I moved to New York in April of the year The Lovin’ Spoonful hit the charts with “Summer in the City.” By July, I was broke. Three months is no record for Manhattan penury, especially in the red-ink world of unpublished poets, but our financial condition made a big impression on my wife. The rent was due and our daughter was running low on strained carrots.
The Help Wanted pages suggested a visit to 16 Christopher Street, the basement office where Edmond Martin (he preferred to be called E.M.) rented a portfolio of charming West Village apartments. The job paid $80 a week, which almost covered the $85 a month we owed for our six-room, rent-controlled railroad flat on East 4th Street and Avenue B. I started the next day.
My new boss, it turned out, was a well-known character in American arts and entertainment. In the 1930s, Ruth McKenney, author of My Sister Eileen, had lived with her famous sibling in a cellar apartment that Martin owned at 14 Gay Street. In her New Yorker stories (and subsequent spin-offs—a Broadway play, two movies, and the musical Wonderful Town) about the adventures of two newcomers in Manhattan, McKenney used E.M. as the model for an eccentric, beret-wearing landlord named Mr. Appopolous. E.M. had mixed feelings about being a footnote in American literature, but he wore his beret at a jaunty angle and looked upon his unique collection of quaint nineteenth-century apartment buildings as an artistic achievement. He did not, however, allow aesthetics to blur the bottom line. During a visit to E.M.’s Venetian pink palazzo on Waverly Place, I learned the secret of making money in a rent-controlled market.
“Furnish,” he told me. “Tenants who lease furnished apartments are more likely to move. With each turnover you get a 15 percent increase in rent.”
Furnished apartments, however, require furniture movers, which, I soon learned, was one of my jobs. Every week throughout the summer, accompanied by Dennis, a musician from California, I rented a van at a local garage where the office had an account. Dennis and I then spent a long day lugging tables, chairs, and mattresses from a storage room on West 10th Street to apartments in E.M.’s buildings, none of which had elevators. At the end of one particularly hard day in August, as we locked the storage room and got ready to return the van, the owner of a nearby tenement walked up and said, “How’d you like to haul some rubbish to the garbage pier at Gansevoort Street? I’ll give you five dollars each.”
Five bucks? That was 25 rides on the subway! We followed the landlord across the street and down to a dank basement piled high with musty furniture. “Deadbeats,” the landlord said. “They run out on their rent and leave me holding their cruddy junk! Here, start with this thing.”
He pointed to an enormous couch. Trimmed with elaborate scrollwork and upholstered in what appeared to be green velvet, the couch sat solidly on four intricately carved hardwood paws. We wrestled it upstairs and into the van, which the building’s superintendent had already partly filled with rolled-up carpets. Into the remaining space went a brass floor lamp with a heavy bronze base, wooden crates crammed with dusty books, an oval mirror in a gilt frame, an early Underwood typewriter, a 1920s refrigerator with a round compressor on top, an inlaid wooden bridge table, and a box of tarnished tin plates, and pictures. There were landscapes, portraits, oils, watercolors, photographs, and images of all kinds—including an impressive engraving of Washington Irving and His Literary Friends—all plucked from the walls of apartments their penniless owners had been forced to abandon. We squeezed it into the van with no room to spare.
“You’re sure the garbage guys will take this stuff?” Dennis asked as the landlord gave us our fives.
“Absolutely,” he replied. “In fact, you’re doing them a favor. Otherwise they’d have to come get it themselves.”
We drove to the Sanitation Department’s marine transfer facility at Gansevoort pier. All was quiet. I backed the van to one side of the pier, and we got out and unloaded our cargo. Out of the Sanitation building ran a man with a clipboard, his face scarlet. “Did you talk to Ernie about this?” he yelled.
“Ernie who?” Dennis asked.
While the sanitation guy gave us a high-volume lecture on the difference between commercial and household trash—not to mention the difference between knowing and not knowing Ernie—we somehow managed to cram the former household goods back into our commercial van. When we got down to West 10th Street, the tenement’s super was waiting. He’d never seen us before, of course, and warned that if we tried to dump “our” rubbish on “his” sidewalk, he’d call the cops. I glanced at my watch. The van was due back in two hours—empty.
Steaming mad, we roamed the crooked streets of the Village, desperately searching for someone dumber than us. Dennis tried plopping a box of old kitchen equipment on a corner trash barrel, but he was immediately spotted by a passing policeman. I tried a similar approach, slipping a rolled-up carpet behind the trash cans outside an apartment building. The super was on me instantly. It took several more failed attempts before it dawned on us that every cubic inch of Manhattan is defended by someone who doesn’t want your crummy couch.
“We’ll never get rid of this stuff,” Dennis said. “The trouble is—we look like sneaks.”
“We are sneaks,” I reminded him. He thought for a moment and said, “Pull over.” He went into a variety store and came out with a sheaf of manila luggage tags, a marker pen, and a plan. We started on Cornelia Street. I waited in the van while Dennis walked door-to-door, copying names and apartment numbers from mailboxes and bell lists. Then we transferred the names and numbers to the manila tags—labeling each one “E.M. Auctions, Inc.”—and attached the tags to bags of old clothing and an unfinished watercolor of Sheridan Square. Working swiftly, we dispersed the goods to the vestibules of the buildings specified on the tags and moved on to Jones Street. By the time we’d delivered our way west to Bedford Street, the van was nearly empty. I persuaded a super to accept the aged refrigerator, Dennis convinced a suspicious neighbor that Mr. Sawyer in 5A was an admirer of old bronze floor lamps, and we hung the gilt mirror in the lobby of an E.M. building on Perry Street. All that remained now was that big green couch. Its wooden claws seemed to grip the van floor. We knew it would be hard to deliver, but a woman on Bleecker Street came out of a building we had targeted and said “I’ll take it.” We returned the van with 10 minutes to spare.
We didn’t have long to enjoy our victory. Summer was over and so was the rental season. Our services at Edmond Martin were no longer required. I returned to the Lower East Side and worked as a projectionist in an underground cinema on St. Mark’s Place. Dennis survived on unemployment for a while, but when the weather changed, he went back to California. Now and then we’d talk on the phone and chuckle about the day we beat the big city.
However, the last laugh always belongs to Manhattan. Fast forward 15 years. I was walking though the Village when something caught my eye. Hanging in the window of an antiques shop was a framed print of Washington Irving and His Literary Friends. Curious, I went inside. The price was $250, and the print wasn’t in as good condition as the one we’d delivered to a vestibule on Grove Street. I turned to leave but there, in the corner, stood a floor lamp with a heavy bronze base. The price tag said $175. Not far away was an old refrigerator that someone had transformed into a stylish bookcase. It could be mine for only $500. On a table next to it sat tarnished tin plates, the kind we had delivered to a Charles Street hallway. Only that gray stuff wasn’t tarnish. The plates were pewter, and a place setting went for $150.
And handsomely restored, basking in the glow of its own spotlight, was a big maroon sofa, with paws. It wasn’t quite the same as the one we’d palmed off on that poor lady on Bleecker Street, but it was close. The price was $1,800.
“American Empire,” the antique dealer said.
I nodded. “I used to have one just like it.”
On my way out, I stopped for a last look at Washington Irving’s price tag and noticed the hand-lettered sign next to the cash register: “Ask About Our Free Delivery.”