A (Very Small) Room of My Own by
(25 Stories)

Prompted By My First Apartment

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I feel as if I have already written this story by virtue of other stories of mine that bear upon it: my senior year “zoo” and my year without a telephone, in particular.  But, by popular demand (code for Suzy telling me it’s damn well time to get back into the Retro groove), let me focus now on my very first, very tiny apartment.

It required a convertible sofa, as there was no way that a regular bed could be put in there and allow for any other furniture.  I used to semi-joke that it had the advantage, when the sofa was unfolded, that you didn't have to get out of bed to go to the bathroom...

Again, I had a wonderful, but exhausting, senior year in college with six roommates, almost all of us with semi-live-in girlfriends, assorted pals who gravitated to the suite, and, impossible not to mention, Carl.  Carl was taking the semester, then the whole year off, from Swarthmore and crashed in one of our living rooms.  An interesting, witty guy, but one who occupied what one of my roomies would label a very large “eco-space.”  He spent a good deal of time playing bridge and smoking dope all night and terrifying sleepy girlfriends who would go off to the bathroom and forget he was lurking out there. At some point when Carl was particularly exasperating, we roomies had a heated discussion about him and realized we couldn’t remember whose friend he originally was.  (I still don’t remember.)

So, when I went off to law school at Columbia the next year, I felt it was time to get my own single apartment, and not in a dorm.  The latter part was easy, as graduate student housing was virtually non-existent at Columbia then.  However, through its housing office, I found a tiny studio apartment in a building on Broadway and W. 108th Street. This was in the very much pre-gentrified Upper West Side of the early 70’s.   As mentioned in my previous post about not having a telephone all year due to a NY Telephone strike, the apartment was right above Cannon’s Bar and Grill, a pretty seedy dollar-a-shot joint — but with a (very smelly) phone booth.  Cannon’s was occasionally used in Law and Order episodes when they wanted to show a pretty seedy dollar-a-shot joint on the Upper West Side.

Again, the apartment was not only a studio, but a very small studio.  (I was able to move to a slightly larger one in the same building the next year.)  It required a convertible sofa, as there was no way that a regular bed could be put in there and allow for any other furniture.  I used to semi-joke that it had the advantage, when the sofa was unfolded, that you didn’t have to get out of bed to go to the bathroom. (No; I never actually tried it.)  The rent, as I recall, was $150/month.

That said, it was MY apartment and I had become compulsively neat at some point in junior high school, so I kept it quite clean and orderly — not that that was difficult. Plus, with a convertible sofa, “making the bed” simply required stuffing the sheets and blanket sufficiently back in that you could close the frame.  Unless one were expecting a guest the next night — very rare for me at the time — no one was the wiser.  And I appreciated the solitude, albeit being phone-less was sometimes a bit too much solitude.  So, while I would typically study at the law school library during the day along with my equally neurotic IL classmates, I really appreciated being able to study in my apartment at night without the multitude of distractions — good and bad — that defined my senior year suite.

And I cooked for myself a fair bit.  Disproportionately Hamburger Helper, but so be it.  When I got dinner out for myself, I usually went to the counter of Tom’s, an old school greasy spoon on Broadway and 113th with fast service, good burgers and insane waitresses.  Tom’s later became legendary as it was used for the exterior shots of “Monk’s,” the restaurant where Seinfeld and his friends would congregate. (The shots were taken at an angle so the “Tom’s Restaurant” sign could not be seen.)

The only downside to my tiny apartment — other than the phone stuff — was that it helped develop in me a sort of selfish isolation that I didn’t realize I had until I went home for Thanksgiving.  Then, for the first time in months, other people were telling me when and what I would eat and that I had to be conscious of other people and their lives and schedules again.  I quickly re-acculturated; Thanksgiving will do that to you.

p.s.  For those who don’t recognize it, the photo I used is from the famous scene in the Marx Brothers’ “Night At the Opera” that takes place in the smallest stateroom in the world.  YouTube it if you’ve never seen it.  And wear Depends.

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Characterizations: funny, well written


  1. Betsy Pfau says:

    Wonderful description of solitary living, John. Good thing you were a neat freak, or that tiny apartment could have been a steaming mess. My brother’s grad school apartment (when he was doing his PhD at Brown, after his ordination from Hebrew Union College) was SO full of books EVERYWHERE (even on the kitchen counter…he ate all his meals out), that there was only a small walking path from his desk to the bathroom and bed. The rest of everywhere was piled high with books. Visiting him was a trial.

    I just thought of a Neil Simon line from “Barefoot in the Park”, as the newlyweds describe living in their small apartment: “We’re sleeping from left to right tonight”. Seems appropriate.

    • jshutkin says:

      Thanks, Betsy. And that is a great Neil Simon line. And, yeah, if I wasn’t neat before, that place would have trained me to be. Conversely, I probably could have become a certified hoarder if about 2 weeks if I weren’t careful.

  2. Suzy says:

    John, I love this story! I was laughing from the moment I saw the Marx Brothers photo and remembered that hilarious scene. And I appreciate the shoutout in your first paragraph. I’m only sorry I never visited you in that apartment, I would have liked to see it!

  3. John Zussman says:

    I love the vivid description and the droll sense of humor.. It sounds like you were living on the set of a seedy movie. Amazing what we were able to put up with with when we were tots. I too recognized the Marx Brothers immediately.

  4. Marian says:

    What a hoot, and you picked one of my favorite scenes from my favorite Marx Brothers movie! At least the place was all yours, I can relate.

  5. Laurie Levy says:

    I really enjoyed this! It so reminded me of my son’s first post-college apartment in Boston. He proudly showed me the fact that there was a partial wall dividing it into two very small compartments so it was a “one bedroom.” You couldn’t open the bathroom door more than half-way because it hit the front door. And that kitchen with a mini-frig and two burner stove! But I smiled and told him it was great. Like you, after living for 4 years with the chaos of roommates, he loved the solitude.

    • jshutkin says:

      Thanks, Laurie. And I was pretty sure that the story would resonate. My front door would not interfere with the bathroom door, but the unfolded convertible would. And the kitchen could charitably be called an “open space design.”

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