If this were possible, if you possessed some infernal apparatus that could somehow X-ray the vital stats of someone’s present—minus the backstory, mind—if it could spirograph the hypotrochoids of someone’s life in pink and blue ballpoint neatly onto graph paper, if such a thing materialized, well, Smokey and Sally’s chart would read Yuppie Arrivistes, for sure.
Let’s look at the facts, shall we? They live in a vast, exposed-brick-and-sanded-parquet apartment in the lower East Village. They open Sunday mornings with champagne mimosas and goat-cheese omelettes. They’re documentary film-makers who shop at the Union Square Greenmarket. The sprightly rose nosegay that serves as the centerpiece of their wooden breakfast table comes from a young and pretty “flower artisan” that sells her tussie-mussies at Brooklyn street fairs. They go to jazz concerts on Y rooftops. The reading material in the bathroom includes Wired magazine and The Adventures of Sindbad, by fin-de-siècle Hungarian sensualist Gyula Krúdy.
Listen here, my friend. Your machine would be dead wrong. In lacking a Context Button, it erroneates on paper what in 3-D takes a whole different shape. If you rewind back and add that essential fourth dimension, time, the nebulous contours of a story far more quintessential to New York than the hipster or yuppie narrative will appear, velvety as a brass rubbing. It’s the story of millions, and it begins in a small town in the middle of the country, winding its way—by instinct, smell, luck or fate—to the big city.
For his part, Smokey was born in Corpus Christi, Texas and given his father’s and grandfather’s names, Oscar and Franklin, both of which have now been legally changed on his passport, driver’s license and social security. “Your name is what people call you,” is all he has to say about it.
Smokey recently found out that he has a brother, Buddy, a son of his mother’s from an earlier marriage whom he’d always assumed was a cousin. On the same occasion, Smokey also learned that she’d married five times instead of once: to the actor who fathered Buddy, to a rich man who then adopted him, to an airforceman who crashed and died, to the rich man again, and finally to Smokey’s dad, who was ten years younger. He still has never discussed any of this with his parents. “They had fifty years to tell me, and they didn’t,” he says. “Why bring it up now?”
Despite his ignorance of the warp and sticky weft of his family web, it doesn’t sound like pre-cable-TV Corpus Christi was difficult to put behind. “I was really happy to leave Texas,” Smokey remembers. “Sally says it reminds her of New York in that everyone feels special and entitled.” After college in Connecticut, Smokey packed everything into his car and drove to San Francisco. “I was twenty-three and living in Sausalito. Every day I drank a coffee on the ferry to work and a cocktail on the way back. I loved it.”
In 1980, Smokey came to New York.
Sally, for her part, hails from Rochester. Her brother and sister, having sublimated after her father’s suicide, eventually deposited, like hoarfrost, in Naples and Iowa City. Sally arrived in 1969. She lived first in Washington Heights, in a tiny apartment with a boyfriend, two Great Danes, and the litter of puppies they consequently generated. Smokey, ever the assistant, fetches an aged color photocopy of Sally with one of the Danes. A collared shirt reveals the curve of a young, smooth throat and, though the image is fuzzy, her smile, caught mid-laugh, is beguiling. The dog nearly looks bigger than she.
It may be cruelly reductive to point to Sally’s ability to navigate New York real estate as her most salient attribute, but her talent for doing is rare as something like winning on straight bets at Harrah’s roulette table night after night (the Village Voice, too, marveled at this ability). At a time when her peers were moving to Vermont to farm or live on communes, people wondered what Sally was doing in New York. “Growing up,” she says.
Having subsequently breezed through an apartment on 70th and Central Park West ($125 a month), another on 11th and 2nd (for $53), a studio space in Union Square ($80), and a 2500-square-foot, eighteen-window former tent factory on Bleecker and Elizabeth ($167), Sally and some friends applied to join the Urban Homesteaders program and, given the go-ahead by the city, commandeered a building on 1st and 1st. It was an old tenement building, stripped bald by copper-hunting junkies, each floor composed of four tiny dwelling spaces. Each homesteading couple requisitioned a story and tore down the interior walls. All of a sudden, Sally had an apartment with eight chimneys that she’d paid $330 to own. The eighty empty crack vials strewn about the floor came as a free bonus.
