ountless times in my life on this apartment-starved island, I have observed the Tuesday night queue as it forms in front of the Astor Place newsstand. Young people for the most part, nervously shifting their weight from side to side while they wait for the chance to scour the Village Voice newspaper classifieds. Intermittent tremors from passing subway trains tickle the bottoms of their tired feet. Curious pedestrians and taxi drivers slow down to see what they might be missing. Those on line are a desperate lot, too poor or full of pride to pay a Realtor to do the work for them, and astute enough to have figured out which kiosk first receives the weekly rental listings.
I think it's safe to say that Manhattan is the single toughest place to find affordable housing in the world, with Tokyo, or perhaps Paris, as a close second. In those crucial minutes when delivery trucks fan out across the city, these go-getters are already at work with their red pens, crossing out and circling prospective apartments. Not willing to waste the time it takes to walk home, they head straight for the nearest pay phone and encamp themselves. No precaution is too great in their search.
Like so many others on the rainy night of June 23, 1993, Maya Vanasi answered my own ad in the Voice the very same evening it ran. To most readers, the words must have seemed like an apparition. It was easily the best deal of the section.
Prime location, SoHo Sublet.The phone rang continuously, from six o'clock until half past one in the morning. I sat at the kitchen table with my notepad, an assortment of just-delivered sushi, and a bottle of Riesling, listening to Chopin's waltzes at a volume loud enough for many of the callers to ask if someone was in fact playing the piano. Upon identifying the voice on the other end of the line as female, I gave out the address and a time for an interview. To the men I replied, "Regrettably, the apartment has been rented."
As I pen these words, I am trying to recall if there was anything in Maya's voice that told me she would be the lucky winner, but to say so would be a lie. I do remember having to ask her to repeat the spelling of both her first and last names, and, too, that she spoke with the slightest lilt of an Indian/British accent. No, by the time I spoke to Maya I had already placed my bet on another woman, who sounded as if I'd granted her an unimaginable kindness in even scheduling an interview.
Wednesday morning I didn't bother with the phone, for the casual apartment hunter is not worth my time, but left the message machine on just in case. By ten-thirty the tape was filled with callers who must have known that they were far too late. I had two hours before the day's appointments would start arriving, so I went out and took breakfast at a nearby café. Continental fare: croissants, a cappuccino, two large glasses of freshly squeezed orange juice, and a large bottle of Evian. Fluids are essential on days that I interview, as I have to talk so much.
Back at the apartment I set out all the items I needed on the kitchen table. Yellow Iegal notepad with the list of names and times of each appointee, a stack of twenty-five blank applications, Polaroid camera, three new packages of film, and a bowl filled high with foil-wrapped chocolates.
12:15. I gave a last look around and was once again pleased to see what a fine job the cleaning service had done. Most applicants arrive early, so I wasn't surprised to hear the bell ring fifteen minutes in advance of the first appointment. I checked the list. "You must be Eva," I said into the intercom.
"I hope I'm not too early," she replied.
"Actually, could you give me just five minutes. I'm still tidying up."
"Sure... Five minutes?"
"Have a walk around the block and I'll be all set.
"No problem at all." I darted over to the window and peered down at the street, making sure she wouldn't spot me. She stood looking up at the building, shielding her eyes from the sun with a large manila envelope. A stack of references, I guessed. She couldn't see me through the glare, and checked her watch before ambling along southward. Even from the fifth-story window I could tell she must be very pretty. Shoulder-length dark hair, trim figure, wearing a short black spaghetti-strap dress of the kind that was so popular that summer.
Exactly five minutes later, the bell sounded again and this time I buzzed her in, saying, "Fifth floor, the door's to the right at the end of the hallway." I unlocked the dead bolt and stood in the open sliver of the doorway listening to her footsteps as she climbed the stairs. They were quick and energetic for the first three flights, then slowed on the last two--a normal pattern. I attribute it not only to the strain of climbing the five-story walkup, but also to the desire of the applicant to appear composed when she meets me. And composed Eva was as she rounded the banister into view, with a freshly applied coat of shiny scarlet lipstick and her hair combed just so. Not just pretty, I thought. Model pretty. I opened the door wider and stepped across the threshold into the hall.
