JENNY DAVIDSON

SPECIES OF SPACES

ON TONI SCHLESINGER’S SPOOKY REAL-ESTATE WRITING

DISCUSSED: Greenwich Village, Paranoid Pimps, Long Island City, Boswell’s Method Of Documentation,Spina Bifida, Harlems of the Mind, A Wassily Chair in Miniature, Snakes, Moby-Dick, Winnicott, The East Village, Ectoplasm, Neil Gaiman, Fort Greene, The Sociological Imagination, Georges Perec, SoHo, Elizabeth Bishop, Canarsie, Paris, Staten Island
Photograph from Five Flights Up and Other New York Apartment Stories (Princeton Architectural Press, 2006)

I fall in love with individual books all the time, books I praise passionately, even promiscuously, to anyone who will listen. Out of the hundreds I read every year and blog about, though, only a few speak to me so loudly that I bestir myself from torpor and plunge into fanatical book-fiendish evangelizing. Toni Schlesinger’s Five Flights Up and Other New York Apartment Stories came to me for review this January in the form of a ridiculously cumbersome wad of xeroxed eleven-by-seventeen pages, inadequately secured by binder clips: it weighed three or four pounds, at a guess, with the flat cartilaginous heft of a stingray. Once I recovered from the format, I felt the shock—painful, delightful—you experience when you encounter something so perfect you’re furious you didn’t know about it sooner. My list of such things includes the Velvet Underground’s “Venus in Furs,” Paradise Lost, Fabergé eggs, and the taste and texture of meringue. You will have your own list, but find a place on it if you can for this collection of the columns Schlesinger wrote for the Village Voice from 1997 to 2006 under the rubric Shelter.

The space of a Shelter column can be thought of as something like a theater stage or one of Joseph Cornell’s boxes, and each of Schlesinger’s pieces functions as a miniature universe, a shrunken-down handful of people and furniture and animals tucked away inside its rooms for safety. For every column, Schlesinger interviewed the residents of a particular apartment (the top of each piece includes an enigmatic title—“Das Boot,” “Lost Placenta”—and the crucial details concerning the location, rent, and square footage), then transformed the conversation into a compact printed dialogue that captures all sorts of surprising things about her subjects and their ways of living.

“I do not use a tape recorder,” she explains in the book’s introduction. “I write down only what I want to remember—ultimately the test of what is interesting.” She attributes that choice to the experience of working on one of her first big stories as a Chicago journalist in the late 1970s, “The Call Girl Game.” A vice cop hooked her up with a pimp named Bobby who was too paranoid to let her write anything down, but the pages she transcribed afterwards from memory were wonderful material—in stark contrast to another conversation with a pimp called the Saint who was “totally open.” “We went out with his girls, and we went to lunch, and I was with them all day and I had the tape recorder and I taped them and everything,” she told me. The result was “like death.” Schlesinger likens the self-editing she does while listening to performing on a balance beam, a mental athleticism that lends great muscle tone to the writing.

Interesting apartment-dwellers usually came to Schlesinger’s attention via friends of friends or one of her editors. Before going to visit the subject(s) of a Shelter column in person, she would talk to the apartment’s occupants on the telephone to get background on the building and the personal history, plus a preliminary feel for the voices she would reproduce in the column. The most important qualification was that the person should be highly verbal, not just in an amusing housing situation. The best pieces, she said, always involved some kind of conflict: wife disagreeing with husband or roommate with roommate, the interview subject disputing Schlesinger’s account of the apartment’s history or sometimes simply at odds with some aspect of his or her own personality. We care about the people we meet in Shelter because they broadcast their characters so powerfully, both by way of their own words and by Schlesinger’s comments on their homes. Her manner of noting detail, and more particularly her attentiveness to the resonances of people’s possessions in their living spaces, is highly novelistic, the terrain of Balzac and Dickens and the other nineteenth-century realists, with their strong interest in urban life.

