On the Sunday my table talk with Gail Derreberry posted she texted me to say, thank you for helping me understand my journey. I’ve thought about that a lot. Do we live in the middle of our lives and miss really seeing our lives? Thank you, Gail, for inspiring this Juliet Rome interview with myself. When it posts we will have just said goodbye to our downtown life.
I’m not sure if the decision was for downtown or life in a loft. My home aspirations are a little extreme. Grand manor, a la Downton Abbey, to New York apartment, high-rise apartment, London flat. We looked at a second-floor apartment once in a European manor house. It opened into a salon-type room with floor-to-ceiling mirrors. Heaven to me. J. on the other hand has always been drawn to loft living with exposed ceilings, lots of volume and brick walls.
Is that what you left?
Yes. We lived in a 2200-square-foot loft above a shop in a 1912 building. The black front door was obscurely placed on a sidewalk line of restaurants, shops and businesses. We climbed 13 steps to a landing and another 13 steps to enter the apartment. The back door off the master bedroom opened to another kind of life. We can talk about that later.
Why that apartment?
We looked at so many. This had amazing volume with its high, exposed ceilings, brick walls and 10-inch baseboards. There was more public space than we had even in our former family home, and a kitchen area with generous counter and cabinet space. My love affaire with tables extends to dishes and the table arts. There was a space for everything.
J. loved the two-level terrace and fell for flowers and container gardening. We had a small round table on the lower terrace, and an oblong table and cocktail seating on the upper.
What did you love the most about it?
The open space. The windows to the street. The way you could see from one end of it to the other. And I’m with J. on container gardening. It was great fun and a vast relief from hours of planting, pruning, weeding, mulching, replacing and agonizing over what harsh weather was doing to the plant material I loved and babied.
Dislike the most?
All the grime, inside and out. We couldn’t afford to hire a commercial contractor, and found few willing to clean the beams and exposed HVAC ducts. Mostly though, the noise. For the first year we couldn’t escape it. After hours of trying to sleep the first night I got up and moved to the sofa on the streetside of the apartment. The sounds were different but just as extreme. Streetside we had traffic. Backside we had four bars within reaching distance, including the rooftop bar that became our nemesis. By daybreak I was hysterical. I do not exaggerate. Here’s the really funny thing. Friends recommended everything possible to break the noise. An aviation client gave us a lead on sound blankets. Two months before we left the gentleman in the neighboring loft went to the rooftop bar proprietor to ask if they could lower the sound. They did. Silly.
What did you miss the most from suburban living?
Green belt. Grass. Crickets. Landscaped beds coming alive in the spring. A garage. That it was easier to keep everything clean.
How did Freddie do with the noise?
The first week we moved him around a lot trying to get him to settle, keeping him near us. Week two, we moved him to the laundry room, the place he catnapped most of the day in our former home. We know the things we know. He finally slept.
So the city never sleeps?
No. And neither did we. There was an order to the sounds of the night. We’re not late-to-bed people. There was the thumping music until 2 or so, then the cacophony (the only right word) from people spilling out of bars and gathering under the back balcony because they weren’t ready to go home and sloppy revelers high-revving their car or motorcycle engines or voices in arguments. There was the clip clop of the hooves of the horses of the beat officers pushing people home. There was the middle-of-the-night food truck being unloaded underneath us and kitchen staff powerwashing their equipment or pushing loads to the commercial dumpster that would be emptied before the sun came up. There were more professions of love and disdain outside our master bedroom window than I can count.
It sounds like a science experiment gone bad.
No. We loved it and our imaginations really came home to it. There is something vitally alive about living downtown. It’s a melting pot of commerce and retail and entertainment. There’s such great contrast and so much opportunity to see and do new things. Who knew there could be so much architectural detail sleeping around corners? So many interesting murals? How fun to see a hundred new things on the nine-block walk to the river and try 8° below rolled ice cream from a street shop/cart.
You see philanthropy in a new way. A prominent realtor led a fundraising campaign to bring flowers to downtown. Our front door opened to massive containers changed out seasonally and professionally with thrillers, spillers and fillers and baskets hanging from the streetlights. There wasn’t a day we lived there that I wasn’t grateful.
You appreciate the benevolent work of a soup kitchen because the homeless population is all around you.
It was eye opening?
That is the best way to put it. While we lost years of our lives from lack of sleep (I do exaggerate) we woke up to things we’d previously never considered. Why are people homeless? What is mental illness and what are we doing about it in our communities? What are we doing to return people to productive life? It’s easy to feel conflicted when you have loss and hardship around you every day and sleeping two doors away in the recess of a storefront. Will your spare change buy a meal or a bottle? When do you return a smile or nod and when do you trust your instinct to give a wide berth?
What did your friends and family think about your life downtown?
Our kids loved it and saw it as an adventure. I’m certain there were reactions we never, thankfully, heard. One good friend confidently said, this is way too radical for me. Others loved that it was uncommon and urban.
Was it repeatable?
Yes, except that now we live in a high-rise tower with secure parking and walls we hope are too thick for sound to keep us up at night. We will have a lot to learn here too and new things to explore. What I know is that living next door to or across the street from teeming, buzzing life has somehow become what we need and love. For this season.