The elevator resembles a birdcage. The tall, ornate kind-all thin bars and gilded exterior. I even think of birds as I step inside. Exotic and bright and lush.
Everything I''m not.
But the woman next to me certainly fits the bill with her blue Chanel suit, blond updo, perfectly manicured hands weighed down by several rings. She might be in her fifties. Maybe older. Botox has made her face tight and gleaming. Her voice is champagne bright and just as bubbly. She even has an elegant name-Leslie Evelyn.
Because this is technically a job interview, I also wear a suit.
My shoes are from Payless. The brown hair brushing my shoulders is on the ragged side. Normally, I would have gone to Supercuts for a trim, but even that''s now out of my price range.
I nod with feigned interest as Leslie Evelyn says, "The elevator is original, of course. As is the main staircase. Not much in the lobby has changed since this place opened in 1919. That''s the great thing about these older buildings-they were built to last."
And, apparently, to force people to invade each other''s personal space. Leslie and I stand shoulder to shoulder in the surprisingly small elevator car. But what it lacks in size it makes up for in style. There''s red carpet on the floor and gold leaf on the ceiling. On three sides, oak-paneled walls rise to waist height, where they''re replaced by a series of narrow windows.
The elevator car has two doors-one with wire-thin bars that closes by itself plus a crisscross grate Leslie slides into place before tapping the button for the top floor. Then we''re off, rising slowly but surely into one of Manhattan''s most storied addresses.
Had I known the apartment was in this building, I never would have responded to the ad. I would have considered it a waste of time. I''m not a Leslie Evelyn, who carries a caramel-colored attach case and looks so at ease in a place like this. I''m Jules Larsen, the product of a Pennsylvania coal town with less than five hundred dollars in my checking account.
I do not belong here.
But the ad didn''t mention an address. It simply announced the need for an apartment sitter and provided a phone number to call if interested. I was. I did. Leslie Evelyn answered and gave me an interview time and an address. Lower seventies, Upper West Side. Yet I didn''t truly know what I was getting myself into until I stood outside the building, triple-checking the address to make sure I was in the right place.
Right behind the Dakota and the twin-spired San Remo as one of Manhattan''s most recognizable apartment buildings. Part of that is due to its narrowness. Compared with those other legends of New York real estate, the Bartholomew is a mere wisp of a thing-a sliver of stone rising thirteen stories over Central Park West. In a neighborhood of behemoths, the Bartholomew stands out by being the opposite. It''s small, intricate, memorable.
But the main reason for the building''s fame are its gargoyles. The classic kind with bat wings and devil horns. They''re everywhere, those stone beasts, from the pair that sit over the arched front door to the ones crouched on each corner of the slanted roof. More inhabit the building''s facade, placed in short rows on every other floor. They sit on marble outcroppings, arms raised to ledges above, as if they alone are keeping the Bartholomew upright. It gives the building a Gothic, cathedral-like appearance that''s prompted a similarly religious nickname-St. Bart''s.
Over the years, the Bartholomew and its gargoyles have graced a thousand photographs. I''ve seen it on postcards, in ads, as a backdrop for fashion shoots. It''s been in the movies. And on TV. And on the cover of a best-selling novel published in the eighties called Heart of a Dreamer, which is how I first learned about it. Jane had a copy and would often read it aloud to me as I lay sprawled across her twin bed.
The book tells the fanciful tale of a twenty-year-old orphan named Ginny who, through a twist of fate and the benevolence of a grandmother she never knew, finds herself living at the Bartholomew. Ginny navigates her posh new surroundings in a series of increasingly elaborate party dresses while juggling several suitors. It''s fluff, to be sure, but the wonderful kind. The kind that makes a young girl dream of finding romance on Manhattan''s teeming streets.
As Jane would read, I''d stare at the book''s cover, which shows an across-the-street view of the Bartholomew. There were no buildings like that where we grew up. It was just row houses and storefronts with sooty windows, their glumness broken only by the occasional school or house of worship. Although we had never been there, Manhattan intrigued Jane and me. So did the idea of living in a place like the Bartholomew, which was worlds away from the tidy duplex we shared with our parents.
