First there was the Victorian, an apartment at the top of a hulking and majestic old-style house deep in Brooklyn, giving off an undeniable aura of haunted manor, complete with eerie stained-glass windows in the bathrooms, hidden secret room in my closet and baseball cards of Don
Mattingly inlaid in the tile, staring back at you from one of the bathrooms. A doctor owned the place previously, my roommates said, and those tiles were signed at one point too until the mother unknowingly wiped away the pen marks, mistaking them for her children’s scribblings. How you have signed tiles of Don Mattingly displayed prominently in your house and are unaware of their authenticity, I do not know.
The wood floors groaned painfully under the weight of any hallway traffic and the hot water would stop working periodically for no discernible reason. The front-door locks were a Byzantine system of switches and levers and gears and parabolas that often bested my feeble metal key and delayed attempts at entry for upwards of 10 minutes, once even forcing me into the unusual position of having to break out of the house by climbing down a second story balcony.
For all it’s ominous looming, the house was warm and friendly, a safe outpost from the harsh cold streets of poverty early this winter. It was described by my roommates on the first day there as “disappointingly not spooky.”
The space was ample and the roommates friendly, the neighborhood quiet and the subway a short walk away. Vegetarians outnumbered meat eaters in the house 2 to 1 and roommate Chris brewed his own beer, storing it in the kitchen closet to ferment (or simmer? Or curdle? what does beer do?) for a month. The house had no TV save for an antennae-tuned small screen installed near the bathroom ceiling where I occasionally decided to put myself in the odd yet somehow acceptable position of standing dripping wet in the shower watching Drew Carey award cars to screaming black people and college students.
A bodega on the corner sold cheap beers without labels that Nubs, Pete and I bought on a cold Friday night as the first steps in a slow march toward drunkenness that eventually ended up with Pete in a bear suit doing karate poses in Park Slope. NY Mag labeled the area, Ditmas Park, the New San Francisco, much to the amusement of everyone in the neighborhood.
“Not spooky,” that is, until the final day of my residency there, New Year’s Eve, when the girl who took over my room and I were talking over drinks at the kitchen table, the closest thing to a common living space in the apartment. She was mentioning the possibilities of finishing the secret closet room to use as part of the bedroom, for studio space or whatnot.
“Is that box of whippets still in there?”
“Box of what?” I knew the room had a refrigerator, a vestige from the doctor’s inhabitance, where he allegedly stored medicines or other medical supplies to keep them out of reach of his children. But I knew the fridge had been empty.
We opened the secret panel in the closet and entered the room, where she pointed at a box on the floor I had overlooked or disregarded as a pile of random detritus from household supplies.
I bent down and shifted away the top layer of plastic bags and shingles to find a multitudinous cache of checkered yellow and blue boxes
labeled “Cream Whipper Chargers” (fits all pressure whippers, fyi), enough to whip a parking lot full of Phish fans into a giddy, balloon huffing frenzy. Alongside those boxes were dozens of the discarded light blue containers looking like spent artillery shells, presumably long since drained of their nitrous oxide contents.
Holy damnit christmas, I exclaimed, or something like it at least. Either someone in this house was running a secret Carvel franchise specializing in banana splits, or they loved the hell out of some hippie crack. Further examination of the box discovered a ceramic container used for inserting the whippet (ostensibly to make whipped cream), a long, possibly tar-stained tube that seemed to attach to the container some way.
It was still possible, I thought then, that these belongings had some legitimate medical purpose we weren’t aware of. But why would a doctor have a huge treasure trove of tiny restaurant style nitrous cartridges? Surely there’s some way to obtain these in large medical quantities? It’s not like doctors need to go troll around college campuses to buy their Vicodin.
The next find in the pile cast further doubt on the medical hypothesis: some sort of metal bowl attached to tubes as if part of a hookah, filled with the residue of a black tarry substance I did not care to touch more than once.
I shut the door and walked away, now suddenly, in my waning hours of living in the big house with stained glass windows, wondering what other secrets it held.
The bathroom I used was a palatial monument to
a deep tub, with steep steps leading up to the basin, light from the stained glass window highlighting shades of the tile and an ample amount of polished surfaces that clearly were designed as some sort of involuntary sacrificial altar to the gods of Cracking Your Head Open.
The basement of the house allegedly contained an art studio that I never got to see. The porch I had to escape from that time was decorated with a mannequin woman’s leg, and the middle of the lawn had an inexplicable patch of dead earth in a perfect circle shape, perhaps, I guessed, the site of a well or a henge of some sort or a very unambitious crop circle.
The neighborhood was one some considered one of the last “real” (heavy quotes) neighborhoods in Brooklyn, and it had other curiosities I never got to visit either: a flower shop/bar combo that usually generated some buzz; a real dive bar along Coney Island Ave with free wireless internet, a pretty fantastic looking pita shop that was always filled with guys in yarmulkes, even at midnight, and a food coop I only shopped at once before taking an employee discounted job at TJ’s.
As I was leaving the house, I opened the secret door one more time and decided to grab a box of the whippets to take with me as a souvenir.
“New!” the box proclaims. “Misuse can be dangerous! Do not inhale. Keep out of reach of children.”
Even if this box weren’t crusty with age, I would have no intent on actually using them, or even how to go about that. I brought them to my new sublet, a huge loft much further up in Brooklyn this time, where I expect the box will fit in well with the other random decor: a hair dryer chair from a beauty salon, half a mannequin, a decades-old map of the New York subway system, a detached refrigerator door used as a wine rack. The place has roof access with a grand view of parts of downtown Brooklyn and the highlights of the Manhattan skyline
peak out not too far in the distance. The Williamsburg Savings Bank Tower, the closest thing to a skyscraper in the area, looms directly across the street. It’s spooky in its own way, with carved stone lions and other animals on the outside and a tall clocktower that looks like an anachronism at the busy street corner.
Then I read that Magic Johnson has a stake in the building and is developing it into luxury condos (as is happening around most of Brooklyn. Er… not the Magic Johnson part, the other one).
I wonder if he has a secret stash of whippets in there somewhere.
Come back later for Adventures in Subletting, Part 2: Loft Life