One particularly exhausting day, having viewed half a dozen unsuitable places and feeling low, I bumped into a guy I knew and whined about my frustration. To my surprise, Frank said, “I’m the superintendent of the building across the street. I just finished painting a studio. Come look at it.”
Behind iron gates was a lovely, leafy courtyard complete with goldfish and turtles swimming idly in a stone pool. There were five buildings surrounding the courtyard, and we walked up one flight in the A building.
Frank opened the door to a room facing the street. I say a room, not an apartment, because the studio was just a little over 100 square feet. Against one wall was a sink abutting a counter, under which was a small refrigerator, and next to that, a diminutive four-burner stove. There was one little closet and a bathroom not much bigger than the closet. The studio, which would serve as my living room, dining room, bedroom and kitchen, was white-washed and clean. “How much?” I asked Frank. “One hundred and eighty bucks a month, not including electricity,” he said, smiling. Not bad, I thought, for a first apartment. I moved in a week later. I stayed for 40 years.
The biggest challenge, naturally, was space. The fridge’s door was solid metal, so there were no shelves for condiments and the “freezer” consisted of an aluminum receptacle that neatly fit two ice cube trays and nothing more. After placing a draining rack and a canister of cooking implements on the counter, I was left with a workspace that was roughly eight by 10 inches. Pots and pans were hung on hooks screwed into a beam on the ceiling, and my brother, who was a good woodworker, made me a large spice rack for the wall and a built-in cabinet that fit across from the stove. It was a tight squeeze, but I made the most of it.
With little refrigerator space and no freezer, I shopped daily. Bleecker Street had everything I needed: Ottomanelli’s meat market; Murray’s cheese and Italian provisions shop; the Portuguese-owned fruit and vegetable stand; Zito’s bread bakery; two fish mongers; and a tiny, cramped supermarket. There were two homemade pasta and ravioli stores nearby, as well. One of the first farmers’ markets in New York, at Union Square, a little over a dozen blocks from my apartment, opened that summer.
Even when I married at the age of 28, my husband and I never ate at a table. We sat on our bed with trays on our laps. The one time we invited another couple over for dinner they sat on the couch, and Uzi and I dined on the floor. I made a big vegetable-laden orzo salad with an Asian-inspired dressing and baked chicken slathered with mango chutney and sprinkled with curry powder. It was an unusual dinner party, for sure, but no one really minded. When my marriage ended after six years, I began to amass cookbooks and continued feeding myself well and inventively.
In 1996 my sister, Janet, and I began the life of weekenders in Sullivan County. The house we rented (and eventually bought) had been built in the 1970s, and the couple who owned it had clearly done it on a tight budget. There was a green toilet bowl and tub in the ugly bathroom and the kitchen cabinets were faux wood. But, oh, what a kitchen. It was more than half the size of my apartment. I had my first full-sized fridge and freezer; a wooden marble-topped kitchen island on wheels; and ample room to prep. For the next 20 years, I could barely wait for the weekends when I would cook three meals a day for Janet and entertain our upstate friends.
Forty years after I moved into my studio, I was paying $800 a month for my rent-stabilized apartment. Newcomers to the building are now paying $2,500 for the same sized “room.” Nearly three years ago, I gave up my wee abode in the Village, and Janet and I moved upstate permanently. Soon after, we completely renovated the kitchen, and it is truly my haven now. I shop mostly at Peck’s in Callicoon and the farmers’ market on Sundays.
As much as I love the Callicoon farmer’s market, I miss the one at Union Square Park. It is open four days a week, 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., and in peak season there are some 140 vendors. I would walk there on Wednesdays and Saturdays, arriving when it opened in the morning and the park was relatively quiet. I’d load up on fruits and vegetables and, laden down, grab a cab back to my place on Sullivan Street.
Things are different now. My place is here, for good, in my country home. And my great, big kitchen.