The apartment took decades to fix up, along with an estimated $75,000 of renovation costs, but given the apartment’s size, prime location, and structure, Sally is now sitting on what one could conservatively call a fucking gold mine. All of the original owners but for one, who’s since died, still live in the apartments they homesteaded in 1983. The question of when, to whom, and at price to sell looms over every coop member’s head, ever complicated by the fact that building-wide consensus must be reached before the sale of any unit takes place. Twenty-six years have passed since the disagreements began, but hey, everyone’s survived. Both of the strangers I passed on my way upstairs saluted me, and when was the last time that happened in your building?
The passage of twenty-six years has turned this apartment into something pretty fantastic. When Smokey pops the cork on the champagne, it sails so far that its parabolic arc is already on the downswing by the time it hits an exposed-brick surface and bounces off the rubbed parquet. I’m reminded of my first month in New York, when I was living in a Chinatown bedroom so small that one couldn’t be in the room and not on the (single) bed. I went to a party in an apartment just one block away, and it was so big that tennis balls we hurled for the benefit of the house St. Bernard weren’t even hitting walls by the time gravity took over. Some people are lucky in love, looks or cards, others in real estate. In New York, the latter are blessedest.
Sally and Smokey’s apartment has the kind of collage-y aesthetic upscale marketers of ersatz (Pottery Barn, Anthropologie) emulate, a gently rummaged look, like bed-head on someone with good hair. Theirs is the kind of home in which every object has a story, where the walls are lined with dog-eared books whose frontispieces are doubtlessly inscribed with dedications poignant and tender. The candle wicks are black from actual use, not that pallid, waxy white; the cast-iron pans hanging from the ceiling are slick from dutiful seasoning. Mantels lining the room exhibit an orderly chaos of kitsch, memorabilia, and objets d’art: a mini grandfather clock, beaded zebra, crystal ashtray, three chestnuts, a painted plate, a small, slightly crumpled black-and-white photo of a boy who might be Indonesian, a ballpoint etching of a cat. Despite the casual carelessness of the arrangement, however, the floors are so clean that I keenly feel my sandpapery street-feet sully its smoothness. Our reclaimed rustic wooden chairs wear protective felt pads, and twelve pairs of shoes stand at attention on an aquamarine mat by the door. Only really clean people have light-colored doormats.
It’s when she talks about apartments that Sally unexpectedly morphs from sylph-like snowflake to capable, sinewy urban farmwife. All of a sudden, her speech is peppered with words like “shim” and “pine sub-flooring” and “rebar”; you notice her hands, and remember the old saw that women’s hands never lie. My grandmother’s, pink and wrinkled, testify to a lifetime spent in soapy water; my mother’s, short-nailed and smooth, evince the advent of the dishwasher. Even Upper East Side ladies with faces smooth as tissue paper can’t hide their hands, veiny as Roquefort. Sally’s are beautifully strong; her fingers are tensile, her palms, prehensile. Two starfish for hands.
Sally hasn’t been drinking mimosas, and as such is neither pink-nosed as Smokey nor cross-eyed as I. I watch him watch her, plainly enraptured, even at stories he’s surely heard many times before. Her face, clear as moonshine, and silver aureole of hair, illuminate the room. That’s it—our first bottle of champers, kicked.
After having read, in a now-defunct “homemade” women’s magazine called Up From Under, a classic story about a turn-of-the-century Iowa farmwife struggling to hide the fact that she’s murdered her husband, Sally made a movie called A Jury of Her Peers. (In an aside, Smokey notes that it was nominated for an Oscar.) This, too, was twenty-six years ago. Since then, Sally has been working on one other movie, finished just last month, about her father’s suicide. “What have you done in the meantime?” I ask. A long silence follows. A long silence follows that one. “It’s good having boyfriends with inexpensive apartments,” Sally jokes. One night, too stoned to write, I pop in the DVD Smokey slipped into my bag. The Oscar-nominated short is a lead-footed, melancholic Ibsen rip-off, but there’s a four-minute animation that has me so entranced that I watch it again and again, noting new nuances with each viewing.