"Someday," Jane often said between chapters. "Someday I''m going to live there."
"And I''ll visit," I''d always pipe up.
Jane would then stroke my hair. "Visit? You''ll be living there with me, Julie-girl."
None of those childhood fantasies came true, of course. They never do. Maybe for the Leslie Evelyns of the world, perhaps. But not for Jane. And definitely not for me. This elevator ride is as close as I''m going to get.
The elevator shaft is tucked into a nook of the staircase, which winds upward through the center of the building. I can see it through the elevator windows as we rise. Between each floor is ten steps, a landing, then ten more steps.
On one of the landings, an elderly man wheezes his way down the stairs with the help of an exhausted-looking woman in purple scrubs. She waits patiently, gripping the man''s arm as he pauses to catch his breath. Although they pretend not to be paying attention as the elevator passes, I catch them taking a quick look just before the next floor blocks them from view.
"Residential units are located on eleven floors, starting with the second," Leslie says. "The ground floor contains staff offices and employee-only areas, plus our maintenance department. Storage facilities are in the basement. There are four units on each floor. Two in the front. Two in the back."
We pass another floor, the elevator slow but steady. On this level, a woman about Leslie''s age waits for the return trip. Dressed in leggings, UGGs, and a bulky white sweater, she walks an impossibly tiny dog on a studded leash. She gives Leslie a polite wave while staring at me from behind oversize sunglasses. In that brief moment when we''re face-to-face, I recognize the woman. She''s an actress. At least, she used to be. It''s been ten years since I last saw her on that soap opera I watched with my mother during summer break.
Leslie stops me with a raised hand. "We never discuss residents. It''s one of the unspoken rules here. The Bartholomew prides itself on discretion. The people who live here want to feel comfortable within its walls."
"But celebrities do live here?"
"Not really," Leslie says. "Which is fine by us. The last thing we want are paparazzi waiting outside. Or, God forbid, something as awful as what happened at the Dakota. Our residents tend to be quietly wealthy. They like their privacy. A good many of them use dummy corporations to buy their apartments so their purchase doesn''t become public record."
The elevator comes to a rattling stop at the top of the stairs, and Leslie says, "Here we are. Twelfth floor."
She yanks open the grate and steps out, her heels clicking on the floor''s black-and-white subway tile.
The hallway walls are burgundy, with sconces placed at regular intervals. We pass two unmarked doors before the hall dead-ends at a wide wall that contains two more doors. Unlike the others, these are marked.
12A and 12B.
"I thought there were four units on each floor," I say.
"There are," Leslie says. "Except this one. The twelfth floor is special."
I glance back at the unmarked doors behind us. "Then what are those?"
"Storage areas. Access to the roof. Nothing exciting." She reaches into her attach to retrieve a set of keys, which she uses to unlock 12A. "Here''s where the real excitement is."
The door swings open, and Leslie steps aside, revealing a tiny and tasteful foyer. There''s a coatrack, a gilded mirror, and a table containing a lamp, a vase, a small bowl to hold keys. My gaze moves past the foyer, into the apartment proper, and to a window spaced directly opposite the door. Outside is one of the most stunning views I''ve ever seen.
Amber sun slanting across orange-gold leaves.
All of it from a bird''s-eye view of one hundred fifty feet.
The window providing the view stretches from floor to ceiling in a formal sitting room on the other side of a hallway. I cross the hall on legs made wobbly by vertigo and head to the window, stopping when my nose is an inch from the glass. Straight ahead are Central Park Lake and the graceful span of Bow Bridge. Beyond them, in the distance, are snippets of Bethesda Terrace and the Loeb Boathouse. To the right is the Sheep Meadow, its expanse of green speckled with the forms of people basking in the autumn sun. Belvedere Castle sits to the left, backdropped by the stately gray stone of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
I take in the view, slightly breathless.
I''ve seen it before in my mind''s eye as I read Heart of a Dreamer. This is the exact view Ginny had from her apartment in the book. Meadow to the south. Castle to the north. Bow Bridge dead center-a bull''s-eye for all her wildest dreams.
For a brief moment, it''s my reality. In spite of all the shit I''ve gone through. Maybe even because of it. Being here has the feel of fate somehow intervening, even as I''m again struck by that all-consuming thought-I do not belong here.
"I''m sorry," I say as I pry myself away from the window. "I think there''s been a huge misunderstanding."
There are many ways Leslie Evelyn and I could have gotten our wires crossed. The ad on Craigslist could have contained the wrong number. Or I might have made a mistake in dialing. When Leslie answered, the call was so brief that confusion was inevitable. I thought she was looking for an apartment sitter. She thought I was looking for an apartment. Now here we are, Leslie tilting her head to give me a confused look and me in awe of a view that, let''s face it, was never intended to be seen by someone like me.
"You don''t like the apartment?" Leslie says.
"I love it." I indulge in another quick peek out the window. I can''t help myself. "But I''m not looking for an apartment. I mean, I am, but I could save every penny until I''m a hundred and I still wouldn''t be able to afford this place."
"The apartment isn''t available yet," Leslie says. "It just needs someone to occupy it for the next three months."
"There''s no way someone would willingly pay me to live here. Even for three months."
"You''re wrong there. That''s exactly what we want."
Leslie gestures to a sofa in the center of the room. Upholstered in crimson velvet, it looks more expensive than my first car. I sit tentatively, afraid one careless motion could ruin the whole thing. Leslie takes a seat in a matching easy chair opposite the sofa. Between us is a mahogany coffee table on which rests a potted orchid, its petals white and pristine.
Now that I''m no longer distracted by the view, I see how the entire sitting room is done up in reds and wood tones. It''s comfortable, if a bit stuffy. Grandfather clock ticking away in the corner. Velvet curtains and wooden shutters at the windows. Brass telescope on a wooden tripod, aimed not at the heavens but on Central Park.
The wallpaper is a red floral pattern-an ornate expanse of petals spread open like fans and overlapping in elaborate combinations. At the ceiling are matching strips of crown molding, the plaster blossoming into curlicues at the corners.
"Here''s the situation," Leslie says. "Another rule at the Bartholomew is that no unit can stay empty for more than a month. It''s an old rule and, some would say, a strange one. But those of us who live here agree that an occupied building is a happy one. Some of the places around here? They''re half-empty most of the time. Sure, people might own the apartments, but they''re rarely in them. And it shows. Walk into some of them and you feel like you''re in a museum. Or, worse, a church. Then there''s security to think about. If word gets out that a place in the Bartholomew is going to be empty for a few months, there''s no telling who might try to break in."
Hence that simple ad buried among all the other Help Wanteds. I had wondered why it was so vague.
"So you''re looking for a guard?"
"We''re looking for a resident," Leslie says. "Another person to breathe life into the building. Take this place, for example. The owner recently passed away. She was a widow. Had no children of her own. Just some greedy nieces and nephews in London currently fighting over who should get the place. Until that gets resolved, this apartment will sit vacant. With only two units on this floor, think how empty it will feel."
"Why don''t the nieces and nephews just sublet?"
"That''s not allowed here. For the same reasons I mentioned earlier. There''s nothing stopping someone from subletting a place and then doing God-knows-what to it."
I nod, suddenly understanding. "By paying someone to stay here, you''re making sure they don''t do anything to the apartment."
"Exactly," Leslie says. "Think of it as an insurance policy. One that pays quite nicely, I might add. In the case of 12A, the family of the late owner is offering four thousand dollars a month."
My hands, which until now had been placed primly on my lap, drop to my sides.
Four grand a month.
To live here.
The pay is so staggering that it feels like the crimson sofa beneath me has dropped away, leaving me hovering a foot above the floor.
I try to gather my thoughts, struggling to do the very basic math. That''s twelve thousand dollars for three months. More than enough to tide me over while I put my life back together.