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Morningside Heights

by Cheryl Mendelson

Paperback, 335 pages, Random House Inc, List Price: $15 |


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Cheryl Mendelson

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NPR Summary

Long-time residents of Morningside Heights, a once marginal neighborhood attracting the attention of Wall Street types in search of a good investment and more space, are faced with dramatic changes to their community as increasing prices and a rising cost of living begin to force this group of artists, musicians and intellectuals out of the area. A first novel.

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Excerpt: Morningside Heights


This neighborhood was always middle-class and urban. The advent of the subway at the start of the twentieth century transformed the countryside so rapidly that less than a decade after the stations opened, the fields were gone and the massive, sedate apartment buildings that you see today already lined the streets. They were grand places, designed to persuade prosperous New York families that their bourgeois dignities could be preserved as well in an apartment as in a brownstone row house with a stoop. The building at 635 West 117th Street was similar to scores of others built around the same time, and, like them, it filled with tenants as soon as it was completed, in 1906. It had twelve stories, with four ample apartments per floor, each divided into a living and dining room, several bedrooms, two bathrooms, all large and airy, plus a small library, and, behind the kitchen, a miniature bedroom and bathroom for the live-in maid. During the Depression, the landlords carved most of the apartments into two or three, creating the ten to twelve on a floor that you find now. The cut-up layouts made no architectural sense, but in those hard times the new tenants could not afford to be choosy. Only a few apartments in the building retain the original floor plan, with the cramped kitchen and tiny sleeping nook where a lonely girl spent her days and nights in service to the family living in comfort in the other rooms.

In the waning years of the twentieth century, prosperity returned to the neighborhood, if not to the cash-strapped middle-class and poor people who had lived there for many decades. Lobbies were spiffed up, exteriors scrubbed down. One rental building after another transformed itself into an ownership cooperative—"went co-op" in New York City parlance; and rents and prices began climbing out of reach. The elderly residents who had come during the Depression and World War Two barely managed to hang on to the dilapidated studios and one-bedrooms where they had hoped to live out the few years they had left. Except for the lucky ones who were protected by municipal rent-control laws, everyone, old and young, scrambled to meet the higher monthly payments, and when they failed and were forced to move, their apartments were immediately sold or rented for astonishing profits to high-paid business people and profes-sionals. These mobile newcomers formed a growing group of the well-off: working single renters and couples investing in "starter homes" they planned to sell for a profit in order to finance bigger and better ones someplace else—moneyed transients who stayed only two or three years and disappeared, leaving behind not so much as a forwarding address and creating a stock of near-temporary housing that served them much as boardinghouses and residence hotels had served their impoverished counterparts a hundred years earlier. The residential buildings became home to ever more numerous strangers, people who worked long hours, dressed and dined out expensively, and whose names, faces, and circumstances no one knew, except, perhaps, the night doorman. They didn't say "good morning" or "good night" or hold the elevator for a straggler.

One day in April, apartment 9D came vacant for the first time since the building went up, when the last of its old-time residents died at the age of 103. Elizabeth Miller was the daughter of the original tenants, well-to-do people who had moved in when she was a child. Her father had owned a thriving lithography and printing business. Her mother, who had been left comfortable when he died, later received another substantial inheritance from her aunts. There were stories about Miss Miller: that she had run away to be something in show business—an actress or a dancer—or that her proper parents had thrown her out for leading a scandalous life. It was certain, in any event, that Miss Miller had lived elsewhere for a number of years before returning to care for her elderly widowed mother just after World War II. When her mother died in the late 1950s, Miss Miller inherited enough to support herself, and stayed on in her childhood home, living what seemed, to anyone who bothered to notice, a long, uneventful life in good health.

So gentle was her decline that even when she passed the century mark, no one thought her death was imminent. The only sign of her diminishing vitality in those last years was her difficulty in breathing. There were days when she could say no more than a word or two without pausing to take in air. Then she could do nothing but sit, and her home attendants would take her in a wheelchair down to the lobby or out for a bit of sun, moving her gently, because she might be left gasping by a sudden derangement of her position, or even a high wind. Yet she did not seem to suffer much, from this or anything else. She had a good appetite, smiled graciously at her neighbors, and attempted jokes with the children across the hall. Finally, one of the attendants said, she simply fell asleep at her normal time and never awoke. She had never married, had no children, no surviving relatives or friends, except, perhaps, her trustee, the son of a friend who had died years ago. It was he who paid her bills and hired the quartet of women who had stayed with her day and night on a complicated schedule of shifts.

