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Direct Address

Location: Upper West Side

Rent: $750 (rent stabilized)

Square Feet: 355

Occupant: Rachel Kerr (theater director; voice professor, Long Island University and CUNY)

We have been talking two hours and here is what we know.

One day last June you came to live on the top of this gray stone building where there is a famous documentary filmmaker’s office downstairs, a screenwriter neighbor who plays his guitar on the roof, and your studio so spare with your embroidered pillowcase, a large gold picture frame without a picture, and cool air that comes through the windows.

You came here after moving 16 times since you left San Francisco in 1994. Your first New York apartment was the one with the lobby that looked like it was in Double Indemnity with stucco walls and black iron curtain rods and then came the one you sublet from the dancer in Hell’s Kitchen with the candles and rocks and the place on Convent Avenue and 145th that was beautiful but there was a leak in the ceiling that ruined your bedclothes and an insane woman in the hall shaking herself into a trance.

Your last 10 moves were in one year after you fell in love with, uh, we’ll call him X as they do in French novels, but then the relationship did not work and you said it was the oldest story in the book because it was his apartment and you had to move out and you started subletting because you were not yet in a financial position to get your own place but you could not bear living with other people’s smells, other people’s things.

The most memorable sublet was the East Village one— that was during the time you were “conned out of $1000” by professionals on the street, the wallet scam, which you said the police told you is the oldest story in the book and your friends could not understand how it happened because you are no dunderhead but you said the woman who approached you looked like women you knew in Berkeley and you were so vulnerable from all the moving. Then you sublet more places, lived with your Aunt Johanna in New Jersey, and one day a man who, oh, we’ll just call him Y, told you his sister, who is an actress in a famous
sitcom, was giving up her charming studio and he would like you to have it. So, for the first time, you had an empty apartment to fill, though you did not have much because you had been living like such an ascetic, and you told me how exhausting it was to always be saying I cannot buy that because I do not have room for it, I cannot carry it, I have to save my money to get another place though in San Francisco you used to have a very big apartment.

Now that you’re finally here in one place, you have become very homebound and are happier, though I told you about this psychiatrist, who I sat next to at a film dinner, who said New York is about going out. People who stay home get depressed. But you disagreed and said New York is also about artists who stay home to work. Then we discussed your stolen bed and how one morning you decided that you absolutely had to have an iron bed and you found one in an antique store and during your sublet travels the bed ended up on the set of a play in a loft building on Hudson and l4th Street. After the play closed, the bed mysteriously disappeared. Your good friend had also bought an iron bed, only she thought yours was cooler, so you thought she had taken yours out of spite because you had had a problem over the summer when she was directing you in the play, which was called Betrayal. Then months later someone tipped you off that a woman in the tango studio downstairs in the loft building had taken the bed and put it on her fire escape to grow plants. Just last week your good friend went with you to pick up the bed. You are speaking to each other again, and you decided that you are going to do a show together on the roof with the two iron beds. It will be a play about jealousy between two women. One last thing, it seems there is no room left for you to talk as I’ve stolen your voice. The oldest story in the book.

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Borough Perk

Even in the absence of quality whitefish, western Brooklyn has been serving as a surrogate Upper West Side, absorbing refugee hordes of artsy, political, and academic types for whom hauling to Manhattan for primo movies is a well-established ritual. So when the Brooklyn Academy of Music announced it would be opening the Rose Cinemas— four screens of independent and foreign films— it sounded too good to be true.

And it might have been, had nonprofit BAM failed to acknowledge that running a multiplex is the closest thing to a commercial venture it’s ever undertaken. Originally, BAM hired MOMA’s Adrienne Mancia to curate special programs, while the first-run movies were expected to largely take care of themselves. But as opening day— November 12— approached, it became increasingly clear that someone was going to have to run the store. Just two months ago, BAM signed up Daniel Talbot, the West Side’s king of independent movie commerce, to book its movies and serve as “a sort of house yenta,” he says, while the theaters were getting built and staffed to his unforgiving standards.

