I was with my brother when the elevator operator at the Empire State Building asked where we were from. Russ said he was visiting from Wisconsin but that I lived here.
“Where d’you live?”
“Forty-seventh, between Fifth and Sixth.”
That stumped him a second. “No one lives on 47th between Fifth and Sixth.”
Ha. But I did. And I loved that our obscure, madcap apartment had stumped this iconic know-it-all New Yorker.
This midtown Manhattan block featuring the aforementioned is known as Diamond & Jewelry Way, and is chockablock with jewelers, countless Hasids and other exotically garbed salespeople, Jewish and otherwise. In the morning, they arrive from Brooklyn in yellow school busses. In the daytime, the place is mobbed, crowding sidewalks and streets, throbbing with trade and glittery jewelry business. Looking at the bustling block from our roof at midday, it resembled a Middle Eastern bazaar. School busses took the jewelers home at night. It became a dead zone.
Also on the block was Gotham Book Mart, the historic literary salon for the avant garde, with its famous sign “Wise Men Fish Here.” The venerable establishment had sold novels by D.H. Lawrence and James Joyce when it was against the law. As a mystery book editor, this literary resource was an added bonus. The store’s 100-year old owner lived just above. There were few other neighbors. More on that later.
At first I didn’t want to live there. I was looking for an apartment of my own. But then one day I had lunch at Berger’s Deli on 47th Street with fellow editor and friend Bryan Oettel, who suggested we move in together. Plus, there was actually a handwritten sign in the deli window advertising an apartment in the building for rent.
“C’mon. We have to at least look!” Handsome carrottop Bryan was both generous and kind, and his request was a modest one. He was a hard person to say no to.
Berger’s Deli was on the first floor. On the second was a pawn shop. On the third, a silversmith. Then there were two other floors with apartments. 5-Rear was available. It had one main room with a kitchenette, a nicely-sized separate bedroom and, best of all, stairs that pulled down from the ceiling, above which was a cozy, skylit tent-shaped room sitting on the roof in the middle of midtown Manhattan. Of course Bryan and I moved in. I scored the exotic upstairs room.
Our lease was written on a Berger’s Deli order pad.
The building's stairwell door was next to the Berger’s Deli entrance, and that’s where invariably lingering was a sketchy character with numerous gold necklaces and a nervous tough-guy stance. Sometimes, later on, his puffy face would get puffier with black eyes and bruises. But he still held onto that spot on the sidewalk.
The day we were moving in our furniture, this jumpy dude asked me as I passed by with yet another box of books, “Moving to 5R?”
“Uh, yeah,” I answered, unsure whether to answer, but he seemed to know anyway.
“Where the murder happened, right? Listen to me.” He leaned closer. “You don’t live there, you survive.”
I mentioned above that I edited mysteries. I’ve always loved them, and true crimes books as well. I moved to New York City from Wisconsin, home of Ed Gein and Jeff Dahmer so murder doesn’t faze me. Among the literary works I edited at Pocket Books, my place of employ just one block away, were “Death Row Women” and “Daddy was the Black Dahlia Killer.”
When researching the criminal history of this West 47th Street block, I had hoped our new home was the site of the notorious murder of Pinchos Jaroslawicz. The broker was robbed of more than $600,000 worth of diamonds before being stuffed in a workbench belonging to his killer, Schlomo Tal. Sadly, I discovered that murder had occurred a few buildings east of our apartment.
Though derelict-looking, the block wasn’t intimidating at night. Actually, it was about as lit up as the street Gary Cooper walks down in “High Noon.” Each of these buildings--with jewelry stores and cutters and more floors of offices and businesses related to the industry--had armed security guards. Biking home at 3 in the morning, I didn’t feel scared.
Maybe my confidence was unjustified. But when I got mugged it was at five o’clock in the afternoon and still sunny outside. On a Sunday, there were few people on the block. When I keyed open the first of our two entranceway doors, a guy followed me in. I told him that all the businesses were closed on Sundays, but he pulled out a pistol and stuck it in my stomach. He seemed nervous--either a good sign or a bad one.
I did something not recommended: I put my hand on the gun and guided it away from my stomach, I wasn’t taking it away from him, just moving my body out of range. He ended up being okay with that, then demanded my wallet, which I handed over. Twelve bucks. He asked if I wanted my cards, and I said yes. He threw down my wallet and was gone
My friend Alev had an outlandish friend J who said she had previously been to our apartment when two brothers lived there. They were coke dealers and she’d been to a party there lasting several days. Later, when I learned a bit more about our apartment’s murder, it may or may not have involved J’s cokey friends, though that doesn’t seem unlikely. Here’s what I heard happened: two guys were tied to chairs in the apartment. One was fatally shot in the head, and the other left alive. After the shooters left, the alive dude still tied up in the chair fell over and rolled/hobbled his way to the front door and banged on it with his head until passing neighbors heard him.