These facts were familiar to many of her neighbors, who for months after her death missed the sight of her tiny figure, crowned with frizzy white curls, wrapped snugly in blankets, on the sidewalk at the front of the building, or being wheeled through the lobby, or riding in the elevator. But none knew her well enough to feel obliged to attend a funeral. The night attendant, who had been on duty when Miss Miller died, and the morning attendant, who had discovered her death, were shaken, however. After the urban death ritual of summoning ambulance and police, they had gone together to see the trustee, for reasons clear neither to them nor to him. He didn't want them in his office and quickly bundled them out with their final pay and their final instructions. The next morning, the two women returned to 9D and began cleaning and closing the apartment as he had directed. They gathered several bags of Miss Miller's things for thrift stores and threw out a great deal more. Then a truck arrived and carried off silver, china, rugs, paintings, furniture. Finally, they swept and scrubbed, and, before the week was out, they shut the door and left the apartment for good.

Anne Braithwaite, Miss Miller's longtime neighbor, who knew her well enough to call her Lizzie, observed this rapid disassembling of a century of life with uncomfortably mixed feelings. The Braithwaite family, in 9E, directly across the hall from Miss Miller, had been startled by urgent peals of their doorbell early on the morning that Miss Miller died. Charles was out of town, but Anne was at home with their three children, when Claire, the young morning attendant, came to the door, distraught, to say she couldn't rouse the old woman. Anne went to the bedside and saw for herself that Lizzie was dead. She called an ambulance, and told Claire what to do and say when the police came.

For a day or two, Anne suffered from the painful doublethinking that death induces, both believing in Lizzie's death and yet looking for her in the elevator or in the lobby. They had not been close, but she had been used to seeing her, with one or another of her attendants, several times a day for more than fifteen years. They had always said a few words, in exchanges that lasted a minute or two, or occasionally as many as five or ten, and Anne had been in Lizzie's apartment once or twice. These encounters were in the true New York style, full of goodwill that entailed no intimacy and promised no friendship. Nonetheless, they learned a good deal about one another over the years, as New York neighbors do, despite their standoffishness—enough, in fact, that even in the last couple of years, when Lizzie talked so little, Anne could manage a passable conversation with her, carrying the weight of chatter and filling in the blanks left by her sparse words and gestures. Yet almost before the tiny body had grown cold, Anne also found herself wondering guiltily whether the old lady's apartment would be put up for rent. It was not on her own account that she was interested but for the sake of a friend, who, she had learned only the night before Lizzie's death, had arranged to spend two years in New York—in fact right in the neighborhood, at Columbia University—and would need a place to live.

Later that week, Anne, returning home from a visit to a doctor with news that had crowded out any thoughts of Lizzie, saw the two attendants handing in their keys to the doorman on their way out of the building. After offering condolences, she got up courage enough to wonder aloud what would happen to the apartment.

"The trustee will try to sublet, I think," said the older one, Monique, a dignified Jamaican, who had been with Lizzie for many years. Now that her employment had ended, she felt a need to air her grievances. "Miss Miller wouldn't buy it when they were pushing her to. So now the building will want to sell it at last, but he'll hold on to it as long as he can, to make money charging ten times Miss Miller's rent. He's a cheap man. He grudged every mouthful that old lady ate, and she ate like a bird. He says not to burn so many lights, but that old lady she can't see. And he says no money for a new coat. He's so stingy so he can put the money in his own pocket."

"She was always trying to give us presents, and he kept warning us not to take anything," said Claire, who looked uneasy, "but I bet he took plenty." Still shaken by her first encounter with death, Anne thought. She had protective, maternal feelings toward Claire, who had been barely eighteen when the trustee hired her several years ago—deceived by her matronly air and figure, no doubt, into thinking her older. Anne knew her real age, just as she knew that money had been tight for Lizzie. These were the sort of domestic details about the household that she had gleaned in the years of hallway chats. The complaints about the trustee were new to her. She did not dismiss them, having confidence in both women after years of watching them care for Lizzie, but their suspicions amplified her queasy guilt about her own motives.

