Right Back Where I started From
In America, Canada and England, many West Indians grow up in houses filled with pseudo French Provincial furniture wrapped up tightly 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 deep on a side table. Elaborate wicker displays and fake-flower arrangements. Wall-to-wall carpeting protected by plastic runners, crisscrossing every possible walkway.
In my West Indian family, I was definitely the apple that had 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 minimalist into a family of ceramic figurine collectors. My childhood bedroom, incongruous in my parents' overstuffed world, was a monastic, whitewashed space embellished only by the black-and-white Ansel Adams photographs I'd cut out from a wall calendar. My wooden floor, polished to a high gloss, was a natural oasis in a world of wall-to-wall. I lived "less is more" long before I knew whom to attribute the quote to. I was eight years old.
Today I am an unrepentant aesthete. I can tell an Eames from a Saarinen. I can discern the curvature of a Jacobsen fro the sharp lines of a Mies van der Rohe. And these pieces 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 seems 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 14-foot ceilings and windows that are six feet tall, the light flooding in from three exposures.
I have a bathroom about the size of most Manhattan studios, a bedroom the size of most apartments, a dining room, an open kitchen, a walk-in closet, a guest room, two separate offices, and not one but two living rooms, one at either end of the loft, which runs for a quarter of a block.
Don't hate me because I have square footage. I get up and thank God every day 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 six 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 down my toothbrush 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 a height. So I understand when people come over and float disbelieving from room to room, repeating, "You live here alone?" My answer is always the same: "I can't believe it either."
Oddly enough when I look around I see 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, for example, and I've inherited my mother's eye for pictures, which we both frame and arrange in hanging collages. 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 was 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.