A Different Story, Inspired By the Events of September 11, 2001

September 11, 2001 marks a date most of us will never forget. There’s no need to repeat the sights, sounds and heartache of that day, when so many, far more eloquent than I, have done so since that tragedy. I don’t even want to discuss the politics of that date, and the days following, most of which has also been reported, over and over, fairly thoroughly.

For me, September 11th started a few years or so before the actual event. That’s the story I have never talked about publicly before today.

Sometime in 1998, my wife and I were informed the rent on our tiny, 12′ x 17′ studio apartment on the upper-East Side of Manhattan, was going to be raised to $1200, a figure we simply could not accept. So, like many New Yorkers in the same boat as us, we decided it was time to look for someplace else to live.

We started the hunt in Hells Kitchen, an aptly named neighborhood, stretching from around 34th to 59th Streets, on the very west side of the City. In an effort to make the area sound a tad classier, real estate brokers called the neighborhood, Clinton. How better to justify the exorbitant rents.

At this point, for those who’ve never lived in NYC, I should explain how the game of renting even the shittiest apartment, worked back then (I say back then, as it’s the last time I had to deal with it).

A number of years earlier, the owners of apartment buildings in NYC realized they could make a killing by having a second party — usually a friend or relative — open an apartment rental agency, which would then represent all the apartment buildings owned by friend or relative #1. That way, you couldn’t rent directly from an apartment building’s owner. You had to go to the agency “repping” a building (or, more often, buildings).

Why would they go through this charade I hear you ask. Simple, a rental agency’s fee for “finding you” an apartment was, legally, anywhere from 15-25% of a year’s rent. To be fair, most agencies charged 15%. So to rent an apartment in NYC, you had to come up with first and last months rent, plus a 15% fee to the rental agency (more often than not, owned by the owner of the buildings you were looking at).

If you figure a small studio apartment (like ours) went for around $1200 a month at the time, that means to rent it, you needed to come up with $2400, plus a non-refundable agency fee of $2160. That’s a total of $4560 before you movie in. But that’s not all — most agencies wanted you to prove you earned at least 52 times your monthly rent — in this case, $62,400, per year. And if you happened to own a dog, as we did, there would also be a non-refundable pet fee ($500), plus, in some cases, you actually had to pay an additional rent for the dog (cats, you could sneak in).

If you work on Wall Street, that number might sound minuscule. But if, like my wife and I (and thousands of others), you’re an actor, never knowing when your next real job will appear, it means you’re also waiting tables, doing clerical work in an office, or something to help you survive. In that situation, you usually won’t have pay stubs, or a tax return proving you earn at least $62,400 a year. To get around this obstacle, what many of us did back then was, forge the documents.

So, for all this, what were we shown (and by “shown,” what I mean is, if an agency has an apartment you want to see, you leave them your driver’s license, or a credit card, they hand you a key, and you go look)? More studios apartments, only in these places, you had little innovations like the tub also serving as your kitchen table (you just pick the top off, and bathe). We were shown shithole after shithole, some claiming to have been recently remodeled — maybe a new fridge, or stove — more often than not, it simply meant a new paint job.

Being a tad frustrated, we were talking to another actor friend one day, who said, you need to come look at Jersey City! Jersey City? You mean, like, across the Hudson…in Jersey?

You have to understand, to me, a native New Yorker, New Jersey might as well have been another planet. If someone told you they lived in New Jersey, the immediate response was, what exit? Again, for those unfamiliar with the east coast, Jersey is known for it’s exits along I-95 and the Garden State Parkway. New Yorkers did not cross the Hudson.

But, being desperate, we decided, what the hell. What we didn’t know was, there was a subway we’d never heard of (or bothered to notice), called the PATH, running from Herald Sq. (in front of Macy’s), running down to Greenwich Village, and then under the Hudson, to Jersey City. At the time it cost less than the subway, and was a lot cleaner. So, surprisingly, we were off to a good start.

