On one of the side streets a few days ago I stopped to have a look into a hole that had been dug there, unearthing a length of very old pipe. I always look when I come upon holes in New York, and sometimes in pits dug after some poor old building has been knocked down I’ve seen beautiful old stonework from early 19th century cellars. The old pipe in this particular hole made me think of the building I live in, also from the 19th century, and the annoying problem it’s been having for the last half year or so, which is that we have no cold water. All we have is hot water, and most of the time it’s scalding. In the old kitchen sink there’s only hot water, in the bathtub there is only hot water, and the john—the twalah itself—is full of hot water and steaming. It affects the whole building, but the problem, whatever is causing all the scalding hot water, originates outside the building, somewhere under the streets. And nobody can say where exactly.


Sometimes down on the corner Con Ed will come and put up one of the orange and white striped steampipes, but there hasn’t been one for a while. I like the steampipes. I like steamy old New York. But most of what goes on down inside the city is a secret.


In this neighborhood I have one friend who I visit regularly, and that’s Sammy in the florist on 8th Avenue. Sometimes I visit him before the shop opens when he’s still asleep in the window with all the potted plants. He’s at his most friendly at that moment. After the shop opens, he comes out and goes around the corner to the cellar door and down the iron steps to the underworld, where he does his job. Something I learned a long time ago from hanging around florist cats is that rats like to eat flower bulbs. I also know that a lot of the old cellars have passageways into other cellars, and that rats and cats both probably know all kinds of underground routes to whole other neighborhoods. Whenever I walk Sammy to work, he always pauses at the top of the iron steps to look back and wink. 



Sammy on his way to the cellar 2023

Something that was a secret to me until recently has to do with a little building on 22nd Street where a neighbor lady I was friendly with lived for a long time. Her name was Tina Rossner. We started talking on the street because we each had a dog, I had Pilar and she had MacDuff, and both of them had mustaches. Pilar and MacDuff always stopped to greet each other and I remember how exciting it was when Tina and I figured out, on the corner of 7th Avenue and 22nd Street, that our two dogs had been born in the same house in the little village of Tivoli, in Dutchess County.


I remember one day, September 12th 2001, spotting each other waiting on line at Gristedes grocery store on 8th Avenue with everybody else buying Poland Spring water with the sky still full of fighter jets. She gave a sad little shrug that said more than words would have. Once she invited me to see a pianist she knew give a concert at Carnegie Hall. She had an extra ticket, and before going uptown, she invited me into her apartment on 22nd Street. It was very nice and full of books. She had lived there since the mid 1960s and she’d worked as a graphic designer. She didn’t tell me many details about herself, but there was an appealing casual glamour to her little place.


There was a very old pipe in Tina’s apartment, and one day it burst, causing a terrible waterfall. She eventually moved away after taking a buyout from the landlord who, as it happened, was one of a series of new owners of the Chelsea Hotel. And what I learned about the little building is that hiding beneath it is a secret passageway leading to the back of the hotel, used for ferrying loads of laundry and other supplies that parking on 23rd Street made difficult to do. This I found out while looking around the internet to see if I could find my old neighbor and discovering  a little article about her, and that she’d died in 2021. I read that she’d once designed a record cover for Yoko Ono, and that once upon a time, she’d worked for Al Goldstein, which once upon a time I did too! He was the nicest pornographer I’ve ever met. If Tina and I had realized that detail, there is no telling what kinds of interesting things we might have talked about on the street corner. 


Learning that she’d died made me sad. I’ve missed seeing her around the neighborhood with her dog and her gentle manner, and I felt sad when she left New York. But she was so tired of all the troubles with her apartment and so relieved to have gotten the buyout that she didn’t feel sad about leaving the city at all. She felt excited. She was going to live in New Mexico. She knew how to enjoy life, and doing that was exactly what she had planned, and I have no doubt that she did. 


When my downstairs neighbor Sheldon moved out I felt bereft too, but at least he only went as far as Queens and I can find him. I can only imagine what he would think about the boiling toilets in our building. For all I know it might be the whole block getting no cold water. Is the toilet boiling in the hardware store? These are the kinds of things my neighbor Sheldon was the absolute best at finding out. He would find out every neighborhood secret, and then tell them in a whisper on the stairs.


December 2, 2023

Copyright Romy Ashby









1 comment:

  1. I have never heard of the water problem your building is having. In Palm Springs, I could understand it, since the water in the toilets is always hot, at least in the summer when we go. But in New York?

    It also seems odd given that to get hot water, all our buildings have hot water heaters. The water comes in cold and the heaters make it hot. I've never known that the water can actually come in hot.

    Interesting. And love your stories, as always.