We moved into the Eckford apartment because it was cheap and we were eager.
We moved into the Eckford apartment because it was cheap and we were eager. The rooms still held the previous tenants’ residue: bobby pins in the corner of the medicine cabinet, rubber gloves draped over the sink. Our view was of an abandoned house and a stalled condominium — a heap of metal and drywall, untouched for six months, that stretched above the rest of the houses and obscured the trucks rattling over the Pulaski Bridge.
In case the Pulaski isn’t a familiar landmark, the apartment in question is in Greenpoint, a neighborhood at the end of Brooklyn — so far out it sidles up against Queens — that lies on top of an oil slick. Thirty million gallons of spilled oil and raw sewage float in Newtown Creek, a wide strip of fluid that wraps around Greenpoint like a friendly arm slung over your shoulder. At some point the oil and sewage did, of course, leach. There were blocks where rare cancers were rumored to sprout like mushrooms. In a separate incident most of the trees had been stripped of their bark by the teeth of beetles, and as a result they were dead. When we arrived at the door of our new home, keys in hand, a dog the size of a pony was eating cigarette butts out of the cracks in the sidewalk. Everyone in the area seemed to smoke. We lived on top of a Superfund site, for crying out loud; we had already kissed some sense of personal responsibility goodbye.
The neighborhood felt vaguely post-apocalyptic — or maybe it was pre-apocalyptic, something dark and looming just around the corner. Either way, we chose to love it ferociously.
The apartment had none of the quirks that charmed people into moving to cheap parts of New York City – no bathtub squat and coy in the living room, no ornate tin ceiling, no original molding, nothing like that. It was boxy and white, with a popcorn ceiling; the linoleum in the kitchen and living room peeled up and tripped guests. We were broke and stubborn and temporary solutions quickly became permanent. It took us a year to hang curtains. None of this mattered; what mattered was that it was ours.
Other things made the place special. Sometimes we found mice in the baseboards or roaches crouched inside the electric kettle. Not always — just sometimes — but these sometimes were memorable. One spring a family of sparrows took up residence in the bedroom ceiling. I lay on the bed with a friend and we listened to them scratch and squall overhead. We stood on the mattress and put our hands against the ceiling to feel their wings flap.
The first few nights I stayed up listening, traced the sparrows as they slid and scrambled against the insulation, as they flapped over wires or mice or whatever else had the misfortune of living above us. The noise would drop off for a few hours in the early morning, and I would fall asleep. Around four thirty it would start again, loud, like every egg had been hatched and they were having a coming-out party.
Birds migrated, I knew. I was convinced they would leave in a week or two by their own volition. When they did not, I called the landlord.
“Sorry to bother you,” I said. “But there are birds living in the ceiling. I think they are procreating.”
“Honey,” she said. “What do you want me to do?” She sighed. “That’s just mother nature.”
Greenpoint is changing, as neighborhoods do. The abandoned house across the street is now a condominium, as is the formerly abandoned lot next door. More and more young people are moving in and spending money like crazy, opening bars with wood paneling and chipped paint, new bars that look like the old ones but charge twice as much for a vodka and soda. Nobody seems to be moving into the condos but I have to believe someone is rattling around in there.
When we first arrived, we promised a few things to ourselves and each other. We promised this would be the first apartment of many; that we’d start filtering the water, that we wouldn’t stay for long.
So I hardly need to say we drank happily from the tap; I hardly need to say that I’ve lived there four fast years.
The sparrows returned last spring; they seem to have tunnelled a way from the bedroom to the kitchen. For a few weeks they shuttled back and forth along that route, doing whatever it is that birds do. I thought about calling the landlord, but didn’t have the heart. Something told me they would leave when they were ready.