Article - Spring 2013

The Deal

Looking for an apartment in Manhattan takes patience, courage, and, sometimes, a bag full of cash

By Martha McPhee | March 1, 2013

This essay appeared in the collection What My Mother Gave Me: Thirty-one Women on the Gifts That Mattered Most.

I was being thrown out of an illegal sublet on Claremont and LaSalle in Harlem. The apartment belonged to Columbia University, and I was renting it from two professors who’d taken jobs elsewhere but hadn’t wanted to let go of a low-rent rental in New York City. Columbia had caught on, and I was being evicted. It was 1990, and I’d just been accepted to Columbia’s MFA program in fiction, but the offer didn’t include housing for students who already lived in the city. A sister (I have four) referred me to a real-estate agent who had a knack for finding spacious, rent-stabilized apartments. Her name was Jan, and she worked with a partner who had just one leg.

Together they seemed to know all the deals to be had on the Upper West Side. But the apartments she showed me were decidedly not deals—enormously expensive, tiny (no roommate possible), smelling of cat pee, and looking onto brick walls. I was 26 years old. I had an entry-level job in publishing that paid $200 a week and consumed most of my waking hours, and a nighttime job as a waitress from which I was about to be fired because I was too exhausted to be charming. Even so, I was filled with ambition and dreams of becoming a writer—but still had nowhere to live, and time was running short.

“It will work out,” my mother said to me tirelessly over the phone. A blind faith is hers, and an imagination that allows for extreme cleverness; these are her gifts to me. I always believed her. As hard as it can be sometimes, I still do.

After I’d seen another collection of unlivable apartments, Jan looked at me as if an idea were igniting. “I have the apartment for you.” My eyes lit up. “But you’ll never be able to afford it.” My eyes dimmed. “It’s huge, sweeping city views, dining room, living room, two beds, three baths, 1,600 square feet, low rent.” We were standing on Broadway at 103rd Street, wilted from the last viewing, car alarms and sirens and horns, a shuffle of people around us. “Tell me more,” I said. And she did. The apartment was leased to an eccentric with long fingers, manicured nails, and wild gray hair, an aspiring pianist with a baby grand in his foyer. He wanted to move to Long Island, but he, like the professors, didn’t want to let go of his deal unless he could get something for it. He wanted to sell the lease and was asking $15,000 cash. “It’s called a key fee,” Jan explained. She had long, stringy blond hair with red tints and a lovely, animated smile. She had two sons and a pager in her purse that buzzed away like a gremlin. She liked to say that she was married to her second Israeli. “Let me know if you want to see it,” she said and slipped off into a cab, disappearing down Broadway.

“See it,” my mother said when I told her. I’d been doing calculations in my head. The rent was $1,000 a month. The tiny places I’d been viewing were the same price and more. If I rented out the second bedroom and the dining room for $700 apiece, I could live rent free with income. But how would I come up with the $15,000? “It’ll work out,” my mother said. “See it.”

My mother, Pryde Breed Brown, is a beautiful woman with golden curls and a gap between her teeth. She’s the daughter of a Montana cowgirl who had social ambitions that led her to the East and into a marriage with a blue-blooded Bostonian, Charles Mitchell Brown, heir to the Buster Brown shoe factory (which was all but defunct by the time they met) and Breed’s pasture, on which the Battle of Bunker Hill was fought. When my grandmother set her mind to something, she got it. She could handle any horse, bareback; she could kill a rattlesnake with just one shot; she could catch trout on the end of a willow switch. She chose the name Pryde to honor a girl from childhood who’d been kicked in the head by a horse and killed. She’d raised Pryde to be a lady, dressing her like a doll, sending her to Sweet Briar, a women’s college in the South, seeing that she married a Princeton man within a year of graduation. She longed for Pryde to have the conventional life that she had had to fight for. So my mother had four babies all within two years of each other, a big white house in the woods, and nothing to do all day but arrange our lives, sew us matching dresses from Liberty of London fabric, and dream up writing assignments my father, a writer, could pursue that would involve long trips with us, his family, to Europe.

“Dream,” my mother often said to us, her daughters. “Whatever you set your mind to you can accomplish.”

When, at 32, my mother found herself alone with four young children and very little knowledge of how to negotiate the world, she took to her bed and didn’t get out for several months. That’s how it felt to me as a four-year-old. My sisters and I took care of her. We brought her breakfast, creamed chipped beef that we made ourselves at the kitchen stove. We got ourselves ready for school, onto the school bus, home from school. My oldest sister made sure we did our homework each night. My mother had never written a check. She had never paid a bill. She had hardly shopped for clothes for herself. My grandmother was disappointed in her for losing her husband, for allowing the life she wanted my mother to live to shatter.

“It will work out,” my mother told me so many times.