I loved sleeping in the rooftop room. The skylights were opague so the surrounding lit buildings appeared as ghostly forms. Soothing, muffled city sounds reverberated through the night. Sometimes the clip-clop of horsedrawn carriages echoed down our street, as though time traveling back to old Gotham.
In the hallway outside our apartment door, stairs led up to an intimately dingy tarred roof. Walled in on nearly all sides by towering skyscrapers, you could cross over to the next building west. We had direct sunlight for about 1 ½ hours a day.
Truly landmark parties were thrown in this apartment and on its rooftop. I recall looking down from the stairs across a roiling sea of musical revelers, a cosmopolitan utterly rocking Manhattan bash that easily outdid Holly Golightly’s in the film of “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” With her Hollywood-handsome fiancé, gorgeous blonde Sally Peters responded “Absolutely not!” when I asked if she wanted me to put her mink coat away somewhere. We shot fireworks from the rooftop.
Disadvantages to this address included no nearby amenities, as few lived in this part of office-packed midtown. No grocery store. I had to carry laundry through Times Square. At the deli on Sixth Avenue, you’d never know what a bottle of seltzer might cost. It could be anything. I led a boycott of this deli and was also the boycott’s chief violator.
Sometimes during off-hours I walked out of my way to avoid the office, but in general living a block away from work was highly civilized. Amazingly enough, there was a passageway through the block between 47th and 48th Streets so I didn’t even need to go around the block to get to work. And I could return home for naps at noon, or lunch on the roof. As far as I knew, there was not a single apartment closer than mine to our Rockefeller Center offices.
Actually, to digress a moment, that turned out not to be true. Another bizarre murder from our block bloodily splashed onto the front pages of the New York Post when a crazed son killed his father in an apartment just up the street (and closer to my office). He chopped off his father’s head and threw it out the window. He also chopped off their pet parakeet’s head, also throwing that out the window.
In my third year of residence on 47th Street, I was sleeping in the bigger downstairs bedroom, and my roommate had taken the upstairs skylit room. Bryan had moved out in pursuit of love and now a brilliant Columbia PhD student lived with me. However, he was now also in the midst of a great romance and was rarely there. Mostly I had the place to myself, as I did one early morning at about 3:30 when I woke to hear three men speaking a Slovak language while standing on the fire escape outside the bedroom window.
I stealthily slipped from bed and moved to the wall just beside the window. I was mere feet away from them. The men spoke in regular voices, not hushed tones—likely figuring what sort of nut would live around here? There was also a walkie-talkie, barking occasional unintelligible words.
The men climbed our fire escape to the roof, while inside I crept up creaky stairs to a slightly jarred window in the upstairs room. They stood around and spoke more, then moved from our building to the rooftop west of ours.
I called 911 and told them about the men on the roof. Next door a burglar alarm began blaring. The 911 woman asked if I could buzz the cops into my building. I said no but I would wait for them on the street. I ran down the five flights and stood on the sidewalk.
Not four minutes later, three squad cars screeched in front of the building. After unlocking the front door for them, I ran in the upwards wake of six armed cops charging our stairs to the roof. They kept stomping higher while on the fifth floor I peeled off to our apartment’s rear window.
The uniformed cops surprised a guy on the roof, and he jumped. Through our window, I saw him pass directly in front of me: clad all in black with white-blond hair sticking out from his black ski cap. He landed two floors below like a cat, taking off without pause. Down below already were two of his scurrying compatriots, moving through the complex maze of heaters, machinery and air conditioners clogging that metallic landscape. The thieves moved with ease as the policemen struggled down the fire escape, wheezing, in pursuit. Prey and predators moved around the corner and out of sight.
About ten minutes later, the cops returned. I heard on their radios that a Fifth Avenue perimeter had been set up and people were being held at various corners. As the red-faced policemen climbed our fire escape, I called to them that I’d let them in the locked roof door.
After I told them about the blond guy in the ski cap, they asked if I would take a ride and check out some people. I said okay. Down at street level, the 47th Street block was aswirl with red lights, crowded with cops. When I got in the backseat of a patrol car, I almost sat on a billyclub.
“Uh. You want this?” I asked.
The cop in the front seat laughed. “Hey, look what you forgot, bonehead,” and he tossed the club through the open window of another police vehicle, where a young cop with big ears looked sheepish.
At 4 in the morning, with red lights blazing and our siren blaring, the patrol car raced up Fifth Avenue at about 50 mph. For non-New Yorkers, that’s against normal downtown traffic flow, making this experience even more magnificent. The cops did a U-ey, then slowly drove me past people detained on corners: all African American, none with blond hair. When we were done with that futile exercise and they were dropping me back home, one cop said the jewelry robbery was obviously an inside job, and that just lately there’d been criminal Bosnian gangs launching thefts to support wars back home.
By myself, I climbed the brightly lit stairs up to the apartment. It felt surreal: nothing had changed. I actually grabbed a few hours sleep. Before heading to work the next morning, of course I did reconnaissance on the rooftop. Maybe someone had dropped a diamond or ruby. No such luck. But at least it made for a good story.