As he’s done for his Lincoln Plaza Cinemas for the last 18 years, Talbot plans to present what he likes to call “quality pictures”: heavy on European drama, with some American independents but, as his gentle detractors point out, nothing too Ferrara, too Araki, too Haynes or Wong or otherwise attitudinous. Talbot may be New York’s greatest living champion of what used to be called art movies, back when he founded New Yorker Films and began to distribute the efforts of challenging international auteurs— including Godard, Fassbinder, Wenders, Ozu, and Sembene— to hungry U.S. audiences. (The company endures today, with Underground, La Promesse, and The Eel its recent standouts.) His New Yorker Theater was another pillar of movie culture, home to Talbot’s acquisitions and assorted revivals. A third legacy is Point of Order, the astonishing 1964 documentary Talbot and Emile de Antonio assembled from TV broadcasts of the Army-McCarthy hearings.

Talbot admits he’s not sure what a new generation of filmgoers living in the neighborhoods surrounding BAM— Fort Greene and assorted Slopes, Hills, Gardens, and Heights— want to see. “My whole life has been on the Upper West Side,” he says. “I know my audience up here cold. I don’t know Brooklyn.” And while he promises to listen to what the locals want— including departing BAM president Harvey Lichtenstein, who will keep a hand in the theaters— the choices at the Lincoln Plaza and BAM will differ “not much,” Talbot laughs, “except that now I talk to people about what I’m doing.” While he’s willing to take creative risks the institutional affiliation affords him, the idea, he says, is to have the theaters pay their own way. “When something doesn’t make money,” he observes, “you’re open to compromise, and that’s one thing I don’t want to do.” Certain obligations come with the territory, and Talbot says he’s looking forward to programming for Brooklyn’s diverse communities, particularly African and African American films. Aside from other offerings he pleads he can’t reveal yet, Talbot’s striking a new print of Ousmane Sembene’s Mandabi for a run this spring.

BAM’s central location is both a blessing and, well, less than ideal. Outside lurks a surreal vista of hulking new megastores, crisscrossed with high-velocity avenues whose traffic lights are programmed to squish pedestrians. Though it sits atop a spaghetti of subway lines, BAM is not a place one strolls by accidentally; says Talbot charitably, “There seem to be a lot of wide-open spaces over there.” Talbot’s in on the gamble that movies like Dancing at Lughnasa and the Brazilian social drama Central Station will keep audiences floating above the streets.

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Delirium conjunctivitis

Ellen Marakowitz (anthropologist, Columbia University; independent researcher); Alicia Svigals (Klezmatics violinist); Benjamin, 2 1/2
Income: $100,000 to $135,000 (combined)
Health insurance: Ellen and Benjamin provided by one of Ellen’s employers; Alicia $325/mo.
Rent: $1452/mo.
Utilities: $85/mo.
Phone: $120/mo.
Food: $1200/mo.
Transportation: $400/mo.

“The intrauterine insemination was a bargain!” pregnant Alicia Svigals said, talking about her recent experience. “$175 for the prewashed sperm, $25 for thawing, and $150 for the procedure—less than a month of child care!”

A financial discussion was going on in the dining room of the family’s rambling Upper West Side apartment. Benjamin, 2 l/2, came in with his savings in a polka-dot blue piggy bank.

Alicia, 35, is expecting a child in January. Benjamin was born to Alicia’s partner Ellen Marakowitz, 40. The sperm for both children came from the same anonymous donor. Because of the high costs of having children, Alicia and Ellen are thinking about money more than ever.

Back in 1989 they were investing heavily in a French restaurant—by eating there all the time. “All our money was going to Les Routiers with no returns,” Alicia said. “We had just met. We were living across the hall from each other. I was earning $23,000 as a secretary. Ellen was still a grad student. We were starting our romance, so we were having fun. We ended up with a rather substantial credit card debt.”

The debt is nearly gone, Ellen said. She handles all their money. “Ellen finds money an emotional topic. Maybe because it was a female job in her family,” Alicia said.

Ellen, the daughter of a chemical plant manager in North Muskegon, Michigan, remembers that when her father was dying, he said everything they had financially was due to her mother’s management.

Alicia grew up in an eight-room colonial house in Spring Valley, New York. Her father and mother were, respectively, arts superintendent and special-ed evaluator for the NYC Board of Education. For whatever reason, Alicia is slightly more nonchalant about money. Once Ellen found a $2500 check that had been sitting for weeks in Alicia’s violin case.

