Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Rich Girl Gets Courted - in Housing Court

Tonight, I am tired. I am listening to Charlie Rose interview architects Frank Gehry and Renzo Piano. They are talking about important buildings (theirs) in faraway places. I remember meeting Gehry years ago in Venice, and thinking he looked exactly like my father's uncle Lou. Lou, the bootlegger who ran bathtub gin from Philly to Baltimore and was turned into the authorities by his wife. Gehry was building the Guggenheim in Bilbao; he explained his drawings, his hands running across the lines as if they were alive. Now, I am sitting alone and my dog is snoring. The computer keyboard is hot. I had a panic attack yesterday which I lived through. Work is moving, if slowly. And, hopefully, when I surface from this odd torpor, I'll still have a place to live. Speaking of buildings.....

Last week, it arrived: a knock at my door, a young black man who said "from the landlord" as he shoved a paper into my hand. I am being sued for back rent in civil court. I told the young man I was happy he was gainfully employed. However, while I'm a big fan of watching all the Law & Order franchises, I would rather not live them. But down to housing court I had to go, to "answer" the suit.

Frankly, I have no answers. At any moment I could have all the money I need to pay off every single debt; or I could be on the street tomorrow with many months to wait until I am paid. I worry every day where I might go, what will happen to Rocco, what will I do with all the stuff I've accumulated over 19 years in one place. Sometimes I think I should just throw everything I own out the window, like someone in a 1960s film might have done to "simplify" their lives. And it would really irritate my landlord. But holding even one coffee cup over the edge of the sill, remembering where it was bought, who I was with, where its specific space is on a kitchen shelf, I just do not have it in me to let (it) go.

So -- 111 Centre Street is the home of Manhattan's civil court. You walk in and they put all your junk on a conveyor belt through a metal detector, just like in an airport. I've always wondered who would be stupid enough to bring knives or guns to a courthouse, but I'm told there have been incidents. I do not want these people to think for one minute I will be creating one of THOSE, so I smile and practically give a volleyball push to my handbag, right into the chest of the woman working the belt, leaving it wide open so she can see there is no glint of metal, no trace of firearm. I smile; The woman gives me a blank look. I get past the machine and a happily chubby guy tells me what floor housing court is on. I go to the elevator; I am on my way up.

Through two nondescript doors on the 4th floor is Housing Court. There are lines marked with the Latin phrase "pro se," which is where I have to go as I am doing this on my own, which is what "pro se" means. There is a row of people at windows talking to those in line - one such "teller" who looks like Jerry Garcia is sipping a diet Pepsi and assuring a woman she will not be kicked out. Behind these tellers are symptoms of city disorganization, what looks to me like mile after mile of stacked files, each one probably detailing some awful moment in someone's home situation here in the Big Apple.Then a cute guy in a nice suit and a magenta tie comes up to me, looks at my papers and says "you don't have to stand in line, come with me," which I do like a puppy who has been offered a snack or a long walk in the park.

He disappears; comes back. "I tried to get you a free lawyer,' he says, "but your debt is too high." Something tells me this is a phrase I will hear often and again while I am dealing with all aspects of my debt. The truth is I have not made a dime in 2009, although I have 12 million in real estate for sale. But there is a clubby atmophere here, a humanness to which one succumbs, a sense of camaraderie, however scared we all are. Ellen, sitting next to me, lost her paralegal job six months ago after asking for a raise, something she had not had in three years: I have to translate for Juan from Washington Heights when he doesn't understand the question "is this rent really due?" but hears something like "doe" or "does". Ellen likes to bake - she has taken to baking her own bread so she doesn't have to spend 4 dollars a loaf. She has lived in her apartment for 16 years. We are comrades in the about-to-be-homeless front lines, sisters bound by bricks and mortar, soldiers in the fight for fairness over a landlord's lust for filthy lucre.

The guy with the magenta tie comes back; he has our court dates. I have to come in again next week to get an adjournment; I am thinking of hiring an attorney, no matter the cost, as long as he can give me another three months here which I think is what I will need. Pro Se isn't all it's cracked up to be. I think about getting married which, i admit, I ONLY think about when I'm in financial trouble. That is, indeed, another blog entry.

I say goodbye to all, wish them good luck and swish through the department's double doors like Loretta Young on her TV show. On my way downstairs, everyone headed for the street is cheery, even buoyant; the weather has finally turned and it is spring. I walk out into the warm air, still with a bit of briskness in it. I am oddly comfortable that moment in my own skin. Perhaps that is, after all, what home is. Isn't it?