How We Got HGTV in our Home Before There Was Even Cable

6th grade graduation dressWhen my brothers and I were growing up, my mother subscribed to all the architecture and design magazines of the day such as House Beautiful and Architectural Digest. Since we lived in a rental apartment, there was little room for architectural anything…we weren’t getting a fourth bedroom or granite counters in the bathroom. We had standard issue appliances and fixtures like the 1950’s wall oven that forced you to stick your head in it to light it and geometric floor tiles in pink and yellow with matching tubs in the bathrooms. Floors were concrete and required heavy carpeting and we had a galley sized kitchen that could barely fit two small children standing back to back. Nothing would ever be renovated…ever…because we didn’t own the space.

Despite this, mom poured over these magazines, dreaming of a kitchen big enough for an eat-in table with a window overlooking the porch we didn’t have or the walk-in closet designed to accommodate the shoe collection she housed at the top of her closet that toppled on her head every time she needed a pair of shoes to match the bag she was wearing.

Since mom couldn’t renovate the apartment, she did what she decided was the next best thing; fill it up with new furniture. Part of this was out of necessity. Once the plastic slipcovers came off the furniture, around 1973, all of our furniture seemed to implode. The club chairs frayed and the carpet wore thin. Our living room furniture began to look like we owned dozens of cats that were never declawed, but the reality was all this damage occurred from the general wear and tear of a family of five.

Mom’s first attempt to decorate on a budget came when she decided to reupholster the existing chairs and couch. She traded in the dark blue fabric for light blue and fuschia, a word that was just as new and fancy to me at that time as fondue. Within six months of use, the fuschia chairs had a thick coat of dirt on them that mom quickly and accurately attributed to dad’s pack-a-day habit. Once I saw the damage the cigarette smoke had caused to the chairs I began to realize that the damage to dad’s lungs was probably even worse. Following fuschia-gate, mom went back to blue furniture for a few years and moved on to decorate other parts of the house.

When I was younger, my bedroom furniture consisted of stuff that belonged in other rooms, but didn’t fit in any of them, so all the misfit furniture ended up in my room. The room contained an interesting assortment of things including a low coffee table with an enormous lamp, a boy’s dresser, a television that only worked if you wrapped the antennae around your neck, and a rotisserie, a huge contraption that was pulled out once a year on Thanksgiving. When I entered middle school, mom decided it was time for me to have a proper bedroom and she set out to make the room look just like something out of House Beautiful. She selected French style white furniture and even purchased a second bed, which was odd because she was the mom who hated sleepovers unless they were at someone else’s house, in which case they were perfectly fine. She bought bedspreads that were so heavy that the only way to make the bed was to pick up as much of the bedspread as you could, hurl yourself on the bed and hope for the best. If I’d had this level of sports training during my days of punch ball and baseball I surely would have been the best player in all of Queens.

While mom may have had some decorating skills, she was lacking in measurement skills. She bought so much furniture for my room that I could only open the top three drawers of my six-drawer lingerie chest because the bottom three were jammed in so close to the bed that you couldn’t even open it wide enough to put a sock in there.

Once my brothers finished college, mom set out on another decorating project and redid their shared bedroom before the ink had even dried on their diplomas. She turned this room into a den, complete with the classic leather couch and humongous book case. She thought she was being practical by buying a couch that folded out into a bed, should one of her sons ever come to visit. But she placed a huge coffee table in front of the couch that was so heavy that splurging on a hotel was much cheaper than the investment you would have to make in the back surgery required after lifting and moving the table so you could open the bed.

After I left home for good, mom turned my room into a guest room/music room. She sold the baby grand piano that once stood in the living room (to make room for other furniture) and she bought an upright piano for my bedroom. Now the piano has been replaced with a desk and computer where my mother constantly makes phone calls to Dell’s help desk in New Delhi and I can routinely hear her utter the same curse words I once heard watching her bake her famous but impossible to make, apricot cookies.

Furniture has come and gone in the apartment my mother has rented for over 50 years, but some things have stayed the same. She has never redecorated her bedroom. She has the same furniture my grandparents gave my parents as a wedding gift. And of course the oven that everyone assumed would finally give out sometime in the 80’s is still working, so the building’s management company won’t give her a new one. And those yellow and pink bathrooms have been out of style for so long that I’m predicting that people will be crazy enough to call this stuff vintage in a few years and pay top dollar for it.


