A Modest Sanctuary In the Midst of a Great City
My 3-1/2-room New York City apartment where I have lived for 30 years:
''How small to others, but how great to me!'' (Ovid).
James Boswell, in his journal, describes returning home at night to his London rooms. ''I can come home in an evening, put on my old clothes, nightcap and slippers, and sit as contented as a cobbler writing in my journal or letters to my friends.''
Two hundred years later, I do the same. Coming home from work in the evening, I change from a suit into old clothes and pad around my apartment in socks. At home, like Boswell, I pursue my interests: reading, writing, and music.
My apartment contains more than 1,000 books. Open the front door and there in the foyer, the 1/2 of my 3-1/2 rooms, is a bookcase. Favorite authors -- such as Chekhov, Tolstoy, Ibsen -- share space with an assortment of books that have come into my life helter-skelter over the years. Recent acquisitions are placed on the top of a bookcase in the living room. The growing pile conceals the Picasso reproduction of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza on the wall.
I read a lot to make up for the time I wasted when I was young, not having become a serious reader until college, where I arrived a virtual illiterate. Many of the classics read by my friends in their youth I now read for the first time.
The most-used piece of furniture in the living room is the couch. I enjoy reading in the horizontal position. The danger is falling asleep. The catnaps of my youth have become the elephantine slumbers of middle age. At midnight, I may awaken with ''The Brothers Karamazov'' resting on my chest, open at the same page as two hours earlier. This makes for slow progress.
Next to the couch is a CD player. In the music field, my great love is opera. I play operas when I read or write. As I write this piece, I am sitting at the table in the living room that serves as both writing and dining table, listening to Wagner's ''Tannhauser.'' This opera has been part of my life for a long time. At college I played the Pilgrim's chorus before taking an examination for which I was unprepared. I credit Wagner for inspiring me to achieve a passing grade.
There is a beautiful fireplace in the living room surrounded by bookshelves. It is not much used. The fire department forbids tenants from storing wood in the basement. There is no space in my apartment to store it. ''Never enough space,'' the city dweller's lament.
Like every other New Yorker, I have stuffed my closets to the gills, making it serve as closet, cellar, and attic. I would like to buy a bicycle but have no place to put it, except in the bathtub or under the bed.
On the mantle over the fireplace is a collection of family photographs and souvenirs from travels abroad. The treasure is in the middle: a picture of Tolstoy inscribed to my grandfather who recorded his voice in 1909 for the Thomas Edison Company.
On the living-room walls are paintings from India and Greece. How often I have set forth from my apartment to embark on travels abroad. How privileged I am to be able to do so. Travel is one of the great joys of life, a delightful way to learn so many things. Until I saw Paris and the chateaux along the Loire, France and French history were abstractions for me. Now I savor both!
My bedroom is the size of Thoreau's 10-by-15-foot one-room cabin on Walden Pond. I am fortunate to have windows east and north. Cross-ventilation on humid New York summer nights makes them bearable.
Looking north, I see the gardens of my brownstone neighbors, and three blocks away, the dome of the Church of St. Jean Baptiste.
In the morning I awaken to the singing of birds -- country sounds in the heart of a great city. I enjoy the change of seasons from my bedroom window. Each snowfall brings a scene of total enchantment, with the tree branches rising to my sixth-floor window draped in white.
To return to Boswell in his rooms. ''While I can thus entertain myself, I must be happy in solitude. Indeed, there is a great difference between solitude in the country, where you cannot help it, and in London, where you can in a moment be in the hurry and splendour of life.''
When Boswell leaves his rooms, it is to reimmerse himself in the life of a beloved city. I do the same.