and Judy sat in a fairly uncomfortable chair to my right. We put our things down on a rolling mini-table, and were quickly told by a nurse that we couldn’t do that. Why I still have no idea, but those were the rules, so we obeyed them.

The television was quickly turned off—it had been some kind of inane Entertainment Tonight styled program—and we mostly sat in silence while Randi worked on her pain. She settled pretty quickly into a zone, one that required near silence. I was happy to oblige, except for the fact that I kept falling asleep.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

The Arrival Pt. 1: Labor Strike!

I was going to write here about our nesting adventures, and how I gave up my comic book collection, and sold my much-hated bedroom set. But nature had other plans.

For that reason I thought I would tell you about the birth of our child, instead.

First of all, the baby was late. The original due date was April 3, but that came and went with little to show for it other than some false labor pains, and mounting frustration. We tried every old wive’s tale, and home remedy in the book to induce labor, but, amazingly, none of them worked. Randi spent several hours making a famed eggplant parm recipe that is supposed to induce labor in every waddling pregnant woman who samples it. We ended up with about 30 lbs. of delicious dinners for the next week, but no baby. Randi took various herbal teas that were supposed to help with birth, three times a day, every day. Nothing. Randi danced, every day. We drove on a bumpy road. Nothing. After being terrified of missing the birth of my child because I couldn’t get home quick enough from work now I wondered when this kid was going to come out.

We still didn’t know the sex, so in keeping with the spirit of how it felt then, I will have to refer to our baby—now very much alive, and very much a girl—as “it.” It just didn’t seem to want to get born. Things must’ve been going too well in the womb.

In the last visit we had with our midwives, they monitored the baby’s heartbeat in utero. We lived and died as the little graph fell below 120—what’s wrong?—but there was nothing else to do. Finally the verdict came in; the baby was to be induced on Monday, April 14.

Our hearts sank. We had invested a lot in the idea of a “natural” childbirth, that is a birth free of drugs, free of the hated caesarian section if we could at all avoid it. Now it looked like not only would we not avoid drugs, but that the C-section looked more and more likely. (Why the fear? Because when you get an epidural it can lengthen labor, which can endanger the baby, which leads to C-sections. Which leads to scaring, which leads to possible complications further on, etc.) But there was nothing else we could do.

Randi’s mother, Judy, showed up on Sunday, April 13. Her original plan had been for her to visit right before April 3, the first due date. But a senior person at her job, in a fit of pettiness, denied her that precious vacation slot, so this was the first chance she would get to be here. We welcomed her in, and all walked around Park Slope during a fairly gloomy spring day. It was an in-between period. Waiting for an induction is not quite a totally joyous experience; it’s more nerve-wracking and filled with feelings of listlessness, hope and anxiety.

That night for dinner we went to La Villa Roma, and had their fantastic “grandma” pie, and then we went home. The induction was scheduled for 6:00 a.m., Monday, April 14. There was nothing to do so at 10:30 p.m., nervous or not, we decided to try and catch some shut eye.

The contractions started almost exactly at 10:30 p.m., even before we turned off the light for bed. We started to time then, for how long they lasted and how far apart they were. By 11:30 p.m. we knew something was up.

After so many false labor pains, and cramps, I often wondered how, when the moment came, we would know it was real? Randi herself had also wondered the same thing. We needn’t have worried.

“We’re going to the hospital,” she said, as she doubled over in pain more intense, way, way more intense than any she had experienced before. I looked at my watch, carefully loaded up all my things, including a note pad to time the labor pains, and, leaving our apartment with an unmade bed, we drove, so carefully, to New York Methodist Hospital, ten minutes away.

I dropped Randi and her mother off at the hospital and parked the car. This being Brooklyn there was no street parking, even though it was late on a Sunday. So I used the pay parking structure the hospital provided, and for once in my life felt like I had a genuine, legitimate reason to do so. Damn the expense, my kid was being born. And didn’t they have vouchers for new parents? I had heard something like that.

Randi was upstairs on the fourth floor, already in an ill-fitting hospital gown, sitting in a skinny room with an examination table, and one chair. I took the chair, and my wife took the table, but sitting was too uncomfortable. Instead she took to the hallway, and paced. The highlight of this little section of the evening was when I went into the hallway to ask if there was anything I could do. Her reaction was that I could not, putting it mildly.

“Please, honey, just stay out of my line of sight,” she said. In a huff I walked back to the room, careful to not cross her beloved line of sight. Then she added: “You can’t be angry with me right now.” Swallowing my pride I realized she was right. My child is being born—even if it’s only the earliest stages of labor—my wife’s insides are being turned into spaghetti, and sooner or later she will pass a football through a pea-shooter. I could toughen up a little.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Hark, Baby Stella Rae is here!

Pertinent Data: Born April 14, 2008. 7:48 a.m. 7 lbs., 1 oz. 19.5 inches. Sign: Aries. Chinese Zodiac: Year of the Rat.

Her mission: To charm all doctors, nurses and parents within a 20 square mile radius.

More to follow ...

Saturday, April 12, 2008

The Great Apartment Hunt Pt. 11: Journey's End

“How much do you want to bet this place is going to suck shit?” Randi asked, and we both started to crack up laughing. I couldn’t argue. After a while you develop a Spidey-sense for these kinds of things. She had found this latest listing for a two bedroom apartment in Bay Ridge, and here we sat, in an unseasonably warm, early March night in the Honda. The broker’s name was Kamil, and although the temptation was to pronounce it Camel, he pronounced it Camile.

We were on Senator Street in Brooklyn, and one would have to be really, really charitable to call this Bay Ridge, despite what the listing said. We were about 10 blocks from what I even considered the edge of Bay Ridge in reality. The street we were on didn’t look dangerous, exactly, just sort of depressed and a little run down. The kind of place where there were some nice homes, but their windows were covered with plywood. To compliment the seediness even more we were supposed to meet Kamil not in front of the building itself, but at a street corner. Again, since when did seeing apartments and scoring drugs cross-over so much?

We walked to the nearest corner, and called Kamil on the cell phone. After a moment a youngish man that had been lolling around in front of the convenience store saw us and waved. He crossed the street, and we were now in the Kamil zone.

Kamil was probably in his 20s, and not dressed to impress. He had on a sweatshirt, jeans, some sneakers, and looked like he had just gotten off, well, a drug deal. Put it this way: I don’t think he had gone through training at Re-Max. Facially he looked mid-Eastern, with a beard, and resembled the Sayid character from Lost. We shook hands and the charade began.

Following Kamil’s lead we walked into the lobby of a gritty building located right in front of our parked car.

“The landlord, he should be here, I will find him,” Kamil said. He disappeared up the stairs and we looked around. The lobby itself didn’t look too terrible, although it certainly wasn’t overly clean, or neat. For $1200, I thought wearily, this is about what you get.

After about five minutes a fat, white Eastern European man in a white wife beater T-shirt rolled down the stairs. Through his thick accent I understood that his name was Josef, and he unlocked the door to the apartment. Way to impress, Joe.

