Life in the City

Author: Christina Conklin '88

A few months ago I attempted to pick up an altered dress at my dry cleaners in Manhattan. When I walked in, the owner was hemming a pair of pants, and my dress was in the “to do” basket. This was the third time he’d missed a deadline, and I exploded like a fed-up spouse: “Why do you always do this to me!” I shouted, “If it wasn’t going to be done on Saturday, you should have called me! I have to wear that tonight!” Another customer in the tiny shop (Pants Man, presumably, waiting for his hem job) ignored me until the dry cleaner picked up the dress and asked me exactly what time I was going out. Pants Man tensed, about to object. I told the cleaner to forget it and stormed out.

Later that night, my friends adopted my outrage, and in our ongoing discourse about “Service in the City” the incident became known as “The Alteration Altercation.”

I didn’t pick up the dress for three weeks, and I now take my dry cleaning and laundry farther up the street, occasionally catching the eye of my ex through the shop window. We have severed relations.

To people who don’t live in New York City, this story sounds, at best, overly dramatic. To people who do, it embodies a lot of what makes New York New York: impatience, self-absorption, aggression and the search for a better deal—all wrapped up in the paranoid conclusion that if someone can take advantage of you, he will.

I wasn’t always a woman who divorces her dry cleaner and vents about it over martinis. My family comes from Minnesota, where stubbornness is a virtue, but aggression—unless it’s passive —is considered a waste of energy. When I moved to New York four years ago, I was a middle-class version of the “Dollar and a Dream” girl. Unfortunately, the “dream” was the dot-com industry, and I lost the dollar. I didn’t arrive expecting a fight, but the culture of confrontation in New York City is something you either run from or embrace. Like most people who move here from more peaceful parts, handling or inciting confrontation is learned behavior. The initial lesson usually involves cab drivers and subway riders but can eventually expand to turtle-paced tourists, snobby waiters and whoever is at the head of a stalled line. A few years ago, my mother publicly chastised me for brushing off some tourists who asked me to take their picture in Times Square “Would it kill you to be nice?” she asked. No, but we might have missed the curtain for our Broadway show.

New York is a place without privacy. Forced proximity to crowds of people erodes self-consciousness (a detrimental trait in a city where getting attention means getting results) and creates daily drama. Shortly after I moved here, a woman grabbed me by the arm on my walk to work and said, loudly, “TELL me you have a nail file!” I didn’t, and she moved on to assault the woman ahead of me. Distress over a chipped manicure apparently canceled out any embarrassment at bothering a complete stranger on the street.

That same day I saw a man clipping his toenails on the subway and had to change cars. (I have witnessed this since and now keep reading the paper like everyone else.) But it was my first experience with the Public Cell Phone Fight that convinced me that it was acceptable for normally private acts to have a public audience. The place was a bus stop on Broadway and Houston streets, and the person was a woman in her 20s screaming at her boyfriend over her phone, oblivious (or, in hindsight, indifferent) to the 15 or so people standing around her. The argument was one-sided and mostly unprintable. When she finally clicked off, she rolled her eyes and succinctly summarized “What an a—hole!” One woman said “Amen!” and started talking about her own lousy boyfriend. The guy in front of me told her to shut up.

New York is one big traveling community—whether you want to belong or not.

Another reason there is so much surface aggression in New York is that sometimes making a giant nuisance of yourself is the shortest road to satisfaction. Ask any Manhattan panhandler. My favorite example involved a man on the F train who would play a string of screeching notes on an old saxophone, and then say “Give me a quarter, and I’ll stop.” Everyone here has experienced some kind of street shakedown. A friend working at an ad agency was once asked to get rid of a homeless man harassing guests waiting to get into a fashion show. After prying the man’s hand from an expensive jacket lapel, my friend asked him what he wanted and got the reply “I’m a wino. I want wine.” (Directness is an indispensable trait that crosses class lines.) After some negotiation, the panhandler settled for $7 (“for a good bottle”), which the agency later itemized on the bill to the client as “bum pay off.”