"Jefferson?" she asked. I replied with a nod. "I'm Eva Wilson." She walked toward me, her hand outstretched.
"How do you do, Eva." I took her soft, thin hand and gave it just the slightest squeeze. Right away I pegged her for an aspiring actress, and I do stress aspiring. She fluttered her eyelashes and even concocted a knowing glance as if to suggest an attraction between us. After thirty years on this planet, I have learned enough to know that a young woman of her physical caliber is not swayed by the likes of mine upon first glance. Bluntly put, I'm not a handsome man. Ever since puberty I've known as much. It's the shape of my face. My father's large forehead, my mother's tiny nose and ears. The combination just doesn't come together in an aesthetically pleasing way. Throughout my painful adolescence, whenever I entered a classroom, girls would burst into giggling fits. By the time I entered college, their mockery had faded into something even more vicious, silent indifference.
I haven't fared much better as an adult. Beautiful women never let their eyes rest upon my face for too long. A momentary assessing glance, and they continue on their way. Don't think me self-pitying, I simply know my odds and am not easily seduced by actors, but that doesn't mean I didn't enjoy Eva's little performance.
I had to laugh at the way she caught her breath when she got her first look at the foyer and living room beyond. Her gasp! I still hear it, the kind scripted into Broadway musicals. In the far reaches of the balconies of the St. James or Miller Theater they'd have heard this gasp. You see, some less scrupulous landlords might have advertised my apartment as a two-bedroom, counting the eight-by-eleven entrance hall as a legitimate space for sleeping. But what kind of living is that? To open one's door directly onto unmade sheets?
"I love it," she said, though she hadn't yet seen the bedroom, bath, or kitchen. "I love it. I'll take it."
"Slow down. First let me give you the complete tour and then we'll talk."
"I'm just saying I know I want it. I already know. You wouldn't believe the dumps I've been in today. This place is beautiful. I love it. The rugs, the wood floors, the details." No, she wasn't acting these lines, and it caused me a pang of sympathy for what these young people go through.
"Thank you very much."
We walked into the living room, her smile contagious. She flitted about the place, from the windows, to the fireplace, the bookshelves, and back around again. Next I showed her to the bedroom.
"The windows are so beautiful. What kind of wood is this?" I suppose she wanted to sound discerning.
"Oak. The original, from 1885."
"It's in such good condition. Really incredible. I love how you've kept them uncovered. Does the place get direct sun?"
"Not direct unfortunately. But in the early morning the light reflects off the abandoned building across the street, and that's enough for the plants to live on." I pointed out the large dracaena and mother-in-law's tongue. "They'll be your only real duty. I'm very fond of them, so you'll have to promise to take good care of them."
"I love plants. How much water do they take?" She went to the window and considered the boarded-up face of the building that I had referred to.
"I'll leave you instructions. The kitchen's next if you're ready."
By this time delirium had taken hold of her, and she strolled through the foyer like a first-time tourist of Venice or Prague. She had heard that apartments of this caliber existed in Manhattan, but until then had never been inside one, much less had the opportunity to inhabit one. In her eyes I could see her repressed middle-class dreams emerging as if from a long hibernation. Not since her parents' house in Connecticut or Vermont or wherever had she been able to live in such comfort, but here, if only for two short months, she would reclaim her rightful place as a member of a higher caste.
"Have a seat." I pulled the chair for her and she made a hum intoning her delight.
"Such a gentleman."
"There are, of course, a few questions that I ask all the applicants."
I took my own chair across the table from her. "Please, help yourself to a chocolate," I said.
Why is it, I often wonder, that we Americans are taught that it's more polite to refuse than accept a simple gesture of hospitality? No, I wasn't going to let her get out of it so easily. "Really, I insist. They're absolutely delicious." I held the bowl out for her, so she really didn't have a choice.
"Okay. Thank you." She took one, but hesitated before unwrapping it.
"Go on, enjoy it!"