Despite the promise of two bedrooms the place was tiny, and the cheap fluorescent lighting made everything look even worse. It wasn’t well maintained, either. What can be said after a while? Small, run-down apartments in crappy buildings all start to bleed into one another after you’ve seen about thirty of them. (I will say this though: even terrible apartments look somehow worse under fluorescent light. It’s okay for hallways, but always looks like total shit for interiors.)

Spending the absolute minimum amount of time necessary to see the place we thanked Josef, and Kamil walked us out.

“So, you didn’t like it?” he asked, genuinely curious.

“Nah, I just don’t think it’s a good fit for us,” I said, being generous.

He put it out there that he also had some other places he could show us, in even less desirable neighborhoods—although he didn’t exactly phrase it that way—and that we should give him a call. We said thanks and goodnight, and took off.

From there I made one last call, back to Avram at Hamotzi. I’d been in contact with him off and on during the whole process, hoping that he’d hook me up as a fellow Jew. It hadn’t happened just yet, obviously.

Avram sounded a little tired of talking to me when I reached him on the phone.

“Yeah, come on down, I have some nice places for you in your price range,” he said. So the following Sunday we drove back down to Bay Ridge—not Saturday, of course, because they were closed—and gave it one last shot. Randi and I agreed: this was it. If we couldn’t find a place today, we quit, at least for now. The baby was getting closer, and we needed to stop seeking and finally settle in.

Avram’s office was surprisingly empty for a weekend day, as it was usually abuzz with bearded brokers and their clients. He sat at a desk, and handed us several sets of keys.

“I don’t have time to go with you today, but if you want you can check these out on your own,” he said. He didn’t look all that busy, truth be told, but we said fine. I had also grown tired of the broker dance, and if he wanted to stay seated that was okay with me. If we liked it we would let him know.

The first place was on Shore Road. It seemed like most of Avram’s good rentals were located there, and he kept telling me about them, despite me telling him back that Shore Road didn’t really seem to work for us. But, anyway, it was the last day, it wouldn’t hurt to check it out.

The actual building on Shore Road looked nice, with, again, great views. Unfortunately that’s all I ever found out about it, because we never saw the actual apartment.

The problem was that our key wouldn’t open the front door. As the cold wind blew at us from the Hudson we froze our asses off trying to simply get into the building. No one came down the steps either.

Not knowing what else to do we walked around to the other side of the building, and entered through the back and went to an open house for another apartment. We hoped it would be a one bedroom, but couldn’t know.

Following the signs we walked into a living room, took a flier, and looked around. It looked nice, and was priced to move for $200,000. Then we walked into the kitchen, where an anxious middle-aged man, the broker, made us sign our names to a clipboard. Then we turned to see the other rooms and realized there weren’t any. Yup, that was it. No thanks.

We said goodbye, and walked back to the car. Not five minutes later I got a call from a strange phone number. I checked my messages and it was the broker showing the apartment we had just seen! Jesus!

Next we drove to an apartment that reeked of chemicals, and had a hideous kitchen/living room combination that looked absolutely miserable. I kept Randi in the hallway, so she and our child could escape as many noxious fumes as possible, and confirmed, on my own, that this place sucked ass.


“The last place,” I said looking down at my notes, “is on 94th Street. We might as well check it out.” Randi nodded. If this was it, if today was the last day, we should give it our all.

Driving down 94th Street, I kept my eagle-eyes out for parking, always a problem in Bay Ridge. This concentration kept me distracted from the fact that all of a sudden this road looked all too familiar. No, it couldn’t be. This had to be some kind of crazy cosmic joke. But, yes, it was.

Tuxedo Towers.

“Are you fucking kidding me?!” I screamed as we approached it for the fourth time. We parked in front of the building and sat in the car.

“Also, why the hell are so many people always trying to leave this place?” Randi asked. “What’s wrong with it? Is it filled with murders?”

At the same time we both started to question whether the universe wasn’t trying, none-too-subtly, to tell us something: YOU NEED TO LIVE IN TUXEDO TOWERS. After all, this was way out of the range of normal statistical probability. Coincidence, The Celestine Prophesy tells us, needs to be paid attention to. Maybe we were fighting our destiny, and the cosmos was punishing us for our arrogance. That’s why it had been so hard to find a place.


“You know what? Fuck this place,” I said. “Are you hungry because I could really use some lunch.”

Randi, so very pregnant, nodded enthusiastically. “Do you even have to ask?”

Friday, April 11, 2008

The Great Apartment Hunt Pt. 10: Reconsiderations

So that settled that, or so we thought. Over the next two days I talked to Karen about three or four times. First she asked me if we wanted to live in the brownstone with the older folks. Since we were concentrating on the second place I said no thanks. And then, poof, the brownstone was rented.

But there was a problem, you see, in that Karen couldn’t reach the landlord for the second place. “He must be away someplace without access to a phone,” she said. “This is really unusual.”

The first place remained available, and Karen was able to get the father and son team to agree to $1450 a month, but, perhaps out of stubbornness, perhaps because we really liked the other place more, we kept on passing on it.

“They really liked you guys,” Karen pleaded over the phone, “and Richard said that at $1450 they’re already giving you guys an unbelievable bargain. Won’t you even consider it?”

I guess we were being stubborn because, despite its many good features, we just didn’t want to live there. And it wasn’t only because the talking elevators might remind me of The Shining, except happier. One reason we wanted pass on it, and a major reason at that, was because it was really far from everything and everyone we knew. Even though Bay Ridge itself is far from everything anyway, this was the farthest region of Bay Ridge. And we were beginning to see this distance as more of a disadvantage than we first imagined. Because we weren’t just moving to save money; we were moving because we were trying to make a better quality of life for our child to come.

If we moved into the “modern marvel,” we realized, we’d be incredibly far from my family, who mostly lived in New Jersey, and also all our friends, who mostly lived in Park Slope. Randi also has a network of teachers and friends—seriously, she knew like 12—who all got knocked up this year, as well. Now she would be inconveniently far from them. This would make her plans for baby-sitting groups all but impossible.

In addition, we were still dead set on having the baby in Park Slope, because Randi had grown close with her midwives, and the only place they’d deliver is in the Methodist hospital in that neighborhood. The further we moved from the hospital, the more likely the chances that the kid would have the middle-name of Honda Accord, because that’s where they might get born.

Basically, if we moved so far away our entire support group would be gone, except for the occasional visitors. We’d have a nice apartment, and a sauna, but we’d give up many of the day-to-day relationships that made our lives in Brooklyn something we enjoyed. Perhaps we should have realized this earlier, but sometimes it’s hard to think of every angle, until you’re confronted with your next move.

The only problem was that it was starting to look like the place we really wanted was probably going to fall through. Karen sounded absolutely befuddled when we’d speak on the phone, nothing like this had ever happened to her before. Landlords don’t simply tell brokers to rent places, and then vanish. But this seemed to be exactly what happened.

“I’m calling, and I’m calling,” she told me one day, “and leaving voice messages, but he’s never calling back.”

