For the last couple of weeks my crumbly old 19th century building has been without any heat or hot water because of a problem somewhere between the street and the very old boiler down in the cellar. The building has all kinds of problems that old buildings have in New York, and the only thing that happens fast for repairs or service is fire trucks, which I won’t complain about. At least we still have our old stoves working, which counts for a lot when it comes to bathing from cookpots the old-fashioned way.


I can remember my mother talking about how they bathed when she was a kid, growing up with no plumbing or electricity, the galvanized tub filled with water from the kettle heated on a wood-burning stove. That was the late 1940s and into the ‘50s, so not that long ago, and I know that over on the West Side, beyond 9th Avenue, a lot of the old buildings over there still used kerosene in the ‘50s. When the streets are dug up here, that’s where you see the very old city works in the old pipes, and when one thing gets fixed, often times something else gets damaged in the process, which is what I was told happened in the case of our building.

During this past summer, autumn and winter, the water from our taps got warmer and warmer and then hotter and hotter until it was nearly boiling. The city came and unearthed ancient looking steamworks under the street, but when the hole was closed up the gas line was damaged, thus no heat or hot water right now. To make up for it I bought a beautiful bouquet of white tulips.

Whenever I’ve taken a break from work, if the sun is shining I’ve gone out to bask in it and find myself someplace that I like. I always visit Sam at the Florist, and lately I’ve gone up three times to the Morgan Library to see all the Beatrix Potter stars I admire. I looked at one of the watercolors she made, called “The Departure,” showing people saying their goodbyes after a visit, a lady getting her coat on in the painting so timeless that I had to go back and look again. The people in the watercolor are all rabbits, but there’s really no difference. The way she was getting into her coat is something I know I’ve seen uncountable times in my life, and Beatrix P drew it perfectly, the way she painted a little wood mouse in the same exhibit. A day later I saw a tiny gray mouse by the trash cans in front of one of the buildings on 22nd Street who looked just like him. But he saw me and nearly had a heart attack, the poor wee sleekit mousie, and hid underneath a piece of wood with me standing there with my camera, and did not come out.

I went into the bookshop over on 10th Avenue and eavesdropped on a conversation between a man who came in just after me and the man behind the counter about translations. They were agreeing that they prefer Moncrieff to Lydia Davis for Proust, and the man behind the counter asked the visiting man if he was a scholar, and the man said, “No, I’m a librarian.” I thought of a day thousands of days ago when I visited the little house where Marcel Proust lived as a child and how small it seemed. They had empty Vichy water bottles to look at in the room where his Tante Leonie had lived. I was reading the Moncrieff translation of Volume One at the time, and I remember the slow little train that brought me to the village of Illiers to see that house, and seeing two very old, bent over ladies on the train platform all dressed in black.

When I traveled back then, I always stayed in the cheapest little hotels, usually in alleyways by whatever train station there was, and those places always had a water closet and a poor shower in the hallway somewhere, never enough hot water, but birds all over the window ledges. At a certain point I decided I would never again stay in a place without a real shower and water closet in the room, and the last time I went anywhere, I did have that, in Oslo, and that place had the most wonderful shower in the world and there were also beautiful black birds everywhere, not crows, but a kind of Norwegian black bird, and there was snow all over the ground.

At the bookstore I decided to buy a book by Lucia Berlin, who I like very much, and who wrote probably the best story I’ve ever read about visiting the little house where Marcel Proust lived. I think that the hot water will eventually come back on in my old building, and maybe the heat will too, but the heating pad goes a long way under the covers at night, and the lamps turn on, and this really is a very old building doing the best she can. It gets down in the 50s by the old thermometer in the kitchen, which isn’t actually freezing.

I think about the time when my ma and I were on the Great Northern train in the wintertime somewhere in Montana and it came to a slow halt in the night, everything shut down, and we could hear the faint shouts of the train conductors and here and there a lantern swung by outside the black window. We were in a “roomette.” It was so cold that the water in the little toilet froze. I was just a kid, and Ma opened up our suitcase and got out all our clothes to pile on top of us. But eventually the train started up again, just as it was getting light outside and we didn’t freeze to death, which I’m glad for.




16 March 2024 copyright Romy Ashby


  1. Thank you, Romy, for taking us along on your intent aware ramble.

  2. Just wonderfully lovely. Every drop.