By Aabye-Gayle D. Francis-Favilla
|Photo: Ian Favilla
Finding a temporary home was difficult enough, but finding one that could accommodate our indefinite timeline was even more daunting. In fact, we didn’t find one, not just one anyway. It would take four temporary homes (and five moves between them) to fill the time between the fire and our return home.
First we moved in with my brother-in-law who lived walking distance from our Elmhurst, Queens apartment. We stayed with him for just the first two or three nights after the fire. Then we were taken in by two friends in a Union Square, Manhattan apartment with an extra bedroom for a month. And then, just as our time in Union Square was ending, through a friend of a friend, we found a place we could stay in for a few months—a beautiful one-bedroom apartment in Long Island City, Queens. It was time to move again.
With this next move, we got a bit creative. New York City had been inundated with snow, and as a result a good parking spot was hard to find. With alternate side of the street parking rules suspended, I could leave my car parked where it was indefinitely, so I devised a plan to move without moving my car—a plan that would remove the pressure and time-consumption of repeatedly looking for a convenient parking space in a snow-coated city. I decided to leave the car in Union Square until the final leg of the move.
Never underestimate the efficacy of public transportation. That’s how I made the majority of move three: Union Square to Long Island City (LIC). Instead of driving, I took the subway. I packed our stuff into a large, thick garbage bag to keep things clean and dry on the slushy streets, and then I put everything into a shopping cart.
Thankfully, both the Union Square and LIC train stations were a very short walk from their respective apartments. And I didn’t have to negotiate any stairs, because both stations were equipped with elevators. Once on the train I could relax and read for the thirty-minute (or less) ride (instead of dealing with NYC traffic—or drivers), and when I arrived at my destination, I didn’t have to spend time looking for a parking spot. The shopping cart was pretty big, but it still could only hold so much (much less than a carful). So, I had to make a lot of trips back and forth—but thank goodness for unlimited MetroCards!
What an odd first impression we must have made. I can only imagine what the doormen at the LIC apartment thought of us given how we moved in. On day one, they saw me coming in every hour or two with a full garbage bag-lined shopping cart. I must have made at least six or seven trips like that. I imagine I looked like a persistent hobo to them.
That weekend, they saw my husband and me bringing in closetful after closetful of dry-cleaning—everything from suits to undershirts to bed sheets. What they must have thought of that! And in the weeks (and months) that followed, they witnessed us receiving as many as four or five boxes of deliveries on a regular (almost daily) basis. Odder still, they didn’t see us bring in a single piece of furniture until we’d already been there for a month.
The apartment was already furnished with everything but a bed when we moved in. Our insurance company provided us with one, but it took a month for the logistics of that to be resolved. We slept on an air mattress that first month.
It was only later that we befriended the now understandably quizzical doormen and shared our situation: that there had been a fire in our building, that we were living nomadically until our apartment was rebuilt, that almost all of our clothes had gone to the dry-cleaners not because we were pretentious or lazy, but because they had a special process to remove the soot stains and smoke smell, and that all of the deliveries were due to us trying to replace as much as we could—everything from sneakers to shower curtain rings to books.
That Long Island City apartment was an oasis in our nomadic journey. It is where we spent the most time. We were able to grow roots there—however shallow. It almost felt like home. In fact, we thought we were almost home. That it would only be a short matter of time. Oh how wrong we were, but we didn’t know it then. Instead, we moved to Long Island City confident that this was our penultimate stop, and that our next move would take us back home.
As was our time in Union Square, our stay in Long Island City was full of blessings. First and foremost was that we could stay there for almost six months. Having such a long stretch of time there made our lives as a whole feel much less temporary and uncertain. We were able to build a routine and treat it as home—a home we didn’t have to share with anyone. Thanks to the generosity of our renter’s insurance policy, this was an apartment we wouldn’t ordinarily have been able to afford. We enjoyed the amenities that were luxuries to us: a doorman, a balcony, a gym, a view. There were also unexpected sources of entertainment: the pool table in the rec room and the impossible to ignore fights between the couple living next door.
All in all, we were happy. After the fire, everything had felt like it was happening in fast forward. Decisions had to be made, forms had to be filled out, we moved three times in the first two months. But with six months to get comfortable, it felt as though someone had benevolently pressed pause. Now we could find a reasonably paced routine for our lives and just live. We didn’t feel so much like victims anymore. We weren’t home yet, but we were closer. And that proximity made us feel more normal.
Some of our losses were intangible and took a bit longer to recognize, I’ll reflect on those in the next installment of “My Five-Alarm Life.”