The trip ended with the second stop in Jersey City, at Grove Street. It had taken about 20 minutes from Herald Sq., which was kind of amazing as it took us a 15-minute walk from our studio on the very East Side, to even get to the subway going downtown. Being so close to the City, Grove St. was kind of a shock, as, at the time, it had much more of a small-town feel. But, there was a pizzeria and Duncan Donuts right there at the PATH station, which we found somewhat comforting.

Anyway, a two-minute, block and a half walk down Grove Street, took us our friends’ building. He was living in a studio there, as well. But when he opened the door and we looked in, what we saw was a cavern! This studio was HUGE! We could easily have fit three of our studios into his. He had high ceilings, and it was bright. So I asked, how much are you paying for this? $500 a month, came the answer. After I picked my jaw off the floor, I asked if there happened to be any other apartments available in the building. So, my friend looked out his rear-facing window, into a small backyard, where a family was having a barbecue. He opened the window, and shouted down, “Hey Moustafa, you have any apartments available?” As it happened, he did — a 3-bedroom on the top floor.

My wife and I almost choked, knowing there was no way we could afford a 3-bedroom, but our friend said, what the hell, you can at least take a look. So we did. When Moustafa, the landlord, opened the door, we both almost passed out. The room we saw — a combination living-dining room — was huge. It had new carpeting, and recessed lighting in the ceiling. On the other side of the room, was the kitchen. Not a narrow, NYC kind of kitchen you couldn’t fit two people in, but a real kitchen! Tons of shelf space, and — oh my g_d! — a dishwasher!

The first bedroom was also off the living room. It was a pretty fair-sized bedroom, almost the size of our entire studio, overlooking Grove Street. But it also had a closet running the entire width of the room. Then, we proceeded down the hall. The first thing we noticed was a cubbyhole for a stackable washer-dryer. We didn’t have a washer dryer, but this freaking apartment had a place for one. Movinging further down the hall, we came upon a very nice bathroom — full tub, toilet, sink with vanity — no kitchen table. And roomy. Okay. Beyond that were two doors. We went through the one on the right, first. The second bedroom was bigger than the first, and, like the other, had a closet running across the entire width.

But the most incredible part came when we looked out the window. There, stretched before us, was the entire skyline of NYC, with the World Trade Center prominently visible in front of us. We just stood there a moment, looking — kind of like tourists seeing Manhattan for the first time.

Then we went into the third bedroom. It was huge. I mean, really big, with high ceilings, and the same breathtaking view of the Manhattan skyline. But i this room, the closet was different. Instead of running along the entire wall, this bedroom had a seven foot-deep, walk-in closet, with racks and shelving on both sides. But, no, that wasn’t it for this room. We had one more surprise in store. This bedroom had it’s own bathroom! A second, full, master bathroom. And, holy shit!!! The tub had jacuzzi jets!

By this point I was salivating. But I knew this was also the point where the fantasy would come crashing down. So, not really wanting to hear the answer, I asked Moustafa, how much the apartment rented for? He said, I’m asking $1200 a month. Before I could say a word, my wife turned to me and said, “but we said we didn’t want to pay more than $1100.” Before I could say, are you out of your fucking mind, Moustafa said, “I like you two. I’ll give you the first year for $1100 a month.” I turned to my wife and said, “write him a check.” I was not about to let this palace get away. So I started to take out all the forged paperwork I’d created to prove we made enough to afford this place. Moustafa just shook it off. I don’t need to see all that — I trust you.

And that is how we left the city of my birth, and moved across the Hudson, to Jersey City, and an incredible apartment with the most amazing view of Manhattan you could ask for, with the World Trade Center prominently featured.

One of the more unexpected, and kind of breathtaking things we learned, on days the Hudson got fogged over, the WTC seemed to disappear. Then, as the fog lifted, like Brigadoon, it would magically reappear. It was cool, beautiful and, at the same time, somewhat eerie.

