FINDING an apartment at all can be a challenge these days, let alone finding a suitable one. This is especially true in New York City, notorious for its chronic housing shortage. With rents soaring to formerly unimagined prices, you are grateful if you have a rent-controlled apartment, and you stay put. Several of my friends are obliged to find new apartments, however, and their trials have set me thinking about apartments I have found, lived in, and loved - and could almost afford. In New York most of us learn to put a disproportionate amount of our income into our housing - for what is more important than a livable home?
All the apartments I've had except one have been in Manhattan, which is considered the ultimate in apartment-hunting difficulties. Yet things always turned out surprisingly well, after considerable persistence.
When my husband and I first came to New York in 1948, we spent many days consulting apartment ads in search of something livable. We saw a few lovely places wildly beyond our means.
Finally we found ourselves in an enormous room we could almost afford. It was in the West 80s, near Riverside Drive. It had neither kitchen nor bath, but it was high-ceilinged and comfortably furnished, with oil paintings on the wall and two large Chinese vases on the mantel. An ancient piano was a bonus. Tall casement windows lined one side of the room, and at one corner we could, by hanging out, see a small patch of the Hudson.
We bought a hot plate and occasionally cooked. More often we ate at greasy-spoon restaurants to avoid washing our dishes in our landlady's kitchen, which was heavily populated with roaches.
We resigned ourselves to sharing the bathroom with another married couple, an elderly woman, half the cast of ``Kiss Me, Kate,'' the inevitable roaches, and our landlady's three dogs. (The bathroom was quite a jaunt from our room and the dogs would follow me down the hall, trying to pull my flopping bedroom slippers off, and, of course, doing their best to enter the bathroom with me.)
The landlady, Mrs. Kessler, was always giving us Hungarian goulash. (I can still hear her nasal voice at our door: ``Mrs. Qui-i-in!'') She meant well and thought we were almost starving, which we were, but we just couldn't eat anything from her kitchen. It was difficult to find ways of disposing of the goulash without her knowing. We got weeks behind in the rent, and she was very good about it.
It really was a fairly bohemian style of life. As newlyweds involved in the arts, we thought it romantic. How proud we were the time we could not produce a glass for my sister, who upon arriving for a visit asked for a drink of water! (All our dishes were in Mrs. Kessler's kitchen, waiting for her dishes to finish soaking.)
Mrs. Kessler, incidentally, had quite an active social life. She was over 60 and very unattractive. Mr. Meyers, a likable alcoholic who inhabited her kitchen much of the time, was probably her most faithful admirer. On one occasion, however, he lost patience with her and chased her down 85th Street with a butcher knife, before the police arrested him.
We lived in this tumultuous environment for two years, then returned to our hometown.
Three years and we were back in our beloved New York! This time I had to do the apartment-hunting. Repeatedly, my husband warned me, ``Whatever you do, don't get a rear apartment!
I got a rear apartment.
Tired of wheeling our baby up and down, looking at impossible places, I settled for a second-floor rear in a graystone town house in one of the Upper West Side's most beautiful blocks. I immediately fell in love with the living room - a good-size room with green wood paneling halfway up the walls, and a gray, ornamented ceiling arching down to meet the green.
That ceiling was a marvel - garlands, cherubs, and seraphs, in perfect condition. How often I was to lie on the floor admiring it, with the seraphim smiling down benevolently at me! A fireplace added a homey touch. Then at the rear, casement windows again, filled in summer with the wind-swept branches of a tree of heaven.
The kitchen was minute, the bath tiny, and the bedroom barely adequate. But that living room! Even my husband loved it, in spite of its rearness. It was quiet, and with all its limitations, it was a real home that we could almost afford.
After 10 years the search began again. As usual, apartments were scarce, rents high. Besides that, I had set my heart on a river view. Friends had an apartment on a high floor with a huge view of the Hudson; it was breathtaking, and I longed for even half such a view.
No river view appeared, but we finally moved into a roomy, rent-controlled apartment. Now for the first time we were living in a large elevator building with doormen. I had always looked in longingly when walking past - here was my dream come true, minus the river view. We settled in happily, so grateful that we could almost afford it.
But within two years our circumstances had changed. My husband and I were divorced, my mother passed on, and my dad came to live with us. My daughter had to give up her newfound privacy and share my bedroom.
Fortunately the super took a fancy to my dad, and in a few months he told us he had something larger - 5 rooms. It was three stories higher, and now we had river views from almost every room. My daughter had an especially nice one from her corner room.
It's 20 years later, and I'm still living there. It's almost like a house. No seraphim, no cherubim, no fireplace - but space, space, space! A kitchen you can sit down in! Two elevators! And the river with its sunsets and ships. At night, the lighted windows of other apartment buildings eye me brightly. And even with the changed rent-control laws, I can almost afford it.
Front or back, large or small, any apartment can be a home, if you love it enough.