Ten years without painting is a long time, but I dreaded the bother and mess. Now the apartment walls seemed to be screaming, "Paint us!" No longer could I put it off. I devise a plan to have my apartment painted with as little inconvenience to myself as possible.
At times I have asked myself where I would stay if I were a visitor to New York City. My choice is the Plaza Hotel at Fifth Avenue at 59th Street, in a room overlooking Central Park. One morning, on the way to work, I march into the Plaza to inquire as to room rates. A mere $519 a night for a room with a park view. I need a backup plan. Eventually I settle on the Hotel Wales at 92nd Street and Madison Avenue in the neighborhood where I grew up. Here I will stay during the painting of my apartment.
Then I enlist Brandon, the building doorman. He is willing to take my apartment apart for the painters and then reassemble it. I warn him about the couch with the wobbly leg, and other hazards.
On the day of departure, my Russian heritage comes to the fore, for as Joseph Brodsky has written, "I am prepared to believe that it is more difficult for Russians to accept the severance of ties than for anyone else.... For us, an apartment is for life."
I bid farewell to objects on the mantlepiece, gathered over the years, each rich with personal memories. A clay gargoyle made by my godson. The family pewter candlestick holders. A bottle containing sand from the Syrian desert. A photograph of Jenny, my sister and brother-in-law's cat, who will be staying with me for 10 days in March. A drawing of Tolstoy inscribed to my grandfather by Tolstoy. Family pictures. A photograph I took in Russia of a statue of Pushkin covered with flowers, placed there by admirers of the poet. A small painted American flag welcoming me as Principal for a Day to P.S. 112 in Brooklyn. A bust of Richard Wagner.
With suitcase in hand, I take the Madison Avenue bus to the Hotel Wales and spend Sunday afternoon walking along once-familiar streets. Along 96th Street where I grew up, and 98th Street where I attended elementary school. All but one of the stores from my childhood are gone.
I enter Central Park. Here I played soccer and "capture the flag," went sledding in winter, and in the fall delighted in finding mahogany-colored chestnuts on the ground.
Early the next morning, I return to welcome the painters. Brandon has done a splendid job moving the furniture to the center of each room and placing my books there. The painters arrive. (Thoreau, in responding to an alumni questionnaire on the 10th anniversary of his Harvard class, lists among his professional attainments, being "a Painter, I mean a House Painter.")
That evening at the Metropolitan Opera House, I attend a five-hour performance of Berlioz's magnificent opera, "Les Troyens." Part 1 is titled, "The Fall of Troy," and Part 2, "The Trojans at Carthage." Coming through the snow-covered park on the crosstown bus, and then proceeding north on Madison Avenue, I resist the urge to disembark at 72nd Street, my usual stop, and remain on the bus for another 20 blocks.
I return Wednesday evening after a three-day absence. Brandon has magically reassembled the apartment. After placing clean towels on the wooden racks in the bathroom, I am ready to resume living here.
When I awaken the next morning, I notice a painting by the bed. It was not there before. Brandon, of course, did not know where the pictures were to be hung, so he made his own decisions. The painting, by an Indian artist, is of the Trojan horse. Inside the beast can be seen the head of a Greek warrior.
These past few days I have undertaken journeys to the East Nineties, and to Troy and Carthage. I am pleased to be back home.