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.
“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.