After having lived in Jersey City for a year or so, my wife found a day job at a financial institution with offices in the WTC. It was an incredibly short, if crowded commute. Two stops on the PATH train, ending right underneath the twin towers. Two-minute walk to the PATH. Five minutes underground. That was her daily commute.

During the year, we had also gotten ourselves a roommate, which helped cut our expenses. The second bedroom, next to ours, we turned into our home office, where I worked, when not teaching or acting in the City. It was truly ideal.

But all of that changed one unbelievable day in the year 2000.

Tanya, my wife, and I spent the entrance to the new millennium with my family in Norfolk, VA. My brothers, Richard and Ethan, were then running 2nd Story Theatre, a non-profit stage company the three of us had started, number of years before. It was a nice way to ring in the new year, and we had a wonderful time.

Back home, I was working on the script for a television pilot, my friend Joe and I were writing. Things were looking very up. Then, as so often happens, we lost the funding for our pilot.

At this point, I should mention — I have a certain degree of psychic ability. I have no control over it, but sometimes I know things are going to happen before they do. It also helps me read people — who they are, their thoughts and dreams, and, sometimes, their intent. The one person I’ve never been able to use this gift to help, is me. When it comes to predicting my future, I haven’t got a clue.

I mention this because, one night, a few months into the new year, I had what I can only describe as the most vivid dream of my life. In the dream, I saw the southern tip of Manhattan immersed in smoke. I didn’t know if it was from a bomb, an earthquake or something else. But in the midst of all this smoke and destruction, the most frightening aspect was, the twin towers of the World Trade Center were no longer there. They, along with pretty much everything in the area, were destroyed.

I woke up with a start, my breath coming in heaves. The first thing I did was look out at the window, to ensure myself the twin towers were still there. But I couldn’t shake the dream/vision I’d just had, and felt nothing other than a complete and utter sense of danger.

I slowly walked into our home office where Tanya was working on the computer. As usual, she greeted me with the loving smile that always melts my heart. But this time, I couldn’t push back the dream I’d just had. So I pulled another chair up to the desk, took Tanya’s hands in mine, and told her about my dream. I finished by saying something I hadn’t really known I was thinking. What I said was, “I don’t think we’re safe here, anymore. I think we have to get out of here.”

There are people who would have looked at me as if I was crazy. There are those who would have said, “are you insane? Our entire lives are here. Our careers are here.” And who would have been able to blame them?

But that’s not Tanya’s and my relationship. Our love, and our understanding of each other goes much deeper than that. having heard me out, she looked at me quite seriously, and said, “then I think it’s time we leave.”

A few days later, I received a call from my brother, Ethan. He was calling on behalf of himself and Richard. And the timing of what he had to say simply fit the moment, perfectly. “Rick and I are totally burnt out running the theatre. Is there any chance you and Tanya would be interested in moving down here and taking over the theatre for us?”

Exactly 60 days from the date of my dream, an army of our friends came over, and helped us pack a truck being supplied by one of our friends. We put all our belongings in the truck, and whatever was left, into our car, and left our beautiful Jersey City apartment, for a new home in Norfolk, VA, an apartment we’d never seen, which my brother, Richard, had rented for us.

When we got to Virginia, and went over to the theatre, a loft on the 2nd Story of a building (thus the company name), we found a company in total disarray. Grant applications had not been finished, loose contracts lost us the next play scheduled in the season, and the script for the play after that, was not only unfinished, what had been written was a disaster. The final blow our first week there, was finding out our landlord was cancelling our lease, leaving a theatre company with no home.

We did our best, managing to find a new space, which turned out to be temporary and changing the name of the company to the Actors Repertory Theatre.  We managed to produce the East Coast premiere of a wonderful play, Supernormal Clutches, which Tanya co-starred in, and I directed. But after a series of further disasters, we decided our only choice was to relocate ourselves, and the company. So we moved to Frederick, MD, Tanya’s hometown, northwest of Washington, DC.