Seeing no way out, she removed the cherry liqueur-filled ball of chocolate from the foil and plopped the whole thing in her mouth. This I silently applauded, as some past applicants have chosen to bite it in half and cradle the uneaten portion in their palms like the broken shell of an egg dripping yolk and white. Placing the whole chocolate in one's mouth is no small feat either, and I relished the expression on her face in the minute or so I gave her to chew before I asked my first question.
As it turned out, Eva did not get the apartment. A pity that someone so utterly qualified in other categories--looks, enthusiasm--should be disqualified for such a minor infraction. Her disqualifying mark? A German shepherd she was not willing to part with. Some rules I cannot bend. Dogs, especially big, loud, attack-style dogs who tear up furniture and scratch wood floors, do not fit with my scenario, period, no exceptions.
The look on her face when I told her not to bother with the application! Winded, crushed, defeated. Knowing she'd never do as well as this place, perhaps she thought about giving up her dream of moving to New York right then and there. She pictured herself heading off back to the suburbs, settling for her old room at Mother and Dad's--the shelves filled with stuffed animals and soccer trophies. On the other hand, if you can't get rid of a dog to live in the apartment of your dreams, then maybe you don't have what it takes to live in this city.
"There's no way?" she pleaded. "I mean, he's a well-behaved dog. He doesn't bark--"
"I'm sorry. It's really a shame."
"So that's it?" She looked at the floor and gently ground the soul of her left pump into the terra-cotta tile. "There's really no way..." She was searching for alternatives that didn't exist.
The interview had run its course, but I couldn't quite accept the fact that I'd probably never see her again. I picked up the Polaroid camera. "Let me take your picture so I'll remember your face. If you change your mind or find the dog a new home, you can give me a call."
"You want to take my picture?"
"Terrible with names, and I have to interview over twenty people today. Never forget a face though."
Her spirits sank further still at the realization that her chances had all but evaporated. I lifted the camera to my eye and she did her best to reconstruct an approximation of her smile. "One... two... three." Out popped the day's first portrait. Just then the buzzer rang. "You see?" I told her. "Here come the hordes."
She picked up her purse and papers and tried to think of something else to say but was too discouraged. I followed her to the door. Yes, it was indeed a pity all around.
"Thank you anyway," she managed as she shook my hand. Then, miraculously, her spirits lifted. It was as if she'd been staring at an impenetrable Scrabble board and suddenly found a way to construct a one-hundred-point word. She nearly squeezed the blood out of my hand. "Actually, you know what?"
I raised an eyebrow. "No, what?"
"I just remembered that my uncle said he'd take care of the dog if I needed him to."
"He lives in New Jersey."
"I mean it's only for two months, right? I guess I wasn't thinking in those terms, but there's no reason why I couldn't just leave the dog with him and pick him up at the end of the summer. It's not far if I wanted to visit."
I did my best to play along, but I realized that regardless of her promises, if I let her have the place, she'd he sure to try and smuggle in the pooch. "Why don't you call him tonight and let me know what he says."
"Oh, he already said he would. It's not a problem. Really it's not."
The buzzer sounded again, this time for an unpleasantly long duration. "Call me tonight," I said with no intention of talking to her again. "At seven."
"At seven. I'll call at seven," she repeated in a breathy voice that clung to the tattered remnants of an opportunity gone awry. She brandished a flirtatious smile in a last-ditch attempt and only reluctantly let go of my hand before turning away.
The buzzer yelled out for a third, ugly time just as I shut the door behind her. Before I answered the intercom, I retrieved my yellow pad and Eva's nearly developed Polaroid from the table. Yes, the picture at least was turning out to be a terrific success. "Susan?" I called into the intercom.
"No," a loud and shrill voice replied, "Kendra."
"Kendra? Your appointment isn't for twenty minutes yet."
"What time is it? My watch says I'm only ten minutes early."
"I'll tell you what, wait five minutes, and if the next girl hasn't arrived, you can come up."
I heard her laughing through her nose. "Girl?" she said under her breath, not realizing the sensitivity of the intercom microphone. "Can't I just see the place now?"
"I'm sorry." Already I had heard enough to know that Kendra's chances were slim at best.
Excerpted from The Third Eye by David Knowles. Copyright © 1999 by David Knowles. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday, a division of Random House. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.