We'll be returning to regularly unscheduled programming any second now, but as I continue to vomit out all my apartment/neighborhood/moving experiences, there's one other thing I want to share that I haven't figured out how or where it might otherwise fit. I mentioned it before back in March, in passing. It has to do with my first NYC apartment, the small East Village studio that I subletted from a woman who it turned out (unbeknownst to me most of the time I lived there) was awaiting trial and then in jail in Virginia for attempted murder of her husband. Now ultimately, this woman's predicament had absolutely no effect on my living situation. Sure, I sent my rent checks and payment for any bills to her via a "General Delivery" address in Virginia, and she paid the rent and the NYNEX (yeah, this is back in the day!) and the ConEd. No disconnect or shut-off or eviction notices ever arrived, and I stayed in the place for nearly two years.
So how did I find myself in this bizarre situation you ask? (Or not, but go with me for a sec.) Well, as I mentioned before, the end of September through October 1996 proved to be what I consider one of the luckiest months-plus in my life where a lot of things just fell into place. One was this lovely living situation. I had just gotten the job at HBO NYC Productions and was going to be starting in about a week-and-a-half. It was my last week working at the small talent agency in Beverly Hills where I had spent the previous three years of my life recovering from a short-termed career as an entertainment journalist permanently residing on the junket circuit. One day, a female client from New York arrived. We had always represented her, but in all my time at the agency, I had never spoken to her. She hadn't really been doing so much work with us as she was focusing on theater in New York. But now she had come out to LA to try to get some film and TV meetings. I went to introduce myself saying, "Hi, I'm Aaron. I'm Susan's senior assistant, but Friday's my last day." The expected conversaion ensued:
"Oh. Nice to meet you. Where are you going?"
"I got a job with HBO in New York so I'm moving."
"Really? Where are you going to live?"
"I'm not sure yet. I have to be there next week. I have a couple people who have told me I can stay with them, but I need to find my own place."
"Well I have a friend with a cute small studio in the East Village. It's really small, but you could probably sublet it."
"Oh wow. Where is it?" (Not that I knew where anything in New York was yet.)
"It's on 3rd street right near first avenue. It's a really upcoming neighborhood. Lots of great restaurants opening up. And it's really close to the subway."
"Where's your friend?"
"She's dealing with some family issues in Virginia."
"Any idea how much it is?" expecting her to tell me something around $800-900 per month. (Hey, it was 1996! And I didn't know any better. I was paying $730 for a huge one bedroom in West Hollywood.)
"I think she pays around $400."
At that point I essentially decided that unless it was rat infested, I had found an apartment. And not only was it not rat nor roach infested, but it was actually kind of homey in its own high-ceilinged, drafty-floorboards, exposed brick, but cramped and narrow way. I spoke to the woman who would become my landlady, and she seemed really nice. We arranged for me to pick-up the keys from her friend and see the place. She mailed me an official sublease agreement for a six month period but told me that if I decided I wanted to move at any time, she just needed 30 days notice. I asked her how long I'd be able to stay there and she told me she wasn't sure when she'd be coming back to New York, but it wasn't going to be any time soon.
She also told me that if I ever had any problems in the building, I should find my neighbor across the hall who was in some way the building yenta. Said neighbor, I would soon discover, was a larger black woman with a fondness for blonde wigs. She must have been in her mid-30s if not older. She had two small yappy dogs, and she drove an old Cadillac which had probably about 20 small stuffed animals on top of the back seat lining the rear window. Her apartment door looked like it belonged in a college dorm with magazine cut-outs and bumper sticker covering almost every square inch. She seemed to date a lot -- all large Italian guys who looked like they had just finished being extras in GoodFellas. (The Sopranos was still three years away!)
I never met my landlady, but we did speak to each other on the phone from time-to-time. The only reason I even knew what she looked like was because I found her headshots in the apartment. Every month like clockwork I would receive photocopies of the phone and electric bills and I would mail her payment. Every other month I would check-in and ask if she had any idea when she might be coming back. I had originally intended to only stay there for a few months, but I was saving so much money because of my low-low-low rent, I had a hard time thinking of moving. I was also ridiculously busy every day at work, and although I really wanted a place that would feel like my own with a real bed (I was sleeping on a futon and frame), a bit more space, a kitchen with more than one inch (no exaggeration) of counter space and big enough to allow the refrigerator door to open all the way, it made more sense just to stay in this apartment for the time being. And my landlady would always tell me she was on no timetable.
From time-to-time, my neighbor would stop me in the hall and say, "Hi. So how's XXX?" "Oh, I guess she's OK," I would reply. "I don't really know her. Just talked to her on the phone. I'm just subletting, you know."
My first summer in New York attacked me with its heat and humidity. The first day the temperature shot-up, I ran to Nobody Beats the Wiz and bought an air-conditioner which, once installed, remained on 24-7. The box said it was called "The Quiet One," which I suppose it would have been had the window not been so loose to constantly rattle. My best friend came to visit from San Francisco a few weeks later, and we had gone out one night. We came back to the apartment somewhere around 11 PM, and as I unlocked the door, my neighbor peeked out and said hi. Apparently, my downstairs neighbors (who never thought twice about letting their tiny squeaky dog outside under my window to wake-up me at 6 AM) had complained to this neighbor about the noise my air conditioner made. So she wanted to pass along the news (which I essentially ignored). Then she said, "Hey, how's XXX? I always felt so bad her going to jail and all."
My mouth fell open and I think I stood there for a good five seconds trying to make sure I heard that correctly. My friend turned to me and said, "Hm. Did you know about this Aaron?"
"Oh yeah," my neighbor continued. "She asked me to help hide the gun, but I just couldn't do it."