Schlesinger’s capturing of patterns of speech, and more precisely the particulars that conjure character, has more obvious associations with the playwright’s work (she has had a number of stage pieces performed in New York and elsewhere), or even with biography. When we spoke, I had just been reading the Life of Johnson, and I was struck by a certain similarity between the problems posed by Schlesinger’s and Boswell’s reportorial techniques. Boswell usually went home after an evening spent with Johnson and wrote detailed notes about what had passed between them (assuming he was not too drunk to remember and/or stay awake), which he would later use to reconstitute the scenes for the biography, but his adeptness at impersonating Johnson’s manner in turn sometimes casts doubt on the authenticity of the conversations he documents. Because Shelter mostly represents conversation rather than monologue of the “as told to” variety, Schlesinger’s own voice—charming, wayward, somewhat loopy—sounds at unpredictable moments as well. The divine paradox of the Schlesinger style lies in the way it mates the interviewer’s customary self-effacement with the wild egotistical workings of imagination.

Her patterns of thought are highly associative, working more by proximity than chronology: a mention of the Brighton Baths opening in 1907, for instance, leads to the train of nouns “swimming pool, knish-eating contests, mah-jongg… Milton Berle, Herman’s Hermits. Those were the days!” Water is especially likely to elicit this mood, as when Schlesinger observes of Roosevelt Island that “[t]here’s a sort of sporty feel here, like a big health club—tennis courts, swimming pools, big brick apartment buildings. On the other hand, it’s very noir. So deathly quiet. But then, the whole place used to be all asylums and smallpox hospitals.” This in turn leads to a potentially libelous but very funny meditation on “something that used to be called the Strecker Institute, which I’m sure was a wonderful place but it sounds like it’s in some 1950s movie where they brainwashed people or made them think they were insane.” I have an intolerance for whimsy so acute as almost to amount to a medical condition, but Schlesinger earns an exemption from the anti-whimsy rule on the basis of a deadpan style that leads to the reader never being quite sure whether she is pulling the leg of the person she’s talking to, as when she observes (to the occupant of a Greenwich Village loft) that the manufacturing building across the street, about to be torn down and replaced with a condo tower, was once the Superior Ink Factory, “where I was sure that the squid came up from the docks to deliver their ink, wobbling in on all their legs.”

Schlesinger has a special feel for interiors. “You don’t get to go to them or see them very much,” she said of typical New York apartments, partly because the style of New York living—small apartments, far-flung locations—involves external lives; as in Paris, it is relatively unusual to meet friends at someone’s apartment as opposed to a bar or restaurant. “But what happens inside, within a confined environment, or on a stage, is so much more heightened.” Schlesinger tunes in to the sociological patterns of the spaces she navigates, attending to the manifestations of socioeconomic change—the conversion of manufacturing to residential space, for instance, or the effects of various waves of immigration. A loft in Long Island City provokes a mournful reflection on “all this living in spaces that were not designed for intimate domestic life”: “In the 1970s, people would be so excited: ‘Oh, we live in a converted bowling alley,’ or, ‘This used to be a Laundromat and we sleep where the dryers used to be.’ It’s not easy in New York, but it would be nice to live in a place made for a human.”

But the obstinate humanity of the loft-dwellers bursts through their industrial spaces, just as older versions of New York survive in the most unexpected places. The past turns out to be very much alive, as Schlesinger learns when she visits a retired box maker in his rent-controlled Soho apartment and listens to him reminisce about the Italian-American street life of his youth:

I didn’t fit in with the east side boys. Some of them used to pull jobs, you know, but don’t print that.

Do you think they’re going to come get you now—sixty-seven years later?

You don’t know.

Along with rich imaginative lives that connect them (well beyond the sometimes confining bounds of the walls they live between) to the past, or to distant places and other spaces, many of Schlesinger’s interview subjects display an appealing consciousness of their own peculiarities and of the comic incongruities to which she draws their attention. The adult-film actor (his debut role that of a coach chloroformed by the students he has previously tortured on the track) tells the reporter that his peaceful Upper West Side studio co-op was found for him by his mother in a Japanese newspaper: “I know how to differentiate my fetish world from my real world.”

