On Moving, Part 2

On the last day of my lease, I walked into my apartment to paint a final coat of white on the bathroom walls, the last task I’d left unfinished when I departed at about 2:30 the night before. I thought I’d have the final hours of legal occupancy to myself—I’d paint, I’d clean, I’d organize the remaining items in my cabinets into a couple tote bags, I’d hide the secret note I wrote to the new tenants somewhere in the apartment. Depending on my mood, I might even treat myself to a dramatic moment by the door upon my final exit, pausing for a second, my finger quivering on the light switch as I privately let a wave of sentimentality overtake me. It’s the sort of dramatics I reserve only for the moments when I’m alone.

When I walked through the door, however, I was greeted not with the alleged quiet, haunting beauty of an empty apartment, but instead with the smell of fresh paint, drop cloths in both bedrooms and the living room, and a small, ancient Italian man hard at work.

13 continuous months of dwelling, and this was the moment I finally met my landlord, Vincenzo. Standing in front of me was the person to whom I’d been writing my rent checks all these months, in all his tiny, angry, wrinkly, hard-of-hearing glory.

“You painted the cabinet,” he said. No good morning. No introduction. Just rage.

He lead me not to the bathroom vanity to which I feared he was referring, but instead to the bedroom, where he pointed to the IKEA Pax Wardrobe, which came with the apartment and I did, indeed, paint.

“Yes, I painted it to match the walls,” I explained, “so it blends in?”
“Ach,” he replied. He seemed unimpressed.
“I also added all these nice drawers,” I pushed, throwing open the doors to display the new additions I thought I’d been generous in leaving behind, sprinkling in some Vanna White physicality to up the classiness. “Now it can hold more, it’s more functional. See, before it only had that rod and those two shelves.”
“That’s the color it used to be,” he said, motioning towards the original dark brown shelves I hadn’t cared to paint. “And you painted it.”

I opted to change the subject, since this conversation clearly wasn’t going anywhere.

“I didn’t realize you were going to repaint the walls,” I said, looking around at the mockery he’d made of my bedroom. Gone was Benjamin Moore’s Moonlight White in matte finish, covered ever-so-sloppily with Amsterdam Color Work’s “Off-White,” which would have been called “Nicotine” if Amsterdam Color Works employed more creative color-namers.

“Yes, the paint you used, it’s not good. It gets dirty. You have something on your hand, you touch the wall, it leaves a mark.”
“Oh, you can wash it. I used good paint, I’ve lived with it for a year and it’s fine.”
“No. Semi-gloss paint. It’s better. The color’s better. You like it?”

I have this problem. I’m too honest to really compromise for the sake of basic decency, and I’m a horrible liar unless the stakes are high enough for me to be a good one. But it stands to reason that if I liked that color, I probably would have used it in the first place rather than having spent days covering up an older, dirtier version of it. So he really shouldn’t have asked.

“It’s fine,” I said.
“What?”
“It’s… well, it’s not my apartment anymore.”

I sulked my way to the kitchen and went about clearing out the few odds and ends that remained—a cutting board, some cleaning products, a bottle of olive oil. I wiped down the countertops a final time and cleaned that hideous floor again, for good measure. I scrubbed the toilet bowl and the tub and wiped down the sink and vanity.

My headphones had been temporarily misplaced in the move, so Vincenzo and I worked in crushing silence, each of us having confined ourselves to separate corners of the apartment. He painted and painted, the spongey surface of the roller making that familiar, repetitive sound as it concealed the last vestiges of my hard work. Vincenzo had unplugged the A/C unit, presumably to save money, so while the apartment felt like a sauna, the bathroom had been transformed into something closer to that broiler drawer in the bottom of your oven you’ve never used. Still, I reached for the paintbrush and started in on the corners.

Blame it on the inevitable delirium brought on by extreme temperatures, but while steeping in the heat of that tiny bathroom, there was a moment in which I began to feel a certain level of comradery with Vincenzo. Here we were, toiling away in the heat together, separated only by two rooms and about 60 years of life. Despite our many differences, our common ground lay within the sturdy walls of apartment #19 and our shared interest in its proper maintenance. It didn’t matter, then, that I’d stayed up until all hours carefully patching and repainting every hole I’d made in the walls, only to have him cover up my handiwork with his questionable paint choices and more questionable painting abilities. His heart was in the same place mine was, each of us caring about these five small rooms in our own special ways. It was beautiful, really, like a fable or a Hallmark card.

