Coping With Apartment Living
by Nathan Walpow
In 1954, when I was five, my parents fled the tenements of Brooklyn. We moved to Woodhaven in Queens, where the Forest Park Co-op was going up. Nine buildings, six floors each, roughly a thousand apartments. And there we stayed. I moved away in 1969, and my sister not long thereafter, but my mother and father lived there for the rest of their lives.
The Co-op was a ghetto. The residents were 90% or so Jewish, the surrounding neighborhood 0% or so. What this meant to us was that when we were old enough to go to Hebrew school we could look forward to being beaten up on the way by proto-neo-Nazis with a German Shepherd named Sheba. Eventually a synagogue was established nearby, though they ran out of money and for many years the place resembled a bomb shelter.
At P.S. 119, we discovered another difference between us and everyone else in the neighborhood. The “walkers” (we took a school bus) lived in houses. They had yards and fences and staircases (think Archie Bunker’s place) and all we had was the coping, a low brick fence with a whitewashed top that we spent innumerable hours sitting on, rattling off baseball statistics, later moving on to rock and roll and girls. We never visited these kids’ houses; after-school fraternization just wasn’t done. But these early school days were my introduction to the one-family dwelling.
Much later I found out about Levittown. There were thousands of families out there on the Island, all headed by World War Two vets like my father. Later still—when my parents were gone and it was too late to ask—I began to wonder why we hadn’t taken that route. Did they not know about it? Was the concept too foreign to them?
They must have had the $90 down and $58 a month one needed to get their foot in the door. Our monthly payment at the Co-op was more than that—roughly $90. There was a mortgage involved, and it eventually got paid off thirty or forty years later. But I’ve never been able to figure out exactly what the financial setup was and, when the place was sold after my mother died, the proceeds were a pittance.
When I graduated college I moved upstate to work for General Electric, at the plant that dumped all the PCBs in the Hudson. After a couple of months renting a room from an old woman who made me leave when she went out of town (I slept in my car one night, and on the second snuck into the basement), I got my first apartment, one of eight in a big old house that had been converted. Eighty bucks a month furnished, kitchen, bathroom, and living/bedroom. I dropped acid and my virginity in the first month or two. A local motorcycle gang took to coming around to shoot up speed on my rug.
That place made an impression on me; I have a recurrent dream that I’m moving back to a building I lived in years before. A four-up-four-down. With a long driveway leading to parking out back.
But I wanted more. My own furniture. A back yard with a garden. So when I spotted the top half of a duplex in the paper, I grabbed it. It was expensive ... $125 a month. But it was worth it. I had my own entrance. I could crawl out the window and sunbathe on the roof. I had my very own parking spot.
Fine for then. But I was starting to realize that someday I wanted a house. I didn’t know how I would ever do it, given that the word savings didn’t seem to be in my vocabulary. It didn’t matter there in the Adirondacks; I was miserable in my job and pretty glum about living in a small town, and I knew it wouldn’t last.
Then I moved to Oklahoma.
There was a woman involved; I shared an apartment with her and her teenage brother for six months, until she and I both realized what a huge mistake we’d made. I moved out and got an apartment. Nothing special. A medium-sized building, two or three stories, with stupid carpet. And there I began thinking seriously about buying a house. I was making a good living working for IBM, and, in a rare moment of foresight, had joined the stock purchase plan. So when Hefner Village was announced, I had enough for a down payment.
Townhomes, they were called, just to the west of—and below the waterline of—Lake Hefner, an artificial reservoir. There were several plans. One-story or two. I liked the one-stories because you only shared one wall with a neighbor. I didn’t even consider a traditional standalone house. Somewhere along the line I’d discovered I didn’t care about that back yard anymore. All I wanted was A Place To Own.
So, in 1975, I became a homeowner. Something my parents, by chance or design, never attained. The American Dream at its finest.
The cost, including interior upgrades, tax, and license, was $32,000. My mortgage was $268 a month. I even had money left over for frivolities like a Fiat 124 Spider.
The Oklahoma townhome after a snowfall.
The cactus garden is at lower left.
I lived there for four years. I flip-flopped on the garden, and built a cactus plot and planted rosebushes around the periphery. I contracted hepatitis there, and sat watching Ironside reruns for five weeks while waiting for my bilirubin to come down. I discovered I wanted to act, and appeared in Lysistrata at the Oklahoma Theater Center.
And I came to terms with something I probably should have accepted within my first few months in Oklahoma, when I spent six weeks in classes in the old IBM building on Wilshire while living in an apartment complex on Ardmore Avenue.
I wanted to live in Los Angeles.