‘Russian Doll’ Real-Estate Envy

Memories of the East Village, Without the Fancy Fixtures

Back in the 90s, my husband and I occupied a 340-square-foot East Village tenement apartment. It was the type that would’ve had a bathtub in the kitchen, had the kitchen been a bit bigger. A board on the stove provided counter space. My massage table masqueraded as a couch. We slept on top of all our clothes in the loft bed Greg almost drilled his balls off making. Good thing he didn’t, or we wouldn’t have ever conceived a baby up there, a happy accident in more ways than one.

The author, pregnant in Tompkins Square Park.

That baby thawed the tetchiest of East Village old timers…some of whom hadn’t been there that much longer than us. But hey, I get it. Better an insider than an outsider. The sweet junkie mama who lived downstairs was one of the few who never tried to pull rank. When I told her I was pregnant, she left a secondhand mug emblazoned with a bumblebee and the words “Mother to Bee”on our doorstep…then died of an overdose a few days before the baby arrived.

My husband, who’d moved to Cape Cod in first grade, was accustomed to being labelled a wash-ashore. As a location scout for Law & Orderhe ranged far and wide every day, unlike me, who was deeply grateful when queen bees like the formidable, silver-haired jazz singer who rode her 3-speed on the sidewalk with her oxygen tank in her bike basket stopped blanking me, eager for the baby’s approval.

Babies may be a dime a dozen there now, but back then, with dealers on the stoop, a baby and a phone call could keep all 22 apartments of an otherwise childless building from suffering through the winter without heat.

By summer, our hero baby could toddle, and I found my true people in Tompkins Square, where I spent upwards of four or five hours a day in the playground near the gate viewers of Russian Doll associate with Horse, the Netflix series’ shoeless, semi-magical homeless guy.

Given my history, it’s inevitable that I’d watch the show with interest, and a bit of a lump, too.

Bathroom Envy

It’s been nearly two decades since I left behind the 340-square-foot apartment. That memory is still fresh enough that I feel like a loser every time the camera pulls back from the bathroom mirror into which the resurrected Natasha Lyonne gazes in disbelief to reveal a veritable cathedral of a bathroom with black subway tiles and magisterial door with a blobby glass inset. It’s what I imagine the bathroom to be like in a restaurant I can’t afford, and couldn’t get into anyway. It goes without saying that I’ve never lived–or even hung out in–such a boho-grandiose apartment as Maxines, the glamorous, mostly unflappable architect of Lyonnes purgatorial and awfully-well-attended birthday party.

That pad awakens the green fairy of East Village real-estate envy, a subject at which I’ve continued to excel during my long and not unhappy exile in Brooklyn and East Harlem.

A multimillion-dollar loft-like one-bedroom apartment in a shiny new East Village building equipped with a  gym and concierge has negligible appeal for me. But the authenticity of that bathroom’s arched doorframe? The fire escape Maxine didn’t even know she had!? (Oh Maxine…she’d be so easy to hate if she weren’t played by the eternally endearing Greta Lee. The casting is universally great here. I’m particularly eager for more of Rebecca Henderson, who plays Maxine’s older, overall-clad, pansexual girlfriend with charismatic pragmatism. If it can’t be me, I’m glad to see a fellow overalls afficianado ensconced in that apartment, even if her name isn’t on the lease, or, more likely, co-op stock certificate.

Had I made an educated guess, I’d have pegged Maxine’s apartment’s location as 7th between C & D, or maybe the Christadora House, home to Iggy Pop, Douglas Rushkoff, Vincent D’Onofrio, and a number of less notable residents who’ve come to equate skirting the park during the Tompkins Square riots with actually living in the park during the Tompkins Square riots.

Poor Man’s Pudding

But I didn’t have to make that educated guess, because I recognized the apartment’s fence in an exterior shot. One of the many ephemeral neighborhood attractions documented in the very first issue of my handwritten, hand-illustrated zine, the East Village Inky, was a cup of “poor man’s pudding” I’d noticed tucked into one of that fence’s black iron rings. It’s a nice way of saying that somebody took a shit in a cup, shoved a plastic spoon in it, and left it there for the rest of us to enjoy.

Not to toot my own horn, Christadora-style, but in the days before cell phones with built in cameras, I stopped to draw that shit with a baby on my back. Of course, I recognized that fence! The building behind it was a church, then, as now. Calling it a synagogue and implying it’s full of incredible apartments is just one more of Russian Doll’s wishful fabrications.

In real life, Lyonne’s Nadia would probably celebrate her 36th birthday in a bar, like the rest of us. Instead of braying carefree greetings over Harry Nilsson’s “Gotta Get Up”, her laudably diverse assortment of madly attractive friends could glower about drink prices and subway closures, as is traditional.

Too bad all the good bars closed before you got there.

Kidding. Even in 2019, there are plenty of East Village-y bars in which to celebrate an East Village birthday: Coney Island Baby (on the site of the late great Brownie’s). Club Cumming, as in Alan, who bought the crumbling building next door to the one that housed the 340-square-foot apartment for 4.65 million a couple of years back…Mars Bar is gone. Mourn its passing at KGB.

Is Bushwick Still Cool?

Those who wish to stay on location can wander down Avenue A to Odessa, as featured in Russian Doll’s final episode. It’s an appropriate choice, given that Odessa has called it quits more than once over the years, only to find itself reborn as Odessa. As far as my personal history goes, it’ll always be the place where my husband and I initiated a protracted, extremely heated battle over whether or not to circumcise our unborn (and who knew? Female!) baby, to the horror of one of our closest friends and her date, Jon Glaser! Why isn’t he on Russian Doll? He was on Girls! Which, I know, takes place in Williamsburg, back when Williamsburg was still cool, like Bushwick is now. Bushwick’s still cool, right?

Despite several recognizable locations and a certain vintage vibe, Russian Doll’s East Village seems born of the thrilling, romantic, just-dangerous-enough New York that Woody Allen used to depict. Which is exactly how I used to view the place, when not actively succumbing to real-estate envy. I was a keen collector of magical moments, like the full moon night when Habib hired a jazz trio to play outside his tiny falafel stand halfway down our block.

The time it snowed on March 29, pelting the goddess atop Tompkins Square’s Temperance Fountain with fat, cornflake-sized flakes that stuck.

Or the time Baby Dee rode by Life Cafe in a tutu and a matted cat costume, riding on an honest-to-god velociped and playing an accordion while collecting tips a tin can attached to a fishing pole…

My water broke with the baby’s younger brother not too far from the portico where Horse and a tough crew of East Village gutter punk thieves shelter, and the General Slocum memorial that the late David Rakoff wrote of so movingly in the aftermath of September 11.

And of course that poor man’s pudding.

I’m glad I lived there at a time when nostalgie de la boue was the inevitable parting gift for those who left.

Not that everybody did leave–check out my fellow Tompkins Square playground mom, Rachel Amadeo’s What About Meshot in black and white between 1989 and 1993, whenever film and performers were available. Tompkins Square and its riot’s homeless encampments feature heavily as well. The cast was comprised entirely of neighbors– Johnny Thunders, Dee Dee Ramone, Nick Zedd. Like Russian Doll, it’s a bit of a fairy tale, but it’s also the empirical real deal.

Page from The East Village Inky courtesy of the author.

Ayun Halliday

Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.

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