Where New York’s Literary Single Girls Lived
Amy Rowland on the Legacy of Women's-Only Boardinghouses
When I’m at war with the world, contemplating old failures and fresh regrets, I go online to revisit a New York building where I once lived. Eighteen Gramercy Park South is now full of Robert Stern-designed full-floor apartments, an attached maisonette, and a penthouse that last sold for about 50 million. When I lived there in the late 90s, it was Parkside Evangeline, a single-room-occupancy residence for women run by the Salvation Army. Parkside housed us girls of slender means in rooms of a hundred square feet. For 800 and some dollars a month, I got two meals a day in the dreary dining hall, a tiny bedroom, and a beige bathroom, complete with handrails.
I arrived at Parkside after a string of sublets—an apartment in the east 90s, shared with a nice French woman who heard the music of the spheres; a dark place on the Upper West Side with a roommate who often warned me that she was about to practice yoga naked in the living room, where there were several mannequins in various states of undress; a mice infested walk-up in the West Village; and a huge apartment in Stuyvesant Town, a sublet from a woman who was in medical school somewhere in Central America. She had a pet squirrel that bit my roommate when we went to pay the deposit.
An unhinged Stuy-town neighbor began leaving us long letters in looping cursive about how we were ruining her life with our noise. We collected the letters in a shoebox and tiptoed on the parquet. One weekend our pen pal called the police, who arrived to find an empty apartment as we were out of town. She managed to get us kicked out though; our sublet was apparently illegal.
So I moved to Parkside, insisting to friends the move was a lark, that I was like a character in a Truman Capote story, or an Edith Wharton one, neglecting to note that Wharton’s women sometimes die after falling off the social ladder.
The truth was I was retreating from life. I was lost. I was broke. I lived in a room with a sink in it. I was in retreat because my first novel was being rejected all over town. It was a dreadful clunker of a manuscript, which I continued to dream just hadn’t found the right editor, since the world really did need an epistolary southern novel about a guy on death row who doesn’t speak until the last 20 pages. My favorite rejection began with this editor’s plea to my agent: “Please don’t send me novels about rural people. They embarrass me.”
Dealing with this disappointment meant a yearlong dive into austerity and solitude. Living in a tiny space with no A/C and a Christian atmosphere that forbade alcohol and men in the bedroom reminded me of my conservative Christian upbringing in an un-airconditioned space that forbade alcohol and men in the bedroom. It’s true that my father did not wear a Salvationist uniform and insist on being called Major. And my mother didn’t sit behind Plexiglas warning boys who ventured past the front room to Stop! Go no further! However, it was easy to imagine either of my strict, well-meaning, tee-totaling parents in this strange interior space of old carpet, bad furniture, and rigid rules.
To save subway fare, I walked to my job as a classified advertising “representative” at The New York Times, work I found by answering a classified ad in The New York Times. I walked home from work in my angry Amish garb from the Army Navy Surplus, ate in Parkside’s drab dining room, then requested a key from the front desk and let myself into Gramercy Park. When I unlocked the gate and entered the only private park in Manhattan, I was struck by the hush of this two-acre stretch in the center of the city, and had the delicious feeling of getting away with something. I had a routine: I looped the park twice, high-fived the statue of Edwin Booth (Shakespearean actor and brother of John Wilkes), and settled on a bench surrounded by my closest companions: London plane, horse chestnut, Ohio buckeye. I knew all their names because the trees in Gramercy Park wore nametags.I lay in my room, reading about great boardinghouse heroes in literature. Muriel Spark’s young women of 1945, who lived at the May of Teck Club for the “Pecuniary Convenience and Social Protection of Ladies of Slender Means,” could have been right down the hall.
After my silent hour with the trees, I lay in my room, reading about great boardinghouse heroes in literature. Muriel Spark’s young women of 1945, who lived at the May of Teck Club for the “Pecuniary Convenience and Social Protection of Ladies of Slender Means,” could have been right down the hall. Sadly, though, I met no one who had a taffeta Schiaparelli evening dress that was shared among the women for formal occasions. I had special affection for Spark’s Jane, who was engaged in “brain work” in “the world of books.” She liked to ask writers, “What is your raison d’être?” I tried this a few times myself, but as the response was “What’s my raisin debt?” usually followed by “You talk just like Holly Hunter!” I gave up and stopped approaching people altogether.
I loved the May of Teck girls, and after I’d seen them through to VJ day, I turned my attention to Miss Judith Hearne, Brian Moore’s spinster in search of love in a lodging house. Oh, how I worried over the alcoholic Judith, who “peered for comfort at her long, pointed shoes with the little buttons on them, winking up at her like wise little friendly eyes.” After a drunken downward spiral that culminates in a violent challenge to God on the church altar, she ends up at an institution that was the scene of an earlier humiliation. I had a spinster aunt who reminded me slightly of Judith Hearne, and though Aunt Ruthie wasn’t an alcoholic, she, too, had surprisingly sentimental notions of love, and, like Judith Hearne, she came to a rather desolate and lonely end. This devastated me, because Ruthie had been my high school English teacher, and it was in her class that I discovered as long as I had literature I would never feel I was less.