After a while my mother asked herself what she could do, what she wanted. She got out of bed and changed her life quite completely. She met my stepfather, a poker-playing Texan who drove a turquoise Cadillac. He was a feminist, organizing sit-ins in pubs that excluded women—anything but conventional. He wore ascots and a cowboy hat, had a Texas drawl. She joined a group called Women on Words & Images that was taking apart children’s readers, to point up their inherent sexism. With the group, she wrote a book, Dick and Jane as Victims: Sex Stereotyping in Children’s Readers. She bought a portrait photography business because she recognized that she was good at taking pictures; some 40 years later, her Princeton, New Jersey, studio still thrives. She remade herself. She had a fifth daughter. My stepfather was a househusband.

The apartment on the Upper West Side was in a building that was being held by a receiver. It had no actual owner because the previous owner had gone bankrupt in the savings-and-loan fiasco of the 1980s. The city assigned a company to take care of the building until a purchaser could be found. That meant no one was in charge and no one cared, which translated to opportunities for shady deals.

June of 1990 filled in with gorgeous warm days. Jan took me up to the 16th floor, and there to greet us was the pianist with his manicured nails. He carefully showed me around the apartment, which was four times the size of the biggest places I’d seen, with sweeping views, just as Jan had promised: the Chrysler Building, the Pan Am Building, the Empire State, and a glimpse of the twin towers. Six southern exposure windows overlooked the sea of Manhattan, spires and skyscrapers and water towers—a dream. The kitchen led to a formal dining room to a sprawling living room, and light was everywhere. The master bedroom had an en suite bath and floor-to-ceiling mirrors directly across from the king-size bed.

The pianist patted the bed and told me to sit down: “I only do business on my bed.” I sat down. The deal involved the $15,000 in exchange for the lease. The lease would be drafted by a lawyer and given to me as soon as I handed over the money. He told me that I wouldn’t really be buying the lease: “That would be illegal, of course.” Rather, I’d be buying a floor lamp, a chandelier, and a dishwasher. The 1980s burst with such deals, the downside of rent stabilization laws. But by 1990, the deals were drying up, and cash in paper bags for a lease was a rarity that involved even more risk than it had a few years before. But to stumble into such a “deal” was a stroke of good fortune … or so Jan told me. Of course, there were plenty of stories about being swindled. Only a fool would agree to such a ploy. “How do I know I’ll get the lease?” I asked the pianist and then later, Jan. “Don’t worry,” was all they said. It was one of those times where you just had to trust. I wanted this and needed this so much that I was willing to take the leap. And the possibility of the deal made my blood hot, made me hungry and curious. Somewhere, somehow, I was sure it would work out. But I still didn’t have the cash.

“Is it really great?” my mother asked over the phone. I described it for her, detailed my plan of living rent free with income, and even imagined that I could use student loans to pay back the 15 grand, if only I could borrow it from somewhere. My father was not a risk taker of this sort, but my mother, who was, didn’t have that kind of money. Yet I could almost hear her scheming on the other end of the line. “I have an idea,” she finally said.

Her idea was a man named Barry. A wealthy and bearishly handsome man who wore a diamond pinky ring and a floor-length white fur coat. He owed my mother a favor. He’d been accused of being a peeping tom, and he’d hired my mother to take photos that would prove that the angle of the windows made it impossible for him to see into his accuser’s home. The pictures settled the case in Barry’s favor. My mother has a way with people. They fall in love with her. Young, old, it doesn’t matter. They are inspired by her charm and her ability to make the impossible seem like the most natural thing in the world.

She arranged for lunch with Barry at the Peacock Inn in Princeton. It was summer, so he didn’t wear his coat, but the ring glistened on his pinky. He listened to me intently, a negotiator parsing a transaction, as I spelled out what I needed and why. Hearing myself tell the story to a stranger gave me a start—it seemed more than a little crazy. But my mother, seated across from me, nodded and smiled through it all, as if 15 grand in a paper bag for a lease was nothing unusual. I explained to Barry that I had a grant from Columbia so I wouldn’t need student loans, but that I would take them anyway and pay him back within a year. He heard me out, advised me against what I proposed to do, but gave me the money anyway—a check that I would cash. One hundred and fifty hundred-dollar bills—newly minted, crisp, and filled with possibility. I gave Barry my word: no matter what, I would pay him back within a year.

I was warned by a lot of people. My sisters said it was foolish. I didn’t dare tell my father. My best friend told me that it wouldn’t work financially, even if I didn’t get swindled, because I’d fall in love with a rich man and end up on Park Avenue. But I went forward, cash in paper bag handed over to the long slender fingers of the pianist, a 24-hour wait in which I did not sleep, fearing homelessness and ruin, fancying where, in that huge space, I’d put my desk, feeling at once foolish and clever and eager and the high of the high roller—that gorgeous, terrifying rush of adrenalin.

Here I sit, 21 years later. My desk overlooks the city. I have watched the Pan Am Building become the MetLife Building. I saw the twin towers go down and the plume of smoke slowly turn with the winds and drift north. I saw the Time Warner Center rise, and I watch the Empire State Building change the color of its lights like a woman changing her dress. I never met a man who would take me to Park Avenue. I met a poet instead. We have two children and have written some 10 books between us. Here in this apartment, the rent still low, we have been able to live our dream, to be artists and parents, because my mother taught me to take the impossible in stride.

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