MY APARTMENT IN MAHATTAN
To find an apartment in Mahattan to move in and leave Swarthmore for good -- that was the initial plan for my retirement. But it didn't happen. It's not that I tried very hard; but the plan was a dismal failure and yet a happy one.
I never got an apartment to own but I sublet one. It's a tiny studio apartment, a minimal dwelling. I have not moved out of the house in Swarthmore. I commute to New York every week. The arrangement is far from the ideal I had in mind but it fulfills my needs -- for now, at any rate.
At the time I had made my decision to retire three years ago I was seriously considering moving to New York. The plan was to sell my 3-bed room house in Swarthmore, and use that money to buy an apartment in the city. I would gladly do away with driving, unload the lifelong accumulation of possessions [packrat] and drastically simplify my daily life. I would then be free to fully enjoy the urban amenities such that only New York could offer. Full of expectations, I started counting up all the stuff in the house that I would happily get rid of -- all the garden implements and power tools, large pots and pans and extra dishes, most of the appliances, the junk in the attic and the basement, and the bulk of the books, wardrobe, and furniture. I envisioned with excitement the monastically simplified life in the city, freed of all the extraneous material possessions and unfettered by housekeeping, driving, fixing up, and gardening. But reality, as it often is, did not quite accommodate the ideal.
The real estate market at the time, in New York as elsewhere, was rapidly soaring. It was reported that properties went up 25% in value in one year and were expected to go up as much or more the following year. The rise in price was noticeably steeper for one-bedroom condos because good economy was drawing competitive young buyers and tempting older buyers looking for a second home in Manhattan. It was no time to buy a property in New York.
I surfed various real estate websites and, besides learning pros and cons for the condo and the co-op, I also discovered to my dismay that even a 500 square-foot studio apartment in any decent location, not to speak of a two-bedroom apartment, was well beyond my means.
As I learned more about Manhattan real estate, my passion for purchasing an apartment in New York started to wane. The possibility of the management fee could interminably go up, aside from the high tax and mortgage interest, and these were worrisome enough. If I ended up being overburdened with mortgage and other expenses and left with minimal budget for cultural amenities, there is no point in living in Manhattan. The risk of a bad deal, negotiating in New York real estate market, was also frightening. Then, I had to consider the tax on the sale of the house, the expenses of moving, and the huge problem of my personal library of books. Some friends suggested renting a storage space outside the city, although at one point I thought I could bravely give it all up. Others advised me that the properties could be bought more reasonably in Queens and Brooklyn; I can then have a larger place. My mind was set for Manhattan, however, and I would read with envy that a decent one-bedroom condo or coop could be bought for $70,000 in 1995. I was hardly ready for retirement at that time.
So, my <Manhattan Project>, as I called it, went on hold in the spring of 2000. Having abandoned Plan A, I had to work out alternative plans. Plan B was to abide by time for more advantageous market in the hope that prices might go down in a few years, and to stay put in Swarthmore in the meantime. The obvious problem with this plan was that if the buying price goes down, so does the selling price for the house. I figured, moreover, that if economy gets slower, the market for smaller apartments are bound to get more stringent, too, with potential buyers scaling down their spatial demands. More people would be looking for smaller places. So, this led me to Plan C, also a wait-and-see scheme. I would provisionally rent a small, furnished apartment, a sublet, for a few years while observing the movement in the market. Supporting two residences would be costly, and commuting back and forth can be strenuous. But I will keep in return my library and my garden for a while, and it would also give me a chance to test how well living in the city might agree with me. I will then commute back and forth or, otherwise, rent out the house a half of the year or for a four-month semester.
If Plan C proved satisfactory, I would then give up the idea of buying an apartment. I would rent a studio apartment of my own as a pied-à-terre and maintain my house with the library and the garden. This was Plan D. Hyacinths, daffodils, tulips, muscari, and other spring flowers were then in bloom, followed by dogwood, azaleas, and hydrangea. The allure of the garden once again took hold of me. The resources of my personal library of books, recorded music, and videocassettes, have again become difficult to part with.
By the summer of 2000, a year before retirement, Plan D was sufficiently appealing as well as practicable. In July and August I had access to an apartment of a friend and her family who went abroad for a month. I tested a weekly commute; and I liked it. By rough estimate, I calculated that it would be more economical to keep the house and rent a shoebox in Manhattan, even with the cost of commuting every week, than to buy an apartment that is modest but large enough to make a primary residence for one. Friends recognized that I would have in this plan the best of the two worlds. Abandoning Swarthmore for Manhattan entirely would require a drastic change in my lifestyle, and that began to strike me as foolhardy rather than thrilling and brave. The <Manhattan project>, as initially conceived, was a good project but only a project.
But I did not act on the plan immediately as there was still a whole year before retirement. The last year of teaching [My Final Year] kept me busy, and I had no time to do much about any of the plans. But I was also procrastinating. The house carried with it the happy memory of life with my lifelong companion, who passed away five years earlier, and parting with it was not going to be easy. Then, too, I had no deadline to meet.
The following April I was still undecided about Plan D. Then, Fortune smiled on me. A friend who decided to go back to school for two years away from New York offered me the use of his apartment in his absence, starting in June. All of a sudden Plan C fell in place. A week later an apartment for rent opened up in the same building -- my Plan D; I was not quite ready for it, however. So, it was Plan C that fell on my lap.
Since last June, I have this Manhattan apartment where I live there four days each week but on an irregular schedule, the rest of the week in my own three-bedroom house in Swarthmore. I call the two dwellings, in jest, my townhouse and my country estate. But that is what they are, the lifestyle of the English gentry, only reduced in scale. It is a luxury I never thought I would enjoy in my lifetime. Best of all, moreover, it would cost less by my calculation than to buy and keep my own apartment in Manhattan.
The apartment is a walk-up in an appropriately plebian part of Manhattan that befits my lifestyle. By my measurement, it is 334 square feet, a veritable shoebox. It fits within a rectangle, 11'-6" x 32'-8", but it is carved out in one corner to accommodate the outside hallway and the entry to the apartment. A standard bathroom and a minimal kitchen take up the carved end, and the rest constitutes one room, about 18 feet long, with two windows on its narrow end. A bed, a night table, a love seat, a dresser, a table and two chairs, a desk, and a floor lamp constitute the furnishing.
The apartment's two windows overlook a wide street. The traffic is heavy except for a few hours before dawn; but the noise doesn't bother me at all. To me it is like a lullaby; I sleep through it. The windows face the east and let the sunlight stream in all morning and make the room cheerful. The very special delight of the shoebox is the ease of housekeeping, which I find thrilling. Vacuuming and dusting take only a few minutes; it's just one room. With a rag I go over the kitchen floor on my knees, swish, swish a few times, and it's done. Only the bathroom more or less approximates the work required for the one in my country house. Cooking in the small kitchen, on the other hand, is a challenge. I stick to simple recipes in the apartment, leaving more complicated cooking at home in the country. The smoke detector is on the ceiling right outside the kitchen, and sautéing onions is enough to create smoke that triggers it, and I have to keep a fan to wave underneath it when it starts to shriek.
When in New York, I go to museum exhibitions and galleries by day and to plays and various performances after dark. So, I don't sit many hours in the apartment. I have no television, no video, no computer, and no endless chores such that I have around the house, in and out, in Swarthmore. So, on those rare occasions I stay home, I can sit and read quietly. This, too, is a special pleasure.
I don't how long I can sustain financially and physically this arrangement of maintaining, and commuting between, two residences. For the time being, despite all, the shoebox is the source of tremendous pleasure in my current life.
T. Kaori Kitao, 06.01.02