My notebooks of the time, instead of being filled with juicy snippets from my job in crazy classifieds, recorded news articles about women who died alone. Like the dead woman whose air conditioner had been left running, allowing her body to slowly mummify. When the A/C conked out a few YEARS later, a neighbor who called the cops noted that outside in the heat, he “could smell death.” One benefit of living in a hostel situation is if you don’t pay up by the end of the month, they’ll find your body when they come in to clean your room for the next May of Teck girl. Another noticeable thing about my notebook from 1999 is that I stopped writing in cursive and began writing in print, a development that my doctor brother-in-law joked was common in serial killers or people having psychotic breaks.
I did not fully appreciate then that my days in classifieds were like noisy rehearsals for an offbeat but sometimes-sprightly performance piece. We all had not only phone names (Fran, Celeste, Babs, Hercules) but also New York City dreams. There were a few actors, a rock ‘n’ roller, a painter, a student finishing her dissertation on William James, a Zen Buddhist, three or four writers, and Vito, who sang like Sinatra and did not lose his job when he (accidentally?) changed a death notice from a “mass of” Christian burial to a “massive” one.
I tried to come out as a writer to my southern family, tentatively telling them I would keep a job, any job, to pay the bills while I became a novelist. The idea of writing books about made-up stuff was dismissed by my family as something they figured I was likely to try, but unlikely to live on. I had arrived at Penn Station on the train from North Carolina, with a fat duffel bag and a slim bank account. I had not published a word, but I had learned from my beloved George Eliot that it was not important whether you were worthy of doing something. What mattered was that it was worthy of doing. My parents respected this, even if the idea of being a writer was like saying I was moving to the moon. The one literary conversation I had with my father, a barber, went like this:
Dad: How many words are in a book?
Me: At least 50,000.
Dad: That’s a lot of words.
Dad: Use short ones.
I’ve had worse writing advice.
Living in a building that banned men and alcohol left me feeling stranded in a space halfway between the nursery school and the psych ward. I was living without a cell phone, television, or computer. I guess I could say I owe my awakening to India, Lily Bart, and a homeless man in a beret.
First, I learned that coerced “volunteers” from the customer order fulfillment department next to classifieds were going to India to train their replacements. It dawned on me that I might lose my advertising gig before I found backing for Classifieds! The Musical.It’s with a mixture of alarm and affection that I think of that melancholy, monastic self.
Then Edith Wharton’s Lily Bart showed me that I had to leave the passive comforts of Parkside and get on with life. “It was indeed miserable to be poor, to look forward to a shabby, anxious middle age, leading by dreary degrees of economy and self-denial to gradual absorption in the dingy communal existence of the boarding-house.” It’s strange how you can reread a book for the fifth time and still find yourself alone at midnight shouting, Lily Bart, Put down the chloral hydrate! as though this time the outcome might be different. I was so upset when Lily died that I left my room at Parkside and walked half the night. I was on Broadway near Astor Place, blinded by tears, when a homeless man in a hat said gently, “Don’t cry, beautiful.” I kept walking, and crying, and snorting my own snot, until I passed Grace Church, with its ancient Roman urn sitting in the grass. “Get ahold of yourself,” said an interior voice that might have been my own but sounded remarkably like Ruthie. “You no longer have to choose between married or buried. You’re not in the urn yet. Go out there and live.” I did; I do; I will.
It’s with a mixture of alarm and affection that I think of that melancholy, monastic self, and feel a sense of gratitude and astonishment that I moved on to a floor-through in Hell’s Kitchen and not a padded room in Bellevue. Four jobs, five apartments, and fifteen years later, I did publish a novel, about a rural girl of slender means at a New York newspaper. I live in a bigger place in New Jersey now and I miss New York every day. I continue to scrutinize 18 Gramercy’s website, trying to imagine how this lavish lobby is the shabby entrance I used to walk through—past Major Davis’s office, the sleepy security guard, and the Plexiglas-ed women in straight skirts and blouses that tied at the neck, who watched residents come and go and made sure that no men got past their checkpoint.
As I take video tours of the questionably decorated new condos, I realize that I lived in what is now someone’s shoe closet, except without Chrystal Palace lighting and translucent stone countertops. The penthouse, spread over two floors, has sixty-three windows and four terraces. I wonder if someone living in a penthouse duplex with an infinity pool, in a building that used to house three hundred women at a time, ever thinks of the residents who came before, the international students and interns, the retired secretaries and schoolteachers, women from towns you’ve never heard of, who just needed a place while they found their footing, a place they hoped would be temporary but sometimes wasn’t, a place for girls of slender means who lived by the rules. Probably not, and that’s all right. If I ever do meet a resident of 18 Gramercy, I’ll simply say, “Hey! What’s your raison d’être?”