Such imperious syllables! Such indomitable ones! — at least when emanating from the throat of Flower Abraham Silliman as she hollers down the empty stairwell to the elevator operator in the lobby to come fetch her on the third floor. “Oh, he never listens. He can’t close his gate properly, or I don’t know what he does wrong but he always has a devil of a time fetching me. Never mind!” she says, deciding to forego the lift and use her walker to pound down the three flights of stairs herself. The apartment we’re leaving is a throwback to British Colonialism, an airy expanse of 3,000 square feet in the heart of downtown Calcutta which includes 16-foot ceilings and cannonball-proof walls for which Flower’s daughter Jael pays relatively few rupees each month, plus more for the two attendants who swab the place wet each day against the street dust and who eat their breakfast biscuits and bananas from seated positions on the tiled kitchen floor — their choice.
A palace for peanuts, basically, because it’s been rented by the family that long. Not that you’d have a hint of its grandeur from the outside. Like all the other soot-stained, crumbly-seeming castles tucked behind dusty high stucco walls throughout the city, the Halwasiya Mansion looks decayed on purpose — a ploy, perhaps, to fool the tax office. Or perhaps not: one can never be too sure. Inside, the heirs of the Jewish families who made their fortunes in Calcutta living lives of tasteful grandeur with racehorses, private clubs, and country palaces are dying out fast. Flower Abraham Silliman, navigating the wide wooden staircase past the faded but still flamboyant red paan juice stains expectorated by generations of visitors, is the last of a breed, the final flower of a once flourishing 5,000 strong. More… “Lotsa Matzo In Kolkata”
I’m what’s left of when we
swam under the moon
-Mitski, “I Don’t Smoke”
In the summer following my completion of grad school, my boyfriend Jonathan and I moved into an apartment in East Vancouver. Our search for a home had been an exhausting dead end until the final days of June. We were driving around the city, windshield wipers on to clear the summer rain, a sense of hopelessness sweeping us forward, when we saw the vacancy sign.
That’s always how it goes — you wait in a constant state of impatience for something to happen, and then suddenly everything turns on its head. A couple had already signed for the apartment and were meant to move in the following day, but they’d had to break the lease — a domestic dispute, the landlord whispers as he hands us the papers to sign.
The apartment is on the top floor of a three-story walk-up. There are ten apartments in the whole building, all of which are empty, because the landlord says that they’ve been renovating the building for the last year. More… “Ghosts Live Forever”
In these troubled economic times, real estate is a subject of more obsessive interest than usual at dinner parties from Manhattan to Milwaukee. Perhaps it’s time for us to take a longer-range view of the housing market and its endless cycles of boom and bust: Whether you’re a humble tenant or shark-like developer, it should be possible to get a little perspective by examining the great deals of the past.
1. The Antique Homemaker
1 BR “Fixer-Upper” in Ancient Babylon: The world’s oldest rental lease is a clay tablet dated to around 2000 B.C., wherein a certain Akhibe leased a house from Mashqu for one shekel of silver a year — about 0.4 ounces. (Prices don’t quite translate, since that amount of silver is only US$7 today). Rental properties at the time were intimate, one-story mud brick affairs…. More…