Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Last Hurrah on 11th Street

Her name is Jean Schneider and she has a reputation for being the most lenient judge in the NYC housing courts. But don’t you believe it. The pro-se lawyer and Wassim, the tenant advocate at Good Old Lower East Side, both thought that if I had the full arrears that I would certainly be restored to my apartment. “It’s a slam dunk,” Wassim said. So I mustered another fight and borrowed from people who couldn’t really afford it to try to win back the only home I’ve ever really had.

It was a sunny spring day in 1991 that I saw the sign in the health food store Prana. Someone was looking for a roommate on 11th Street between Avenues B and C for $300 a month. I had just been on that block to see another apartment and had spent a good ten minutes huddled in the meager protection of a burnt-out crack building, while a teenage kid shot off a gun doing wheelies on a pint-sized bike. Drug dealers I was used to, but guns, uh… So far, though, every other place I’d seen was either totally depressing or way over our means, so I took down the sign, found a payphone and called for an appointment.

I had been in court for two hours and I was supposed to be at work in an hour. One of the two babies behind me had suffered a meltdown and had to be taken to the hall. The other one sucked on his thumb and looked dazed. Wassim had fallen into a catatonic state between awake and asleep. The landlord’s lawyer sat two rows ahead of us and I noticed that his gray hair went in a clockwise whorl around his bald spot. The guy he was sitting next to had a bald spot too, which reflected the overhead light. I suddenly realized that this guy was the landlord. And in another split second, I knew that he was there, twiddling his thumbs for two hours, since he was worried about the case.

The apartment was for me and my boyfriend at the time, later the father of my son. We meandered down 11th Street past two gardens. One was full of matted teddy bears on broken chairs, the other was locked and overgrown. No guns, all was well. Another garden was at the end of the block, an enormous one, where a Puerto Rican family grew corn and chickens. We buzzed and were met by Tom McGowan, a small guy with huge eyebrows, who was planning on escaping New York for the greener pastures of San Francisco at the end of the year. Somehow, he took a liking to us, even though on one of my first visits, I blew up the stove and singed his eyebrows. The next week, Tom strapped on his roller blades and we followed him to Avenue A, where we met Felix the landlord and signed a two-year lease for the apartment. It was $570 a month.

The judge finally called us and we went up to the bench, doing an awkward little dance as we got to the gate. The landlord finally opened it to let me by. Ladies first. Judge Schneider shuffled papers as the landlord’s lawyer presented their case.

“Your honor,” the landlord’s lawyer said, “The tenant has been evicted once before and was unable to keep the terms of the stipulation. Now, for her second eviction, we have removed all her possessions so she owes not only the arrears, but also the marshal’s fees, the moving fees and the storage fees.”

“How much is that?” the judge wanted to know.

The lawyer seemed not to be prepared for this question and gave her a few sums that added up to about $5,000.

Then she turned to me and asked, “What do you have to say?”

“I was prepared to pay $2,000 but I can find the money,” I said, surprised. I really had expected to pay $500.

“I think it’s a bit drastic for them to remove all my things so quickly,” I added.

“They did it so you would have a harder time getting back in,” she said, “It was within their rights. And you were evicted before, so I think they have a point.”

“I have the full arrears,” I began, “2008 and 2009 were really tough years for the arts, but I finally have a full-time job so I can pay my rent on time.”

“Well, the case has been dragging on for this long. I don’t think you can really afford the place. You couldn’t even bring me half the arrears when you came to see me last.”

“I did bring half the arrears,” I protested, “I brought $5,000!”

“Well, $5,000 is not quite half of $10,118.”

I was astonished that she would quibble in this way, “I’ve been in the apartment for over 18 years. I have a son, and without the apartment, I don’t know how we can find an affordable place where we can live together.”

“Oh, you’ll find a place,” she said and added, “I think it’s time for you to move on.”

I looked at Wassim, but he seemed as astonished as I was. The landlord’s lawyer began to defend his case, but then realized that there was no need. “The tenant is in a bad cycle of not paying until she is…” he said and trailed off. There was nothing for me to say. I watched the judge write on the stipulation and with every stroke of her pen, my home vanished for good.

Roosters used to crow in the morning when I wearily got into bed at 5AM after working in a bar all night. I peeled off three layers of linoleum myself and pushed around a humongous sanding machine to return the apartment to its wood floors. One summer, I found a kiddie pool and put it on the tar roof, delighting in watching wet kids climb in and out the window like some 1930s documentary come to life. I hung onto the apartment after the building was sold and the old tenants left one by one - the pot dealer next door, Sad Dad across the hall, the Irish guy in Apt 5, I used to know them all. My beautiful white cat Isis Crisis lived her entire life in the apartment and died on my bed. My kid was born and grew up in the apartment, turning from a fat baby who wouldn't let me out of his sight to a surly teen who refused to do chores. I was a teenager myself when I first walked through the door. I never thought my home would be taken away from me, turned into luxury housing for some trust fund kids looking for the East Village that is no longer here. Now I’m no longer here either; now I too am part of the East Village that’s gone.


  1. I'm having an issue with my landlady, and Judge Schneider just ruled on my landlady's (or rather her lawyer's) request for discovery. Dscovery was granted, but severely limited. Of the 35 things asked for, only about 9 or 10 are even applicable to my life.
    Anyways, dealing with Schneider handling my case right now, it was interesting to hear your perspective. Btw, I also grew up in the East Village (from the age of 2, I'm now 42), only a few blocks from the place you mentioned, on 11th. We have no doubt passed each other on the street (particularly if you remember Z Bar, on Ave. A).
    But the REAL, REAL reason I'm commenting is that I like your writing. If I wrote half as well, I'd consider myself talented. Thank you for posting your experiences.

  2. Thank you so much for your response! Yes, I remember the Z Bar - I actually worked there on Friday afternoons for a while. We must totally know one another by sight. That's what I love the most about the East Village, it's really a small town. There really is a community and it's sad seeing how it's being disemboweled. I just wrote a follow-up to my eviction experience. I feel like I'm still digesting it all.

  3. Without due process she gave the petitioner my fully paid for Yorkville co-op, equity, clothes, everything! Same m/o in the Riice case elderly ailing harlem woman threaten with contempt.
    L&T is an evil place. Pray
    Check out Brennan case in Brooklyn, NY Daily News.
    This housing court judge is a cruel monster and is responsible for many homeless people in this city, there's blood on her hands!
    How can Mr. legal aid wake up everyday to this hydra/medusa vicious judge.
    No oversight whatsoever!