ARTICLES OF INTEREST
Habitats: A 'Slave of New York' Loves Brooklyn
December 12, 2004 By PENELOPE GREEN
TAMA JANOWITZ'S new book is called "Area Code 212: New York Days, New York Nights," but it is essentially about the view from Brooklyn. That's where Ms. Janowitz moved six years ago with her husband, Tim Hunt, who is the curator of the Warhol estate, and their daughter, Willow.
Safe in the 718 area code, in Prospect Heights, Ms. Janowitz is writing in bed, raising Willow, now 9, and nursing an incontinent, blind, brain-damaged nearly hairless Chinese Crested (that's a dog) named Nike, along with four ferrets, whose names are Scamper, Mole, Rat and Weasel.
Written in her characteristically distant, minimalist prose, "Area Code 212" is Ms. Janowitz's story thus far: a group of essays on motherhood, writing, ferrets, little dogs, money and real estate. It describes its time, and its author's adulthood, as surely and distinctly as her first success, "Slaves of New York," nailed the 1980's and her own youth.
If Eleanor (the 20-something rubber-jewelry-making character that was Ms. Janowitz's narrative stand-in in "Slaves") hoped for love and fame, or at least control of the lease of her own rent-stabilized apartment, the 47-year-old Ms. Janowitz's aspirations are both more prosaic and profound: that her husband will not buy another coffee table (he has, predictably, exquisite taste and a fondness for 30's Chinoiserie furniture), that Nike will live through another day, that she might be paid for her work, that the ferrets don't escape and plummet to the sidewalk 16 floors down, and that Willow gets to bed before 10.
"This is my life, and I'm not complaining, because it is pretty good," she said, "except for the fact that I have a job doing something that nobody wants to buy and that I don't like doing." (Reviewers in this country have been slapping Ms. Janowitz around for years, despite the fact that her last two novels, " A Certain Age" and "Peyton Amberg," out this month in paperback from St. Martin's Griffin - both deft portrayals of the unrealized, uneasy role women still have in society - have more in common with the novels of Dawn Powell and Jane Bowles than the work of Candace Bushnell, to whom Ms. Janowitz has lately and unfortunately been compared. "Mama," she writes in "212," "don't let your girls grow up to be writers.")
Gruff, plainspoken and kindly, Ms. Janowitz, who wore cowboy boots with silver cutouts on the heels, stumped through her nine-and-a-half-room apartment in Turner Towers last week, bought for the unlikely sum of $500,000 in 1998. "Castle in the Sky," read the ad in this newspaper, and soon the quintessential Manhattan girl became, as she now calls herself, Tama of Brooklyn.
Turner Towers, the sprawling late 1920's apartment building on Eastern Parkway directly across the street from the Brooklyn Museum, is worn but still beautiful, "like old ladies who have stayed at the beach too long," she said admiringly.
>From her 16th-floor bedroom, Ms. Janowitz can see from Howard Beach all the way to Manhattan; hawks, pigeons and butterflies roost on her terrace. For Ms. Janowitz, who has lived in a former meat freezer (a 10-by 13-foot studio apartment in the West Village) and has written continually of her yearning for proper New York real estate (and her lousy luck with same), it has been a bonanza: the Wyoming of apartments.
The other day, the afternoon sun poured through the windows in dusty columns, over a unicycle, an offhandedly beautiful collection of 20th century art and the ferrets lolling in tiny hammocks strung from the bars of a massive, odorous cage.
"You can see, can't you, how nice it might be here?" Ms. Janowitz said. "If we had any money, that is." The place has all the touchstones of one of her stories: it is vividly urban yet removed from the action it describes or hints at, with odd corners and digressions, comfortable and yet, somehow, not fully realized. A door surround has been blown out to widen a hall entrance, but its edges are still ragged and unfinished. Mismatched granite squares fill the little hall, remainders from a tile store. Mr. Hunt's study is lacquered in Diana Vreeland red; Willow's room is bright blue.
Ms. Janowitz was an awkwardly gracious host, offering red wine and baking soda to a visitor who keeled over with a mysterious stomach ailment five minutes after arriving. (Ms. Janowitz drank the wine, the visitor lay prone on a kidney-shaped couch and drank baking soda mixed with water.) With her sweet geisha face, her lavishly decorated eyes, and her mouth a perfectly painted moue, Ms. Janowitz is clearly happiest being a caretaker. Nike keened at her heels, staggering a bit.
Nike, whose ailments also include heart disease and a jaw so deformed her tongue tumbles from her mouth like a damp pink ribbon, is typical of Ms. Janowitz's dogs, which seem uniquely unlovely and difficult to love and require constant, bizarre care. Lily, a vicious, sociopathic Chinese Crested, has been removed to Cornell University - where Ms. Janowitz's mother, Phyllis Janowitz, is a professor - because of his assassination attempts against the hapless Nike. There, Lily bites Professor Janowitz's students.
Willow and Mr. Hunt hope for a golden retriever, "or at least something playful and larger," Mr. Hunt said later, but, as Ms. Janowitz pointed out, theirs is not a golden retriever-type family.
But it is familiar, and typically urban. Mr. Hunt and Ms. Janowitz adopted Willow when she was 9 months old and they were living in a small one-bedroom apartment Ms. Janowitz had bought in 1987 from her earnings from "Slaves of New York."
"I didn't believe they would let us adopt her into such a small space," she said, "but they assured us our apartment was a step up from a crib in a Chinese orphanage."
In "212," Ms. Janowitz writes of miscarrying at a movie premiere held at the Museum of Modern Art; of being part of a group of parents-to-be on the plane to Beijing, as "eager as Elvis fans, waiting for a glimpse of Him," says one; and, finally, of the confounding boredom, exhaustion and delight of parenting.
Willow at 4 liked to hold up disparate objects, say a fork and a clock, and grill her mother. "Which one is different?" she'd demand. "The fork?" Ms. Janowitz might hazard, invariably the wrong answer.
"She calls me 'foolish woman,' " Ms. Janowitz said. "She has also taught me to say one sentence in Chinese which when translated means 'I am a little fool.' After I had memorized this sentence, she told me my accent was no good." (Willow attends a public school in Chinatown with a bilingual program.)
Ms. Janowitz spent her first year in Brooklyn exploring: riding the subway south and east, walking through Sunset Park, Ditmas Park, Bensonhurst and Bay Ridge, noting with delight the waves of immigrant cultures washing into one another - the new ones, the Haitian and Guyanese, and the older, the Ukrainian, Italian and Chinese. "I lived in the city for so long and felt like I knew it so completely," she said. "It's pretty humbling and inspiring to know that I didn't have a clue, and that my explorations have only begun."