ROOTS AND CULTURE
In America, Canada, and London, most West Indians grow up in houses filled with pseudo French Provincial furniture wrapped up tight in a protective plastic skin that clings to the body in summer like a wet tongue kiss.
West Indians love to live in a faux world: Faux mahogany dining sets, nestled comfortably in retro Edwardian living rooms. Implausible ornaments crowded ten to a side table. Elaborate wicker displays and fake flower arrangements. Wall-to-wall carpeting protected by plastic runners, crisscrossing every possible walk way.
Of my West Indian family I was definitely the apple that fallen far from the tree. Actually, I'd fallen and rolled all the way down the hill. For me, plastic was for storing food, not covering furniture. Inconceivably, I was born a modernist with minimalist aspirations into a family of ceramic figurine collectors.
My childhood bedroom, incongruous in my family's overstuffed world, was a monastic whitewashed space broken only by the black and white Ansel Adams photographs I'd cut out from a calendar. My wooden floor, polished to a high gloss, was a natural oasis in a world of wall-to-wall. At eight, I lived "less is more" long before I knew whom to attribute the quote to.
Today I am an unrepentant aesthete. I can tell an Eames from a Saarinen but find joy in both the bentwood forms of the former and the happy curves of the latter. I can easily discern the curvature of a Jacobsen from the sharp lines of a Van der Rohe. And although I'll never Rococo I may one day go for Baroque. And they would all go well in my place for I am a loft dweller in Manhattan, at a time when only the rich can afford to live this way.
Yes, I live alone in a loft on Millionaire Island. I am decadent, important, powerful, like a media mogul, a dot.com maven, or a trust fund baby. But I am none of these things. In fact, I am as far from them as you can get. I am a writer, who somehow lives alone in a 2,000 square foot loft in the East Village, which now appears to be the most expensive neighborhood in New York. Three floors above Avenue A and Second Street, at the crossroads of affluence and apathy, I live and work under ceilings 14 feet high and windows six feet tall, the light flooding in from three exposures.
I have a bathroom the size of most Manhattan studios, a bedroom the size of most one-bedrooms, a dining room, an open kitchen, a walk-in closet, two separate offices, a living room, no two living rooms; one at either end of the loft, which runs for a quarter of a block, and please don't repeat this; a guestroom. Yes it's true and I'm sorry. I get up and thank God everyday for it, believe me, and no it wasn't easy. I lived for two years in a construction zone of plaster dust and sheetrock, paint cans and joint compound. Two hard years of working 9 to 5 during the day and then 7 to 11 on the loft at night. Years of paint fumes and sawdust, of broken nails and smashed fingers, of putting up walls, painting and plastering. But it was worth it because I can never take what I have for granted.
When I moved in 6 years ago, on the cusp of the great East Village makeover, I was struck dumb by the soaring space. Not knowing which end to walk to first all I could do was stand in the center of the loft and turn slowly around. When I first moved in I kept losing things, I'd put my toothbrush down and it would disappear, or I'd spend half the morning looking for my coffee cup. Now when I go away on vacation I come back and am struck again by those first moments of space and height. And I am understanding when people come over and float disbelieving from room to room, repeating, "What a great place. You live here alone?" My answer is always the same, "I know, I can't believe it either." And I mean it.
I don't know really, how it happened. Every morning when I wake up and walk the fifty feet to the other end of the loft to look out over Avenue A, I shake my head in disbelief that the Space Police have not hauled me off and divided the place into five apartments. Can I afford to live this way?" I ask myself daily. I pay a buck a foot, but it's worth it. Cheap even when you consider that you now need at least five grand to move into an apartment in Manhattan. Pretty soon you'll need this same amount to move into an apartment in Queens. Forget Brooklyn, it's already too late.
Sure, I could take a roommate and have them pay most of the rent. But the thrill of having my own place, of living alone for the first time in my life is beyond compare. I am now blissfully, excitedly, thrillingly alone to wander around naked, to sleep with my door flung open, and to leave things askew and unclean, to let go and let be without remorse or care. I find now that without the constant vigilance of making sure that things are where they should be I am—surprise—a more relaxed and happy person. The books and CDs are still alphabetized by author's last name for the former and group's name for the latter. But now I can leave them lying around and not lie sleepless at night after having done so. Now living alone, I am no longer anal, only orderly. At the age of 33 and a third, I am finally relishing the peace and tranquility of life on my own, but more important, life on my own terms.
After ten years with my ex, I now know what is mine: the books, the magazines, the paintings, the objets d'art. For one month after our separation I went through every drawer and every closet, and reassessed what was mine and why. I moved everything out of storage into my loft only to turn right around and give it all away. I didn't know how much I liked, no needed the space until it started to fill up. So my motto became "when in doubt, throw it out" and I did. If it wasn't built in or breathing out it went.
I can now see the space without all the things taking it up. I am left now with the bones of the rooms and my vision for them. Funny enough what I see is that my place, though light years from my parents house, is not so much unlike it. I have my father's love of plants and antique rugs. I have inherited my mother's eye for pictures, which we both frame and arrange in hanging collages. I have my father's passion for aquariums but not his patience, so he has inherited the aquariums I have given up on over the years. My sister and I relish open spaces and spartan rooms. Her living room is mostly a great expanse of burgundy carpeting broken only by white walls and potted plants.
While researching pictures for this piece I was rocked when I saw, in a new light, the photos of the house I grew up in. The living room almost the exact same aquamarine blue of my bedroom and the kitchen the same burnt sienna as my kitchen and bathroom. And so it goes. The further you go away from your origins the closer you get to finding yourself right back where you started. And you know it's not such a bad place because I now know where I got my style.