Susan Spano’s homecoming: Life unpacked, at long last
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The morning I left New York in 1998 I closed the door to my apartment, went downstairs and found a drunk sleeping it off in the lobby. I took it as a sign. It was time to move on. I’d lived in the city for almost 20 years,in a studio so small that everything had to be stowed away when not in use, as if on a boat. All my friends had been mugged at least once. My clothes were all black and my driver’s license had expired.
I spent the next five years in L.A. mostly missing New York, especially on 9/11 when I sat on the stoop with my neighbors in Hancock Park, nursing a lighted candle, secretly feeling like a defector who could never go back to the homeland. Then came eight glorious, nutty years abroad, writing about travel for the L.A. Times: 7th Arrondissement Paris, Beijing in the run-up to the 2008 Olympics, eternal Rome in the shadow of the Coliseum.
Along the way, I rented furnished apartments, moving in with only a few suitcases. My stuff -- an inadequate word for my mother’s writing desk, family albums and my college diploma -- ended up in an eerie Hollywood storage unit. If I ever kill someone, that’s where I’ll hide the body.
On visits back to L.A. I sometimes added things I’d collected on my trips: Tibetan Buddhist prayer flags from Lhasa, a Vietnamese water puppet, dried French lavender clipped at a friend’s place in Provence. God only knew what all was in there.
A couple of months ago I found out because I moved back and wanted my stuff. I don’t know why I returned: It just seemed like time. Or why I decided to make New York home -- whatever that means -- except that I‘d tried all the bears’ chairs and needed to sit down.
You can‘t come back to the U.S. after living abroad without sounding insufferable at dinner parties, throwing things at the talking heads on the evening news and making endless loops through grocery stores, wondering where they keep the food. But my reentry was easier than it could have been because New York is America’s most European city, full of public spaces, less inviting to cars than to people; it has history, culture and airports a seven-hour flight away from Paris and Rome. But it gets better. I moved into the same building -- a five-story walk-up in the West Village -- where I’d lived 20 years before in a studio so small that everything had to be stowed away when not in use, as if on a boat. Back in the day, I made friends with the owner, an ex-New York City cop who’d starting buying buildings in the real estate-depressed 1970s, ultimately accumulating about a dozen he managed from an office on the ground floor. I often stopped by to discuss love and politics; he watched whom I took upstairs and supported the first Gulf War.
My landlord died while I was away, but his daughter remembered me and showed my her father’s old apartment on the fifth floor, a stiff climb for a 57-year-old woman who’d recently been advised to have knee replacement surgery. I looked at a couple of smaller, cheaper places on lower floors. But there was really no contest. Unit 5C had a bedroom, kitchen and living room, two working fireplaces, a 12-foot ceiling, a big skylight, hardwood floors, a recently re-fitted bathroom and three windows looking over the leafy West Village.
This is where I live now, my Rapunzel tower with four steep flights of steps instead of a witch to keep me prisoner. I do occasionally go out, and when I do there’s a new city to explore.
Its transfiguration started just about the time I left as the crack cocaine epidemic winded down, helping to decrease crime almost 75% between 1980 and 2000. Nevertheless, on visits back I joined an elite group of self-justifying evacuees who could be nostalgic for the bad old days from a safe distance. We disdained the Magic Kingdom on Times Square, as if you earned cachet by taking your life in your hands to see a Broadway show, and we claimed to prefer Astor Place without a Kmart, even if it meant having to go out to the suburbs to shop for large appliances.
I still don’t like Times Square or living without a washer-dryer. While I was away they closed St. Vincent’s Hospital, a crucial fixture on 6th Avenue that treated victims of the Titanic. When did bars start charging 10 bucks for a glass of house wine? And most of all, whatever happened to the cynicism I perfected as a New Yorker 20 years ago? It’s gone out of style with crack.
I look downtown from my roof and see the new World Trade Center rising, walk west to a manicured park along the Hudson River waterfront where transvestites used to stroll or head north on the lushly-landscaped High Line, the elevated walkway on formerly abandoned elevated train tracks. And everywhere in my admittedly privileged neighborhood, flower gardens fill formerly destitute open spaces like Bleecker Street’s Father Demo Square, where they’ve even turned on the fountain.
I’m not saying that it’s morning in New York. With so many people out of work, how could it be? But there is a palpable sense of good citizenship in the city now -- civilitas, as they say but no longer practice in Rome. I see the effort to do what’s right in volunteers planting bulbs in Washington Square Park and more deeply at my favorite cafe, Patisserie Claude, a buttery-smelling cubbyhole on West 4th Street. While I was gone Claude retired. But instead of selling out, he taught his apprentice, an immigrant from the Dominican Republic, how to make the best brioches and croissants in New York and then handed the business over to him.
I will find a style suited to New York now, but I am not sure how to be 20 years older than when I lived here before. I spent my 20s and 30s in the city, married, divorced and found a metier here. I remember in those salad days of mine pitying little old ladies trying to cross Sixth Avenue in the Village before the walk light changed. On the other hand, a spry older friend of mine remarked that you’d have to go far to find an old folks’ home with a Lincoln Center.
Sometimes I wonder if I will die in 5C, if the fluff ‘n’ fold delivery boy will smell something gnarly at my door and call the police, which is how the old lady who lived below me in Paris was discovered. If he does, I will be found up in my tower, surrounded by the stuff that came to me in a moving van from my old Hollywood storage unit: my mother’s writing desk; terra cotta figurines of the Roman gods from the Italian island of Lipari; a picture of Nohant, George Sand’s home in central France; and a Chinese lamp I bought at a flea market in Beijing. It took me weeks to unpack my stuff, but now it’s all here. And because it is, downstairs could be anywhere.
As pleasing as I find New York now, it’s a wide world out there and I’m not ready to put away my suitcases. But itinerancy no longer suits me. I want my Pakistani rug, Zulu baskets, the big oak table I bought on La Brea Boulevard in L.A., my yellowed collection of paperback fiction by William Faulkner.
My heart is everywhere. Home is where the stuff is.
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-- Susan Spano
Photo illustration credit, top: Susan Tibbles / For The Times
Other photos: Susan Spano