“YOU HAVE TO
FEED THE SNAKES
LIVE FOOD”

One component of Schlesinger’s artistry involves the beauty of small things. Early in the book she encounters a doll-house collector whose four-room apartment contains a thousand “rooms” (his five hundred elves and lawn ornaments are stored at his father’s retirement house in Sagaponack): “I prefer tungsten feather dusters,” he tells her. Lilliput and “The Rape of the Lock” notwithstanding, the appeal of the miniature is more often expressed through visual than literary means.[1] But Schlesinger cunningly thematizes questions of scale in the book’s early sections, a sequence of columns organized under the rubrics “Miniature” and “Giant.” A charming piece called “Big as Pencils” opens with a trademark Schlesinger pronouncement: “We are examining a miniature scale model of your apartment that you made after you were in the slammer.” One of the occupants, Dug, was once arrested when a SWAT team busted in and found a houseguest’s drugs in open view on the dining-room table. “The lawyer wanted a plan of the apartment so he could show my bedroom was back here and drugs were not in plain view of me,” Dug explains. “See, I used little flat wire for the models of my Barcelona chairs. I still can’t get the Wassily chair right.” (Welcome to the world of Shelter and its amazing lack of proportion.) If the scale model makes potentially sordid details alluring, though, the apartment also contains several things that are rather larger than Schlesinger cares to contemplate:

In the dining room, hidden under Indian blankets—a few feet from the baked ham and lavish dinner that Kate [Dug’s roommate] has prepared—are glass cages with an eight-foot boa constrictor and his partner, a four-and-a-half-foot python who I wish would drop dead. Just thinking about them sliding around in their cases with their horrible round selves makes me want to jump out the window.

There, there. I’ve had the snakes eight years, since they were as big as pencils. I’ve always taken in strays. I grew up on a horse ranch in central California. You have to feed the snakes live food. Of course, they only eat two days a month—they are all about efficiency. One eats two live rats, the other eats just one…

I can’t believe we’re having this conversation.

Well, this marine I knew who was a security guard for FBI headquarters—there’s like penthouse housing for marines over the FBI building—he was breeding boas, green opalescent. They glistened like CDs. He could get $400 a snake. One year he made $16,000, bought himself a Jeep.

How could the marines let him breed snakes in New York?

These men are assassins. They don’t want them to have hobbies like knitting. So he brought me one snake as a gift and told me to watch the other. He’s never been back.

Though the snakes are safely penned up in their glass cages, they also work their sly, twisty-turny way from one part of the book to another. “Are there a lot of snakes in Staten Island?” she asks a woman a few pages earlier. In a subsequent piece, a young couple living in Washington Heights rhapsodize over the wildlife in Fort Tryon Park, not just crickets and lightning bugs but “snow snakes”: “In the winter,” the boyfriend adds, “they come up to the door.” Schlesinger in response (despairingly): “Outside of a lovely elevator building!… I always thought there was no slimy animal life in winter.” She adds an authorial aside in brackets: “An interview with Bronx Zoo herpetologist Bill Holmstrom revealed that snakes are strictly summer animals. There are snow corn snakes but ‘snow’ refers to their color, bred for the pet trade. Are area pet snakes reproducing in winter and jumping out windows?

Other elements than snakes break the frames of individual pieces, creating connections between different columns. The “Zoo” section includes a mousetrap called “the Tin Cat” (capable of electrocuting up to eight mice in one fell swoop) and a pig who knows how to open the refrigerator, absorbs the odor of dryer sheets, and has to have both sets of tusks cut every month. But the rooster that makes an appearance in one of the “Zoo” pieces hooks up in the reader’s mind with another rooster later on, slotting each location into a map with the qualities of a topographical puzzle, or perhaps into a world something like the Harlem of the mind of Chester Himes. Writing in self-imposed exile in France, Himes assembled out of memories and surreal imaginings a nonexistent New York that is less a backdrop for the adventures of his detectives Coffin Ed and Grave-Digger Jones than a character in its own right. Another funny example lies in the implicit connection between the young guy in the Sag Harbor weekend share who’s been reading Moby-Dick for two years (“I’m struggling with it like Ahab struggled with the whale”) and the East Village homeless-shelter director who owns 175 editions of Melville’s novel.