After nearly four years of short-tipping bad bartenders and bargaining with street vendors, I carved out a set of commandments for living here that began with “Thou Shalt Not Get Ripped Off.” But all my hidden defense and ready offense didn’t prepare me for one of New York’s worst nightmares: The Apartment Battle.

Most New Yorkers have a good story (involving bad things) about real estate. My experience was a test of my limits and a turning point in my relationship with this city.

I moved into a sixth-floor Manhattan walk-up two-and-a-half years ago, after my Brooklyn landlord forced me out with a $300 monthly rent increase. The building on 14th Street and 9th Avenue left a lot to be desired. There was graffiti on the door and trash on the sidewalk. The building’s one distinguishing feature was a small red awning covering the outside stairs, a misplaced stab at elegance.

When Beth opened the door after my harrowing climb, I was pleasantly surprised at the space. The small studio had sunlight, high ceilings and a small cement balcony overlooking a quiet courtyard. I was sold. With visions of colorful flower boxes and cool cocktails on hot summer nights, I handed Beth a deposit check for $1,400 and moved in three days later.

Our arrangement was illegal but not unusual in a city where securing an apartment can cost thousands of dollars. Beth signed the lease due to a “no sublet” clause. I paid the rent and she paid the management company. She was moving into her boyfriend’s larger, cheaper East Village apartment, and our handshake deal was that if things didn’t work out for her, she would have the right to move back into the studio after a year. I liked Beth. A petite, blond, 28-year-old ad executive from Pennsylvania, she projected normalcy and honesty and, importantly, lacked the air of aggression many New Yorkers have when dealing with money.

I planted the flowers and bought deck furniture. The neighborhood was gritty and hip and full of people, especially around 4 a.m., when club kids, wannabe models and visiting suburbanites shared the sidewalks with the transvestite hookers who had a longstanding claim to 14th and 9th. Amazingly, the apartment was quiet, all the noise blocked by the surrounding buildings. The stairs were the main challenge. It was impossible to carry all the food and drink for a dinner party in one trip, and the weekly act of lifting laundry to the summit stayed the need for a gym membership. Two 20-pound bags of potting soil almost defeated me until my neighbor saw me struggling on the third floor landing and said “Why don’t you get that delivered?”

My business dealings with Beth went smoothly, and when the end of the first year approached, I told her I wanted to stay. I agreed to pay her an extra $50 a month to keep the lease. The apartment grew shabbier—the sliding screen door was broken and the walls needed paint—but, as an illegal tenant, I didn’t feel I could call the superintendent. Spring worked its magic again, and I forgot about the paint and just left the screen door open all the time. I learned my lesson about stair exertion and became a modern-day Rapunzel, using a buzzer instead of flowing hair to summon laundry, Thai food, six packs and cigarettes. I grew fatter and poorer, but I was happy.

That second year, my financial relationship with Beth turned a little rocky. She twice cashed my checks much earlier than the first of the month and one of them bounced. In February she called a few times to ask if I’d received the lease renewal and requesting an extra $100 a month to continue renting the apartment. I knew it was strange not to get the renewal, since the lease ran out in April. I should have wondered why she was so concerned.

I called the management company pretending to be Beth. A woman named Punam seemed puzzled I was asking about the lease. She explained that I owed $1,400 in back rent from November and $300 in late fees. I called Beth, but she denied knowledge of the problem. Then she said the rent check must have gotten “lost” and promised to get the money from her 401K to pay the back rent. I wanted to believe a check could get lost. I wanted to believe Beth was doing me a favor by keeping the lease. I called the management company again and this time I got an extremely angry man with a thick outer-borough accent who clearly knew much more about the history of the problem than Punam (or I) did: “You keep saying you’re going to pay next month and you never pay! You’re not getting a renewal until you pay. No money, no lease!” I hung up rather than explain that I wasn’t the one who didn’t pay him. Panic turned to shock. My money was gone and I was about to become homeless.

