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From the Commentary, by Adam Gopnik
A Hazard of No Fortune
Apartment-hunting is the permanent New York romance, and the broker and his couple the eternal triangle. A man and woman are looking for a place to live, and they call up a broker, and he shows them apartments that are for sale or rent, but the relationship between those three people is much more complicated than the relationship between someone who knows where homes can be found and two people who would like to find one. For one thing, the places are not really his to sell, not really theirs to buy. A tangle of clients and banks, bids and mortgages, co-op boards and co-op skeptics surrounds their relationship. Hypothèque is the French word for mortgage, and a hypothetical air attends every step you take: if you could . . . if they would . . . if the bank said . . . if the board allows.
Yet the broker, at the top of the triangle, is a happy man. First, he forms a liaison with the wife, which unites them against all the things that husbands have-doubt, penury, a stunted imagination. Together, the broker winks at the wife, they will scale the heights, find a poetic space, a wking brk frplce, something. But by late morning he has formed a second, darker, homoerotic alliance, with the husband. The two guys share musky common sense, and their eyes exchange glances-she’s so demanding, pretty much impossible. Now, a couple of guys like us, we could be happy together, take what we can get, fix a place up. The skilled broker keeps the husband and wife in a perpetual state of uncertainty about whose desires will be satisfied.
Over lunch, it becomes plain that the broker has a past, as lovers will. He did something else before-he was a journalist, or a banker, or in advertising. He chose to be a broker because it gave him freedom, and then (he admits) in the nineties it began to give him money, more money than he ever thought possible. He looks sleek in his Italian suit, while his couple feel for the moment like out-of-towners, hicks in cloth coats and rubbers. As coffee arrives, the couple hear his cell phone buzzing, muffled somewhere near his heart. He finds the phone, mutters into it, then speaks up: “Hey, I’m in the middle of lunch.” But the husband and wife are temporarily bound together: There is another-one he may love more than us.
The only time the broker loses his poise is when the Rival Broker is waiting for him in the lobby of the building where she has the “exclusive.” Ethics and tradition insist that the two brokers show the apartment together, and suddenly the broker, so suave, so sexy, becomes an ex-husband, the two brokers like a couple after a bad divorce, polite only for the sake of the child-the apartment.
The billets-doux of the couple’s relationship with the broker are the layouts, the small black-and-white schematic maps of apartments, with key descriptive points set off in bullets: “Triple mint” (meaning not actually falling down); “Room to roam” (a large, dark back room); “Paris rooftops” (a water tower looms in the window of the bedroom). A New York apartment layout is the only known instance of a blueprint that is more humanly appealing than the thing it represents.
One apartment succeeds another. There are the absurd apartments, nestled in towers among towering buildings four feet away, so that every sunless window shows another sunless window, and you could wake every morning to reach out and touch your pallid neighbor with your pallid hand. There are the half-shrunk apartments, with a reasonable living room and two more rooms carved out behind that you have to enter sideways. Then, there are the apartments that are genuinely unique to New York. A hugely expensive “duplex” in the West Seventies, for instance, turns out to be a basement and a subbasement-the basement where you used to put up your sloppy cousin from Schenectady, the one who never took off his Rangers sweater, and the windowless subbasement where the janitor was once found molesting children. The apartment’s chief attraction is wistfully announced on its blueprint. It is “Near Restaurants.”
When you’re in a tiny hotel room, apartments begin to crowd your imagination and haunt your nights. They turn into bright-eyed monsters, snaking through your dreams like subway cars. Last Christmas, having decided to try to bring my family home after five years abroad, I found myself walking in fact, and then in spirit, through all these apartments, again and again. As a distraction, I picked up a book I had packed for the journey, William Dean Howells’s A Hazard of New Fortunes. A little more than a hundred years old, it’s still the best book about middle-class life-or is it upper-middle? anyway, the lives of salaried professionals-in New York, a great American novel. Instead of fussing about hunting whales or riding rafts or fighting wars, or any of those other small-time subjects, it concerns something really epic: a guy in the magazine business looking for an apartment in Manhattan.
Howells is out of favor now. All literary reputation-making is unjust, but Howells is the victim of perhaps the single greatest injustice in American literary history. The period from 1880 to 1900, Henry Adams once said, was “our Howells-and-James epoch,” and the two bearded grandees stood on terms as equal as the Smith Brothers on a cough-drop box. But then Howells got identified, unfairly, with a Bostonian “genteel” tradition, nice and dull. Now James gets Nicole Kidman and Helena Bonham Carter, even for his late, fuzzy-sweater novels, along with biography after biography and collection after collection, and Howells gets one brave, doomed defense every thirty years. Yet Howells, though an immeasurably less original sensibility than James, may be the better novelist, meaning that Howells on almost any subject strikes you as right, while James on almost any subject strikes you as James.
Howells’s description in A Hazard of New York, and of New York apartment-hunting, at the turn of the century comes from so deep a knowledge of what capitalism does to the middle classes, and how it does it to them, that it remains uncannily contemporary. We’ve spent billions of dollars to prevent our computers’ mistaking 2000 for 1900; A Hazard of New Fortunes suggests that the error may have been a kind of truth.
