life in a tiny apartment.

June 13, 2017

Tip #152: Love thy neighbor. 

Come June, when the sun sets late and long days spent outside result in no nap for Faye and an early bedtime instead (thank goodness for small blessings), James and I are likely to be found closing out the day with a few quiet minutes on the roof of our building. It’s not a finished roof. We don’t “have roof access” in the technical sense. There’s no deck (or rails) or anything that makes it particularly pleasant to be on except of course a breeze and a view of Manhattan and an ability to watch the sunlight glint off the windows of neighboring buildings as pink and purple clouds put on a show and remind us that we live on a planet. What I’m trying to say is it’s one my very favorite things to do.

It’s a fascinating opportunity, too, this chance to see your neighborhood from a different vantage point. You remember the density, for one thing—the sheer number of people busy making their lives all around you. Seen from above, a building that requires a walk around the block to reach, is right there across the way, and someone’s inside cooking dinner. In another nearby building you can take in a dozen or more floors of lives stacked at once: there are bookshelves against one wall, a painting on the same wall one floor up, a gentleman who sits in the window and does his own watching one floor up from that. If you could take a bisection of a New York City building what would you find? Lots of identical apartments with entirely different innards is what. Different values or preferences or means reflected in a million different choices about décor and belongings and spots to sit, to say nothing of whether the lights are on, or the air conditioners buzzing, or music streaming out of opened windows.

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We’ve been reading The House From Morning to Night with Faye before bed lately. It’s a picture book with few words but lots of pictures of an old house in Paris sliced open to reveal the day-to-night happenings in its various apartments. My mom brought my childhood copy to our place a few weeks ago and it holds up, except for the fact that the women involved are doing a disproportionate share of the cleaning. (“That’s silly,” says Faye.) Every night we flip the pages to see what the baker is up to, and the old woman who lives in the attic. The whereabouts of the cats are of great interest, ditto the baby. (“Why it’s all alone?” “Where’s the papa?” Faye wants to know.) The book is a friendly voyeur’s dream come true.

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This weekend we visited with our next door neighbors, the ones who share a kitchen wall and a bathroom vent with us and who lovingly pretend not to notice bath time shrieks or 6:00 am tears over popsicles. Their apartment’s the size of ours, more or less, but with a slightly different layout (and minus two children). I can’t help but catalog the differences between our places when I’m in there. I nod my head and try to seem disinterested in my surroundings, but in spite of myself, my eyes scan the apartment to find that their bedroom has different dimensions, and their closet’s in a different spot, and oh, funny, they have the a different bathroom tile but the same sink, and look, how a couch and a coffee table! Thing is, try as you might to talk about the weather, a conversation with New York neighbors turns to talk of real estate and rental markets and whether the landlord replied to your call for a plumber yet.

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From our perch on the top of our building we’re privy to a dozen partial moments in our neighbors’ nights. There’s one woman’s squeaky window as she leans out to hang washed bras to dry on the fire escape. Next door, a grown man with a view of the sunset opts instead for the view of a video game. Below him, another man, who slides open the window, snaps a shot of the sunset and retreats back inside. And us, a couple of parents with dark circles under our eyes who clink glasses of red wine and eat from a bowl of olives and cornichons and call it a date.

We’re all figuring out how to make our lives in these apartments we call home, lots of them tiny by design, more of them tiny by happenstance. All of us here learning to live with tiny kitchens and cramped bathrooms and neighbor children who sometimes cry for popsicles at daybreak.

Tiny apartment survival tips #1 – 151, right this way.

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40 Comments

  • Reply Liv June 13, 2017 at 9:25 am

    Oh this is beautiful- every word.

    • Reply Rachel June 13, 2017 at 1:34 pm

      I was about to say exactly the same, Liv! Just lovely.

    • Reply grace June 25, 2017 at 9:46 am

      Yes, oh so lovely every word a delight to read and wonderful photo!

  • Reply Ris June 13, 2017 at 9:40 am

    Living in close quarters, I’ve found the kindness of our neighbors is in direct proportion to how much noise I’m willing to put up with. The jerk bartender who said “get earplugs” when we asked him to keep it down in the middle of the night when he got home from shifts and wanted to keep the party going? Ugh. The super nice musician who gave us his cell phone number so we could text him when his music was going on a little too late? We were very willing to utilize those earplugs so he could keep jamming. Being a nice neighbor goes a looong way.

    • Reply Rachel June 14, 2017 at 11:51 am

      Ris, I agree! I always meet my new neighbors right away. That way, when I bang on their door and tell them to please keep the noise down, it’s not a stranger they’re dealing with. Although I am ready to move my beloved apartment. I love it so much, but I can’t deal with obnoxious, loud people always coming and going. Something private is more along my lifestyle now.