As we were working to get ART up and running in Frederick, Tanya took a temp job, to help keep us afloat until we were back in production. That was where she was on the morning of September 11, 2001. I woke that morning, to a shaky call from Tanya, who told me to turn on the television — quickly. Five minutes later, with the first WTC building already in smoke and flames, I watched as a plane rammed into the second twin tower.

The rest of that story is known by everyone, especially our friends who were nearby, or helping as first responders. Tanya came home a short while later. Her temp job had let her go, because they didn’t approve of her reaction to what she’d witnessed — the destruction of a building which, up until we’d left Jersey City and Manhattan less than a year and a half earlier — where she’d worked. Had we still been there, Tanya would have been arriving at the WTC subway stop, under the twin towers, just as the first plane hit.

In the years since, Tanya has said (on multiple occasions), my dream probably saved her life. No question life would have been much different had we stayed.

The events of that day, ended up changing the lives of millions of people. Not just those who perished that day, their families, and the entire City of New York. Not just the people who died when the plane hit the Pentagon and their families, and not just the people of flight 93, who crashed their plane in Shanksville, PA, to save others, and their families. It affected all Americans, and eventually hundreds of thousands of people in Iraq, as well.

But for Tanya and I, while we feel the same anger, sadness, and sense of loss felt by all Americans, there is also something else. A feeling of gratitude that, for whatever reason, some power — whatever you want to call it — I find no need to define it, warned us well in advance, and saved us. It allowed us to share the strange ride we’ve taken ever since.

It was something special, and it kept us together.

 

 

When Home Is No Longer Home

No matter where I’ve lived over the years, I have always proudly identified as a New Yorker.

I was born in New York City. And though I mostly grew up in the nearby Westchester suburb of Larchmont, I always spent much of my time in Manhattan. Until they moved to Sacramento, my mother’s parents lived on the West Side, and my father’s mother, the Bronx. I also had other family and friends who lived in the City, and spent as much time with them as possible.

panambldgFor much of my childhood, my father maintained his offices in the Pan Am Building (I still cannot bring myself to call it the Met Life Building), located above Grand Central Station, a quick 26-minute train ride in from Larchmont. I started working as a delivery boy for my father’s film/television distribution company when I was 12, and when I dropped out of Boston’s Emerson College after my sophomore year, it was to return to NYC, where I could study with some of the best acting teachers in the country, while actually pursuing the craft I’d always dreamt about being a part of.

While work often took me out of the City, it was always the home to which I could and did return. Even as things started to radically change in the mid to late ‘90s, NYC was my home. In 1999, economics forced me across the Hudson River to Jersey City, NJ. The cost of living in Manhattan had simply gotten too high, and with the Guiliani administration in charge of City Hall, it was obvious things were only going to get worse for those not making a small to not-so-small, fortune.

But even in Jersey City (which I dubbed, The Sixth Borough), I could still be a New Yorker. The Path train (the subway line into Manhattan) could get me to Greenwich Village in five minutes, and midtown in 15. Jersey City gave us the luxury of affordable housing, while allowing access to all the benefits of living in the City.

Then in 2011, my wife and I left. My mother, who was living in Virginia Beach, VA, along with two of my brothers, was in failing health. My wife and I decided, if a job opportunity that paid enough came up, we’d make the move south, primarily to help my brothers care for my mother. Ironically, shortly after we arrived (my birthday, in fact), my mother suffered a stroke. The result of this stroke was, my mother had to permanently be moved to a full-time care facility, making our move to Virginia somewhat pointless.

Not being particularly fond of Virginia Beach, when my wife’s job was suddenly terminated, we moved north to her hometown, Frederick, MD, a short enough drive to Virginia Beach, where we could visit easily, and get to my mother quickly if anything happened.

After my mother passed, and things in Frederick didn’t quite turn out as expected, we decided it was, once again, time to return home to NYC, which we did in April, 2015.

