Making a Home in Harlem

In 2011, I typed the words “top floor” and “quiet” into the housing section on CraigsList. There were two results, one of which was a one-bedroom on the third floor of a brownstone off Pleasant Avenue in East Harlem.

The landlord, an Israeli man, owned the house and lived with his family on the first two levels. When he showed me the apartment, he made it very clear that should I move in, I would need to put felt pads under all of my furniture.

“No scratches,” he said in halting English, pointing to the hardwood floors. “And then you move things easy for cleaning.”

Had he not been accompanied by his wife, a tall blond woman from Minnesota, and his twelve year old daughter, who was busy sliding down the hallway in her socks, I would have left. But there was something about them and their home on Pleasant Avenue (literally) that made me think, “This could work.”

So I stayed.


When move in day rolled around a few weeks later, the U-Haul had barely pulled into a parking space outside the house when my new landlord came out the front door waving two packages of adhesive felt pads.

“You put under everything,” he reminded me. “If you need more, tell me. I bring more. For heavy things, I help.”

dish1If there was any question about how committed he was to the scratch pads, I offer this small dish – or, more specifically, the bottom of it – as proof. His daughter gave it to me as a housewarming gift shortly after I arrived.

There’s a special place in hell for grown women who laugh in the face of a child who has given her a thoughtful, hand-made gift… and I’m on my way there.

“I’m sorry. I don’t mean to laugh,” I explained. “It’s just the felt… Your dad is really serious about that.”

dish bottom“He said that it could scratch your bureau,” she replied, unaware that my “bureau” was a decade old and came from IKEA.

All jokes aside, that little bowl said everything: Treat this place like it is your home, and we will treat you as though you’re part of ours.

So I did.


My first order of business in my new apartment was to celebrate the fact that I finally had enough room to invite all of my friends and co-workers over for lunch.

But since I don’t cook, the afternoon mostly involved everyone drinking too much wine and me demanding that people make sandwiches from a six-pound pre-cooked spiral cut ham that I bought at Pathmark.

eggMy landlord and his family came too, carrying a small stack of folding chairs that I never asked for. “You can borrow these,” he said and set them up around the living room. I noticed that none of them were equipped with the felt pads, though that didn’t seem to stop him from surreptitiously checking the legs of my furniture and scanning the floor for fresh scratches.

Not that I cared. I was distracted by the hand-painted Russian Orthodox egg his daughter brought me for Easter.

This time, I didn’t laugh.


My favorite day of the year is the 4th of July. When I moved in, I didn’t know that an annual backyard barbecue was part of the package, but I was happy to learn that it was.

I brought a date with me – an E.R. doctor that I met at a rooftop bar in Miami. I was in town for a bachelorette party and he was there to gathering professional experience with high-speed car crash victims. He told me later that it was the adorable way that I almost got thrown out of the club for standing on the edge of a fountain that made him want to talk to me.

We had a good run once his training was over and we were both back in New York, but things had mostly fizzled out by mid-July.

“What happened to who you brought to the party?” my landlord asked a few weeks later.

I shrugged. “I don’t know really. Just done.” That wasn’t exactly true, but seemed better than showing my landlord a series of Facebook photos and asking his opinion as to whether or not it looked like my boyfriend was sleeping with one of the girls in them.

“You’re a nice lady,” he said. “He’s no good.”

And he was right. No pictures necessary.


If 118th Street does one thing right, it’s Halloween. All the houses – including my landlord’s – are decked with enough lights, cobwebs and pumpkins to make you think you’re on a movie set.

For the first time in a decade, I handed out candy to trick-or-treaters on the front stoop. After just a few minutes, my landlord burst through the front door.

“What are you doing?!” he asked.

“Passing out candy,” I said, lifting my bowl as proof.

“Did you see the man on the bike?” he asked.

I hadn’t.

“He has fake leg,” he added, shaking his right foot.

“Oh, him!” I said. “Yeah, he just rode by.”

“Don’t talk to him,” he snapped. “He’s been in prison. Rape.

What followed was a breakdown of all the neighborhood characters – the harmless, the questionable and the to-be-avoided – most of which I had already steered clear of without a formal warning. When he finished, he said, “Wait here,” and went into the house.

He returned wearing a Stetson hat and holding his own bowl of candy. “Now I am cowboy,” he said and sat down on the porch, ready to stare down anyone with one leg.

I didn’t mind.


That year, New York had a brutal winter. My new boyfriend – someone who also turned out to be “no good” – and I spent a lot of time watching it snow from the third-floor window.

“I like this place,” he said. “It’s really homey.”

But things with him were mostly done by then too – especially when I opened my apartment door the next day and saw that he had tracked snow and salt up three flights of stairs.

“Did you do this?!” I demanded.

“Oh yeah, sorry.” he said. “It was a mess out there last night.”

“This is a house, not an apartment building. Wipe your feet,” I said. “Now I need to mop three flights of stairs.”

But I didn’t. Because my landlord had already started and refused to let me take over.

Hardly a surprise by that point.


And so it went for four more years. In all, five Springs, Summers, Falls and Winters – each like the one before, but better.

I didn’t always enjoy my time in New York, but I always loved being here. More than anything, it’s this place that I’ll miss once I move on.

90 more days. Then it’s someone else’s. I hope they love it as much as I did.


Update: Since the writing of this post, two people have offered to take this apartment off my hands. Couldn’t be happier to keep it in the family… at least for another year. 

  1. That was beautiful Nova – I am sure they will miss you. I wish you the best of luck in your new home. Keep up your interesting writing please!

    • Aw – thank you! I appreciate that. A pleasant surprise rolled in after I posted this… my best friend decided to take over my lease, so the place is staying in the family so to speak. I know she’ll love it here too.

      Thanks for reading! xoxoxo

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