Though she undoubtedly knows some striking characters, not all of whom languish in obscurity, Schlesinger’s gift is not so much for finding extraordinary people as for exposing the strangeness of the everyday. “You have no use of your legs below the knees and you’ve lived in a fifth-floor walk-up for ten years?” she asks an apartment-dweller with spina bifida. He answers, “I suppose it is a bit of a walk.” The world she navigates, like the London underground of Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere, is one whose presence most of us will have more often intuited than actually come to know in person. “All the tents hanging over the bed, it’s so psychedelic,” says Schlesinger to the occupant of a Chinatown walkup. “Of course, I don’t mean to imply….” “No, it is,” the man says. “I was art director for High Times right at the height of the Reagan drug wars.”

“A WORDS WOMAN”

In the end, it’s not Schlesinger’s knowledge of the city and its inhabitants but her use of language that I find so alluring. She has a playwright’s ear for patterns of speech, and the richest pieces here often are those portraying speakers with especially distinctive voices. During a visit to a pair of sisters (Barbara is a commercial fisherman, Beth an artist) who share a 240-square-foot rent-stabilized studio in the East Village, Schlesinger’s imagination is captured by the thought of Beth’s fishing boat in Alaska: “It’s like a boat in a murder story or where they smuggle things,” she says with delight. “It’s not quite like that,” Beth answers back. But Schlesinger’s unstoppable: “Anyway, back to the snow, and the shifting polar ice cap and the thought of being abandoned, lost alone in that empty whiteness. Once on The X-Files, this man fell through an ice hole into the earth below Antarctica. I can’t think of anything worse.” “It’s not quite that way,” Beth says again. Yet fact’s resistance to fiction itself falls before the inexorable logic of Shelter: like a glacier, Schlesinger’s proprietary mode of association sweeps away everything in its path. Perhaps it’s the poetic qualities of north: “You got married on the Arctic Circle,” she tells another woman later on. “Yellowknife. I know about Canada because the National Lampoon used to have a column called ‘Canadian Corner.’ There was a picture of a Mounty in his hat.”

The back-and-forth of conversation is wonderfully captured in the double column featuring longtime housing activists Pauline and Bernard Goodman:

[PAULINE] Our landlord here got relocation orders for everyone in our building so he could “renovate.” We went to look at the apartments in the Bronx where they were relocating people. [BERNARD] We were horrified —rats, roaches. [PAULINE] We decided to do a big job on Esther [the city’s relocation director]. We picketed her out of her skin. Everybody came from all over the city. [BERNARD] I want to emphasize—[PAULINE] Don’t cut me off. Bernie has a tendency to cut me off.

The piece ends abruptly with Pauline’s interjection: “Bernie, let me finish!” Part of the attraction, of course, arises not just from the lifelike quality of the voices but from Schlesinger’s sense of humor and her willingness to tell stories at her own expense. Visiting an artist in Fort Greene who has turned a room of his house into a camera obscura, a darkened room in which light passing through a pinhole casts an inverted image of the world outside on the walls of the chamber, she suggests as they watch the play of light on the walls and ceilings that it is “[l]ike a little movie.” “No!” says the artist. “People have tried to compare the camera obscura to movies and photography. A better analogy might be a live broadcast of whatever happens to be in front of you.” This initiates a conversational tug-of-war: “Are you sad when night falls that it’s gone?” “No! At night what you see are the brake lights.” “So, if we look at the house across the street on your wall, it’s like being a spy upside down.” “No! It’s no more like being a spy than looking out the window.” “[I]t’s like a little painting.” “No! It’s not like a painting.” (Schlesinger is a virtuoso of the italics-for-emphasis, as when she observes in one of the book’s headnotes that “[t]he city’s foundation rests on trust funds” and quotes one artist saying of another, “‘Oh sure, she had all that sound equipment. Her parents had a circular driveway.’”)