He called me out of the bathroom to show me something, which ended up being a closet door in the second bedroom with a tiny, four inch crack near the bottom. These hideous, warped, hollow-core doors, that slid reluctantly down their tracks, composed of nothing but two thin sheets of luan and cardboard. If they weren’t the last bit of ugly I hadn’t squeezed out of the apartment, then at least they were at the top of the list. And he stood there, pointing angrily and accusing me of breaking it.

I insisted I hadn’t. He insisted I had. We went back and forth for a while before I just gave up.

This was the moment that all my faint notions of comradery melted away. He was finished with me and turned his back to continue his massacre of my paint job. “Me,” being the little shit who had the audacity not to compliment his paint choices when prompted. The brat who had the fussy idea of painting the trim a different color than the walls. The one who restored the hardware on his doors, who patched every hole the walls had to offer, who tore out decades-worth of excess wiring, who replaced two broken doorknobs and scraped paint from the bathroom wall tiles and re-caulked the kitchen and re-stained the threshold and braved the neglected space behind the radiators armed with only rubber gloves and a vacuum tube. The one who put enough lipstick on this pig of a fourth floor walk-up on 1st Avenue that it was rented out within 36 hours of hitting the market, with the rent raised $250 above what I’d been paying.

Me. I’m the asshole.

The painting only took a few more minutes, after which I gathered my things and headed towards the door, stopping in the threshold between the living room and kitchen to bid my farewell. Vincenzo was standing on the ladder, grimacing at the wall, and didn’t turn around when I told him I was leaving or thanked him for my time there—either out of anger or deafness, it’s hard to say.

Turning in my keys downstairs and heading back to the 5 train to make my way back to my new home, it only seemed right that it should have ended this way. I guess I had the full Manhattan experience, after all. I moved into an awkward apartment uptown because of the rent. I did my darndest to turn it into something. I called it home, until I didn’t. Eventually I made the inevitable leap out of borough, and I got screwed by my landlord.

And there I was. A tiny Jew, huffing my way to the subway, fuming about a fight I just had with an 85 year old stranger. While I still don’t have the audacity to call myself a New Yorker, I think this might be as close as I’ve come to qualifying.

Apartment / Life
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68 Comments

  1. Wow. That should go in the NYT or something.

    “A tiny Jew….” made me laugh. You’re such a talent!

    jbhat

  2. You’re a really good writer. That was awesome to read and totally relatable; I had a very similar experience when I left Boston for Chicago.

  3. Ha! That whole story sounds so New York to me. So you can at least call yourself a New Yorker in front of us West Coasters.

    Also, semi-gloss off white paint should be OUTLAWED. It is an affront against nature and all good things. The end.

    • “Also, semi-gloss off white paint should be OUTLAWED. It is an affront against nature and all good things. The end.”

      Yes and yes. My roommate moved out yesterday, new one moving in on the 1st, and today the painter comes to paint her room. “Montana white,” he calls it, chuckling to himself. It’s not only beige (off-white is too kind), it’s weird HIGH GLOSS. Awful. The name is an abomination to this fine state. :)

  4. Well, damn, Daniel. If that isn’t the greatest piece of writing on the subject of what it’s like to be a renter in New York City, then I don’t know what is.

    Value your words. This is going somewhere. (And if I don’t get to design the cover for whatever it is, I’ll cry.)

  5. As a lifelong renter, I FEEL YOU. Well played, and well said.

  6. You can’t win em all, and while it sucks that your taste-deprived old bat of an ex-landlord can’t appreciate all the sweat equity you put into that apartment, the rest of us sure can. I’m surprised you didn’t kick over his paint can in protest, honestly! Oh well, on to the next one, as Jay-Z would say.

