I moved to NYC in 2006 after graduating college. I was so desperate to move here that I answered every Craig’s List room mate ad that sounded normal. It wasn’t that many so my options were few. I found a room, actually more of a closet, on the Upper East Side with a girl named Bora. I moved in on June 29th, 2006. The week that followed was one of the most interesting weeks I’ve had in all six years I’ve lived here.
In New York, even in the smallest apartment buildings, I find you never see your neighbors. Maybe I am always leaving at odd times because I’m not the 9 to 5 working woman but in that first apartment, I couldn’t have recognized any neighbor to save my life. So it was no surprise I had never seen the man directly next door.
Our apartments were at the top of the same corner and I passed by his door every day. When I first moved in, I had noticed he had his rent bill sitting outside his door. Bora and I assumed he had been on vacation because I had never heard a peep from the apartment and she hadn’t seen him in recent memory. She said he was an older man who lived alone. We joked that maybe he died and no one knew and we were about to be a part of a real life Law and Order episode.
It was hot that summer in 2006. This was my first experience with how New York smells in the summer. It is not pleasant. It smells like heat and sweat. Like roasting meat and foreign spices that sting your eyes and nostrils and leave a taste in the back of your mouth. It’s gross. But not as gross as the smell that I experienced developing in our hallway. It would be minimal until I reached our door. While unlocking my apartment, I would feel as if I was choking. It was a stench I couldn’t figure out and it engulfed me and stayed in my nose and mouth for hours after I would run inside. It was a strong, creeping scent, something that I felt more than smelled. And it was definitely coming from next door.
I came home one day and found a slew of cops outside my door. When they saw me, they politely asked if they could come inside and ask me a few questions. Being a brand new New Yorker, I obliged almost excitedly until it dawned on me what they were doing here. The two cops stood in my kitchen and asked me how long I had lived there. When I said a week, they asked if I had seen the man next door in that time. I said no, I hadn’t. I only knew his rent bill still sat outside his door and indicated no one had been inside since it had been dropped off. The police told me they were guessing the man had been dead almost three weeks. Bora and another resident had called complaining about the smell. They told me to burn coffee grounds and not to come outside the door until they had removed the body. I put on the coffee and naturally watched through the peep hole and witnessed my first body bag being hauled off to the coroner. About a week later, workers came in and tore apart the entire apartment. The landlord told Bora that when a person dies in an apartment and heat is a factor like it was that summer, the smell never really leaves the apartment. Fun fact. Needless to say, that was a great first phone call home.
During that summer, I had a dress that I loved. It was a cotton strapless sundress from Target. I wore it almost every day in the sticky humidity. It was long, down to my ankles. The first time I wore it, I was meeting up with a friend that I had a pretty major crush on and hadn’t seen in a while. I felt good, looked cute, it was hot but I wasn’t sweating my makeup off yet. I left my apartment on 1st and walked all the way to 3rd before I had to wait for a light (to non-New Yorkers, this is a good distance walk). As I’m standing waiting for the light to change, the man standing next to me leans over and goes “Miss, you may want to check your dress. I don’t think you mean to wear it that way.” I looked at him quizzically and he nodded back behind me. I put my hands on my back and then lowered them to feel my dress bunched up around my butt. I turn and see that the bottom hem of my dress is completely and almost strategically tucked into my thong and my ass is exposed to all elements. Somehow, in the course of feeling good and pumping myself up for victory with this guy, I had failed to realized in the sweltering heat of the afternoon that my ass was saying hello to every person walking about on the busy Upper East Side. I turned the color of a lobster, thanked the man, and frantically pulled the hem out of my panties and covered my pale white ass for good. I had no idea how many people behind or in front of me had seen this and not said anything. I walked with my head down and as fast as possible, feeling every eye on me and my recently covered buttocks. Needless to say, I lost most of my confidence I had acquired for the day.
I saw my second and third dead bodies a few days after the first. I was riding the 6 train home and it was stalled due to a police investigation. Having been here 6 years, I know this is common, but I got a little nervous hearing it for the first time. No one else seemed panicked so I relaxed and waited, trying not to feel claustrophobic in the tunnel. Once we started crawling again, it was announced the train would be jumping to the next express stop. We emerged from the tunnel to be in full view of this police situation. As we crept by, I saw a body bag being zipped up (I was now a body bag expert) and another body laying slumped over a few feet away having it’s picture taken by CSI officers (I know my lingo). As we all crowded around the windows to peek at the crime scene, I sighed and said “Only in New York.” It was my first time uttering these words and if you’re a New Yorker, you know that’s the first rite of passage. We say this a lot because it’s true. Later that week, I attended a Broadway show closing party (my first of many without having been on Broadway yet) and watched a homeless man pee on another homeless man who was sleeping on my block.
I’ve had so many “Only in New York” moments since moving here but that first week was a challenge. Some people may have run away screaming. My love for this city runs deep and when I moved here, Manhattan decided to show me it’s deepest, dirtiest, grittiest, most embarrassing moments to start me off running and to let me know, the Big Apple takes no prisoners. And I love it for that.