Schlesinger’s own musings— “the reveries of the Toni-persona” might be a more accurate way of putting it—are steeped in a highly verbal noir loopiness:

Here’s your matchbook collection that Dana got from her cousin in Connecticut. There’s one from Lester’s Family Shoe Store and another from Frances Brewster, Distinguished Resort Fashions. That’s the kind of place where my friend in high school’s mother got the strapless floral with the big skirt that she wore one Fourth of July, and after about five gimlets told the guests, “You can’t squeeze blood from a turnip.” She was talking about her husband. Here’s a matchbook that says “Noel.” It’s so early sixties. The design is so long and low.

[KAREN] I don’t notice these things.

[DANA] You’re a words woman.

And so she is, in person as well as on the page.

The book makes it clear that the constraints of the Shelter column—both the format of the column itself and the need to file a piece more or less weekly—proved curiously liberating. Shelter looks misleadingly as though it should be filed under “real estate,” but Schlesinger told me it was obvious early on in the discussions about how to collect the columns into a book that she had no desire to write anything like a reference work. Her own solution was to sort them into categories like “Immigrants,” “Missing,” and “Utopia,” and the book’s patterns of theme and variation give it almost the feel of a Petrarchan sonnet sequence. I wanted there to be a section called “Mutants,” to gather together all the columns that diverge structurally from the standard form: the one where we don’t hear the interviewee at all (“We have been talking two hours and here is what we know,” says Schlesinger); the one where we hear only a few words from her at the beginning (“Tell how you bought a California beach house and had nervous breakdowns” initiates a torrent of words from the interview subjects); the late piece titled “The Future” whose opening words, disconcertingly, are “Wait, I’ve been in this loft before.”

“BETTE DAVIS’S WIG BLOCK,
BEN HUR’S CHARIOT,
AND SANDALS FROM QUO VADIS”

The writer Schlesinger most directly calls to mind is Georges Perec, the French novelist associated with the OuLiPo group (the collective’s full name was Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle). Perec is best known for having written an entire novel without using the letter e, La Disparition (translated into English by Gilbert Adair as A Void), and Schlesinger shares his tendency to blossom under the culture of the formal constraint. In one work, Species of Spaces (first published in 1974 and given here in John Sturrock’s translation), Perec suggests that we should reimagine the idea of the neighborhood by setting “a higher value on dispersal”: “Instead of living in just one place, and trying in vain to gather yourself together there,” he proposes to the reader, “why not have five or six rooms dotted about Paris? I’d go and sleep in Denfert, I’d write in the Place Voltaire, I’d listen to music in the Place Clichy, I’d make love at the Poterne des Peupliers, I’d eat in the Rue de la Tombe-Issoire, I’d read by the Park Monceau, etc.” Elsewhere he speculates that fashion might be reorganized along lines not so much seasonal as “monthly, weekly, or better still, daily,” so that “there would be Monday clothes, Tuesday clothes, Wednesday clothes, Thursday clothes, Friday clothes, Saturday clothes and Sunday clothes…. The expression ‘today’s fashion’ would then at last mean exactly what it says.”

Perhaps the closest parallel to Five Flights Up is Perec’s novel Life: A User’s Manual (published in French in 1978, and in an English translation by David Bellos in 1987), which describes the actions of the inhabitants of a Parisian apartment building as though the façade has been removed like a dollhouse; the book (writes Perec) “restricts itself (if I dare use that verb for a project that will finally extend to something like four hundred pages) to describing the rooms thus unveiled and the activities unfolding in them, the whole in accordance with formal procedures which it doesn’t seem necessary to go into here in detail, but the mere stating of which seems to me rather alluring: a polygraph of the moves made by a chess knight (adapted, what’s more, to a board of 10 squares by 10), a pseudo-quenine of order 10, an orthogonal Latin bi-square of order 10 (the one that Euler conjectured didn’t exist, but which was demonstrated in 1960 by Bose, Parker and Shrikhande).” Schlesinger’s world is constituted not by mathematics but by history bumping up against verbal associations, as when she is surprised to hear from a resident of sedate suburban Long Island City that murders and suicides took place nearby: “Hmmm, I always thought the people in these little houses with the rosebushes lived such happy lives! You know, you are just a few blocks from the Kaufman Astoria Studios and the Museum of the Moving Image, which has on exhibit Bette Davis’s wig block, Ben Hur’s chariot, and sandals from Quo Vadis.” But the welcoming of constraint and the unusual sociological imagination are similar (Perec’s first novel, a devastating critique of the human tendency to identify oneself by way of one’s possessions that procured him literary celebrity in France as soon as it was published in 1965, was called Things: A Story of the Sixties), and both writers respond to loss with an encyclopedic—at times almost indiscriminate—impulse to collect and memorialize:

