The Great 188
by RULA AL-NASRAWI
Saint Nicholas Avenue is
a long street that starts all the way up on 162nd Street and creeps down to Central Park North. Not to be confused with the other Saint Nicholas Avenue in Brooklyn, that runs from Flushing Avenue to Myrtle Avenue. Patterns tend to repeat in New York City often for no apparent reason other than to fuck with people it seems like. The uptown St Nick, starts out straight and then at 124th cuts through Harlem diagonally like an elegant slash through the neighborhood, never failing to confuse cab drivers that clearly are programmed to drive up and down the grid in only right angles. The avenue slices through relics from the Harriet Tubman Memorial (all hail Queen Harriet), the Cecil Steakhouse (formerly just The Cecil, RIP the roti pizza), bodegas with friendly Yemeni faces and flashing rainbow lights that made the bodega look like a club that also happened to serve sandwiches. Not just any sandwiches though. One particular unicorn of sandwiches that would make any vegan gut themselves in agony. A chopped cheese sandwich, which you can find in most bodegas in NYC but I’m telling you right now it’s a Harlem delicacy. The first time I tried a chopped cheese was at my neighborhood bodega aka My Dads—Rod and I called them my “dads” because they were all super Arab and worried about me never finding a husband because my 23 year old ass would stumble in almost every weekend slurring the two Arabic words I knew. I cannot WAIT to go back there and tell them that my messy ass is currently engaged. Will record and share on social.
Harlem runs along the North side of Central Park. I spent a lot of time on that side of the park, taking lonely but important walks in the snow, riding bikes sifting for joy during incredibly miserable times like the 2016 election, and tripping with my best friend collecting leaves and naming them Leif (hi Leif!). Cafe Amrita, a cafe that honestly didn’t know if it was a cafe or bar was where I went after grad school to“flirt”with Gio, the tattooed Drake-adjacent barista who by some miracle (or curse) I managed to exchange numbers with. This event led to years of awkwardly texting —sometimes drunk gibberish texts and sometimes trying to play it cool but secretly ready for this bullshit to run its course texts—making plans that never came to fruition. We are married now and have three children. That was a joke. We haven’t spoken in three years.
Ok let’s go home now. Home, for the last six and a half years of my life— for ALL of my life in New York—was 188 Saint Nicholas Avenue. This building. I have a lot to say about this fucking building. First of all, the lobby looks like the insane asylum from AHS Season 2. If you’ve never been over, the initial entry is a little horrific and an insanely inaccurate depiction of the rest of the experience. Garish fluorescent lights flood the space and a light blue paint job on the walls overlaid with gold metallic floral design—which btw they repainted the walls halfway through my time here, and I was positive they would finally change the color to something less unnerving only to find that they were redoing this truly heinous wall aesthetic all over again. Why. Our pre-war asylum had some characters that floated through the halls daily that deserve many a shoutout.
Nelson, our sweet and sour Dominican teddy bear super who marches around the halls every day with a ladder, a stepping stool, a dust mask, or all of the above. We were convinced he hated us for years because of his gruff defensiveness every time we dared to ask him about anything— but then one miraculous day he thawed and began greeting me with a “Hi Mami” followed by a smile. That’s when I knew we were best friends. And on the day I moved he sighed “You’re leaving Mami? Why? You’re my lady!” Ok people, remember this: I am Nelson’s lady. We have officially transitioned from strangers to buddies to unbreakable bond. Yes.
Now on to Jay. Where do we begin with Jay? Jay seemed to be in his early 40s although substances may have aged him a decade or two. Hey, at least he’s having fun. Jay grew up in our building when he was younger. When his mom passed, Jay and the rest of the family could not longer make rent and were forced to move. Apparently he lives in Queens now, but Jay still lingers our halls almost every day, a slender raspy jolly ghost, offering up his services to the tenants of 188. Weed, coke, booze, all of the things. Jay was not just the building drug dealer though, he also kept an eye on the building at all times. Drug dealer/neighborhood watch killer combo. We would crack jokes about the weather, he would shout at me to not be late for work, and we even hugged each other a few times. Jay and Nelson are only two of many characters that have wandered the halls of 188, but these two are definitely making it into the memoir. They’re the fabric of this building’s existence. I wont bore you with stories of the psychotic family upstairs that threw massive glow stick parties for their children on a nightly basis. I also won’t bore you with stories about the stoney-faced couple who were the parents of two stir-crazy huskys, or the stylish French restauranteur Cedric—who owned the French restaurant “Cedric” across the street, turned it into sad sad burger spot “Bunz”(???) and then shut the establishment down completely but still lives in the top of our building in a makeshift penthouse with his beautiful wife and baby.
Everything about Apartment 32 is iconic. From the squeaky ass front door that sounded like two elephants having sex, to the scalding hot pipe that lived in the bathroom directly in front of the toilet basically begging you to accidentally touch it or lean your hand on it and subsequently give yourself a third degree burn, to the shower head that jutted out of the wrong wall therefore spraying water directly at the shower curtain and all over the floor, etc. The space is huge, literally our secret Harlem mansion that shocked every person that walked in. “YOU CAN NEVER MOVE” they all hissed at me. I’m not moving, don’t worry, I would reply but what I meant was “DON’T GET ANY IDEAS BITCH IM NOT GOING ANYWHERE.”
My bedroom, which may have been a dance studio in another life, was quite literally enormous. An island scene mural of a giant baobab-esque tree painted on the walls complete with a corner waterfall and parrot made me feel like I was permanently on vacation in Tahiti. Literally even the ancient radiator wanted me to feel like I was on vacation in Tahiti. Every morning I woke up drenched in a pool of my own sweat as if sleep was code for bikram yoga session. On the other side of the giant tree mural were wall to wall ceiling to floor mirrors so I could see myself at every possible angle that exists. I spent almost seven years in this Tahitian getaway, first setting foot in the apartment in July 2012, bangs curling from the NYC humidity and an idiotic smile on my face that only people who just arrived to New York have.
When I arrived, the place was beautiful but broken I’ll be real with you. Over time, we plugged up the holes, brought in plants and greenery, and breathed life into every corner. That place is and will always be mine, Rod’s, and Alex’s. When Rod first moved from California to NYC, he spent a good few months living in my gigantic island paradise room with me. He slept on my futon that came with the room which I absolutely should have burned and disposed of because of how soiled it was from ghosts of tenants past, but of course me being “resourceful” aka disgusting and lazy bought a new futon cover for it to make it look shiny and new and ready for guests. A lot of people came to town, a lot of people slept on that futon. We had no shortage of friends that crashed and came through, we even built forts in the living room and all crashed there together like the Lost Boys.
The string of unforgettable sublets we had: the super Christian woman who cheated on her husband and later revealed that she was KellyAnne Conway’s MUA and a major Trump supporter, the girl who hid in her bedroom when we were home but then when we were back in our rooms would clomp around the apartment like a PMSing ghost, the girl who put Kool Aid jello in her oatmeal to make it pink, the guy who spent a lot of time crying in the common spaces, the guy who was renting out a room but was never even there because he was also living somewhere else at the exact same time, the list goes on and on and on. Never forget we had a dog living with us for several years, Nala, who would bark at pretty much any person who walked in. Who also got her tail smashed in our elevator door and for months would literally bite at her internally wounded tail and then wag the bloody tail against our furniture and walls until finally her owner, our old roommate, took her to get it amputated and she now has a little nub that wags back and forth like stubby metronome.
So cheers to the mice that came and went and came and went. Who climbed the curtains, and jumped out of dresser drawers like dirty little synchronized swimmers; who left darling little pellets in my shoes. Cheers to the door knob in my bedroom that fell off so many times leaving me trapped in my own steaming hot Tahitian room for at least an hour at a time. Tshepo, if you’re reading this, I have not forgotten that you were also trapped in that room and had to break into Alex’s room through that wall door we shared in order to escape. There is no word to describe the collective experiences I’ve had in this place. Psychotic? Incredible? I’m going to be honest with you, I don’t even want to try.
Cheers to my roommates who also doubled as my best friends. Cheers to nights spent sobbing in bed over fuck boys who are literally nothing next to the man I met and live with now. Cheers to Hubert and Chong and Bernice the nasty arm chair. I said goodbye to this place in December 2018 but I know that it’s not really goodbye. My family still lives there and even if everyone moved out, that place will always be our home. The home where we learned who we were and who we were going to become.