A Room With a View

family terraceWhen I was a kid, the terrace was the best part of my house.  Living in an apartment building, there was no sprawling yard to run and play in, no deck or above ground pool, no barbeque  for grilling burgers and corn. But there was a terrace, and for me, spending the summer months out here was the equivalent of  a month on a beach with crystal blue water.

Part of the appeal of the terrace was the fact that the terrace was outside, yet still inside the apartment. You could bask in the sunshine but be just steps away from the phone, the fridge, the television and the bathroom. It had all the comforts of home without actually being in the house.

When we were young, we had a chaise lounge and a glider on our terrace. The furniture was a hideous plastic with an oh so 70’s floral print, but it didn’t have the same skin ripping effect as the furniture inside with the unforgiving plastic slipcovers. The glider swayed back and forth like a swing and my brother Jeffrey and I would sit on the terrace for hours singing and gliding. Mom always got the chaise lounge where she could lie down; at the time I didn’t realize why a woman with three young children would enjoy the opportunity to rest. Silly me.

My father, hardly a man one would call an “outdoorsman,” also sat on the terrace frequently. Part of this was due to the fact that after he had smoked his daily pack of cigarettes, he enjoyed a cigar, a privilege that mom would only allow him to partake in on the terrace.  We would sit on the glider together and I would watch and count the cars going down 99th street and the number of planes that incessantly flew over our apartment building on their way to the airport. I would stare at the Archie Bunker houses across the street wondering who lived in them and fantasizing about what it was like to live in a house (to this day I still don’t know). Sometimes we talked; often we were silent and just enjoyed the scenery. It was here on the terrace that I learned how to just enjoy the moment and that silence doesn’t have to be awkward (well, unless it’s in an elevator).

On the Fourth of July, we could sit on the terrace and see a spectacular unobstructed fireworks show from nearby Flushing Meadow Park. In 1977 when the infrastructure of New York City sucked and there was a blackout,  I sat on the terrace taking in the darkness and wondering if there would be vast reports of looting and what Son of Sam’s plans were for the evening.

The terrace was also a place for “me time.” It provided the closest thing I had to a garden. I planted corn and tomatoes and while I got a few tiny green or mealy tomatoes and a huge stalk with no corn, I still felt a sense of accomplishment for my efforts. It was a great place to blow bubbles and I replenished my supply of bubble fluid frequently. As I got older, it was where I did my dreaded summer reading assignments and suffered reading such classics as Sons & Lovers and Look Homeward Angel; a book that I abandoned after 700 some odd pages because I just didn’t give a crap about what happened to any of the characters.

Cha-Cha’s terrace was directly below mine and we devised an ingenious communications system via the two terraces. We decided the phone was overrated and that a better method of contacting each other would be to take a hollowed out plastic jump rope and swing it up (or down) to the other person’s terrace clanging the hard plastic against the metal terrace railings. Once the signal was detected, the recipient would race out to the terrace to catch the swinging jump rope and speak into it using the greeting we had both agreed on; “one-double nine-three-oh-over” to communicate we were available for conversation. After we got bored of speaking to each other and our ears ached from having a piece of hard plastic shoved inside them, the conversation turned to food and who had good snacks in the house.  Since there was usually chocolate in mine, I perfected the art of hurling bite sized Snickers and Milky Ways down to Cha.  One would argue that her task to hurl treats up to me perhaps required more precision, but she hoisted her imported European jelly-filled sucking candies up to me with apparent ease.

Sometime after the year 2000, a large tree in front of the apartment building that faced the terraces was cut down. The Saxon Hall folklore is that this is where all the pigeons lived and after the tree was cut down they had no choice but to migrate to the apartment terraces. The pigeons are draped all over the terraces and nests have been found on some of the less traveled ones. My family terrace seems to be a favorite hangout and my mom has resorted to acting like a crazy women going out on the terrace and yelling things like “Get the hell off my terrace” as if the pigeons would give a shit…which is actually what they leave before they fly away.

Pigeons or no pigeons, I still love that terrace. It reminds me of a time when people came home and relaxed. A place where there were no cell phones or texts or laptops or social media. A place where you could disappear, regroup, recharge. And a time when sitting next to someone and enjoying the silence was OK. I would give anything to sit next to my father on my terrace in total silence. So every time I visit his house I do just that. And it always makes me smile. The pigeons like it too.