  7. For my money, I’m certain this makes you part of the club.

  8. Onwards and upwards Daniel. Uhmazin piece of writing.

  9. Your writing is so many things – beautiful, haunting, evocative, laugh out loud funny. Please keep on keeping on.

  10. This was awesome. The tale that every renter lives to see (or should, anyway).

  11. Ditto to what Anna said about valuing your words and going somewhere. Hat tip, sir.

  12. So much pain and yet beautifully written. Kind of reminds me of child birth stories, after a while you will forget about the pain or else you would never do it again. Thanks for sharing, it was worth the wait! You are such a great story teller.

  13. Genius writing! I wonder if the new tenants got to see your paint job before it got covered up by the landlord… I’m sure if they did they won´t appreciate the semi-gloss too much!

  14. Also, I’m sure this resonated with many of us renters who have left behind something so much better than what we started with, only to hear about the rent being jacked up for the next person while we get shorted on the deposit. I would tell you about the $800 deposit gone missing, but then I would get either teary or angry, and maybe both.

    • i know this feeling.

      for me, though, i assume the deposit is gone as soon as I hand it over. it makes life so much easier.

      in irony, i fix up a place to make it nice and live-able, and then the landlord jacks up the rent because the place is more valuable.

      i’m terrified to redo the floors in our current place — beautiful native timber under scary carpet — because I don’t want my rent jacked up once i do!

  15. hahhah I would have been pissed too. In my experiences renting, I’ve found that (most) landlords do their best to keep as much of your deposit as possible in their hands…..even if that means accusing you of cracks that you didn’t cause. It’s a business, and they’re trying to collect as much as possible. Leaves me fuming every time.

  16. xxx

  17. Well said! As a person who also believes in leaving things better than I found it, kudos for saying what I’ve wanted to, but never had the guts to.

    The thing is, you need to keep this experience in your mind, it is what makes owning your own home one day – worth it. (That’s assuming you want to own your own home one day.)

    Chin up, you’re on to better things.

  18. Dear god, if he had kept the changes you had made, the apartment probably would have been worth the rent increase to the new renter.

  19. Heh – I can believe he was all pissy over the IKEA cabinet. He probably didn’t even notice the bathroom one. Very well written…

  20. Geez, great post. And ditto to the wonderful writing.

    I can only imagine what my a**hole management company is going to try to pull with our security deposit. Especially since we built a wall and practically doubled their rent possibilities with making the place into a flex two bedroom. God only knows.

    On to bigger and better things AND better places. These crappy experiences just make moving on so much easier.

  21. In Toronto, when we moved out of our place the landlord paid us for our “updates”. So similar, yet so different. I loved this post, it really cracked me up.

    • yeah i’m also from toronto and honestly i dunno why you new yawwwkers put up with crap like this.

      1) we don’t have “security” deposits – that’s illegal
      2) we have rent stabilization by law. everywhere. (usually about 1 – 3% a year depending on the consumer price index i.e. inflation) as long as we remain in the place.
      3) lots of rentals up here are large buildings so the landlord isn’t going to ever going to see any work you do, plus the super will probably just love you for it (less work for him when you move)

      then again here in toronto our price-to-rent ratios are through the roof so owning a home is nothing but a very potent pipe dream for us 20-somethings.

      either way brilliant piece of writing – i think you’ve found your 2nd? calling.

  22. What a damn shame he didn’t recognize your brilliance. I on the other hand rented a mansion with a group of friends (it had it’s very own ballroom!) in Melbourne Australia. We asked the landlord if he’d give us one week’s free rent if we painted the place for him and he agreed. We ripped up the carpets, painted the place white and invited him over. He loved it and described us as the best tenants he’d ever had… A shame those New York landlords aren’t as appreciative. Surely you added value to his property… But bad taste is an incurable disease that some people don’t even know they have.

  23. Wow- another well written piece as always. Written with such humor and wisdom.

  24. I’m imagining the dismay of the next tenants, who I’m guessing got to see your awesome paint job and color selection, walking into their “freshly” painted rental beige blech.

    • It would be funny if they complained to the landlord, wouldn’t it? Like, that isn’t the place we rented! We rented a place with an awesome paint job and you give us that shitty crap?

  25. Epic! On another note, how is Chandler enjoying her new digs?

  26. So did you ever leave the Top Secret note, or did Vincenzo ruin the moment?
    It’s a lovely touch! I wish I’d find something like that, moving in somewhere.