It’s possible that this mystery landlord realized that maybe he could get more rent for the same place. It’s possible that maybe he was just kind of crazy, or maybe even dead. Who knows? All I knew was that our best prospect in weeks was pretty much going up in smoke, and there was nothing we could do about it. We’d had three good looking apartments in our grasp just a few days ago, but now, quite suddenly we had none. It was now early March, and this wasn’t the news we wanted to hear.

“I am getting sick and tired of this,” Randi said. “Why can’t people just do what they say they’re going to do?” She’s from Kentucky and has a belief that people should keep to their word. Crazy, right? Because of this belief New York, especially the New York real estate market, frustrates her to no end.

Plus she was starting to get overwhelmed by the fear that we won’t have a place set up and ready for the baby by the time it’s ready to emerge. The nesting urge was already manifest within her, and she had nowhere to vent it, which also frustrated her greatly. She had visions of what she wanted, of places to put changing tables, and how to re-arrange furniture. Or get rid of furniture in our case. (Our bedroom set came from my room from when I was a teenager, and had a slightly boyish, nautical theme. She hated it.)

“I just want to have a place, and know that it’s ours,” she said, sensibly. “And I can’t do this anymore, this looking around at night. I’m pregnant, and other pregnant women at least know where they are going to live. We don’t.”

I really couldn’t argue with that, nor did I want to. Since Karen’s places all seemed to go wrong, and it was getting later, we made a deal: if we don’t find a place that we love, not just like, in the next two weeks we’ll make it work in our present apartment.

Also, after seeing so many places our present apartment was starting to look better and better. It was centrally located, so Randi could be surrounded by more friendly faces, and also so she can tutor after the baby is born, a big help for our bottom line. Also, and this is huge, it had laundry in the building. Many of the places we’d seen simply did not.

In addition, our landlords were not psychopaths, always a danger in New York, and it was a light, airy place to live. I couldn’t complain about the state of the elevator, because we didn’t have one, and there was no lobby, so that wasn’t a problem either. Maybe we could make this work, if we had to, but I wanted us to keep hunting for the brass ring. We live in New York, if it’s anywhere, it’s here.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

The Great Apartment Hunt Pt. 9: Our Patience Pays Off?

After seeing this Jetsons-esque high-rise we all piled into my car, after a perfunctory debate about whether I or Karen should drive. Karen got into the back, and guided us about ten blocks north, more into the heart of Bay Ridge. There was no legal parking to be found, so we parked in front of a hydrant, as I had seen Avram from Hamotzi Realty do several weeks before. If we’re only in an apartment for 15-20 minutes—which is how long these things seem to take—then the odds of a cop coming by, at night, are pretty slim.

The next place Karen showed us wowed us in a different way than the place with the sauna. She called the super, Emilio, and a pleasant, southern European man, in his mid-40s, opened the front door for us. Whereas the last place had the high-tech sheen of the 1980s this place was a bit more old school, but every bit as nice. It had a more classic Brooklyn look. The lobby floor was made of polished black and white marble squares, and filled with well-kept old furniture. It had the grand effect of a sumptuous, old hotel lobby. The door to the elevator was rich, brown wood. Yes, I thought, now we’re talking. Even though the holidays were receding into memory there were still Christmas decorations ringing the lobby, both store-bought and from children that lived in the building. This is the Brooklyn I want to live in, I thought. (We would see about getting some Chanukah decorations in there once we moved in.)

Emilio, for some reason was apologetic about the rundown state of the place, although to me it looked as clean as a hound’s tooth. Neurotic supers are a good thing, I thought. The whole effect was comfortable but classy. It felt, already, a little bit like home.

Then we saw the apartment.

It wasn’t a high-tech marvel like the prior one, but it felt more like where Randi and I would like to actually live. For starters it was much larger. The other place was about the same size as our present apartment, if not slightly smaller. This place was considerably bigger. The living room just kind of kept going. It was like a real living room that real people live in America, not the Barbie Dream-House for adults that I’d grown used to. Also, although it was a one bedroom the actual bedroom itself was large. The bathroom was spacious, with a nice, deep tub—which my wife would love, because that’s kind of her thing. It too had an entryway like the accursed Ditmas Park apartment, and the hallway leading up to the apartment was in tip-top shape. It had an archway that separated the bedroom from entryway, and, to me at least, it seemed comfortable, clean and elegant. It was also $1400. I liked it, a lot.

Plus, it seemed more like us, somehow. We’re not really a deck-hanging, sauna-going couple. We like a slightly cozier atmosphere; the prior place kind of reminded me of the Tokyo hotel that so upset Scarlett Johansen in Lost In Translation. This place seemed like where a couple could raise a child.

We thanked Emilio and walked out to our next appointment that night. Smiles all around, things were definitely looking up.

From there we went even further into the heart of Bay Ridge. Karen knew of an older couple that was renting the top floor of their brownstone. Again I parked in front of a fire hydrant, and followed the broker upstairs.

The owners ended up being in their mid-70s. Right away I felt that they already looked like grandparents. It was hard to not feel kindly toward them. Again, the rent was $1400. Which might've had something to do with the fact that I told Karen on the phone that our limit was $1400 a month.

The older man, Frank, volunteered to go watch over my car and move it in case the law came around. Which was nice.

Once upstairs, we saw the apartment and it was the largest of them all. True, it had a kind of nasty beige carpet, and there was no laundry in the building, but it was extremely spacious. The fixtures weren’t exactly new, but they were certainly in good working condition. What would be the master bedroom was also extremely, extremely large, with gable-style windows.

After checking it out for a few minutes we walked downstairs and joked around with the older woman, Helen, about having kids, and cats, two of our big obsessions, it seems. The couple had lived there for decades, raised a family there, in fact. They just seemed so sweet, but even so I wasn’t sure if we wanted to live in a place without laundry, and with a couple that would always be watching our coming and going, even though they seemed nice. Although I can’t imagine that with a kid we’d have goings-on that are all that crazy. Maybe, you know, a play-date might run a little long. It ain’t exactly Plato’s Retreat.

I got the keys back from Frank, and drove back to the first building to drop off Karen. We’d seen three apartments, and three solid choices. One was a futuristic marvel, one was kind of posh and one was homey. It would be hard to determine which one we liked, but I was leaning towards the second one. Randi agreed, and we told Karen that we would like to follow-up with that place first.

“Okay, I’ll call the owner,” Karen said. “He’s been out of town, but he said he’d like to rent the place right away.” This sounded good to us. The second place on our list was with the older couple, and the third, depending on the price we could get would be the high-tech place. But it was nice to have a selection, for a change.

Monday, April 7, 2008

The Great Apartment Hunt Pt. 8: Talking Elevators!

I found the next broker. Her name was Karen and, typical of her trade, she was effusive and chatty over the phone.

After I gave her our thumbnail biographies, and laid out our rules, she seemed excited to meet up with us. I stressed that we couldn’t, COULD NOT, in no way could we, see a place that cost more than $1400 a month. Because, as mentioned, that was the absolute breaking point for what we could afford to pay on one salary, and have the move still make any sort of fiscal sense, once fees and moving charges were factored in.