Monique and Claire looked pained and troubled after confiding these disturbing thoughts, and lingered aimlessly in the lobby. Anne saw that they disliked their roles as decent bystanders, awkwardly and unfeelingly ministering the intimate after-rites of death for this unmourned soul. Feeling officious yet unable to stop, she found herself offering them the speech proper to the occasion, which no one else seemed to be available to make. They had been good to Lizzie; Lizzie knew it; and Lizzie had died happy because, as she had told Anne a couple of years ago, "I just want to stay in my own apartment and keep my girls. That's all I want." They were kind and diligent even though, as Lizzie had declined and grown more and more silent, there was never anyone to thank them for all the little extra things they did, cooking up dishes she liked and taking her to see her favorite flowers on a spring day. But people here knew all this, Anne assured them, while wondering if anyone did but herself.

Now, Anne having said what a son or daughter should have said, they could behave the way they felt they should, and they replied with self-respecting modesty. Oh, she was no trouble, such a nice lady—to which Anne countered, graciously, that Lizzie's time was up and that we should all hope to be lucky enough to die painlessly in our sleep at 103. They nodded in vigorous agreement. Yes, yes, she had had a long life, not much trouble, no real want, and no suffering in her death.

And after a few more moments of good-hearted banalities, some tears, hands grasped, phone numbers scribbled on paper scraps, the two women went away, with sad but more peaceful faces. The doorman, Willie, who was putting the keys in an envelope and labeling it 9d—eugene becker, had listened carefully to the whole exchange.

"They were good to the old lady," he said, suppressed thoughts and emotions erupting in ephemeral twitches around his lips and eyes. "Lots of old people in this building have problems. But those ladies made a nice life for Miss Miller."

Charles Braithwaite got home from his out-of-town trip soon after this and heard the story of Lizzie, first the children's excited version and then Anne's, in which he quickly detected Anne's idea of getting Lizzie's apartment for his old friend Morris, a not entirely satisfactory plan from his point of view, although he could not bring himself to oppose it. And just as quickly he scented that Anne had a worrying secret that she could not tell in the presence of the children. As it happened, it was hours later before she found a chance to tell him in a questioning, apologetic voice that she was pregnant. And, as they were neither young nor rich and had three children already, this news was nearly as unwelcome as it was unexpected.

The Braithwaite family were among the middling people of the neighborhood. Middle-aged and middle-income, they had rented a portion of one of the original large apartments many years before, bought it when the building went co-op, and lived there for their entire married life. Over the years, as their three children came along, they began to feel squeezed in every way. Space and money got tighter and tighter until, now, they regularly exceeded their income by an alarming amount, falling deeper into debt each year. The children were still young. Besides Stuart, a three-year-old boy, who slept in the living room, there were Jane, almost thirteen, and Ellen, seven, who shared a bedroom. Anne believed that each child needed plenty of time as the youngest before the next one was born, and managed to produce her babies at intervals of at least four years. Charles thought this schedule was the product of sheer strength of will, as neither caution nor the lack of it seemed to affect the timing of her pregnancies.

Charles was a singer, a solidly second-rank baritone at the Met, who had accepted that he would never rise further. Still, he was well respected, with a modest international reputation, known for his versatility and scholarly knowledge and sought out by students as a master teacher; he had a broad operatic range and was also an accomplished recitalist and singer of art songs. What prevented his greater success was, in part, the lingering consequences of vocal inconsistencies that had plagued him at the start of his career. But friends who knew him well said that Charles's character had more to do with it. Unlike most people with courage enough to dare the uncertainties of a career in professional singing, Charles was modest, skilled at advancing his students' interests, but incapable of the ordinary tricks of self-promotion. The effects of this were amplified by stubbornness and by his inability to conceal his dislikes. For these reasons, he was incapable of navigating the star system and was fated forever to sing Leporello, never Don Giovanni. He didn't mind terribly, so long as the best students still begged him to take them on and he kept the respect of a small circle of admirers whose judgment he respected and so long as somewhere, if not at the Met, he found opportunities to sing what he wanted.

From the Hardcover edition.