Sunday, December 17, 2006

Ghosts from a cold-water flat

I peeled back layers of time Sunday in ways I never thought possible.
I can't count the number of times I've passed the six-story apartment house where my father was born on Sept. 12, 1907, on East Sixth Street in the East Village.
I never thought I would get the chance to enter the building -- much less set foot in the room where he was delivered by midwife.

409 E. 6th St.
East Village

I met my cousin in midtown Manhattan for brunch. The talk turned to our shared history. She had never seen this building where my father and his siblings grew up, and where his younger sister -- my cousin's grandmother -- was born in 1911, also delivered by midwife, as was the custom of the day.

I knew my dad was born in Apartment 18 and that it was on the fifth floor. My cousin and I wondered if the apartment faced out onto Sixth Street, or had a view of the brick wall of the building to the rear.
We peered through the glass of the front door just as a tenant was leaving. My cousin suggested I tell this man the link the building had with our family's past. Coincidentally, the tenant was especially interested because he had just returned from the West Coast, where he had a similar experience of coming face to face with his parents' past.

My dad in front of the building, circa 1912. Photo taken by itinerant photographer

He asked us which apartment our kin had lived in. Then he scanned the list of names running down alongside the doorbells. He knew the current occupant. "If this guy's home, he probably wouldn't have a problem with you peeking in, considering the connection," he said. "And if he isn't home, at least you get to see the inside of the building."

The occupant was home, and after explaining my cousin's and my interest, we were invited inside: two small, spartan rooms, a bathroom and a tiny kitchen added almost as an afterthought. The bathroom was installed after my dad and his family moved out before World War I. When they lived there, there was one shared bath per floor in the hallway.


My cousin at window in room in which my dad and her grandmother were born

Front room, looking out onto Sixth Street

In these tiny quarters, my father's father, a janitor, and his mother, a housewife and seamstress, raised a son and daughter. Another sister would be born when the family moved uptown to the Bronx to escape this cramped, noisy, dingy neighborhood where ethnic gangs ruled the streets.

Looking into the room that must've been my grandparents' bedroom -- it was set back from the street and would have been farther from street noise -- I felt time stop and then reverse.

Room in which my father (Sept. 12, 1907) and aunt (1911) were born

View from window in that room. The biggest change to the skyline is the absence of the World Trade Center's Twin Towers, which dominated the vista until Sept. 11, 2001 -- one day shy of what would have been my dad's 94th birthday.

I could hear the midwife deliver the birth slap, hear the first cries of life and consciousness, hear the congratulations on the birth of a son and, four years later, a daughter.

These sounds oozed from the walls.
I've never felt so deeply, thoroughly connected to history.

Stairway to sixth (top) floor


Matt Kohai said...

That was one lucky set of circumstances which lead you to see that apartment.

I heard a man today over brunch say that he'd rather be smart than lucky. I don't know about that...

Michael said...

Yes, it was a great stroke of luck brought about by my cousin, because if I were alone I likely wouldn't have been asked inside. The tenant saw a couple as far less threatening. As for luck vs. smarts, ignorance is bliss and I'll take luck every time.

Kozy said...

Hi Michael-san,

It's very interesting. I think you did good and the occupant was kind. By the way, your cousin is beautiful.

Michael said...

Thanks, Kozy-san! I'll pass on your very kind words to my cousin.

Lone Wolf said...

Hi Michael,

How are you doing?

Now that I'm on school break, I will have more time for blogging. I recently bought a Panasonic Lumix LZ3, so I've started a photo blog at my old space. Check it out. But keep in mind, I am a complete novice when it comes to photography.


Michael said...

Hi Lone Wolf,

Good to hear from you. Have fun with the camera. Just keep taking pictures as frequently as you can and you'll be a pro in no time. Don't be afraid to experiment ...