“Oh, got it, I have some places, nice doorman buildings in fact that sound absolutely perfect for you,” she gushed. Yeah, I would say gushed is a fair word here. “With laundry and everything! Trust me, these are exactly what you’re looking for. I know.”

Sounded good to me. So with the memory of Ditmas Park receding as fast as we could make it we got back in the car and drove the 25 minutes to Bay Ridge. We met Karen near 100th Street. She would’ve almost been in the shadow of the Verrazano Bridge, except it was night. In other words we were way, way south of, and away from, everything, but if the nice apartments were down here it would be worth it.

We met Karen in front of the first building we were to see. She had a thick native-New Yawker accent, and seemed very friendly and excited to show us some apartments. She was probably in her mid-to-late 30s and unlike Lauren she wasn’t late, and unlike Chris she didn’t seem like she’d just stepped out of a keg party. In other words she seemed professional.

The building itself was a sleek, well-maintained affair; nothing out of place, everything clean and if not new at least in excellent working order. At the entryway Karen waved to the doorman, whom she seemed to know. He was an older, white-haired guy, from some sort of old country, but I couldn’t tell which one. Then we were met by the people who owned the building, a father and son team. They were both Asian, and extremely excited to meet up with us. The father was named Richard, although he was obviously a first-generation immigrant from Asia, and the son was named David, an easy name for me to remember. The father looked to be in his mid-to-late 50s, and the son was in his early-to-mid 20s. David had obviously been born in the U.S., and did most, but not all, of the talking.

They lead us into an elevator, and the first sign that this wasn’t going to be yet another typical apartment hunt was that the elevator closed behind us and spoke. “Going up!” a femme-botty voice chirped cheerfully. It was loud, and sounded like the future as imagined 20 years ago. “Fourth floor!” it/she said, prompting us to emerge.

With a touching amount of excitement and pride Richard opened the door to the apartment and we walked in. Wow.

The first thing I noticed was the rich, dark brown wood that covered a far wall. Second I noticed the flagstones on the floor, slate of some kind, a dark, lustrous gray. Another far wall was mostly covered in glass, with a wide-angle view of the bridge. Now it was my turn for my eyes to widen a little. This was a seriously nice apartment.

“See, lots of closet space.” Richard volunteered, gliding a pair of doors open to reveal, indeed not only closets, but closets with little mini-shelves built into them. He beamed at us.

“And over here,” he continued, leading us into the living room, “is space for where a lot of young couples make room for the baby.” The flooring itself was also a deep, reddish wood. After seeing so many cheapie parquet or linoleum floors this was akin to a revelation.

There was also a little kitchen nook with brand new everything, including a brand-new, yes, dishwasher.

David then led us into the bedroom, which was smallish, but had a TV stand, and another nice-sized closet. Everything in the apartment was tidy, and immaculately kept, even if the actual living space was, it’s true, kind of on the small size. On the upside all this dark polished wood, and stone definitely brought to mind Greg Brady’s dream bachelor pad.

And it only got better from there.

After getting several eyefuls of the apartment Richard and David led us outside to the building’s deck, which was about the size of a football field, and included multiple areas in which to grill, or just rest with a chair. Again, their pride in their building was just so apparent, it was touching.

But, still, there was more.

Loading back into the femme-evator we went into the basement where there were about 10 nearly immaculate, new laundry machines, storage for extra goods, a gym, and, wait for it, a sauna.

They wanted us, the father and son, they did. We were a couple, with a baby coming. We aren’t going to leave them hanging. I work at a place that is quite literally synonymous with money, even if I make about as much as a decent pastry chef.

Once out the door we immediately turned to Karen. Yeah, this place looked nice.

“Okay,” she said. “They want $1500, but they might be willing to work with it. I’ll ask.” She’ll ask is right. Because even if it seems hard to fathom, $1400 we could just, just, just afford, stretching our budget dollars like spandex at a Weight Watcher’s convention. But $1500 was just one, or maybe even two, tokes over the line.

This night was already promising, and there were still two more places for us to see. I was finally getting excited about finding a new apartment, again.

The Great Apartment Hunt Pt. 7: Goodbye Dolly!

That night Randi took the Q train to Ditmas Park, to see the apartment. She had the same experience. She liked, liked, liked the apartment and then when she saw the second bedroom loved, loved, loved it. We both were a little disappointed that there was no laundry in the building—this was the only letdown—but there was a massive laundromat just around the corner, which would give Randi a chance to take a stroll at least a few times a week … or more, since newborns poop about 24 hours a day for at least their first month.

The next morning I faxed our credit report to the rental agency, nervous about beating out the other couple rushing to live in our place. But I was ready: I not only had the credit report, but also pay stubs for us both, and a short cover letter.

I still hadn’t heard from either Carol or the rental agency by the next day so I called in, and got Dolly on the phone.

“Hi, this is David Serchuk, and we were looking at the Ditmas Park apartment? The one for $1350 a month?”

It took Dolly a moment to put it together. I could tell over the phone that she was a little older. As if that her name was “Dolly” wasn’t enough of a tip-off.

“Oh, yes! The editor and the school teacher!”

Now that’s more like it!

“So, yeah, just calling to see if the credit report checked out, and everything, and how it looks.”

She took a slight pause.

“Well, I am sorry to have to say this, but it’s rented. But we loved you! You two looked like the perfect people to have live in one of our buildings. You looked great!”

“What happened?”

“Well, there was another couple that had already put their money down for a deposit, so we had to check them out, and we showed the place to you while it cleared with them, in case it didn’t work out with them. But if you’re still interested we have another place on Ocean Parkway,” she said.

“Did Carol know this?”


I hung up, feeling used by this old woman. If another couple had already put down their money wouldn’t it be right to take your apartment off the market? I felt that despite her praise for us we had just gotten played. Also that meant the other couple Carol had told us about weren’t racing with us to get the apartment. They had completed the race, were standing on the podium with wreaths on their brows, and now were simply awaiting the results of their piss tests.

I told Randi soon after getting off the phone with Dolly. She was angry, and it definitely fed her frustrations with the whole process. I put on the smiley face as best as I could, but it was hard to not feel frustrated as well. Not only did you have to move fast in New York to find a sweet apartment, apparently you needed the ability to somehow travel backwards through time as well.

The Great Apartment Hunt Pt. 6: Landlords and Gentrification

Randi, ever efficient, soon found another lead. Hmm, this sounds like it has potential: A two-bedroom in Ditmas Park, for only $1350 a month. I have to admit, though, by now I was starting to feel a little pressured, and somewhat wary of the ongoing hunt.

For one thing we had to contend with our landlords. We had told them in December that we planned to move out, and now every time I saw them on the street, or ran into them in our building it was like, hey, yeah, we’re still here. I felt extremely sheepish about the whole thing, although I hadn’t done anything wrong.

Our landlords were and are great people, and I couldn’t blame them if they were anxious to know what was up. Abbie and David, the landlords, had told us that all they needed in terms of lead time for us to get our deposit back was two weeks. We knew they could likely get more rent money if we left, but we couldn’t accommodate them until we had a new place to live.