  27. Of course, the landlord probably was outside of his legal rights to come into what was still YOUR apartment (rent paid until midnight) and start paiting, but I suppose that is only a technicality. I once looked at an apartment while the landlord was busily painting the living room a trendy green and Mrs. Landlord got very angry when I commented about what a shame it was.

    Great writing, as usual.

  28. What great writing. This post made me teary- you worked SO hard on that apartment.
    You inspired me to tackle 90 years of paint on our door hardware, what a difference it made. Of course when we move out the super will slosh paint all over it again.
    Looking forward to post on your new home.

  29. beautifully written, and very similar to how i felt when i left my college apartment. my 3 roommates and i made a few changes (for the better) and of course that got taken out of our security deposit. best of luck to you with the new place, can’t wait to see what you do.

  30. Beautiful penmanship …….. again. Love the way you write.

  31. incredibly well written. vividly painted images and emotions. lovely. i’ll be back to your blog to read more!

  32. This post makes me want to strike out for New York City, rent a shithole and make it pretty, and play piano on the roof (Piper Perabo in Coyote Ugly style). Beautifully written!

  33. This is a gorgeous, evocative post which felt like a story about love found and lost for your first New York apartment. In some ways it mirrored your relationship with Vincenzo. You were at odds, briefly seemed to come together, then, in the end? Indifference tinged with melancholy and anger which dissipated as your distance between them grew. Lovely writing.

  34. Sorry to hear you got so screwed after making that place look nicer than it’s probably been in years. Gloss paint is the worst. It’s like oil on the face of a teenager highlighting all the acne and pores. Any small bit of light hits it and all I can see is blemishes galore. My sisters last apartment had super glossy beige walls (which still looked dirty) and glossy ceilings! Who puts glossy paint on a ceiling? A landlord who hasn’t repainted in almost 10 years is who. He let her know that as he slapped some more beige glossy paint over her matte white walls as she was on her way out. Good-bye security deposit.

    I wish you better luck with the next place. At least they seem more lenient on their paint policies.

  35. You. are. an. amazing. writer. Publish this.

  36. Learn to use the broiler Daniel-son. The broiler is your friend. Frittatas will never be easier.

  37. As always – it is a mental rush when there is a new post to read! My grandmother used to call that color found in apartments everywhere, “…vanilla ice cream gone bad.”

  38. All my sympathies, and I found this weirdly upsetting, but I must say this: I love glossy and semi-gloss paint and no one will ever convince me to use otherwise no matter how tacky they persuade me I am. I like shiny walls, dammit, and when you have a habit of literally roaming the house working on your latest painting and end up with acrylics spattered on every wall (even in the bathroom! how did that even happen?!) you will like them too :(

  39. Daniel! You are so caring about interiors not just for yourself, but for others sakes too, but if you can, promise us you won’t put in even 1/10th of the work when exiting this next apartment as you did on this last one? I’m in my fourth NYC apartment and have my deposit back from all the previous three with no problems, despite having painted walls, installed shelves, and left holes of all sizes, less than sparkling bathtubs or toilets, even furniture behind, and it pains me so much to see how much of your talented, precious time you spent working on that apartment before you left, especially when its nearly impossible to NOT get treated this way by your landlord (in the same way that its often difficult to imagine that your parents were once children, I find it even harder to imagine that NYC landlords were once human beings, bwahaha). Not that it matters that I’m in pain, but still. :) Can’t wait to see how the new place develops.

    PS You’ve been to Time Galleries (562 5th Avenue between 15/16th Street) in South Park Slope before, I hope/assume? I got my mint condition pair of 70s green and gold striped loveseats, round wood/laminate dining room table and a leather-covered stool like one I know Anna refinished a while back — last year, all for a total of about $475 or something, with free delivery. That place is a gem!

  40. your new landlord is clearly not going to be hung up on the “you changed that!” factor like this guy, this is definitely a time to take a deep breath, move on, and plunge in.

  41. Well done. And he rented it before he painted it back to dull.

    What do you want to bet the new tenants will be pissed?