My father lives in Jersey. He’s manager for the Men’s Wearhouse, in Totowa.

Men’s Wearhouse! With that man in the television commercial with the gravelly voice! George Zimmer! “You’re going to like the way you look.”

My father resembles George Zimmer. I met George at the Christmas parties. He’s for the legalization of pot. The party was at the Marriott Marquis.

“TRAVELING AT HOME”

The typical subject of a Shelter column—if such a person can be said to be typical in any meaningful sense—may have some stature in a specific neighborhood or professional community, but is more likely to live off the cultural radar. An interesting exception to this rule can be found in Schlesinger’s profile of the literary critic and queer-theory pioneer Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick. Speaking in this case to a contemporary who is also something like a professional peer (it’s fun to see Sedgwick quoting Piaget to Schlesinger, who elsewhere drops names like Bachelard and McLuhan to her often bewildered interview subjects—these two women speak the same language), Toni reveals more of herself: “I was telling a friend that living with someone gives a sense of a proscenium, a constant threshold,” she tells Sedgwick. “She yelled, ‘No, it’s not like having a piece of real estate. It’s having another will in the same room with you, that doesn’t always do what you want it to.’ Anyway, I believe that true home is in the mind.” It is a fascinating admission from someone who has made her name writing about people’s homes. Elsewhere she offers another personal tidbit. “I’ve stripped down my apartment: a bed, a laptop, an alarm clock. It’s as if I’m traveling at home.”[2] In another piece, she describes subletting someone’s apartment for a month and becoming overwhelmed with things: “[I]t was in this scary 1930s building and she had all this stuff—appliances and water filters and the closets were bursting with thick sweaters and it was hard to breathe. There isn’t room for two people in one person. Who can absorb a stranger’s life? It’s too much!”

More often, though, the Toni of the sketches is a comic character, always eating something odd she has purchased locally or raving over the signs she’s seen in store windows on the way over (“Remember Her With a Gift of Fur”). One of the book’s funniest columns finds her visiting the self-styled Hip-Hop Home in Canarsie, its head of household Rack-Lo along with wife Shileena:

Your hip-hop living room has lovely beige couches.

[Shileena] Here’s the hip-hop bathroom, pink tile, the hip-hop kitchen.

Curtains with apples and pears, pink pottery canister set.

This is George’s…

Who?

George! [Whispers] I’m not going to call him Rack-Lo. His family calls him Junior.

I expected the hip-hop home to be a little rougher.

Schlesinger’s style of question-asking admittedly bears a certain resemblance to Deborah Solomon’s in the notorious “Questions For…” section of the New York Times Magazine. A few years ago, writer Jeff Johnson pointed out the likeness on his blog Fitted Sweats, in an imaginative parody called “The Ultimate Interviewers’ Grudge Match” (Fitted-Sweats Toni: “This strikes me as a good room to kill a parrot in. No fuss, no muss. Ever lie facedown on a webbed hammock and try to eat a taco through the gaps in the webbing?”). Instances of the Solomonesque Schlesinger are easy to find: (1) Toni to the porn star (in his 1950s-style Catskills getaway): “How did your mother feel when she heard that you didn’t get the award for Best Threesome? Was she sad?” Porn star: “We didn’t discuss it.” (2) Toni (heartlessly) to two female roommates, one of whom once survived a nearly fatal car accident and the other a motorcycle accident: “Now you have the comas in common.” (3) Toni on one couple’s toy hedgehog, which the husband takes to work inside his sweater: “Would you let anyone else carry him? No? I was reading Winnicott before I came over. I was going to discuss the transitional object…. You’re looking at me coldly…. never mind.” Husband (plaintively): “Don’t you want to write about the apartment?”