Also we wanted to do right by them. They’d always been so kind to us. She is an architect and he’s a schoolteacher, and they have three children. Over the past four years we’ve seen their kids grow, and we’ve seen the middle child, a girl, go from an infant to a walking-talking little kid.

One example of their kindness: The night we moved in—a horribly hot evening in May of 2004—we popped open the fridge, and saw a note fasted to a six pack of Brooklyn Lager, “Welcome home! Abbie and David.”

Still, since were were leaving, they’d need new renters. In fact I knew they needed new renters because they asked us if they could show the place while we were still in it. We said sure, putting the shoe on the other foot: now we would be the ones pretending nothing weird is going as total strangers walk through, and silently judge, our lives.

Which is what happened one weekend afternoon in February. David lead in a couple that was similar to us; yuppies in their late 20s, or early 30s. The only difference was in physical size. The guy was really big, and his wife was smallish. Randi and I are about the same height.

Not knowing what else to do, I found myself playing the host, albeit with mixed feelings. A great, if unexpected, tenderness toward the apartment started to swell as I pointed out its good features.

“It gets a lot of light,” I said. “It’s really a very airy and comfortable place to live.”

The couple surveyed the apartment, which took about five seconds. This lead to the woman investigating the bathtub, and noting the shoddy repair job we did with the plastic bag where the soap holder used to be. As mentioned, it had broken off months before.

“Is that going to be fixed?” she asked David. Tell you the truth she seemed a little high strung. I mean I barely even met her, but still.

The husband seemed more laid back. He described how they were moving from a larger one bedroom in Bay Ridge because they wanted to be more near the action. I almost felt like screaming out “Apartment swap!” except, well, that would be a little gay.

So with this pressure always on our backs I looked forward to seeing the place in Ditmas Park. I liked Ditmas Park, even if we’d spent most of our energy looking in the Bay Ridge area. Sure, it was a little quiet, but we were going to have a family, not raise a metal band. Quiet could be fine.

The broker’s name was Carol, and Randi arranged for me to meet up with her before I had to leave for work. Randi gave me Carol’s cell number, and even arranged a meeting time for me.
I made it to the building without getting too lost. There were some older guys hanging around outside, but they looked friendly enough, and the lobby, although somewhat dusty, looked well-maintained.

I say these things, because after seeing about my 20th place I develop a short-hand for crap apartments. My big tip-offs were decrepit lobbies and elevators. Tuxedo Towers, of course, featured both.

The apartment was a sort of border zone for Ditmas Park. Meaning that while it still looked safe, or at least safe enough, it was not wholly gentrified just yet. This cut both ways: fewer Thai restaurants, unfortunately, but cheaper convenience stores and rent. I’d call it a wash.

I called Carol on my cell, while walking through the building. She picked up, but I still couldn’t find her, even though she was inside. Eventually I followed an echoing voice through the hallways, and traced the slightly lagging sound of my own conversation, until I caught up with her.

“Hi, hi,” she said, extending a hand. Carol was in her mid-to-late-40s, and had a slightly burnt-out bohemian aura about her. Like she’d done the whole bourgeois bohemian circuit: Boulder, Berkeley and now Brooklyn.

“The neighborhood’s changing,” she explained. “I lived here for five years, and now I’ve just recently moved to Carroll Gardens. For a long time it had been a lot of families that lived here, and now the area seems to be attracting a lot of younger people, like us.”

Like us. Carol, nice as she was, looked a good 15 years older than I am, but I said nothing.

We made more small talk as we walked to the apartment. I described how my wife is a public school teacher, and I am an editor at a well-known financial Web-site. Carol’s eyes widened slightly. After seeing a few apartments I knew how to romance brokers. We were young(ish), we were building a family, we had a good income—at least when you combined what my wife and I made, and multiplied it—and, we were, how to put this delicately, white.

After all wasn’t that what all the talk about the neighborhood “changing,” and getting away from “families” to young people “like us,” was all about? She was trying to reassure me that if we moved into this apartment, we wouldn’t be surrounded with people not like us for long. It seemed like this subtext came through in many meetings I had with brokers or homeowners in developing areas. I never asked, they volunteered it. And although I have mixed feelings about being a gentrifier, they wanted me to know that there soon would be more like me. So don't worry.

Soon we were at the door of the apartment. Carol jimmied her key into the lock, and soon we were in the apartment’s entryway.

That’s the first thing worth noting: the apartment had an entryway. Ditmas Park apartments are mostly older, pre-War buildings—which war I am not sure—and have a slightly classier, more old-world aspect to them than most. By contrast when you enter our current apartment you’re in the kitchen.

The whole place was newly painted, and the floors were freshly polyurethaned, shiny as a roller-skating rink. I saw the bedroom, and it was spacious and well lit. I saw the kitchen, also new, with new appliances. I saw the bathroom and the living room. This was much bigger than our current place. But I was still on the fence with it. There would be plenty of room, but there was no laundry, which would be a drag.

“Oh, and here’s the other bedroom,” Carol said, somehow noting an entire room I’d missed.

It was like discovering a new country. A new, huge, bedroom spread out before me, beckoning. Two bedrooms! What would we do with all this room? For $1350? I couldn’t believe it! Sold!
Of course Randi would still have to see it, but we could arrange it for that night.

Carol explained that the landlords would want a credit report run, for $50. Fortunately we’d already done one recently, so we were good. Our credit scores were in the high 600s to mid-700s, depending on which service was looking at us. (It was amazing how detailed these things were. I was late with one payment three years ago. Yup, it was on the report, just in case!) I told her we could get it to her, ASAP.

On the way out Carol introduced me to the two older guys who’d been handing out outside. One was the super, Felix, an older Latino man. She bantered with him in a friendly, familiar way as she handed him the keys, and he in turn gave me the fax number for the rental company. Felix also told me the name of the woman who owned the rental company, Dolly.

Before she left Carol added that there was another couple that had seen the apartment, so if we wanted it we would need to move on it. No problem.

“I think the property owners are going to really like you guys,” she said, before we parted ways.

The Great Apartment Hunt Pt. 5: Tuxedo Towers, Slight Return!

Following this debacle we decided to redouble our efforts to find a place, with or without a broker. But my wife was starting to get frustrated.

“The thing is I don’t want to have to look for a place when I’m nine months pregnant, I just want to have a place set up, and ready for the baby,” she said.

I tried to put on the face of an eternal optimist, parroting the upbeat Norman Vincent Peale-speak you might find in a Guideposts magazine.

“Just remember, babe, every single place we see but don’t take just means we’re one step closer to finding the place we do want!”

Of course this logic didn’t necessarily hold up when examined closely, but it was my mantra, and, unlike Jeff Goldblum in Annie Hall, I hadn’t lost mine yet.

Randi started to burrow in the classifieds like a mole, looking at them early and late to see what was available. Every other day or so she’d have a fresh stack of listings, some of which she’d hand to me, and some of which she’d take herself. She’s a bit more organized than me, which is good, because in her day job she has to attend to a room of screaming fourth graders, and I, as an editor, merely have to oversee a smaller room of disgruntled journalists. One good thing about the journalists: I never had to deal with their parents.

