Saturday, January 01, 2022

Year of Spending Money

Things I enjoyed:

Evolution of Horror
No One Is Talking About This
Comfort To Me

Midway through the journey of my life, I found myself on the threshold of a dark forest.

It was late June. In my capacity as Co-Chair of NYC-DSA's Brooklyn Electoral Working Group I had just presided over the humiliating defeat of two of our three candidates for City Council. Our organizers had mounted valiant campaigns on their behalf, and Co-Chair Grace and I had personally canvassed our hearts out for them alongside hundreds of DSA members, but it hadn't been enough. I tortured myself with explanations that seemed obvious in hindsight: We'd taken on a fundamentally inessential project, trying to distinguish ourselves in a field uniquely crowded with Nice Progressives. Worse, our members knew it - knew we'd violated our sacred pledge not to waste their time - and resisted our attempts to turn them out to canvass at the levels necessary to win. Was this explanation correct? People smarter and less emotional than yrs truly presented a litany of persuasive alternatives. These things are certainly complex. But at my most hopeless it was hard to shake the feeling that our failure was our fault.

On top of this: Within days of the election, which in my home Council district was in part a referendum on Brad Lander's proposed Gowanus rezoning, Nina and I woke up to find a crew of workers in hazmat suits stripping asbestos from the roofs of neighboring buildings. No doubt the real estate trust who'd bought up most of our block had pulled the trigger on a demolition plan months in advance and in full anticipation of a successful rezoning, but it certainly seemed like the concrete manifestation of the outcome of the election. Within a week or two, the buildings on either side of us were surrounded by scaffolding and gutted down to their facades. What would replace them? The developer's web site decreed a stately pleasure dome (with multiple floors of shopping and dining) occupying almost every square foot of our block, except for a carve-out directly around our building. Our landlord had apparently missed his shot at converting our little mound of plywood and styrofoam cladding into cash. (Was he greedy and short-sighted, like all landlords? Or simply lazy, like all landlords?) My job was gracious enough to pay for a seat in a small co-working space a few blocks from home (in a minor coincidence, the same cubicle farm that had served as Team Brandon petitioning HQ) but faced with the prospect of a year's worth of construction, and with being surrounded by so obviously worse a built environment, we knew we had to get out.

I was days from turning forty. The prospect of navigating the hell of the rental real estate market had me preemptively bitter and brooding on the future. I'd been wasting my life in various jobs since I was a teenager in the name of saving money. I'd long planned to use those savings to escape the market, escape the scam of wage labor. I'd had a dream of devoting myself to useful technical work on projects of my own design. I'd had a dream of learning to be creative, of making Something Important. Now I was Old, and it seemed to me that I might no longer have the time or energy to follow through on those plans. Was it too late? What was I waiting for? I suggested to Nina: What if we bought an apartment?

We interviewed a few friends and relations who'd been through the process themselves, which was tremendously helpful and orienting. It also yielded a connection to a broker who explained the technical aspects of the process and began setting up appointments for us to look at apartments. Because of the pandemic, and because of our broker's summer vacation schedule, we looked at all of the apartments unaccompanied and then debriefed with him over Zoom. The very first place we looked at was a huge and beautiful apartment in a Finnish co-op in Sunset Park, eerily close to everything we'd said we wanted. I was a little shook, to be honest. Surprised at how good an apartment could look. We went on to see a few more places: Another huge apartment, this time in a massive Flatbush co-op; a shiny, newly-renovated apartmenet in a Prospect Lefferts Gardens building in the process of going condo. "Only a few rent stabilized tenants left," the seller's broker bragged. We could almost see the blood dripping down the walls. It was the prime of summer. Warm afternoons, surprise downpours that caught us as we speed-walked down streets in Kensington. After some deliberation, we resolved to make an offer on that first apartment we'd looked at in Sunset Park.

Buying an apartment confirmed a few things I had suspected for a long time as a renter but had never known for certain: First, the housing stock avaialable for purchase is just... fundamentally nicer than what's on the rental market. It stands to reason - rich people want to live somewhere nice; landlords merely want to find the price equilibrium. Second, the people who shepherd you through the process - the buyer's and seller's brokers; the gelatinous, incompetent lawyers - are essentially parasites who perform very little actual labor and reap a huge financial windfull simply through proximity to the core trasaction. In this way, they're not much different from landlords and rental real estate brokers, except that they're not shitting on you and pressuring you the whole time. The sums of money involved ensure that everyone is very nice as they exploit you.

