After 23 years, we are leaving our third floor apartment on Degraw Street in Park Slope, Brooklyn — move out date is February 1, 2012. Our landlord, who is elderly and ill and has become legally blind, is selling the building, and has very generously given us a reasonable time to vacate. The almost 4-month window (we found out he was selling in October) is both positive and negative: positive because it’s giving me time to reflect and reminisce, and negative because it’s giving me time to reflect and reminisce.
1- DeGraw Street
I first set foot on Degraw Street in December, 1988. I had moved here from Chicago to study with Allen Ginsberg in the Brooklyn College MFA poetry program, and my three-month sublet (with then-boyfriend, fellow writer Carl Watson) on Lincoln Road in Prospect-Lefferts Gardens was about to end. We’d had our sites set on Greenpoint — which certainly was not then what it is now — rather than Park Slope, which seemed huppie-ish (“huppie” = ex-hippies, now yuppies: http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=huppie) and frumpy and way out of our fiduciary league. We happened, however, to be walking past Farran Realty on Seventh Avenue and decided to look at the quaint little handwritten cards in the window describing $800/month apartments. Gloria Farran, a lady with a decidedly Brooklyn accent (which I was just finding out was not something dreamed-up by Hollywood for endearing World War 2 movies) said, “I have just the place for you people. Come on, I’ll show it to you right now. It’s not much to look at, and you’re gonna have to take it as is, but this neighborhood is about to take off, I’m tellin’ ya, and you’ll be glad you’re livin’ here. And the landlord is a real sweetheart.”
I don’t remember seeing trees on Degraw Street that day; then again, it was December. Our sublet was in an historic three-story brownstone with bay windows and a grand piano in the “parlor,” so the dismalness of the block was set in stark relief against all that. And the apartment itself was hideous, depressing: the badly painted wood floor (brick red, matching the mouldings) was peeling, there was old cat shit encrusted with litter in the spaces between the floors and the walls, the slop sink in the kitchen had cigarette butts in it, and the wallpaper in the bathroom was torn and hanging in peels off the walls. The price was depressing, too: after Chicago rents of $300 or less, the $500 price tag on this place seemed astronomical. Plus we’d have to pay the regular first and last month’s rent, plus a “broker’s fee” (unheard of in Chi) of 10% of the yearly rent … I said to Carl, horrified, “It would cost us a couple thousand dollars just to move in to this dump!” But Carl pointed out we could fix it up — Gloria said the landlord would give us $100 for paint, and we’d be able to start working on it before the actual move-in date of January 1 — and we’d each have a work room. There was also access to a “backyard” (really just a cement patio with a dirt trim around it) and a basement, and a view of a clock tower so we’d know what time it was since we weren’t going to be able to afford to buy a clock with this kind of rent, and neither of us owned wrist watches and had no plans to purchase any. So, we bought some paint (brick red, Pintchik brand, on sale) and spackle and moved in two weeks later.
As we were leaving to go back to our palatial digs on Lincoln Road, I saw kids riding scooters … and not Razor scooters either; the old-fashioned kind, that I hadn’t seen since I was maybe three or four. Then I heard a guy say to another guy, in a classic Brooklyn accent: “Incubus? — I t’ought she meant ‘cannabis’!” This was about three years before the band appeared. Right then I got the idea that maybe Degraw Street was going to be special, endearing even, in that endearing Hollywood World War 2 “Brooklyn” kind of way.