She found one listing that seemed to have promise. Sure, it was a one bedroom, but at $1150 a month we’d be making a substantial savings on our current place. I’d done some math and realized that after the cost of moving, paying for electricity (which we don’t have to pay for in our current place) and a broker’s fee we’d have to find a place that was at least $1350 a month, or less, to make it worthwhile. This only raised another question in my mind: why hadn’t I done this math before?

We got back in the subway in early March for what felt like our 80th trip to Bay Ridge. We liked the neighborhood, it’s true, but not enough to spend every spare day of our lives there, and it was already getting tedious. The subway took us far into the neighborhood, all the way to 94th Street. When we got out I looked at the area. It seemed familiar. We were very close to the bridge, there was a Key Foods I’d seen before, and there was a little diner/newsstand. And, as if guided by memory, I made a left turn onto a road I’d certainly been down before.

Of course: Tuxedo Towers.

It wasn’t so much that the ‘Towers were more rundown than many other apartments that we saw. It was that, at least to us, they seemed to have a slight air of danger about them, and not the good danger—spies, microfilm—but rather the garden variety, drug-related kind.
Perhaps we had no proof to back up this feeling, but the ‘Towers themselves kind of encouraged this view. In fact the tone was set by the messily hand-written sign taped to the window of the front door: “Do NOT leave the front door open when you leave! And if you see strange activity in the lobby call the police.”

Also Randi raised a good point as we entered the lobby, for the third time. “Why are so many people always leaving this place?”

Of course I had no answer. The good news upon re-entering the building was that in our absence someone had repainted the Day-Glo lobby white. Usually I mourn the loss of something eccentric and pointless, but in one, unique case, I thought it was worthy of applause.

Still, the white paint did little to relieve the penitentiary-esque feel of the building, but at least someone, somewhere was getting hip. It was either that, or they got laughed out of the local Home Depot when they requested thirty gallons of aqua-marine paint.

We took the creaky, undersized elevator up to the tenth floor, and got out. The door to the apartment was closed—often they’re open when an apartment is being shown—and knocked.
“Hello, hello,” said the youngish man who answered, also named David. And so it began again, the oddly intimate, and awkward, practice of trying to evaluate an apartment, and not the person whose life has taken place in the apartment. It’s like trying to look at someone to see their bones through their skin.

But I couldn’t help it. The apartment was a small one bedroom, and not that interesting. More interesting was David’s decorations. A Jew, he had mezuzahs in every door frame. Would these come with the apartment? And there were various pictures of his wedding day to a young woman, several of them. Way more of them, in fact, than we have of our wedding day in our apartment. But I saw no sign of her.

“So, tired of Brooklyn?” I asked.

“Yeah, going to move into Manhattan,” he said. “It’ll make it easier for me to go out, and meet up with my friends.”

“Moving into a bigger place in the city?”

“Nah, about the same size, but it’s more conveniently located, for when I go out.”

Okay, weird. I already knew this place was too small for us, but why would a married man, and a seemingly religious one at that, move not to a bigger place, but one the same size, just so he could hang out with his buds? And after getting married don’t most people move away from Manhattan to places like Bay Ridge? Most do.

I interrupted my prying to continue the empty exercise of looking through his closets and walking through his kitchen, strolling it like the runway at an awards ceremony, to “get the feeling” of the place. And the feeling was: I don’t think so. It wasn’t such a bad place, but it was much less spacious than even the one bedroom we already had. I had to face facts: we wanted to save money, but neither of us wanted to move down in lifestyle. We were willing to move further away from our social circle, our jobs, and our families, but we weren’t willing to move into a place that would be even more cramped in order to do it.

In what had become an unconscious ritual I made a point of taking a lead in David’s sports memorabilia clogged bathroom, where the door barely shut, because it came so close to the edge of the toilet. Yeah, this place had bachelor pad written all over it. But what happened to his wife? I didn’t ask.

We thanked him and left, as another youngish couple, kind of like us, took our place in his life, at least for the next 10-to-15 minutes.

Next stop: more brokers!

The Great Apartment Hunt Pt. 4: Cash Only!

That night we waited in our apartment for Lauren to drop by and pick up the deposit. “I’m going to be in the neighborhood anyway,” she said, “I’m visiting friends in the Village.”

She came by at 8:00 p.m. and we buzzed her up. It was altogether way more intimate than the usual interactions with brokers. I mean they usually show you a place to live, rarely do they see the place where you live.

After the usual positive comments about how she loves our cats—seriously, almost every woman who visits us has to say this, it’s like a commandment—we got down to business. Sure, $1300 seemed like lot to write off for her broker’s fee, but it was worth it. We hadn’t found anyplace as nice on our own, and now we’d have at least one item on our never-ending list of pre-baby things to do taken care of. I wrote up a check and handed it to her.

“Oh, yeah, I don’t take checks,” she said. “Cash only.”

Cash only? I’m sorry, is this a drug deal? I’d never heard of a broker who only took cash. We sure didn’t have $1300 in greenbacks in our apartment. And if we ran to the ATM it would take us like six separate transactions to get out that amount. (Think of the fees!) Plus, weren’t we presumably going to pay the rent with checks? If so why wouldn’t our check be good enough for her broker’s fee?

“Really?” I asked. “That’s kind of odd. Why don’t you take checks?”

“That’s just not how we do it,” Lauren answered, clearly growing impatient to go out and get her drink on. “I can give you my broker’s number, and you can check that. Trust me we do this all the time.”

The broker’s number was another concept I hadn’t heard of. Apparently it was some kind of licensing deal where if she runs off with the money we have some kind of proof that she is a broker and did something we didn’t like. I didn’t know whom we would call if that happened, or what they could do, but some reassurance, I supposed, is better than none. Also, we had the name of her brokerage firm, too, since she’d given us a business card. Although every time I called the office they just told me to call her at home anyway. Where I would get voicemail: “Hi, this is Lauren, thanks for calling!”

We couldn’t do the deal that night, which made our hearts sink. New York apartments pretty much vaporize if they’re out on the market for a hot minute, so we had to get the cash to her within a day or so if we wanted to have any kind of shot. But this all seemed kind of weird to us.

Once Lauren left to go party downtown we looked up everything we could find online about either her, or her brokerage company. A few meager hits came up, telling us almost nothing about her. The brokerage company also yielded maybe two to three hits, and, again, told us nothing.

The next day we visited a friend of mine that lived in Edgewater, N.J., named Craig. He and his wife were scheduled to leave for a long trip in a few weeks, as he had gotten a job overseas. They had a nice-sized two-bedroom apartment, and also, it turned out, might need someone to occupy it for the duration of their time away, which would be at least a year, but more likely two. If another family member didn't need it the apartment would be available. That was all we needed to hear. Sold! Or, I guess, rented!

So now we had still didn’t have a place to live, yet, but two promising ventures. Especially because with the Edgewater place we’d be about 15 minutes away from my Mom, who could help in the baby-sitting and grand-mothering departments.

So now with two hot leads on our hands, we weren’t quite sure what to do. If Craig’s place came through, and we gave Lauren $1300 cash we were screwed. But if we gave her the money and somehow neither place came through, how easy would it be to get back our cash? She could’ve blown it on scrunchies and bubblegum by then. We tried to buy a few days time with Lauren. The Edgewater place looked like a 50-50 proposition, but we were willing to gamble, because the payoff was so strong. Amazingly, though, Lauren’s apartment was still on the market by the end of Sunday, and even through that Tuesday.

What happened next is probably pretty predictable. Craig’s aunt and uncle realized that it made sense for them to have a place available for their occasional visits to New York. He tried his hardest to convince them, but they couldn’t be swayed. So, game over. Next we called Lauren back. Now it was Thursday. And by now the apartment had been rented. We were back to square one.

We consoled one another that it was truly strange to expect potential renters to hand over $1300 in cash to an amateurish broker of not much repute, aligned with some little-known real estate firm. I mean, really, should we hand the cash over in a brown paper bag just to complete the desired organized crime effect? But there was no getting around it, we were bummed.

The Great Apartment Hunt Pt. 3: Brokers Abound

Following that every weekend, and many weeknights, were dedicated to schlepping all over our allotted neighborhoods, looking for that mystery apartment that had eluded us so far. I’d found our current apartment from Craigslist.com in about a day, so, I realized, with more effort and two people on the watch, our suitable enclosure would be sure to show up before too long.

But there was always something just a little bit wrong with each place we found, if not much, much more than just a little bit.

There was a nice two-bedroom in Bay Ridge, with lovely people who owned it. The rent was $1200, and it was conveniently located near the subway. Still, not all was well.

“We are really, really concerned about roaches, so we have an exterminator come one Saturday morning a month to spray in every apartment,” said the 40-something Latina woman who owned it.

Once a month, I marveled. And on a Saturday morning? True, our weekend love life might just take a plunge once the shortie comes along anyway, but I couldn’t imagine a bigger buzz kill then having to leave the marital bed so a fat Teamster-ish fella could spray toxic poison from one of those big-assed silver canisters they always seem to have in cartoons.

Even that, however, was not the deal breaker. No, the true deal breaker was that the apartment was in fact right above a sushi restaurant, and a large, glowing white sushi sign, about eight feet tall, was perched right outside the window of what would be our bedroom. It never went off, and filled the room with fluorescent light.

“We can get heavy drapes,” I said to Randi. “And, tape them to the window frames?” But it was not to be. Worse yet, it didn’t even look like a good sushi restaurant.

Another time I took the subway to 86th Street in Bay Ridge to see another apartment for rent. The man showing the place was named Raul, and sounded like anything but a professional agent, or even landlord, on the phone.

“Yeah, come on over, buzz on up, someone will come down, or drop you a key,” he said. I got to the door, at about 8:30 p.m. on a Wednesday night, and called Raul’s number. Nothing.

Then I walked over to the door, past some rowdy teens on their way to the McDonald’s, or so it looked. There was no one to contact so I pushed open the doorway to the vestibule; it wasn’t locked. Bad sign, I thought. The hallway was filled with graffiti, and was lack-lusterly lit by a buzzing fluorescent tube.

“Raul?” I said, not too loudly. I walked upstairs. No one. I started to walk up more stairs to get to the doorway of the apartment, but halfway up thought better of it.

“Am I fucking kidding?” I thought to myself. “No way I want to live in a place filled with ‘tags’ and the door doesn’t even lock.” I let myself down the stairs, waved the door kind of closed behind me and got back in the subway to go home. Had it all been an elaborate prank?

Another time, I walked five blocks from the subway in the daytime before work, again in Bay Ridge. Again the person showing the place wasn’t there; again the door was eerily open to the world, looking for all intents and purposes like the opening scene of some kind of cheaply-shot horror movie, where the killer is actually a real estate agent with a hatred for bargain hunters.

So it was back to the brokers we went. I would gladly pay one month’s rent for someone else to do the dirty work of finding these places, I reasoned. And isn’t my time precious?

The first promising lead came from a place Randi found. It was on a nice block in Bay Ridge, right near the subway—my passion, apparently—and in our price range, at $1300 a month.

We showed up promptly at 10:00 a.m., as the broker, named Lauren, instructed us to. Right away Randi was on edge regarding Lauren.

“I don’t like her, she had a lot of attitude on the phone with me,” Randi said. “Like she was doing us a favor! God! I must be in the wrong line of work, because apparently in New York City all you need to be a broker is show up, and have an attitude, because that’s about all I’ve gotten from her!”

Did I mention Randi is pregnant?

But she was also right, Lauren was now ten minutes late, and we stood outside shivering in the late winter sun. The worst part of all this? Lauren lived right across the street.

“She told me she had to get ready, she’s probably brushing her teeth, or something,” Randi said, annoyed. I called Lauren on the phone to see what was up.

“Okay, I’ll be right there, okay!” she said.

Five minutes later we saw a somewhat heavy-set young woman, with a thick shock of black hair rising off her head like a corona, hustling across the street, looking for all the world like she’d just rolled out of bed. Let’s put it this way: she looked like the understudy for the Tracy Turnblad role in a local production of Hairspray.

“Hi guys! I’m Lauren, nice to see you!” she said extending her hand.

She lead us up to the fifth floor of the building, and immediately we were impressed. True, it wasn’t two bedrooms, but one. But it was a big one bed. The living room was enormous, at least by New York standards, and the bedroom looked large enough to actually hold a bed, always a plus. It had a laundry room in the basement that, although somewhat dank and musty, required a key to enter, another plus. Best of all it had a sweet view of the Verrazano Bridge from our front window, and only cost $1300 a month.

Thanking Lauren we walked down the block to the local Starbucks, and decided right then and there to go for it. Why not?

“Lauren, let’s do it,” I said, once I got Lauren on the phone. I nodded at my wife while saying that positive, empowering, life-affirming word: Yes. “We can get you the deposit tonight even.”

She was down with that.

We still had another appointment, to see other apartments, to uphold that afternoon, though. This broker’s name was Chris, and he sounded, there is no other word for it, like a stoner. True, we’d decided upon a place, but since we were already there, and had made the appointment we reasoned we might as well uphold it.

I called Chris.

“Hi Chris, it’s David, husband of Randi, can you bump our appointment up a little?” We were supposed to meet him at 11:30 p.m., but our appointment with Lauren had taken less time than we’d figured. It was now 10:30 a.m., and we really didn’t feel like killing an hour in a Starbucks, getting jacked on shitty, bitter, but expensive coffee.

“Oh, yeah, man, can I like maybe eat a little breakfast first?” Chris asked. He sounded like he’d been out all night at a rave.

“Sure. Is 11:15 good?”

“Umm, yeah, suuure.”

Cut to: It’s 11:25 a.m. and we’re standing in front of another building, waiting for a neighbor to walk in or out so we can go inside. It's chilly. Chris is coming, man, he’s coming.

“Thanks,” I say to an older gentleman who’s leaving. I feel weird busting in like this to his building even though, with my pregnant wife, it’s unlikely that we’re casing the joint.