In the novel, a diffident and ironic literary man, Basil March, sublets his house in Boston and comes to New York to edit a new magazine, a fortnightly to be called Every Other Week. It is to be the first “syndicate” magazine, with the contributors sharing in the profits. (These days, it would be an Internet launch.) Gradually, we learn that the money behind the magazine comes from a backwoods Pennsylvania Dutch natural-gas millionaire named Dryfoos, who, newly arrived in New York, has invested in the magazine as a worldly diversion for his unworldly son, Conrad, who dreams of becoming a priest. (Howells began writing A Hazard in the late eighties, when he moved to New York from Cambridge, after editing The Atlantic Monthly for ten years.)
Although the action of A Hazard eventually takes in the more “panoramic” material of strikes and riots, Howells’s genius was to devote the first hundred or so pages of his book to the Marches’ apartment-hunting. Isabel March, Basil’s wife, who is an old Bostonian, joins him for the search, leaving the children behind in Beantown. They begin with the blithe certainty that it will take a couple of days. “I cut a lot of things out of the Herald as we came on,” she tells her husband at their hotel on the first morning, taking “a long strip of paper out of her hand-bag with minute advertisements pinned transversely upon it, and forming the effect of some glittering nondescript vertebrate.” She goes on, “We must not forget just what kind of flat we are going to look for”:
“The sine qua nons are an elevator and steam heat, not above the third floor, to begin with. Then we must each have a room, and you must have your study and I must have my parlor; and the two girls must each have a room. With the kitchen and dining-room, how many does that make?”
“I thought eight. Well, no matter. . . . And the rooms must all have outside light. And the rent must not be over eight hundred for the winter. We only get a thousand for our whole house, and we must save something out of that, so as to cover the expenses of moving. Now, do you think you can remember all of that?”
The modern reader waits for the shock to strike, and it does. They wander from one apartment building to another-all named, with unchanged real-estate developers’ pretension, after classical writers. (“There is a vacant flat in the Herodotus for eighteen hundred a year, and one in the Thucydides for fifteen,” she sees, lamenting, “What prices!”) They visit six apartments in the afternoon, then four more that night. They are all too small, too expensive, too strange-too, well, New York.
One or two rooms might be at the front, the rest crooked and cornered backward through increasing and then decreasing darkness till they reached a light bedroom or kitchen at the rear. . . . If the flats were advertised as having “all light rooms,” [the janitor] explained that any room with a window giving into the open air of a court or shaft was counted a light room.
Basil blames the brokers: “There seems to be something in the human habitation that corrupts the natures of those who deal in it, to buy or sell it, to hire or let it. You go to an agent and tell him what kind of a house you want. He has no such house, and he sends you to look at something altogether different upon the well-ascertained principle that if you can’t get what you want, you will take what you can get.” And yet the Marches become not repelled by apartment-seeking but addicted to it:
It went on all day and continued far into the night, until it was too late to go to the theater, too late to do anything but tumble into bed and simultaneously fall on sleep. They groaned over their reiterated disappointments, but they could not deny that the interest was unfailing.
The Marches become mesmerized by the ads, the layouts, the language. “Elegant large single and outside flats” were offered with “all improvements-bath, icebox, etc.” Soon the search for an apartment becomes a consuming activity in itself, self-propelling, self-defining-a quest. “Now we are imprisoned in the present,” Basil says of New York, “and we have to make the worst of it.”
Imprisoned in the present. It seems not to matter when or with how much money you look for an apartment in New York. I’ve done it officially three times: once as a grad student looking for one room for two, with thirty-five hundred dollars in my pocket to last the year; once as a “yuppie” (we were called that, derisively, before the world was ours), looking for a loft or a one-bedroom; and now as a family guy with a couple of kids. The numbers and the figures change, but the experience remains the same, and feels different from the way it feels anywhere else, with a jag of raised hopes and dashed expectations.
The city is, it’s true, shinier than it has ever been. It gleams. It is as if the “broad-band pipe,” the philosophers’ stone of our era, had already come into existence as a blast hose and washed off the grime. The newsstands that once seemed mainly to stock Screw now stock InStyle and Business 2.0. Even the smells have changed. The essential New York smell twenty years ago was still Italian and WASP: tomato and olive oil and oregano, acid and pungent, mingled with the indoor, Bloomingdale’s smell of sweet, sprayed perfumes. Now, inside the giant boxes that have arrived from America, from the malls (the Gap and Banana Republic and Staples), there is a new, clean pharmacy smell, a disconcerting absence of smells, the American non-smell.
What People are Saying About This
"No one before Howells had thought to capture the teeming, heterogeneous, multifarious, high-tension city on a single great canvas. Against the variegated backdrop of New York City, Howells dramatizes the intellectual and spiritual conflicts of the democratic future." —Arthur Schlesinger Jr.
"The exactest and truest portrayal of New York and New York life ever written." —Mark Twain
"Simply prodigious."—Henry James