Smokey has hauled. As a documentary producer he’s—follow me, now, or rather, follow Smokey—filmed giant Indonesian lingams on a world tour; produced a pilot about eating around New York with Cavin Trillin; sailed up South Asian rivers behind IBM reps paddling to logging camps to clean printer ribbons; drove a movie across America, stopping to show it at 150 science museums; followed Paul Simon on a world tour to Guangxi, Tokyo, Hong Kong, Bahia, and Johannesburg; shot Itzhak Perlman discovering klezmer in Poland; and, most recently, spent eighteen months scouting locations from Costa Rica to Baffin Island for a movie on Native Americans (“I’d introduce myself to park rangers as Smokey Forester, and then ask them where I might find a tall white pine by itself in a prairie somewhere. They thought I was nuts.”)
Smokey likes to cook. When he was a kid, cable TV didn’t stretch to Corpus Christi, so a local woman filmed a daily 30-minute cooking show, never recorded, just released into the aether. Ten-year-old Smokey went on it a few times to help her with chess pie. Now he shops at the Union Square Greenmarket, the Essex Street Market, and Chinatown, and makes coquilles St. Jacques and soufflés out of Alma Lach’s “Hows and Whys of French Cooking.” He goes from simple (spread a thin coat of mayo on a flat piece of fish and throw it under the broiler for five minutes) to spectacular in no time flat: “I get monkfish liver at the Greenmarket [from Blue Moon Fish, naturally], wrap it in foil till it’s the shape of a salami, and simmer it in water for seven to eight minutes.” Voila! Ballotine de foie gras de mer. Yum.
When Smokey talks to me from the kitchen, where he’s donned science-professor glasses to make three meticulous, lacy omelets (shrugging them briskly onto heated plates and transferring them to a barely-warm oven), he brandishes the whisk like a wand and his feet, involuntarily, fall into the primary ballet positions. He pops the cork on the champagne bottle from third position. His sock feet slide into second to pour orange juice into the margarita glasses. As the omelet cooks, he holds onto the counter like a barre, facing me, his feet in first position, his arm curbed around a stainless-steel bowl.
When we eat, cupping the side of a wooden table, everything on the plate tastes delicious. “What a beautiful color this omelet has,” admires Sally. What she means is that the omelet is eggy and yawning with goat’s cheese, the home fries have an appetizing oniony crunch, and the toast is perfectly burnished on both sides. Even the butter is superlative, and when people enjoy superlative butter, that means they’re good people. That’s all we eat, and it’s perfect.
As the morning unfurls into afternoon, we reflect and digest. Sally and Smokey aren’t Key West Parrotheads nor do they fit with the virulently self-righteous denizens of Bolinas; lacking a specific taxonomy for these things, let’s just say they swing—generationally, aspirationally, philosophically and behaviorally—in a post-hippie hammock vaguely connected to both. Neither has ever been married, and their conversation is casually peppered with romantic wreckage: old lovers, old lies, old lives. Sally’s amorous trajectory has led her from a communist to a shade-tree mechanic (literal and figurative) to a man who warms the plates before he serves the omelet. Hey, things change, time passes. Re-jiggering one’s life habitually enough to keep individual liberty at the crux of one’s cross-hairs is a sure-fire route to turbulence, but for those who believe, it’s better than the lobotomy others call commitment. Despite it all, I find them remarkably unscathed for New Yorkers (even if the qualifier still wants citing). Neither comes off as overly neurotic, and they seem genuinely to enjoy the other’s company, appreciating the day-to-day.
“We were the vanguard,” Sally reminisces about the past, about the days when the East Village was just immigrants, crackheads and a few forward-looking middle-class refugees. Now, she bemoans the contemporary corporatizing of the city: “New York is a concentration camp you don’t even know you’re in.” But neither Sally nor Smokey ever considers leaving. On lovely Saturday afternoons, they sometimes spread a subway map out on the floor, throw a dime at it, and wherever it lands, they go. Nothing is really far from 1st and 1st, Manhattan’s modern-day heart. Giving up that apartment before the city’s pulse migrates elsewhere would be pure folly, and they know it.