One evening not long ago I went to the rent guidelines board meeting at Cooper Union and watched the excitement as they froze one-year rents for the first time ever. Everyone cheered and it felt hopeful even though every person in that great hall knows that for people who don’t own their apartments, any illusion of certainty about keeping a home for life in this city is over.

I remember when Michael Bloomberg forced his run for a third term as mayor on the people of New York and the way he managed to win. He spent a huge sum of money on his campaign, a lot of it going to pay for the big pictures of himself that showed up in every mailbox in the city almost every day for weeks. What he bought with that was hopelessness, which gave him his narrow victory. Bombarded with his face every day, people thought there was no hope. So many didn’t vote. Bloomberg outsmarted them, although the truth is that every person who couldn’t be bothered to vote against his third term, pricey apathy notwithstanding, shares the blame.  

Bloomberg is a multibillionaire. One day during his campaign I did some arithmetic and found that his fortune could pay my rent for one million, five hundred thousand years. For some perspective I googled “five hundred thousand years ago” and up came a little news item about an old tool discovered by an archeologist, believed to be the earliest known man-made tool in what is now Western Europe, fashioned 500,000 years ago. Which meant that Mike Bloomberg could have paid my rent since the old tool was made by some Neanderthal ancestor  after having already paid my rent for a million years prior to that. I remember going outside that day and encountering a young girl campaigning for the mayor in the rain on Seventh Avenue. I told her what I had just discovered, but the implications of it were completely lost on her. “Why should Mayor Bloomberg have to pay your rent?” the girl asked, and I laughed. “Oh, he shouldn’t,” I told her, and she looked relieved. I asked her if she was planning to vote for him and she dutifully said she would—if she could, that is. She was Canadian, and she didn’t live in New York. It was just a part time job.

When the sun started going down yesterday I took a walk over towards New Jersey. I looked into the Chelsea Square Diner on 9th Avenue. The light was pretty, and I thought how glad I am that it’s still here. A lot of old ladies and old men like it, and if luck allows me to end up an old lady here and if the diner isn’t gone, I’ll eventually be one of them myself. I stopped to talk to a bunch of bored-looking dogs parked outside the deli on 23rd Street in front of the London Terrace, and then I walked over to the river. I looked at the old pilings sticking out of the water and wondered about the men who put them there, the pile drivers. They’d be long dead, and I wondered what they would think if they could see how things look now. I walked as far as 30th Street where a lot of old industry used to be, and where huge new towers are about to go up, and as it got dark I started back home again.

On 29th Street I watched mice darting around piles of trash put out at the edge of the sidewalk, and through the window of a basement apartment I saw a man who looked to be in his sixties cooking his dinner in a room crowded with books. I saw his old sofa and a cat planted on it, and through the window next to that one I saw, in the little light spilling from his living room, his dim and untidy bedroom. I could see a suit jacket hanging on a peg, and on a shelf, the outline of a very old teddy bear.

On 7th Avenue I saw a man who had nodded out in the middle of rolling a cigarette sitting in an office chair against a lamppost.  I saw a trash-picker that I see every so often, going fast from trash bin to trash bin like a bee, and I heard a lady say to another lady: “I got me some plans and I told him so. I said, ‘I got me some plans and they don’t include your ass!’” When I reached the grocery store on 8th Avenue I went in to buy some ice cream. My favorite checker was at her register, an older lady I like very much who wears a bejeweled key around her neck, so I waited on her line. While she rang me up she told me that her old mother has a longhaired Chihuahua who is mean to everyone and urinates on her things whenever he gets a chance. She told me that when she was a kid her mother worked for a Yugoslavian family who had given her their dog, and that dog she had loved more than anything in the world. But the Chihuahua was a different story. I walked home wondering how old the checker’s mother must be since the checker herself isn’t young. I found one of my neighbors standing at the corner waiting for the light to change and we wondered together how long it will be before we have cooking gas again. It’s been almost two months with no gas but finding out what’s going on is an elusive thing. “Does your hotplate have one burner or two?” he wanted to know, and when I told him one, he said that’s what he got too. “I think everybody in the building bought a hotplate,” he said. “I saw the boxes they came in piled up by the trash and I put two and two together.”

I'm glad the Chelsea Square is still here.

July 7, 2015

Copyright Romy Ashby


  1. Romy,
    once again I have had the joy of walking with you––in my minds eye––in and about this fair City. You wrote your last account on the 7th, my mother's 94th birthday. The part of your story where you see a man in his 60s cooking, among a pile of books, His cat on the sofa and a very old Teddy Bear. Is not me but pretty close. No cat, but everything else the same. I am sure there are thousands of us finding solace is a smaller world full of the words of others. I will look forward to your next meander.
    Thank you.


  2. And to 'Anonymous who pointed out that there were no iron tools 500,000 years ago, I do apologize. The tool in the article was not specified as iron, you are right. So I changed iron to old, thanks to your 'friendly' advice.

  3. I don't know how I missed this post for over a month. But I'm glad I found it.

    Thanks, Romy.

  4. I spent a couple years on West 21st and 7th Ave. in the early 70s and my dad lived in Chelsea in the 80s and 90s, so this is a walk around Memory Lane for me. Thank you, Romy!