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Aria Takes on the Landlord for a NYC Rent Control Apartment

Shortly after the holidays, Aria found an apartment advertised in the Sunday New York Times on Sixth Avenue, between 55th and 56th streets. It was in a five-story walkup brownstone, one of several side by side that occupied that block. The buildings had been put up during the Civil War and were, at that time, considered among the finest residences in New York City. John Drew, one of the early members of the famous theatrical Barrymore family, had resided in the apartment we were looking at. Each floor had one apartment of seven rooms that went through from front to back. They were called railroad flats, since they were built tightly side by side and they had windows only at the front and the rear rooms.

We rented the apartment on the second floor for $360 a month (outrageous at the time) from an elderly lady who smelled violently of violet cologne, under the odor of which you could tell that she seldom bathed. She had an old Boston bull terrier that constantly wheezed. The dog was not friendly and had digestive problems. Anytime she came in to look our place over, she brought this mutt, which farted like a machine gun. After they left, we’d open the windows at each end of the apartment and run back and forth waving newspapers to clear the air.

My parents went into shock when I announced I was moving to my own digs. I don’t know what threw them more: my grab at independence, or the fact that I was old enough to "shack up."

Aria’s first meeting with my parents, shortly after I met her, had been a disaster. It was a battle of wills between her and my mother — Aria’s need for control clashed against Mom’s possessiveness over her only child. Dad played neutral by being as pleasant as he could to everyone. After the second or third meeting, Aria just refused to see them again, though she did admit to liking Dad.

A month after Aria and I moved in together, a little guy about fifty, wearing a derby and a little mustache knocked on our door. I answered it and he asked if Miss Allen was in. Aria appeared and showed him into her half of the apartment, to the sitting room up front. I took a seat nearby.

"I don’t know what this all about, but I’m a very busy…" that’s about as far as he got.

"Some information has come to me," Aria began, "that could mean a great deal of trouble for you."

"I don’t know who you are, but I don’t like threats!" And he started to get up.

"SIT DOWN!" she said. "That is, unless you’d like to go to jail." And he sat down as his mouth came open slightly.

"What? What do you mean?"

"The price of this apartment is locked by rent control at sixty dollars a month, and I deduce that you and the old lady are partners. She gets apartments you control at their fixed rents, and splits the difference with you from her profits. She lives with a nice income and you make extra money behind your company’s back."

The little guy sputtered for about two minutes, tried to deny everything and every time he opened his mouth she nailed him. Finally he sat back, utterly defeated. "What is it you want from me?" he asked.

"You will take the apartment away from your friend and sign us as the lessees … at the legal rent. If she gives you any trouble, just tell her I know all about her little scheme and even have the addresses of the other apartments around the city she rents in her name with your help."

"All right," he said and started to rise.

"I’m not finished," Aria said, "please sit down." He sat. "The fireplaces have been plugged up, so they’re not operable."

"That was done before the war. They had to be. Fire Department said so."

"You will have them unplugged and brought up to standard."

"I can’t do that!"

"You not only can, but you will."

"My God, it’ll cost over five hundred dollars to fix each one of them. My company would want to know about the expenditure."

"We will pay you a raise to sixty-nine dollars. That way you can explain everything away."

We were among the few apartments in New York City with genuine, working, wood burning white Italian marble fireplaces (after we removed the twenty or so coats of paint); that is, unless you owned your own private brownstone.

Redecorating our New York Apartment

I learned how to put up wallpaper and papered the entire hall, all sixty feet of it on one wall. Over on Tenth Avenue, the Salvation Army had a ten-story brick warehouse from which they sold donated furniture. We picked up hand-carved mahogany side chairs for five and ten dollars a piece, all with the seats and springs falling out. On 14th Street there were some shops that sold mill ends of drapery and upholstery fabrics, ribbon edging and brass nails with hammered decorative heads. Also, webbing and black cambric for the chair bottoms. I bought an upholsterer’s hammer and a few other tools for tying and knotting the hemp cord that held the innersprings in place, and a small book on, How To Do It, and learned upholstery.

All these places we went for these bargains I had never even suspected existed. Aria knew where everything like this was; many times they supplied materials for her sets in summer stock. We bought mill ends of high pile wool carpeting, just large enough to fit a room. I learned how to lay padding and wall-to-wall carpet.

During all of this learning experience in fixer-uppers I got only a few TV shows, which still weren’t paying much more than fifty bucks each. I held a variety of jobs: soda jerk and sandwich man at a drugstore soda fountain, night bartender at a little off-Broadway bar, even night clerk and auditor at a west-side hotel in the Seventies where, I soon learned, a lot of prostitutes brought their tricks for the night.

In late August, I was fairly flush and Aria suggested we take a non-scheduled airline to California. The fare was about a hundred per person, round trip. You bought your ticket and when the plane was sold out, you were notified forty-eight hours in advance of takeoff time. It cost about one fifth that of a commercial airline.

We landed at Los Angeles about six-thirty in the evening. As I disembarked down the stairway from the plane, I saw a palm tree in the distance, just outside the airport. The sun was beginning its descent and its position was behind and just above the tall tree standing in front of a raspberry red sky. That tree was like nothing else in the world. I stopped and looked. "This is for me," I said to myself. Today, even as I drive in Southern California where I’ve lived so many years, I hardly ever look at a sixty-foot palm without some semblance of awe.

Aria’s parents lived in Hollywood in a large, one-story duplex with two bedrooms for which they paid the going rental of thirty-five dollars a month, which included a back yard. Their name was Miller, and for the first time I found out that Aria, nee Arlene, was Jewish, though she denied it to everybody. Her basic philosophy was: if you don’t like who you are, invent what you want to be. So far, it had been working for her. 

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