Soon Chris rolls up, wearing some kind of “hoodie” contraption that made him look even younger than his likely 21 years of age. In person he is somewhat more commanding than his lank phone delivery led me to believe, but the maturing effect is undercut by a big, honkin’ zit on his nose.

Chris soon shows us two thoroughly shitty apartments, in the same building. Tiny living rooms, probably no more than eight or nine feet wide, bathrooms with toilets and bathtubs that are saturated with mold, and that probably aren’t going to get any cleaner. The wood floors were streaked with grime, and the linoleum flooring in the kitchens were cracked. Institutional might be a good way to describe the general state of repair in each of the identical apartments he showed us.

“I do have one more,” he said. Our hopes picked up.

“I hope it’s not in ‘Tuxedo Towers,’” I said, literally making air quotes with my fingers. His eyes fell. It was Tuxedo Towers.

Gluttons for grime we drove back to the ‘Towers, and Chris proceeded to show us two thoroughly unremarkable apartments that, at $1300 a month weren’t even bargains. The hallways these apartments sat in had a gloomy, depressing air about them, and, somehow, the building just seemed to kind of smell of old people, death and un-enticing cuisine.

But we couldn’t be too down about it. Lauren was going to get us into our new place! And it was only February.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

The Great Apartment Hunt Pt. 2: Tuxedo Towers

Over the course of three months, or so, we saw literally dozens of apartments. Suffice it to say, we set the bar kind of high. We didn’t know this, and in the rest of the country we would not only not be setting the bar high, but paying way too much for what we were looking for. But we don’t live in America, we live in New York, and that’s ultimately what all this is about anyway. Plus, we didn’t even know we were setting the bar high at all until we were deep into our search.

Here was our criterion: Two bedrooms, under $1400 per month, with laundry in the building, and a dishwasher. I was glad we had a clear idea of what we wanted; it would make it easier to pinpoint our dream place. Or at least our dream place until the real dream place shows up.

We also had a few neighborhoods we wanted to live in: Park Slope, Sunset Park, Ditmas Park and Bay Ridge. The obvious connection is that three of them have "park" in their titles. Beyond that they have obvious differences.

Park Slope is widely thought of in New York circles as either a comfortable place to live, work and raise a family or the worst kind of yuppie hell. It depends on your tax bracket, frankly. The schools are good, the streets are full, and there are lots of great restaurants and bars around. The only problem is that it’s extraordinarily expensive for most middle-income people, and it’s being developed like crazy so it’s only going to get more crowded and uncomfortable. We would’ve like to have stayed, but felt sure that finding an apartment in our price range with what we wanted would be impossible.

Sunset Park is one or two subway stops further away from Manhattan than Park Slope, so it’s gentrifying accordingly. (Everything in New York City gentrifies based on how close it is to reliable public transportation and how many stops your train is from Manhattan.) It is a less pretentious area than Park Slope, but, then again, it has less to be pretentious about. It’s got some comfortable brownstones, and, we thought, some affordable apartments in our price range. It’s more mixed ethnically than Park Slope, too, with a heavy Latino population, and much less in the way of supermarkets and other amenities.

Ditmas Park is a sleepy neighborhood that until two years ago was a kind of a well-kept secret. Or at least a well-kept secret to the ravenous yuppies that descend upon affordable areas like a 17-year locust brood. Very quiet, lots of places to get your nails done, it is also fairly heavily Jewish. And by Jewish I don’t mean Woody Allen Jewish, but more, you know, Jewish Jewish. The kind with hats. There is a good brunch place, and that’s about it. Oh yeah, and lovely housing stock, including gorgeous old Victorian era homes, and comfortable apartment buildings. The problem is that it’s been discovered and as such it’s much harder to find those needle-in-the-haystack type deals anymore. Although they do exist.

This leaves Bay Ridge. In the shadow of the Verrazano Bridge, Bay Ridge is what John Travolta tried to escape in Saturday Night Fever 31 years ago. Meaning that it’s pretty Italian, but it has its charms. The views of the water are great, the area has an attitude and identity all its own, and it’s surprisingly pretty for a place that most yuppies think of as one step away from living in Staten Island. (To be fair, distance-wise, it is one step away from Staten Island.) We really like it, though, for its plethora of cheap, but good restaurants, charming little cafes, and the fact that since its several subway stops down the line from Park Slope it hadn’t gentrified, yet. But the clock was ticking.

We decided to concentrate on Bay Ridge, mainly because I was convinced we would get the most for our money there. If our deal was to be found anywhere it would be there, and, lucky for us, we both happen to love Italian food.

After scouring Craigslist.com for listings we decided it wouldn’t kill us to at least see what a broker had to offer, since our own searches were not yielding much. It’s not that there weren’t many things to see. It’s just that when you clicked on the map attachment to the online listing, to see what was really being advertised, four-out-of-five times the actual apartment would end up in some kind of nether-neighborhood that wasn’t quite what we’d had in mind. You know, like Newark.

In a scene that could have only played out in New York, the first group of brokers with whom we wanted to see this Italian neighborhood happened to be a bunch of Orthodox Jews. For the sake of not getting sued I will call them Hamotzi Realty. We arrived in late December, at their buzzing Bay Ridge office. After we signed in the lead broker, I’ll call him Avram, took us to a few different apartments.

The first apartment was gorgeous. It was on a road called Shore Road, in Bay Ridge, and matched all our criteria. Well, it was a little expensive, but that was compensated by the fact that it had stunning views of the Hudson River—and, yes, there are stunning views of the Hudson River from Brooklyn—and, best of all, had a dishwasher. We’ve been hand-washing a long, long time by now, and we were ready for some civilization.

But there was one problem. One new issue that we hadn’t even thought of, because, well, who would? It was about 10 long blocks from the closest subway. Meaning that to walk there would take me about 25 minutes each morning, at the fastest. There was a bus that could take me to the subway, but then all of a sudden I’m at the mercy of two forms of public transportation just to get to work.

There was also an express bus, but it would cost an additional several hundred dollars a month, making our original plan—to save money as we get more space—look less and less likely.
The larger problem though, was that although the building was beautiful—the lobby! I tell you, you could have a nice picnic in there!—it was so isolated from the actual neighborhood that all of a sudden it didn’t feel like city living any more. If you have to walk so far just to get to town, why even live in town at all? It was all too suburban, except smaller.

From there Avram drove us to another place that was altogether less appealing. It had the laughable name of Tuxedo Towers, which conjures images of liveried footmen, and polo, but in reality it had a day-glo aqua lobby, creaky elevator, and the entire place looked shoddy and rundown. The apartment was in our price range, it’s true, and had two bedrooms, technically, but the basement where the laundry was looked musty, dank and somehow it just didn’t exactly emit a safe feeling. It was altogether, despite the fluorescence of the paint, a drab, cheerless affair.

We said thank you to Avram, and debated the merits of life on Shore Road. My mother, an old time Brooklyn-ite, talked about how, when she was a girl way back when, that was the classy, cool place to be. And it was lovely, but we knew we would feel lonely and isolated there. So we passed, but kept Avram’s number, even as we called other brokers.