At this point, Beth disappeared. She stopped answering my phone calls and returning my e-mails. I spent a few days feeling sorry for myself and cursing the Cruel City that harbored seemingly nice ad execs who felt free to steal my money and put me on the street. Then I woke up and started asking advice. I told my story to friends, co-workers, and, in one case, a total stranger (yes . . . I became the Nail File Woman). The reaction was swift and merciless—find a way to intimidate her, preferably at work.

My pregnant writing workshop teacher: “Find some big goon to show up at her job and threaten to sue her.”
My boss: “Sue her. At work. Now.”

A subway maintainer I work with: “Hey, I’m a big goon. Where does she work?”

A man who overheard my story on the A train: “Look, stay in the apartment. They can’t force you out. Then find some big goon to hand that girl a certified letter at work. What a bitch!” He got off at Wall Street.

Apparently knowing or having access to a goon is assumed in New York. Gandhi would not last long here.
Newly inspired, I took action. I canceled my March rent check (in possession of the now-silent Beth), and I came clean to the management company. I made it clear that a) I wanted to stay but would not assume a wildly more expensive lease and b) they were not getting March rent without resolution. They could get it from Beth, who legally owed it to them. They agreed to let me stay for the same rent, and I took out a loan on my 401K to pay the security deposit. For the second time. When I signed the lease, no one in the office seemed to care about the previous month’s drama. The Shouting Man even volunteered to give a statement regarding the missing November rent that I could use in Small Claims Court. It seemed like everyone had been through this before. Lying, screaming, threatening . . . all in a day’s work. Suddenly, apartment security wasn’t enough. I wanted my money back, and I wanted revenge.

I sent a registered letter to Beth at work telling her I would sue her in small claims court in one week if I didn’t hear from her. She replied that I would have my money by April 1 and apologized for the inconvenience. She sounded so pathetic that I had to ask the question: “What on earth happened?” She told a short tale of being dumped by the boyfriend, drinking and partying too much, and spending money she didn’t have. I was sympathetic to the idea of using a bender to heal a broken heart, but I wanted it to be my bender if I was going to foot the bill, and I told her so. She replied, “I don’t deserve any sympathy.” But I felt sorry for her. I almost told her she could pay me in installments or just give me half now and half later. Then I was hit with the reality of raiding my retirement account to pay for her weekend in Vegas, and I told her she had until the end of the March or I would serve her the court notice at work. I left out the goon.

At this point, Beth was living in an illegal sublet in Alphabet City, address unknown to me. The only way I could contact her was through her job. When my deadline passed with no check, she held me at bay for a few weeks, saying the check was in the mail and that she was about to lose her job. When no check arrived, I called her at work. She seemed surprised to hear from me, probably because she’d said she would no longer be working. She told me that if I didn’t receive a check by the next day, she would deliver it personally. I was still naïve enough to think she would follow through. When no check arrived, I left a message on her cell phone asking her to meet me with the money. No response. A day later I sent her an e-mail and got an automatic reply stating that she no longer worked for the ad firm.

Losing $1,400 was one thing, being suckered was another. I wore my rage inside and out. For a few days, I was a woman people moved away from on the subway and avoided on the sidewalk. My colleagues at work communicated only by e-mail. I became obsessed. I paid for a reverse cell phone search on the Internet and got a billing address for Beth in Woodside, Queens. I paid a corporate investigator to do a more extensive search, and he came up with the same address. I went to Small Claims Court on Centre Street the following week and filed a suit using the Queens address.

The week after I filed my claim I received two FedEx packages containing letters from the TV shows The People’s Court and—oddly—_Texas Justice_ requesting details about my case. I still don’t remember what I furiously scribbled in the small space allowed for “reasons for suit” but clearly someone expected a cat fight. Texas Justice was kind enough to offer “ground transportation and hotel in Houston—WIN OR LOSE!” Beth didn’t seem like the type to agree to televised humiliation so I declined.

On a Thursday night in May, I found myself in Small Claims Night Court—the human face of small-time litigation. Plaintiffs and claimants thrown together in a narrow corridor of angry glances and averted eyes before the courtroom doors opened. Beth wasn’t there, and I didn’t expect her to be. When my case was called I was directed to another room to await a hearing with an arbitrator. I amused myself by observing the others: the tall, blond woman in her 50s with tight turquoise pants and tighter face (suing her plastic surgeon?); the construction contractor speaking broken English to the court officer, finally prompting the appeal “Has anyone seen the Albanian translator?!”

My meeting with the arbitrator was too short. I wanted to vent but he was only interested in the canceled check. I longed for The People’s Court where I would at least have an audience for my outrage. The arbitrator rendered a judgment in my favor and then informed me this didn’t mean much in terms of actually getting my money back.
I became intimate with the Small Claims Court Guidebook. I discovered I could put a lien on Beth’s bank account for the amount she owed me if I had the address of her bank. A friend deciphered the numbers on the back of a canceled check, and I called her bank to verify the branch address. I returned to Small Claims Court and filed a subpoena against her account. A week later her money was frozen.

The call came a few days later, but not from Beth. A woman claiming to be her lawyer stammered about the injustice of my action, claiming Beth had never been served. I told her to file an order to vacate, and I would gladly go back to court. She ended the conversation with “So, you want your money?” I hung up.

I received several calls from this woman asking me to lift the lien, claiming a check was in the mail. I agreed to release her money once I had mine. A week later I received a check and 10 days later it cleared. I haven’t heard from Beth since.

In New York, when the going gets tough, the tough go to court. Moving from confrontation to litigation felt like a rite of passage. But to where? Living in New York sometimes seems like a never-ending battle between compassion and self-preservation. Turn the cheek or chase the check? I can list the things I’m losing—trust and patience among them. It’s harder to explain what I’ve gained.

The woman who once offered her living room couch to a stranger about to get kicked out of her Brooklyn apartment would not recognize the woman who spent a few lunch hours looking up local marshals to seize Beth’s assets.
When I leave New York to visit friends and family, I gain perspective. I play with my nieces and nephews. I take long jogs through suburban woods. I marvel at spotless grocery stores and large living spaces. Then I get on a plane to LaGuardia and instantly start plotting the quickest/cheapest route home, running through the possible snags and weighing the pros and cons of various scenarios. It’s like waking up—the anticipation of trouble makes me instantly more alert. It doesn’t feel good or bad, but it feels like home, albeit a dysfunctional one. If I couldn’t leave here, I couldn’t live here.

A couple of months ago, I saw a cockroach crawling on the floor next to my desk at work. Unwilling to squash a bug before breakfast, I covered it with a heavy metal thermos and left it to die. When the Blackout hit 10 days later, I retrieved the thermos to carry water for the long walk home over the Brooklyn Bridge. The bug was still breathing. Not scurrying away, but alive nonetheless. I was surprised, but had bigger things to worry about.

When I approached the bridge to head for my Manhattan apartment, I could see that the vast majority of people crossing were pouring into Brooklyn, not out of it. Some were spreading the rumor that police were stopping pedestrians from entering Manhattan, and several of my fellow walkers despaired and turned around. I suspected this was a ruse to help fellow Brooklynites get home faster, so I trudged on. Two-and-a-half hours later, with blistered feet and Blackout Beer in hand, I contemplated the merits of the culture I’ve adopted. Distrust, impatience, aggression—and sometimes litigation—are necessary tools for survival here, and maybe the goal is simply to gain ground, inch by inch. As I made my way home through the dark streets of Manhattan I decided that, while living in New York has not necessarily made me a better person, it has, like the cockroach, made me harder to kill.

Christy Conklin works as a business analyst for the New York Transit Authority.