Empty Rooms

Walking uptown or through Brooklyn Heights I will see a window stuffed with papers and books, or catch a glimpse of an old woman in a fading housecoat stepping out to get her Times, and I will wonder which room in New York City has been empty the longest. Is there, for example, a bedroom in Brooklyn that was sealed up after a son didn't return from Vietnam, and that has remained locked ever since, mustard paint peeling and a faded poster of Grace Slick on the wall?

Or does it go farther back? Perhaps in 1912 a meek and dullish woman, second sister of five, became pregnant by her doctor. He was treating her for nerves after she was harrassed by Irish and the sight of her knee made him forget his various oaths to his wife, to his profession, and to the Temperance Union and the Hippocratic Club. Apologetic, he drew a check, and the girl was sent west. Her mother wept, but the other sisters were glad to see her onto the train. She was a drab beetle.

In rapid order her bedroom became Father's study. The closet disappeared behind a massive bookcase laden with Collected Works. There was always the intent to get back in there, when the younger sisters were big enough for the clothes. But the missing sister was so quickly and thoroughly written out of family history that it was more comfortable to forget that the closet existed.

While her father and mother saw the second sister to the train the youngest sister was left behind with the nurse. Now the youngest is ancient, a full century, and her hair and skin are like skim milk. She sleeps in her parents' old bedroom and is tended by a new nurse. The sight of the bookcase reminds her of her father's collars and the sound of his pen scratching against foolscap. Entirely forgotten are the homely crinolines, wide-brimmed hats, the girdle, fur muff, and the pair of fancy gray lace-up boots.

Just as forgotten is the exiled sister, sent off from Manhattan by train to be enslaved to a minister's family. For years she boiled cabbage and sewed shirts and scrubbed the floor of the Methodist church, and her child was scorned by the minister's wife. Finally a dairyman came home from the War, having lost in an ordnance mishap his left hand and all but the index and ring fingers on his right hand. He asked her to marry him. No one took a picture after the ceremony, even though the minister's son owned a Brownie.

Impoverished of digits, the dairyman could barely milk, so his farm was one of the first to mechanize. His wife learned to apply ointments to the steel-chapped, oozing udders, and to ignore the smell of cowshit. There were no more children.

Her love-child son had finally pieced it together by the time he turned 31 and asked her in his halting way about his origins. But she looked out the window until he said that he needed to go fix the birdfeeder. He never found out that his father was an expert in ulcers and known for the twinkle in his eye. A few months later the son moved south and opened the first laundromat in Nevada; for a hobby he collected Confederate currency, and later Nazi currency, and currency printed by Japan in anticipation of conquering Australia. Through this pursuit he made many friends from over a dozen states. Seventy years after leaving Manhattan his mother died during a Columbo rerun. Through all of it the closet door remained unopened and the clothes unworn.

I have been dreaming up these rooms for years. A few square feet that remain constant: a walled-in basement corner in a museum where there sits a filing cabinet filled with old maps; a Model A rusting in a carriage house; a copy of The Tales of Guy de Maupassant and a catalog of electric goods left on a mattress in an attic. In defiance of progress and real-estate values these fake places are perfectly dusty and still.

From 1997 through 2006 I lived in a small room adjoined by a tiny bathroom. It was filled to bursting, and I knew every inch of the place. Now I live with another person in three small rooms (and a medium-sized bathroom). Once again every inch is spoken for. I plan to throw away a few hundred books to allow a large set of shelves to be removed, the density reduced so there is more room for light.

It's possible that this three-room apartment was once home to three families. The middle room has a window built into one wall that may have been put there to comply with an old law that requires each residence to receive sunlight. One family, we think, lived in our kitchen; one lived in our bedroom; and a bachelor made his home in the middle. Maybe ten people lived here. I am embarrassed to think of them standing in the kitchen in dark clothes. I have twenty shirts in the closet, and there are at least a dozen glowing and blinking devices scattered throughout the place. We, their great-grandchildren, spend far more than their year's salary on one month's rent. But they are gone, and they left no empty corners or unopened closets. All things are possible in New York City, and so perhaps these hollow, untouched rooms that I dream up are somewhere real and forgotten. But given the cost of a square foot it's more likely that we are flowers in a vase; and when we leave our jobs, our apartments, our city and our bodies, other flowers will be dropped into our place.

.  .  .  .  .  

K. Gorman points out “The Undiscovered Bedrooms of Manhattan” from May 16, 2007. “You may in fact,” he writes, “be a variation on a mass psychosis.”

.  .  .  .  .  

G. Allen writes:

A sculptor friend went to install a work in a collector's home. He needed a ladder, and the collector said, “oh, just go next door and get it.”

The other apartment on the elevator landing turns out to be unlocked, and empty, and sprawling, and gorgeous, but decrepit—and equipped with a ladder, which he promptly borrows, uses, and then puts back.

Whoever owns the apartment has never been there; the co-op maintenance is just paid from some lawyer's office in London, it's been decades, far longer than their neighbors have lived there, that's for sure.




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About the author: I've been running this website from 1997. For a living I write stories and essays, program computers, edit things, and help people launch online publications. (LinkedIn). I wrote a novel. I was an editor at Harper's Magazine for five years; then I was a Contributing Editor; now I am a free agent. I was also on NPR's All Things Considered for a while. I still write for The Morning News, and some other places.

If you have any questions for me, I am very accessible by email. You can email me at ford@ftrain.com and ask me things and I will try to answer. Especially if you want to clarify something or write something critical. I am glad to clarify things so that you can disagree more effectively.


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© 1974-2011 Paul Ford


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