I’ve heard the saying “you can’t go home again” many times in my life. But it has never held true for me — until now. It was difficult for me to comprehend what was happening, but in short order things became abundantly clear.

At first, we thought we’d simply return to Jersey City. But when we started looking at rental prices, we found that in the four years we’d been gone, Jersey City had become a “hot spot” for those who could no longer afford to live in Manhattan. So much so, prices had soared astronomically in our absence. It might still be a bargain compared to Manhattan, but for us (and numerous others we spoke to) J.C. had priced themselves out of the means of many, including us.

Some friends encouraged us to look at Westchester, an idea that held appeal for me, since I’d grown up there, but I was skeptical as to whether we’d be able to afford it. That skepticism proved prescient  as soon as we started looking at rental prices. Westchester has many more houses than apartments, making rentals there even more astronomically priced than Jersey City.

We ended up in a fairly decent-sized apartment in West New York, NJ, a few miles north of Jersey City, but a world away in terms of living. The apartment we rented is above an H&R Block office, which sounded great at first, especially when we were told our downstairs neighbors were barely there between April and December. At the time we rented, we were also under the impression we had access to the back yard, very helpful when you have two dogs used to a yard. We didn’t find out that our access to the yard had been blocked off (pun unintentional) until we were sitting down to sign the rental agreement. Given my wife, sister-in-law, me and the two dogs were living in one small room at a friend’s house at the time, that was a little too late to back out of the deal.

Frodo, our Chow-mix, spent his first few years living in Jersey City, and loves to be walked, so he didn’t mind the fact our new street was the main drag in West New York, and incredibly congested with both traffic and pedestrians. Willow, the puppy, was five months old, and already nervous about being on a leash. When we took her out on the street for her first walk in our new home, she cowered as if being beaten, and fairly dragged us back home. The street terrified her, and still does. She has steadfastly refused to go outside, with the exception of those rare occasions we actually gained access to the back yard. The result of this has been tremendous feelings of guilt on our part, for putting the puppy in this situation.

And so it began.

I’ve discussed the career setbacks that have occurred since we returned in previous posts. My wife, who, as an Executive Legal Secretary, was working for partners in one of the largest law firms in the world before we left NY, has never had a problem finding work. But things in New York City have changed. Not only could she not find a job that paid what she had been making only four years earlier — she couldn’t find anything. It took six months before she landed a job — one that pays less than she was making before, and with medical benefits that are minimal, at best.

Since our return, it has felt like everything that could go wrong, has. I no longer have access to a train that gets me into the City in minutes. I have to take a bus — a bus that, for some bizarre reason, seems to get stuck in traffic here on the Jersey side, every time I ride it. (Again, rather than belabor the point, I refer you to my previous post, Breakdown.)

But I’ve noticed something else — in the time since our return, a frightening number of NYC landmarks, places that have been here since my childhood, and long before, have closed or announced their closing. H&H Bagels, a West Side fixture, thought by many to make the finest bagels in a City renowned for bagels, is no more.

Four days ago, Zaro’s, another great bakery (best challah anywhere — that’s Jewish egg bread for the uninitiated), announced the closing of their Bronx flagship store, which has been there for more than 50 years (this after already closing their store in the Port Authority bus terminal). And the reason for all these closings is the same — building owners are jacking rents up to heights no one other than national and multi-national chain stores can afford to pay.

NYC is not only killing off more and more of its history and culture, it is making much of it unaffordable to those who live here, excepting of course, the top 1% (and the rich from other countries, buying up as much of NYC as they can).

All of this has made me have to face the painful reality that NYC is no longer, and probably never will feel like home again. When I say “painful reality,” that doesn’t begin to express the anguish I’m feeling. If NYC isn’t home, where is? Where do I go from here? What do I do now? I’ve been blindsided by something I never for one minute believed could happen to me.

And while I cling to my wife, the only real physical home I have in this world — my body — desperately wants out of here before the feeling of loss becomes overwhelming. And that’s just sad.