I don't actually remember the rest of the conversation so well, but I gleaned bits and pieces of what seemed to be the story. My landlady apparently had been in an abusive marriage, and I guess she kind of snapped and tried to kill her husband. And that was that.
I didn't want to bring it up -- I figured if she had wanted me to know, she'd tell me. And besides, as long as the phone and electricity worked and I wasn't being evicted, was it even my business?
At the beginning of August 1997, no more than a month or so after the above encounter, I received my monthly mail from my landlady. This time, however, there was something different about the envelope. It had a stamp on it noting that the sender was an inmate at some correctional facility. I opened it to find the following letter (which I, of course, kept and will transcribe in full other than the names involved!):
Well, here I am in jail. As unpleasant (to say the least!) as it was to enter these 'gates,' I feel it was for the best, rather than just biding time until the official sentencing occurs (which is scheduled for 9 September). I was in a stuporous, wiped-out state when I first arrived, but I have revived - or perhaps merely awakened? I am fortunate to have a cell (I do hate that word!) to myself. The food is terrible, of course, but I taste and savor memories. I savor many memories.
My wonderful lawyer from New York, [NY lawyer], was not allowed to continue as my defense counsel in Judge [Virginia judge]'s court (his "personal discretion" - or prejudice!). [NY Lawyer] was deemed a "Park Avenue lawyer" and a foreigner by the local media. With [NY lawyer] I do believe I stood a good chance of acquittal, which is probably why he was stricken from behind my counsel.
Since January my Virginia lawyer, [Virginia lawyer], had been trying to convince me to accept a plea-bargain, because of the possibility of my being found guilty by a jury because of the bifurcated trial system here in Virginia, this judge, and the very conservative juries in [name of county] County. In the first part of a trial (oh, what I have had to learn about the legal system!), where guilt or innocence is determined, only evidence against me would be presented because this judge allows no psychological evidence. Only in the second half of the bifurcated trial, at sentencing, would 'some' mitigating evidence be allowed to be presented in my defense. And [Virginia lawyer] felt with a jury I stood a chance of a more severe sentence than my plea-bargain of one year (as well as the chance of a lesser sentence!). I held out against accepting a plea-bargain until the first week of April, because I wanted my "day in court" and the whole account revealed. My family, friends, and doctor were all swayed over to [Virginia lawyer]'s position of a plea versus a jury trial. Finally, I accepted the plea-bargain becase 1) without [NY lawyer], I did not have confidence in [Virginia lawyer] as my trial lawyer, 2) if the verdict was not unanimous, either way, it would be a mis-trial and the whole process would have to be repeated over and over again until there was a consensus, and I have run out of money!, and 3) my family and friends begged me to take the plea-bargain, obviously, not as ideal, but a way to get on with my life which had been in limbo for nine months (years actually!). So here I am.
If my sentence is not reduced from its 'cap' of one year, I will be out in 85% of that time, which will be at the beginning of this coming February. What a long time that seems ... but the days are ticking away!
This time in jail is a challenge unlike anything I have ever encountered before, but I am determined to make use of this time and experience and feed my mind and my soul. I am reading quite a bit, and I am doing some creative writing.
I read Care of the Soul by Thomas Moore. Moore says "It is the nature of things to be drawn to the very experience that will spoil innocence, transform our lives and gives us necessary complexity and depth." In my mental dissolution, I was certainly drawn to a seemingly non-ending, horrific experience that has transformed my life beyond recognition. I have been led deep inside myself to the very edge of the person I knew myself to be. Facing this 'me' is exhausting and intimidating, to say the least. Moore says "suffering forces our attention toward places we would normally neglect." Well, enough of "complexity and depth," I crave a boring, simple, and pleasant life! This odyssey has revealed much to me and given me an education of sorts, but I am such a slow, tiny learner, and I want to go on a long, long recess!
Thanks for listening to all of this. If you don't mind, I will continue writing you and send you "Epistles from the Little Prisoner."
Bye for now,
P.S.: Perhaps there is an HBO movie in this!
She only wrote me one more "Epistle" on the subject, about a month later, and in that one, she detailed a bit of what led her to this point. It's important to remember that she and I really were just strangers, and maybe that's why she chose to write two long letters that were intensely personal, especially the second one which I have not included here. It was a small snapshot into the life of a woman who had been emotionally destroyed and trying to put the pieces of her life back together. It was totally unsolicited, and it didn't really elicit any response from me other than to let her know she was welcome to write me whatever and whenever she wished. I'm guessing that she just needed to let this stuff out, and she needed to do it in some sort of forum where she knew someone else would be reading it -- as opposed to a personal diary or journal -- and yet that person would be somebody who didn't know her, who had no preconceived notions, and who, chances were, she might never meet. (And as I write this and the previous three posts on this site, I wonder if I'm not doing relatively the same thing.)
I moved out of that apartment just under a year later. I never met my landlady and we didn't keep in touch. She was released from jail some time during the summer of 1998, and we almost met when I went to drop-off the keys, but she wound-up not being around. I've occasionally been curious as to what might have happened to her over the ensuing seven years, but at this point, I wouldn't want to meet her. My move to New York seems so long ago. My living in that apartment seems like another lifetime. Walking down that block now is only barely recognizable and nostalgia is tempered by the newer buildings and storefronts and simply a different feel. I've now lived in New York longer than I lived in LA. I've now lived away from San Francisco longer than my time growing up there. And yet, whatever else I may take from my former landlady's story regarding self-discovery and personal growth, really, it's just one of many of my own "New York Stories," just like my favorite question in all my Gothamist interviews. And thus, I suppose it's part of my current catharsis.
And with that, at least for the time being, we shall now return to what supposedly makes Out of Focus a "film and TV blog." That's right kids ... inanities await and certainly will abound!