The application and interviews and closing process lasted through the end of the summer and into the fall. Our closing was on an early afternoon towards the end of September, at a law firm that happened to be a few floors below my old office at Conductor, at 2 Park Ave. South. After it was done, we walked south towards Union Sq. trying to shake off the unreality of it all. Eventually we found ourselves near Flats Fix, where Comrade Alexandria used to work. It seemed like a good omen, so we stopped for guacamole and margaritas. Our server laughed when I asked if the bartender could make mine a bit less strong. In my anxiety over the day, I hadn't eaten anything. I got to my little office space tipsy bordering on drunk, still trying to metabolize what we'd just done.

It feels good to be coming back to Sunset Park. It's not mine, of course. I'm a white guy, not even Finnish. But I've invested quite a bit of my life here, in different ways. So I hope it'll have me.

This new home has been far and away the nicest place I've ever lived. We'd failed to note during our search that the building in Sunset Park wasn't just one of the genuine original Finnish non-profit housing cooperatives, it was quite possibly the first one, with a bronze historical plaque and a Wikipedia page to make it official. We moved in towards the end of October, in time for Halloween. The brownstones between 4th & 5th Ave. draped in decorative cobwebs. We weren't set up to receive trick-or-treaters on the day, but figuring there'd be kids in the building we put out a basket full of fun size candy bars on a stool in the hallway. Sure enough it was picked clean by morning, fulfilling a lifelong ambition of mine to give away the good candy.

A dozen years ago when I lived down by 5th Ave., I'd always thought of 8th Ave. and the wider Brooklyn Chinatown area as being a long hike up hill for not much to see or do. That was a mistake, and I see it differently now. It's actually a paradise, alternately bustling or idyllic, with every modest pleasure of commerce just a few steps away. There's a Buddhist temple with a vegetarian restaurant in the basement down on 51st St. and an aquarium's worth of sea creatures on sale for culinary use on 45th St. The gruff genius cook who sells huge bags of dumplings for an impossibly low price out of an assuming storefront on 44th St. We quickly painted most of the rooms (no shade to the previous owners who'd covered everything with a sort of dusty cream color) and in doing so became regulars at the Brooklyn Color Factory on 7th Ave. Ba Xuyên, still great. A full grocery store, right across the street, open 'til 9pm every night. In the other direction there's a kind of ur-bodega piled high with crates of Modelo and boxes of Marinela Sponch; occasionally staffed by an enormous and affectionate gray cat named Mickey. Then there are the two cats at the small convenience store a block to the north, and a rambunctious kitten at the 99c store on the far corner where old guys play video lotto all day. ("Too many names" for that cat, said the guy at the register.) The hardware store on 5th & 41st that I used to go to all the time is still there, and their current cat is a friendly calico named Linda.

To get to work, I often take the B70 bus, which passes practically right past our front door on its way up from the VA Hospital in Dyker Heights, down to the train station at 36th St. On a cold morning, it's a small luxury to curl up in a back corner seat and make 10 minutes' worth of progress on a John le Carré novel. On the way home I usually get the D up to 9th Ave. and walk past the new location of Savoy Bakery and the El Bronco taco truck, over this one weird gurgling sidewalk grate in front of that building with the ridiculous name, The Dartmouth.

Two days after we moved in, the wrecking balls started swinging in earnest in Gowanus, turning the South Brooklyn Casket Company, the kickboxing gym, and various and sundry warehouses into rubble. It felt like we'd only just managed to grab the rope hanging from the helicopter in an unlikely escape from the mummy's collapsing tomb. With a good deal of it behind me (?) I can see that so many things in my life have gone that way: So many opportunities I just barely managed to grab, so many awful consequences just barely avoided. I'm slow to recognize when I'm on the precipice, slow to appreciate a good thing when it's right in front of me. I'm trying to get better.

No comments: