Where I Live | O at Home

Published in “O at Home” magazine column, 2006

If you were ever reading in a beautiful library and wished you could go pour yourself a bourbon and climb into bed, well, that’s what it’s like to live in my New York loft. It’s 1,500 square feet of rent-stabilized space in SoHo, complete with book-filled shelves, a rolling ladder, a big desk, and a bed. You can’t take a good hot shower, because there’s no water pressure; you can forget sleeping well in the winter, because the steam heat clangs like Thor at his anvil; and my neighbor’s access to the fire escape is through my apartment. But rent-stabilized means I can never leave, so that’s where I live. I don’t know what they manufactured here in the 1890s, but whatever it was, the loft has a smell my children love, like paper; high ceilings; huge windows; and all the quiet a writer needs, unless another commercial tenant leases the floor above and renovates again, pounding night and day, breaking pipes and flooding my space while I’m away.

When I first moved in, the tenants were all artists and our lofts were all radiators and metal ceilings. But as the neighborhood got cool and commercial tenants moved in, SoHo changed. At one point, I told a genius designer friend, Sharon Simonaire, I didn’t want to live in a loft, I wanted to live in a library, and she made it happen.

Sharon found nineteenth-century French bookcases and a 20-foot ironwood table to use as a desk. She ordered an orange velvet sofa, hung 20 library lamps, and hired the Putnam Rolling Ladders people to put in the ladder. She painted the walls pale pink, saying I needed more red influence in my life, and painted the inside of the bookcases darker pink, saying the books would look better. And she was right.

As people come down the long entrance hallway, they chat about the weather or whatever, having no idea what is to come, then fall completely silent as the main room, a big square, opens up before them. On their left is a 40-foot wall of books, 16 feet high. They say, “Oh, my God, you’ve got a ladder. I always wanted a library ladder.” They see the gleaming walnut bookcases turn, forming an L, and know there is a bedroom behind them. They start walking along, reading titles, pulling some books out, pointing to others, asking to borrow a few. People want to know why I have so much science fiction. They don’t get why Colette is shelved with the southern writers, or why the collections of letters are with the poetry. They want to know why the first editions are over by my daughter’s bed, right above the dog-eared Dr. Seuss and William Steig. It seems right to people that I have my theater prizes tucked in among the theater books, but they are startled to find the Pulitzer sitting over the Hs, with Ha Jin and Hemingway. I explain it’s there just because it makes me feel good as I round that corner on my way to bed.

I’ve never given a dinner party at the loft and have bought only one piece of furniture in ten years. I have promised myself I will hang some pictures, but I never have. This is a place for reading and writing. It is a place to disappear. There are mirrors, but I don’t look in them, and the light in my closet is so dim I am sometimes shocked at what I’m wearing when I go out into the daylight. The loft is not a place that I love. I can’t sit outside at night and I miss having rooms. But it is a place where I feel invisible, which I like and need. It’s a retreat for my monastic self, the one who loves leather chairs and silence. And when I am there where no one sees me, I can say who I am, whether that’s a writer struggling with a scene or just a peace-loving woman eating toast and watching TV.