But in general, the book adopts the interview format—or inhabits it as protective coloration—in a most peculiar way. The poem from which the title is taken is by Elizabeth Bishop; appropriately enough, it’s a city-living poem and also a poem about questions, featuring a dog “bark[ing] in his sleep / inquiringly, just once” and a bird also perhaps inquiring, quavering: “Questions—if that is what they are— / answered directly, simply, / by day itself.” But both the little black dog and the bird in the poem “know everything is answered, / all taken care of, / no need to ask again.” How odd to take one’s title for a collection of interviews from a text that, if anything, seems to come down against question-asking, a poem that more clearly supports the cause of privacy than the questioner’s intrusions.

Schlesinger’s practice—the way she so often tells her interview subjects about themselves rather than asking questions—evokes not so much the reporter’s probing as the ways of psychic mediumship. This woman hears voices, sometimes in a humorous register (as she says to the family living in a haunted house on Staten Island, “I’m not a professional parapsychologist—haven’t published any monographs on cold spots or anything—but let me ask, does whatever walks here, walk alone?”). But the spirit world is a dark place, and aspects of Five Flights Up reminded me of the British writer Hilary Mantel’s unpleasantly haunting Beyond Black, a 2005 novel about a medium who is almost overwhelmed by the sad tawdriness of modern spiritualism and the spirits’ incessant badgering. Here is Schlesinger’s comment to one perceptive interviewee, an art critic: “I once lived in a former Civil War hospital in another city but only for a week because I could just hear the amputations.” Art critic (sympathetically, sensitively): “The whiskey amputations.”

Asking Schlesinger about the trance state she appears to enter in some of the pieces touched off a wonderfully absentminded humorous reverie: “‘Trance’ sounds like ectoplasm,” she began. But in spite of the absurdity and grotesquerie of the term ectoplasm (worth a look in this regard are the photographs in the recent Metropolitan Museum of Art exhibition catalog The Perfect Medium: Photography and the Occult), and in spite of the implicit risk of being labeled a nutty psychic lady, Schlesinger achieves something deeply medium-like as she opens herself up to impressions of spaces and later channels the voices of the people she’s spoken with. In explaining the origins of her reveries, Schlesinger likened herself to an actor who lets people in, absorbing what’s around her. As a child in the company of a glamorous and rather distant mother, a mother like one of the women in film noir, Schlesinger developed the habit of self-erasure: a habit she later came to understand, she tells me in a typically self-deprecating and distracting aside, in conversations with “this therapist, my Israeli therapist who I just adored, and I always thought he was Mossad or whatever.…” Her words trail off and as she begins speaking again, after a goldfish gulp for air, I give myself over to the thready voice of the words woman at work.

  1. On a day too wintry for wiffle ball in Central Park, my friend and her six-year-old boy took refuge in the Metropolitan Museum of Art; they went around the arms and armor collection, as one does at such times, then found themselves amidst the eighteenth-century silver. One miniature silver snuffbox especially captivated the little boy: “That phone is beautiful,” he said when asked why.
  2. I read the book and wrote this essay in a nine-month Cambridge sublet with faulty wiring, mushroom-colored walls, and a dispiriting air of impermanence; I simultaneously coveted Schlesinger’s stripped-down apartment and saw another version of my own loneliness in her rejection of possessions. She showed me, in other words, that I was feeling homesick for a home—in my case, a Riverside Drive one-bedroom that prompts visitors to utter words like spartan and minimalist—already denuded of most of the usual home comforts.

Jenny Davidson teaches at Columbia University and blogs at Light Reading.

Photograph from Five Flights Up and Other New York Apartment Stories (Princeton Architectural Press, 2006)

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