For much of my childhood I lived on the ninth floor of a fairly large apartment building in the Bronx, which for some reason I found a picture of online, but its industrial good looks are not worth reproducing here. Inside, however, the apartment was gorgeous and huge: three bedrooms for my mother, stepfather, and me, which meant that the extra bedroom was turned into a “den,” just like on The Brady Bunch.
And for anyone who grew up with an actual backyard, here is what we kids did on our urban terraces pretty much all the time. (What you are missing in this picture is my friend sitting next to me wearing a blue shirt and white shorts, which we had planned via the phone that morning, but I feel that I can only take responsibility for pictures of this sort of myself.)
Now in case you think this tiny space was maybe kind of restrictive, just remember that our thoughts tended to go vertically instead of horizontally (though I did roller skate back and forth on this terrace, but only for practice). My daughters are thrilled by the tales I have told of what my friend and I used to throw off the terrace down to the street below. We started with ripped up pieces of napkins, hoping that someone below might mistake it for snow. Then we decided to use ripped up pieces of cheese with the hopeful thought that someone walking along might get the idea to look up, maybe to see if it would rain or something, and would suddenly see something falling from the sky. That person would then say, Oh! and the piece of cheese would land right into his or her unlucky mouth (it never occurred to us that someone might even like a piece of cheese landing in his or her mouth). The problem was that we were so high up that it was hard to tell if someone was ever looking up into the sky, and we could never get the timing right if that really did happen. Plus my mother was always saying, What happened to the cheese? I just bought some cheese yesterday! Where did it go?
Now that I think about it, I guess there must have been a pile of paper and/or cheese out in the front of our building much of the time, but I don’t think I ever noticed it.
But that’s not the only terrace I meant to talk about. Because meanwhile, across town, in my dad’s apartment on the Upper West Side, there was another terrace. Now if you knew me anytime between the ages of 7 and 27, it is very likely you were out on that terrace at some point. It was up on the fifteenth floor and it faced 73rd street and it was always cluttered, and I do mean cluttered, with tons of plants, including an ultimately enormous tree in a container that my dad picked up off the street (recall my dad’s habit of picking things up off the street), but it had a great view, even if its wide brick ledge made it nearly impossible to throw anything off.
There are plenty of stories about that particular terrace, but the one I want to tell is one in which I used the terrace to break into the apartment. I was maybe around 20 and my dad and stepmother were at their house upstate and I was planning to stay in their apartment for the weekend. I had taken the train in from the Bronx and it was right at the front door I realized I had forgotten my keys. I knew that I could probably get into the building somehow, but there was no way to get into the apartment once I got up there. Or was there? Now since my father had built a greenhouse on the terrace, the only real door separating the terrace from the apartment was actually an iron gate. I knew the key to that gate was in the living room. If I could get as far as the gate, I could probably figure out how to get in from there.
I thought about this for a while standing in front of the building. If my dad's terrace was on the fifteenth floor, I could probably climb over from the terrace on the fifteenth floor in the apartment next door. Would someone actually let me do this? I went to the building next door and buzzed the top floor apartment. When a person asked who I was, I explained that I was locked out and could I please climb into my apartment through his terrace. You may be surprised that it only took a little confused back and forth discussion via the buzzer before I was actually buzzed in. Was the guy just curious? I have no idea. He met me when I got off the elevator and I explained my predicament again, even giving details about my dad in case the guy happened to know him (he didn't). But he did let me walk through his apartment to his terrace and then climb onto my dad's terrace, to which I thanked him profusely. I wondered if even for a second the guy wondered if it was just an excuse and that I was going to rob the apartment next door. If so, he didn't let on. I may not have looked like a robber, but isn't that always the first mistake people make? Anyway.
I opened the greenhouse door and now there was only the iron gate separating me from the apartment itself. Basically the gate was just iron bars that I could fit my hand through, but not my entire body. I looked into the living room and there, hanging not too far across the room on a shelf, on a long chain, was the key to the gate, as I'd known it would be. But how would I get it down from the shelf? It was at that moment, and I kid you not, I suddenly remembered the Brady Bunch episode ("Ghost Town U.S.A.") in which they were locked in jail and they all put their belts together and, using them like a rope, managed to knock the keys to their jail cell off a hook and drag them back to their cell and escape. I used this very same ingenuity, with my very own belt, to knock that key to the gate down and drag it back to me. I unlocked the gate and I was in! Never was I so proud or so grateful for the hours and hours I spent watching The Brady Bunch as a child! I'd also like to add that after this experience I never forgot my keys again, but that would not really be honest.