Escaping from New York, in the nick of time



After 2007, the New York publishing industry began to violently collapse.  The proposed fee for articles I normally wrote for various magazines and newspapers was slashed, in many cases, by up to 90%.  Nobody was reading books anymore.  I realized writing was dying as a profession when I went to the going-out-of-business sale at the Borders bookstore near the library and saw a giant shelf filled with boxes of half-price Elvis Yahtzee. 

So, for reasons of financial distress, I opted to rent out my Brooklyn condo and live in a smaller apartment.   

A photographer I knew introduced me to a friend of hers — a small gay Belgian artist I’ll call Yanick, who looked like a fussier version of the Tintin character from Hergé’s comic books (that I loved as a child.) Yanick was offering something very rare in New York:  an illegal apartment unit not zoned for residential use, in a historic old building with doormen. It was a wink and a handshake kind of deal, and I loved the neighborhood:  deep Downtown Brooklyn, where all the wigs and custom dental grills were sold, alongside loud sneaker outlets.

The apartment itself was beautiful, tiny and very narrow - not unlike living in a hallway. It had been secretly built inside two long-disused elevator shafts.  Yanick had a flair for architecture and design, and had meticulously built the unit for maximum use of a tiny space.  Hardwood floors. Little, beautifully finished soffits were carved out all over the high ceilings; the Venetian blinds were electric; dimmable recessed lighting had been installed everywhere in the unit.  It was a jewel box; about 240 square feet of usable living space, not including a small storage area I had downstairs and a windowless walk-in closet upstairs.  

Yanick and I had a friendly relationship. He owned several units in the building, all of which were teeming with stacks of cardboard boxes.  He had once been the lover of a billionaire who designed horrible but intensely popular Christmas ornaments. Occasionally we would be chatting while he opened boxes full of strange things he’d acquired over the years.  One box contained an actual stuffed penguin, which I convinced him to let me keep in my unit.  I named her Mindy. Mindy used to have FaceTime calls with my little nieces.

Yanick and I didn’t spend a lot of time together, because he was primarily concerned with gay sex with young black men, who adored him.  He often financially helped out these men, who often were in and out of incarceration. 

I started to get more depressed from lack of employment.  I had fallen out completely with my agent after my last book, and was foundering.  I had no idea what to do next, and it became clear I would need to sell my condo, since I would never get the kind of idiotic no-income refinance mortgage that I had gotten when I had bought the unit.  The world, by then, had become all the wiser to giving mortgages to people like me with no discernible income. 

I got into a strange mental rut where all I wanted to do was watch the director’s cut of Das Boot over and over again and shop for distressed vintage military garments on e-Bay.  We are all Jürgen Prochnow, I decided.  The wasserbombs were coming for us all. 

Tension was thick in the air.  The sonic *ping* overhead that meant sudden death for the submarine crew was something that resonated with the fretful anxiety plaguing me as my profession was torpedoed by changing times and executive greed. 

In a quirk of fate, my sister and my best friend, on opposite sides of the country, both gave birth to twins within days of each other. I sublet my micro-apartment to a nice Russian couple and went out to California to help my sister for a few weeks around Christmastime, as my condo finally sold, after several months. 

When the holidays were over, it was January - I knew it was miserably slushy and cold in New York, and it was becoming clear to me that many of the friendships on which I’d relied for years were bogus, now that I was no longer thriving. I felt an overwhelming urge not to leave California.  The slanting, peachy-lavender light in the evenings was too beautiful — the closest I ever got to it in New York was the Maxfield Parrish mural of Old King Cole at the bar in the St. Regis. I didn’t want to be so far away from my nieces and nephews anymore.  My entire professional life was irretrievably fucked.  Whenever I tried to buy a ticket online to go back to Brooklyn — whenever I even thought about it -  I was seized with visible panic tremors.  My mother took one look at my shaking and twitching and said, “You’re not going back there.” 

And it dawned on me that it could be as simple as that.  I called Yanick and asked if I could pay him to move me out and ship all my belongings from Brooklyn (all twenty four years of my life in New York, in clothing and objects) -  to the West Coast. He agreed to do the job, we shook hands over the phone, and I transferred a bunch of money to him through the banks. 

This was an act of the most hopeful, abject, willful idiocy on my part, because I knew exactly what was going to happen:  Yanick was going to hire his ex-con friends to do the job for me, and they would steal me blind. 

They stole me blind. 

It was, in a way, very much the karmic and monetary price for not having sucked up my panic, flying back and moving myself.  I was too fragile to do it, and the loss of all my jewelry and camera equipment was an expense I had to shoulder.  Mental health has always been the most prohibitively expensive item in my world. 

(In a social democracy like Norway, I’ve long reckoned, someone like me would have a job, if not a clean room in a clean building. America is too viciously capitalist-shark shitty for people lurking around some as-of-yet unnamed landmark on the spectrum as myself.)  Also, Yanick took back Mindy, which was understandable but heartbreaking. 

Everything became clear about a month after I got most of my belongings back from Yanick. One of the doorman who I was paying to store and ship my motorcycle told me that there had been an increasing amount of creepy people around Yanick all the time, hanging around the hallways and making people nervous.  Yanick went off the grid suddenly, and I called the doorman, who told me that the FBI had used one of those ramming things to break in Yanick’s door.  Everyone living in Yanick’s units in the building was sent to Rikers Island for being part of a vast meth conspiracy.  Being in an illegal unit, I had escaped, I reckoned, by the skin of my teeth.  Everyone around Yanick went to prison. 

“I was writing a book,” Yanick told me over the phone, once he finally got out of jail.  He was in Rikers for about three months.  It traumatized him utterly.  

“Go back to Belgium,” I told him. “Don’t stay in this country.” 

I don’t know what happened to Yanick, ultimately, but once every 9 months or so, I get a picture of Mindy, bedecked with necklaces or happy signs. Living a Brooklyn life. 

 All I really wanted, in the long run, was for Mindy to be happy, and to not be in jail.  In the end, I figured, I was extremely lucky.