#1: Coming to America
We landed in America on the 4th of July...
July 4th, 2014
We landed in America today, the 4th of July.
Last week, Sophie and I donated or sold just about everything we’d accumulated over 30-odd years living in Australia. The stuff we kept was crammed into two bloated suitcases before we jumped on a plane to start a new life. No plan, no job waiting for us, and no idea what we were going to do when we got there.
The Americans seemed very happy to see us — they threw us a big party with fireworks and everything. People even took the Monday off work!
It was a sorely needed reprieve from the anxiety-riddled gauntlet of the past 2 years, waiting desperately to hear from the United States Citizenship & Immigration Service (USCIS) on whether the latest stage of our green card application had been approved so we could move forward to the next stage.
The hundred-odd nights leading up to the final ‘Permanent Resident’ status being approved were torture. We ground our teeth down to powdery nubs in our sleep, confabulating every conceivable nightmare scenario where something went wrong and we had to go to the back of the line and start over.
I have mad respect for anyone who has ever tried to emigrate to the United States and understands the deep, profound relief of getting your passport stamped, and stepping past the customs desk for the first time as a newly minted resident.
“The Americans seemed very happy to see us — they threw us a big party with fireworks and everything. People even took the Monday off work!”
When you land in the US and pass customs, there’s a huge escalator that takes you down to baggage claim. Right overhead as you descend is an enormous American flag and a picture of the incumbent Commander in Chief off to the side.
It is 2014. Barack Obama is president, ‘Gas’ is $3.63 per gallon, and my arm is still swollen from the 8 vaccinations I had to get before flying to the US. Is Polio still a thing? And what the hell is Pertussis?
Diary Entry: July 29th, 2014
After a month of crashing at a friend’s place in Inwood, we finally found a place to live. The hunt for an apartment in New York is incredibly challenging when you, a.) Don’t have a credit rating, b.) Don’t have a rental history and c.) Don’t have an entire year’s worth of rent in the bank. Some places ask for 12 months’ rent upfront. It’s crazy. Who has that kind of money?
Finding it was a total fluke: a complete New York moment:
Sophie had been invited by a friend to an event at the Australian Consulate-General in midtown. After a few free chardonnays, she got chatting to the hilarious bartender who mentioned she knew someone who might have a place we could see, but she wasn’t sure if it was already rented out.
The place was in Alphabet City: the lowest, eastest part of the Lower East Side. We took a cab down the following afternoon. The whole neighbourhood is legendary for hosting —at one time or another— some of the greatest creative minds in music, painting, writing, and acting.
There’s an energy to the place that buzzes through your whole body. The sirens, the smells, the mess of it all. It’s some real old-school New York shit, and I really like it.
After passing about 20 bodegas and several prehistoric dive bars, we pulled up in front of an old building about a block south of the Nuyorican Poets Café, between Avenues C and D. It was affectionately called “Bullet Space”.*
*Bullet Space was so named as, back in the 80s, it was the best spot to get high-quality cocaine in New York. Movie stars would send their nervous assistants downtown, sometimes with a gun to retrieve it. They didn’t always expect them to return. (Bullet refers to the snuff bullet one stores their cocaine in. I’m told.)
The pre-law tenement was built in 1867 and was originally constructed as part of a row of three. The other two buildings had since been demolished. The original owner, John G. Costar, became very wealthy when he sold his previous property to John Jacob Astor for the construction of the Astor House.
In 1983, an artist named Andrew Castrucci, along with his brother and a friend, moved into this building as squatters. They put on art shows and plays in their space and called their gallery and community Bullet Space. In 1998, the New Museum of Contemporary Art held an exhibition that showcased Bullet Space’s art, poetry readings, and performances.
In 2002, after a deal negotiated by the City and the Urban Homesteading Assistance Board, the squatters, who were lighting fires inside to stay warm, and lugging water from the sidewalk fire hydrant up the stairs in buckets, were allowed to purchase the building for $1 and become its legal occupants.
We buzzed 5B and didn’t get any response. I peeped in through the glass door to see that the lobby was an art gallery space. There was an exhibition of paper maché heads and other cool oddities.
We tried a few more times, then called the number we were given by the bartender— the landlord picked up. “Sorry, I’m out the back!” she said. “Let me come get you.”
We waited by the door, next to an old chair with a crutch leaning against it (“John’s chair”, where he waits for his sandwich.) until a short, dark-haired woman came to the door, all smiles.
She was with a friend and invited us up to see the place on the 5th floor of the 147-year-old walk-up. I had to stop on the 4th floor to catch my breath and wipe the sweat out of my eyes. I looked up and saw an entire American flag made out of coke and Pepsi cans.
No air conditioning, no elevator, just some old steps and banisters made out of scraps found around the city over the years. It was perfect.
We finally got up to 5A (“Hey, same apartment number as Jerry!”) and pushed open the door.
It was basically a kitchen with a bathroom attached to it. There was a bunk above the sink if anyone wanted to crash and didn’t mind the sound of the dripping tap. There was a small spider hanging from the bookshelf. We called him John Jacob Astor.
The bedroom was the size of a walk-in closet, with an old mattress on the ground, and an old, non-functioning air conditioner hanging out of the window. The only light was from a bulb plugged into an old lamp base on the ‘bedside’ table. If we climbed onto the roof we could see the top of the Empire State Building.
The landlord asked what we did, and mentioned that everyone in the building is an artist of one kind or another: “There’s a drummer, a couple of painters, a junk artist, a photographer, a writer, oh —and the poet laureate of the Lower East Side.” They’ve all lived here for decades, and are probably still paying rent in beaver pelts and rare trinkets.
After a few beers, we discussed the rent. It was high for what it was, but low for immigrants with no rental history. We were told that in order to stay there, you had to make your living as an artist. I pulled out a pen, asked for a scrap of paper, and drew a 2-minute sketch of the landlord.
She took it, smiled, and said, “The place is yours if you want it!”
We moved in the next day.
[ This is the building we would end up calling home for 7 years. ]
BONUS CONTENT BELOW:
Photos from Bullet Space: