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Chris Durang

Chris Durang

Posted: June 22, 2009 11:02 AM

Remembrance of Sublets Past


When I was a child, I always got a headache when I was taken to New York City. We lived in New Jersey, about an hour from the city; and we would drive the unpleasant Route 22 to get there; or sometimes we'd take the Hoboken ferry, which was kind of fun.

I was one of those lucky kids whose parents took them to see Broadway shows a couple times a year, and I loved that.

I saw the original How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying and Carnival and Fiorello. But the hustle and bustle of the city, the crowds and the crazy people singing in alleyways, gave me tension headaches.

I lived on a dead end street in a quiet not-yet-built-up suburb, and I was an only child; and when my parents weren't arguing, things were pleasantly quiet. So New York seemed overwhelming, though the theatres were a happy destination.

When I was sixteen, I started to go to the city with my friend Michael; and we'd see art films and plays. I dealt better with the city by then, kind of like those early visits had been like getting booster shots.

My senior year I didn't go to the prom but went to the city with my date to see the movie Zorba the Greek and then to a meeting at the Catholic Worker about social justice and helping the poor. Goodness, I was an idealistic young man. (Thank God the House Un-American Activities Committee wasn't around to bring me in for my "anti-prom" behavior.)

I had wanted to be a playwright from age 8 (go figure), but in college I lost confidence and didn't know what the heck I should do. My senior year I started to feel better, started to write plays again, and lo and behold got into Yale School of Drama in the playwriting program with a play I wrote a month before the application deadline.

To be a playwright, it seemed a given that one had to eventually move to New York City.

And I dreaded that a bit. It still seemed just so big. Also how does one find an apartment, how do you move furniture into it... well I'm not a "can do" kind of person, I'm a "oh Lord, how do you get that done?" kind of person.

At Yale one of my close friends was the late and wonderful Wendy Wasserstein. She grew up in Brooklyn, but when she was 13 or so, her family moved to Manhattan to the upper east 70s. When I finally braved moving to New York City, Wendy offered to be my New York guide, and help me look for apartments; and tell me about neighborhoods and subways and so on.

It was 1975, and parts of Manhattan were still dangerous. Indeed I had a one act play at 11 p.m. in a small theatre on West 43rd Street between 9th and 10th Avenue. And on our way to see it, Wendy and I passed a murder investigation going on, the body on the street, covered in a sheet. So that was a bit scary. Non-paying workshops at 11 p.m. could be dangerous then.

Wendy initially encouraged me to look at the Upper East Side as "safer." I was going to live off a playwriting grant I had won (lucky me), but it wasn't enormous, and I needed to pay like $200 or $300 for rent. And the Upper East choices weren't good in that price range. The possible ones were super tiny, and looked onto air shafts. Wendy and I looked through one window into an air shaft and gasped together at what appeared to be a dead pig. It was actually a stuffed animal pig, but from the distance.... well, it became clear I was in the wrong price range for the Upper East Side.

So I returned to a Village Voice ad I had previously rejected because it involved having roommates, and I felt too old at 26 to do that again. However, I decided to reassess. It was a three bedroom apartment on Central Park West in the 80s, the other roommates were divorced men, you shared the living room and kitchen; and it was $250 per person.

Wendy and I went to see it, and it was kind of gorgeous. It turned out to belong to Mrs. Burl Ives, the wife of the folk singer and actor (the original Big Daddy in the stage and screen version of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof). And it was so inexpensive because it was rent controlled (or stabilized, I forget which).

I would have the smallest of the three bedrooms, but it had a good bed, great bookcases, and a wooden table by big latticed windows that looked over the other buildings (it was on the 18th floor) out to the Hudson River. Meaning you also saw lots of sky, and afternoon sunsets.

I decided the deal was so much better than anything I'd seen that I better just overcome my roommate phobia. And I said yes. And then was disappointed to learn they accepted someone else who applied. So Wendy and I went back to looking.

But a week later, to my surprise the main guy called me back, the other person changed his or her mind or something, and yes I could have it.

It was a warm July, but the breeze on the 18th floor was often all you needed. And it was really pretty.

And the one roommate was a friendly lawyer, who was away most of the time staying with his girl friend. And the main roommate was going through a life change - getting over his divorce, seemingly not dating anyone, becoming a writer, and going to sleep most nights at 9 p.m. He wasn't depressed, just changing. But very quiet, and rather monk-like, which was great for me.

I did find in all my subsequent years living in New York City if your apartment can be a bit of a respite from the noise and the clutter and the crowds of the city, it really makes a difference. So this first sublet was really nice in that regard.

I put my typewriter on the nice wood table (no computers in 1975, and I didn't even use an electric typewriter at that point), and I wrote a commission play for Yale Rep called The Vietnamization of New Jersey.

And many a night I'd hop on the subway and go see some Broadway show, buying "obstructed view" seats for $10.

These were great seats, mostly... they were the box seats on the side walls of the theatre. Sitting in them, there was usually one section of the stage you couldn't see; but most of the stage you saw just fine; and you were also super close, so you got to see the facial expressions, which was great.

I got to see Chicago this way with Gwen Verdon, Chita Rivera and Jerry Orbach - just hopped on the subway at 7:20 and got this $10 ticket. Later on I saw Sondheim's Follies, directed by Hal Prince that way - one of my favorite theatrical memories. What a great show. (Chicago was pretty great too.)

Everything went well with the apartment until November.

Suddenly with the cold weather, I discovered being on the 18th floor with beautiful but old windows was like being in a wind tunnel. It was freezing! Even if the heat was on full blast, it couldn't keep up with the air leakage from these windows.

I hung up heavy bedspreads and that kind of thing, and it helped somewhat, but it didn't really fix it. You still had these wafts of freezing air. Some really cold nights, I took the train to New Haven and stayed with my then partner Stephen. (He was getting his Master's degree while I was trying my wings as a playwright in NYC.)

And then the main roommate seemed to change his life.

A full set of drums suddenly appeared in the living room, he said they were for his teenage son who might visit occasionally. But quickly it became clear they were also for him. Bang, bang, ping, ping, boomba, boomba. Oh, my idea of hell.

And then he went back to an earlier interest in photography. And suddenly there were women in the apartment, and he was taking their picture. And then sometimes I'd find them coming out of my bathroom, dressed only in a towel. I mean they were friendly and all but.... I felt like I needed to hide in my room when I was there.

Wendy, who had met the guy in his monastic period, remarked that he had turned into Love That Bob! Which was true.

(Love That Bob! was a 50s sitcom in which Robert Cummings played a madcap photographer who was always drooling over the women he photographed, and would give womanizing advice to his 20 year old nephew played by Dwayne Hickman.)

Plus in the spring of 1976, I had a play that got ghastly reviews; and after its unfortunate critical drubbing, I went back to the apartment to discover all the elevator operators in residential buildings were on strike; and now I had to walk up the 18 flights in order to go hide in my room. At least in the spring it wasn't so cold.

So I didn't renew my lease (or maybe I didn't have a lease, I can't recall), and I let go of the apartment. Plus I was going to be away for the month of July at the O'Neill National Playwrights Conference in Waterford, Connecticut, with 11 other playwrights, each of us working on new plays. Mine was A History of the American Film.

I lucked out by getting three regional productions of that play in Hartford, L.A., and D.C., and so for several months the next year I was away in those cities. And then by summer 1977 it was time to come back to NYC - and once more I sought out sublets.

And why did I yet again seek out a sublet rather than a regular apartment?

Well, truthfully, I stumbled into this one - one of the actors in my play in L.A. was looking for someone to take over the rent for the East 86th Street apartment he grew up in; and the price, once again (gosh, I was lucky) was very inexpensive. It was a big apartment, rather dark, and a little run-down.

However, he had spent money making the TV room really comfortable - a plush sectional that wrapped around two sides of the room, a big handsome TV, nice new wallpaper - though the wallpaper was black actually, with bits of silver in it. And the windows looked out on nothing but buildings, so there were handsome, dark wooden shades covering them. And a big, strong air conditioner for the summer.

It was definitely a dark room. And when my play Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All For You was an off-Broadway hit, I gave a couple of interviews there. And one in particular said something like "he has such a dark world view that he spends much of his time in a totally black room with dark furniture." Well it wasn't really my choice, but, sure, it sounded like me, so why not?

I was there two, maybe three years - great price, and it was also a back apartment which I learned meant you didn't hear ANY of the front building streets sounds; so it was truly quiet and soothing. And so was that TV room. Wendy and I wrote a screenplay together there. I watched all the Mary Tyler Moore reruns there at 2 in the morning. (I didn't own a TV for most of the 70's, and so never saw the originals.)

Oh, and Wendy, meanwhile, was going from sublet to sublet too.

I think both of us liked the impermanence of it. And it was nice to not actually own furniture or silverware, you just used other people's. And then when time was up, you found someone's else abode to alight in.

Actually when this actor decided to come back to NYC, I think Wendy passed on to me a Village sublet she was just leaving ....It was a townhouse owned by a lyricist-poet, and you rented the first three floors; and someone else had the fourth floor. The townhouse had a pretty first floor, and the bedroom on the third floor was nice; but I discovered I was forever forgetting things on the third floor, and was always having to climb up two flights of stairs to find whatever I had left behind.

Though in New York, townhouses are kind of glamorous, I found that they weren't really for me. Maybe they're meant for people with servants. "Get my glasses on the third floor, would you, Gladys?" "Certainly, Mr. D.," says Gladys with a curtsey.

The townhouse sublet ended, and I had a chance to rent a nice second floor apartment - not a sublet! - on West 4th Street between West 12th Street and Bank Street. But I had to find somewhere for two months until that apartment was available.

So I went to an organization called "Feathered Nest" (doesn't that sound soothing?), and I found a really nice, sunny furnished one bedroom on East 54th.

And the owner of the apartment took a liking to me, and was good at stuff I was awful at - liking buying a couch, or buying dishes, or getting blinds for windows. And so I paid him a modest amount, and he took me shopping for the new apartment. It was very fortuitous meeting him. I still have some of the dishes he helped me buy. I don't throw anything out. I wait til it breaks or disintegrates. Clothes too. I'm a mess. I need a nanny.

Having my own apartment finally - when I was 35 (!) - did feel like a rite of passage. My landlord was the late George Furth, the talented actor/playwright who wrote Twigs and the book to the wonderful Sondheim musical Company. He was a friendly guy, and I enjoyed knowing him. He lived downstairs of me. The funny actress Denny Dillon lived above.

Wendy got her first real apartment around this time too, I think. A belated growing up for both of us? Or just the convenience of using other people's stuff made us postpone getting our own "stuff"?

So I finally owned a bed. And a television. And a desk. And... gasp... a computer. And I loved the Village, it's probably my favorite neighborhood in Manhattan. Among other things, I like that the buildings aren't skyscrapers. The buildings are mostly 3 to 5 stories high. There's lots of light; and many trees on the street. Outside my window there was a small, pretty tree that, of course, changed with the seasons.

Eventually George sold the building, and I then had to face up to the "wisdom" of buying something, and getting a mortgage (a hilariously difficult thing for a "self employed" person to do; I would bring copies of my published plays to prove I wasn't lying that I was a playwright; they still didn't quite believe me or understand how I made any money.) But my 9 years of subletting was over.

I first briefly bought an apartment on West End and 103rd Street, modest, nice. But when they came to collect the garbage, the noise was so loud my second floor apartment seemed to be in the midst of the Battle of Waterloo. The next apartment was prettier and much more expensive, on Park Avenue South and 29th Street. A redone industrial building, with a long hallway and gorgeous, enormous windows. I shared it with my partner John.

Though in 1987 I started to long for trees and ... more quiet again. So for several years John and I rented houses in Connecticut - fully furnished, with other people's silverware and once with their ghosts. So I wasn't quite done with sublets seemingly.

In the next chapter, I visit the Queen and disgrace myself. But that's for the next chapter.

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