Ellen wanted to merge their finances on the first date. “But I held off,” Alicia said. “You know, later I found out about an interesting mathematical theory about merging. I call it Svigals Law. If you’re a couple and at some point you merge, it comes out to be the exact same thing as if you merged your money on your first date. It all mushes together. Before we merged, we would keep these elaborate records of who owed who. It would take hours and hours of calculations and often it would come out that somebody owed somebody 36 cents.”

They were driven to finally merge by conjunctivitis. “We were both horribly sick with 104-degree fevers. There was no one to take care of us except each other. At that moment, we decided to merge.”

Now their lump sum of money is going primarily to pay babysitters. Though Alicia said they spend at least 30 hours a week each on child care—more than most of their peers who have nannies—babysitting ran more than $13,000 last year. When Benjamin is in preschool and their second child is born, they will be paying $16,000 to $18,000. They are also planning second-parent adoptions, legally adopting each other’s biological child, which can run $3000 to $5000 a piece. Ellen said, “We’ve waited because we thought it might be more financially efficient to do them together.”

Then there are the therapy bills. Alicia goes twice a week, which comes out to $7500 a year. The family has two other counselors, making a total of $11,860.

“But we’re doing all the therapy so the children won’t have to,” Alicia said, sliding down in the dining room chair, a little morning sick but smiling.

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Hawaiian Hunch

Location: Upper West Side
Rent: $1410 (market rate)
Square feet: 650
Occupant: Miranda Sutton (actress); dog; two cats


Your story of a search for a home should be in 26 installments. You moved here 1 1/2 years ago. But let’s go way back to the early ’80s. Your father and boyfriend’s father buy you both a flame-retardant sofa from Jennifer Convertibles. That spongy kind. I’d just graduated Syracuse. We lived in this $400 Upper East Side walk-up, horrible linoleum tiles. My boyfriend’s father was always getting things cheap. He had a friend who had a warehouse somewhere. Anyway, the woman next door had a boyfriend who was married to someone else, but he kept impregnating her. There were more and more children. She was asking me to baby-sit. When she had her fourth, I had to entertain her three little girls. I put on David Byrne’s “Burning Down the House” and they cried.

So why did you move? My boyfriend was never around. He was always off promoting his directing career. A friend gave me an apartment on Ludlow. Back then people lined up on the street for drugs like they were waiting for a movie. One guy was enforcing the whole thing with a long piece of wood with a nail in it. Growing up in Westchester, I thought this was exciting. I was still going to sleep in Lanz flannel nightgowns. I wanted to be a painter at this point. I pushed my bed into the kitchen because I knew artists had to suffer. There were mice. Anyway, I’d started wearing Peter Fox granny boots. I was getting into the whole Downtown thing. I had this lowly part-time job and started dating the boss. Eight months later we were living together in Montclair, New Jersey, in one of those beautiful houses. It was a nice reprieve from Ludlow, but I’d look out the window and cry. It was such a numb place. I felt so isolated.

You got a job doing decorative painted furniture in Hoboken. I talked my boyfriend into moving to a duplex there. There were all these artists and studios. But I never painted very much. I couldn’t stand the isolation. I’d fall asleep in the studio. Then my dad died of cancer. I thought, Life is short. I wanted to be an actress. I broke up with the guy, found a $650 basement apartment. I couldn’t understand the landlord. He spoke this Italian dialect. We had to clinch the deal with a glass of wine at two in the afternoon. His wife was lying in bed upstairs. She’d had a stroke 20 years ago. She had long white hair. She would moan in bed. My landlord would water my plants. I went to ABC and bought white carpeting. The landlord lay on the floor and cut the carpet. He spilled wine in places. I just felt so isolated. I didn’t come to New York to have Hoboken be the center of my life. My dad was the travel writer of his generation. We stayed in four-star hotels all over the world. . . .

He wrote Footloose in France, Footloose in Canada. Your mother was a dancer in My Fair Lady. My dad had to travel so much. He was always away. We lived in Hawaii when I was young. I think a part of me is searching for that Hawaii. Lately I’ve been looking for another apartment. But the search has been one big nightmare. Two real estate agents asked me out. I really want to be back downtown. . . .

Back on Ludlow?