  • Reply Hilary Hunt June 13, 2017 at 9:52 am

    The picture book sounds similar to a book my 3 year old daughter loves – Busy Bunny Days – I highly recommend. I’ll be scouting out a copy of The House from Morning to Night.

  • Reply Julia June 13, 2017 at 9:55 am

    This reminds me of the photography series of Bogdan Gîrbovan! He photographed 10 different people/families who lived in one apartment building. It is really interesting to compare and contrast how different people use the space so differently.

  • Reply Doro June 13, 2017 at 10:01 am

    When I was a child I loved to read Philippe Fix’s book “Le merveilleux chef d’oeuvre de Seraphin” there is a lovely picture of the long walk to the attic bedroom and then the building of a most wonderful house where at night all the characters in the books come alive.

  • Reply liz smith June 13, 2017 at 10:17 am

    just lovely xx

  • Reply Elizabeth June 13, 2017 at 10:38 am

    Beautiful writing today. Thank you for sharing!

  • Reply anna maria June 13, 2017 at 10:40 am

    such a beautiful post – and a wonderful little reminder to find the magic in a busy, crowded city that sometimes can wear you down 🙂

  • Reply lindsay June 13, 2017 at 10:44 am

    i love this post! it reminds me of one of my favorite songs, “new york, i love it when you’re mean” by julian velard:
    “Can’t believe I never stopped to notice the million little lights
    Inside of each one is somebody’s little life
    Who’s in need of stars when you got all these apartments lighting up the night?
    I never seen it shine so bright”

  • Reply Katharine June 13, 2017 at 10:57 am

    This is lovely Erin — and this bit about the kindness of strangers willing to ignore 6 am shrieks certainly made me smile (we’re in the middle of a sleep regression and GOODNESS can an almost-9-month-old be loud at 6 am!)

    And thank you also for the gentle, important reminder to be willing to talk with our children about the books we read and what might be missing in them. I struggle with wanting to share the books I loved as a child but wondering how to deal with the outdated gender roles and overwhelming prevalence of white and/or male folks. But Faye’s comments reminded me of my own conversations with my parents growing up (“Why doesn’t Ma like Indians?” I asked while reading the Little House books. “I think she’s never met any and believes mean things other people have said,” my mother replied). So often, children know exactly which questions to ask, and we just need to be willing to answer!

    • Reply Katharine June 13, 2017 at 11:04 am

      Also, if you haven’t read it, check out “The House on Exeter Street” next time the holiday season rolls around. It has the same fun feeling of peeking into a house from top to bottom as you watch more and more guests be squeezed into creative “beds” on Christmas Eve. And not only that, but as I realized when I went back to it this Christmas, it hold up surprisingly well! Single mothers, homeless people met with neither judgment nor condescension, people of color, and Muslim guests who are treated to a warm welcome and no proselytizing all make an appearance — children’s books can be so wonderful!

      • Reply Doe June 14, 2017 at 1:05 pm

        If you’re on the lookout for the book mentioned above, do a search for “Christmas on Exeter Street” by Diana Hendry, with illustrations by John Lawrence, first published in Great Britain (Julia MacRae Books, at Walker Books, Ltd.) and the US (Alfred A. Knopf) in 1989. We happen to have a first American edition that is clearly printed as “on,” but I’ve seen later editions that were sometimes printed as “Christmas in Exeter Street.” I’ve fetched our copy from the attic for Faye and Silas so it’s at hand in December…Had forgotten a written reference to rotundity, which might have been better omitted; except for that, it’s an all-inclusive charmer.

      • Reply ERIN BOYLE June 14, 2017 at 2:19 pm

        Yes! An old favorite here, too!

    • Reply Sasha June 13, 2017 at 1:52 pm

      I agree! Books with omissions, or challenging values can open doors to great conversations with kids. With my own girls, I tried hard to have board books and picture books and the books we read aloud when they were very small be 100% what we wanted (fair, inclusive, portraits of a wide world) but as they got older we could tackle books from an earlier time and different values, by then they spotted the problems and brought them up. But no Richard Scarry…I wanted them to see women in ask the jobs. And we limited modern princess “geared exclusively to girls” stuff too. Girls need heroes, not pretty dresses.

      • Reply Erin June 14, 2017 at 9:20 am

        I used to love my Richard Scarry book (and I turned out to be a scientist – so, no worries!). My favorite was a page with an empty house, where – like mentioned above, my mother and I would make up stories about the people who lived there and what went on during the day/night.

      • Reply ERIN BOYLE June 14, 2017 at 2:20 pm

        Recently heard that Richard Scarry books have been updated to undo some of the old-fashioned gender roles!

  • Reply Heather June 13, 2017 at 12:39 pm

    Such a lovely read. 🙂

  • Reply blackbird June 13, 2017 at 1:22 pm

    The House From Morning To Night was a favorite of my little ones too. I had forgotten.