    Looking forward to your next adventure(s)

  42. If you ever moved to my city, I would beg you to be my tenant, and I would love and appreciate all your changes.

  43. I’m at the point where I just consider my damage deposit the cost of doing what I want to an apartment to make it some place I want to live. Like I’d rather lose a month’s rent than live with paint I hate, as much as that sucks when you KNOW you’re making it better than it was.

  44. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: you are an incredible writer. I can’t wait to buy whatever you write (and Anna designs the cover for, of course). Seriously, you’ve got “it.” And congratulations on the new place. It’s like the Portland series all over again!

  45. /Shakes fist/ LANDLORDS!!! I still haven’t gotten the ruling from my TWO small claims court cases against landlords. They are a special kind of evil…

  46. Just came across these right before stumbling onto your site. Here is a fun way to know your tenants rights: http://candychang.com/tenants-rights-flash-cards/ Protect yourself from sketchy landlords + plus they are beautifully designed.

  47. brilliant. and what I said last time.

  48. Daniel,
    1.) You’ve earned your New Yorker badge, so claim it aloud and proud.
    2.) As if your ideas weren’t creative and inspiring enough*, your writing makes this one of my favorite blogs to read.
    3.) Welcome to Brooklyn – prepare to fall in love like you’ve never loved before.
    *Hubs and I are building shelves modeled after the shelf in your bedroom so we can pitch our entertainment unit. If ours comes out halfway as pretty and cool as yours did, my ego just might explode.

  49. Well, welcome to the awesomeness of Brooklyn! Where you still, sadly, get screwed by landlords.

  50. I would read your blog for the writing no matter what you blogged about. Thank you for putting yourself out there.

  51. Hi,

    I’ve been a lurker for such a long time so thought I’d finally say Hi! I came across your lil blog when I was planning on upholstering my bed, and your tutorial was brilliant with a capital ace. I put some pics up on my blog too, so y’know, check ‘em out.

    As a late comer though I always felt a bit sad that you’d done so much to your place ‘before I arrived’ so I’m super excited to share in the transformation of your new place! I know what it’s like when you make changes to a rental and people always say ‘why bother-it’s not your place!?’. Everyone seems to forget that we have to live in our rental, and look at the walls and the kitchens and the wonky fixtures. Sometimes, you just gotta fix it. I take secret joy in knowing that the people who next in my flat will view it in all it’s current awesomeness, but when they move in it will be bland and drab again.

    Exciting times!

    Mickely

  52. This goes in my “Best Of” category. It read like a screenplay. Dang you’re good!

  53. I hope the next renters cover it all in hot pink wallpaper. Can’t wait to see what you do next.

  54. So the landlord paints the walls himself?? whoaaa..that would never happen in my country!

  55. At the risk of sounding like a broken record, you are a tremendous writer! This brings back memories of the many apartments I painted and obstinate, no-imagination landlords I had. I did a lot of repainting walls institutional white when moving time came while trying to reassure the landlord that it would, indeed, cover up my “shocking” color selections.

  56. You write so beautifully. I couldn’t wait to see what happened next. I certainly hope this experience does not deter you from making something wonderful out of your new apartment. Can’t wait to read more!

  57. I’ve been a long time reader as well, and this is written beautifully.

    I recently moved from Kansas City, MO to NE Indiana, and my new apartment just doesn’t feel like ‘home’ yet. However, thanks to your inspirations, it’s about to change.

    Started the challenge by conquering my huge (apt. huge) half bath in my master bedroom – gone is the hideous peeling wallpaper :) I stripped it down, and am halfway through painting it. Every time it sucked, or the spackling wouldn’t do what i wanted it to do, I thought “i need this to be manhattan nest worthy.”

    soo… thanks :) for inspiring all of us renters out here.

  58. Update yo!

  59. I hope its going well and that we will see some awesome pictures soon! Moving sucks, I hope your drinking plently of water and not stressing to much :)

    (hug)

  60. So ready for an update. We’re getting all antsy in our… pantsy? …waiting to find out how things are going!

  61. Brilliant article! He sounds like an angry little man! But funny all the same!

  62. Can’t wait to see the progress! I love, love, love the credenza!

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