  • Reply Sasha June 13, 2017 at 1:44 pm

    I love this post Erin. Your words brought your neighborhood to life for me. I too am fascinated by how others live. I walk my own neighborhood and notice my same (tiny) house, but with different colors, a porch, interesting landscaping. As someone who’s never lived in a city, apartment life is on a par with Antarctica living for me, strange and exotic! Some of my favorite movies give a little glimpse too, The Seven Year Itch (so fun to watch in the heat of summer) & Rear Window (you never quite know what you’ll see!!).

  • Reply Jess June 13, 2017 at 2:13 pm

    This post is beautifully written. Also, for more doll-house voyeurism check out ‘In the town all year round’. It is a wordless picture book that allows readers to track the town’s residents as their narratives play out through the seasons. There are cats! And it is wonderfully European.

    • Reply Susan Magnolia June 14, 2017 at 12:08 am

      In the Town All Year ‘Round is my daughter’s favorite as well. There are so many small details to discover. ❤️

  • Reply Sue June 13, 2017 at 2:14 pm

    Hello Erin. I read your blog from afar – North Yorkshire in the UK – and I love your writing. This, in my humble opinion, was one of your best pieces yet, a wonderful slice of life. How you do it with two small tots amazes me. I too can fully recommend “The House on Exeter Street’, it’s a firm favourite with my son every Christmas and is beautiful in words and illustrations. Sue x

    • Reply Rita Tocta June 14, 2017 at 4:26 pm

      I was going to write just that too, what a beautiful piece Erin, thank you! More please 🙂 🙂

  • Reply fanny June 13, 2017 at 3:23 pm

    Beautiful post! I love the long evenings in June and watching the sun set over the city (Amsterdam in my case;-)

  • Reply Catherine June 13, 2017 at 5:44 pm

    Such a beautifully written – and felt – post… I love the early summer – one of my favorite things to do is to walk the neighbourhood barefoot (I might not on NYC streets, but here I feel I don’t risk much): it feels like I’m extending my living space to outdoors that way 🙂

  • Reply auberie June 13, 2017 at 6:07 pm

    Thank you so much for this beautiful article. You’ve written it so well and I think the penultimate sentence will stay with me “We’re all figuring out how to make our lives in these apartments we call home, lots of them tiny by design, more of them tiny by happenstance.”
    So true!

  • Reply Mei June 13, 2017 at 7:17 pm

    Lovely piece of writing. Your blog is genuine and unpretentious to me. God bless you from NZ

  • Reply Katie June 13, 2017 at 8:36 pm

    This is one of my favorite pieces of your writing, ever. From one friendly neighborhood voyeur to another, happy summer!

  • Reply Marion June 14, 2017 at 6:45 am

    Such a nice read, I like your writing so much !

  • Reply Carmella June 14, 2017 at 9:12 am

    Beautiful. City life is so very foreign to me! Just yesterday, Nellie & I went on a five mile trail run/hike in the mountains a few miles from our house and didn’t see a single soul. I’m fascinated by the way small, simple living can look so different depending on one’s location.

  • Reply Erin June 14, 2017 at 9:22 am

    There is something so romantically dreamy about that photo! And, superficial be damned but – I love your hair (if only I didn’t always get SO HOT in the summer with my hair down)!

  • Reply Enn June 14, 2017 at 12:15 pm

    My favourite post so far. Please write more on personal thoughts of home as haven, parenting in a big city, and the simple pleasures of day to day. Xoxoxo

  • Reply Whitney June 15, 2017 at 12:06 pm

    This is so beautiful. You managed to put into words what I love about city life. It brought tears to my eyes and made my day!

  • Reply Hanna June 15, 2017 at 12:32 pm

    Oh how beautiful this is, every word! Makes me think of summer and long, hot, friendly days 🙂 It also makes me long to visit New York (though I’ve decided not to go to the US while Trump is in power…). Now I want to go out and have a glass of wine 😀

  • Reply Cynthia June 15, 2017 at 8:49 pm

    I would like to echo everyone else’s sentiment regarding your writing. This post was so beautiful and I especially loved Faye’s comments on the book. I wonder if there’s a book of Faye-isms in the works? Or a children’s book with a loquacious little girl named Faye?
    I’m always inspired to do better when I read your blog. Thank you.

  • Reply Ann June 15, 2017 at 11:32 pm

    When I was little, I loved to invent and draw stories. Still can’t understand what the story was invented by me and which read. All mixed up in my head. And all books up to 6 years, when Jules Verne was the discovery of the century, now seem to me not such what were in the childhood :))

  • Reply Karen June 16, 2017 at 2:19 pm

    I love good childrens books, The House from Morning to Night sounds wonderful – It’s no longer in print but I found it on amazon used in paperback form and ordered it. Thanks for the introduction!

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