Nimet Habachy, one of the most beautiful voices on radio and still (though less often) on WQXR-FM, is among a rarefied group of New Yorkers who have owned their apartments for 30 years or more. Now the Egyptian-born former host and programmer of New York at Night tells BrickUnderground some apartment tales from her own repertoire--like why she nearly always walked out on her own dinner parties.
How did you find your apartment?
I was looking with an agent. I had left my job as assistant to the company manager of the New York City Opera, where I was also the French and Italian language coach, and was hoping to work at WQXR as an announcer. I lived in a small studio at the time, so, maybe this was an act of optimism on my part. The real estate agent announced there was one other place to look at. She said it had "a certain amount of drama" and might suit me well. She may have even said something about it being a bit eccentric, which worried me a bit about the image I projected.
She took me to this 1928 building, which had replaced a cigar factory by the river on East End Avenue, a rather dumpy area at the time. It was night. The lights from the water showed through the casement window. It was a beautiful gold color. I was sold.
Any surprises after you moved in?
Two rather unpleasant ones. I have to laugh now, but then …The apartment had been owned by a very wealthy bachelor with a boat. It was really a bachelor pad, painted grey, and everything was on platforms -- the sofa, chairs, everything. What had been a living room and dining room of a larger space had been cut up into two smaller rooms and a bathroom. Did I say that this wealthy bachelor lived on his boat? And that he went to where it was warm during the winter? Apparently, he had pulled out all the radiators. I didn’t notice. That first winter I froze. Next winter, I bought radiators.
There was also an issue with the casement windows. My apartment is on the second floor by the FDR Drive. You couldn’t have a normal conversation if you were standing or sitting near those windows. You had to shout. The exception was when it snowed. Traffic thinned to almost nothing, while the snow muffled every sound. Eventually, I was able to fix that with special glass.
Which is more important to you in an apartment, space or neighborhood?
I love the apartment for the space it gives me. But what really makes it special is its originality: The two sofas and the bed are all set on platforms or mastabas, to borrow an ancient Egyptian architectural format, meaning a base on which to build, be it a pyramid or a house.
You knew the neighborhood before you moved, right?
Ironically, yes. My first babysitters, two women who cared for me when I was 10 years old, lived in the middle-income housing down the block. I remembered that their place had courtyards and was quite handsome. Anyway, they were retired. One was blind. She was a masseuse. My idea of heaven in those days was cooking dinner and washing dishes in their place.
What's your idea of food heaven now?
One of the several advantages of the location is that it is near Agata and Valentina, the excellent Italian rotisserie-cum-grocery that carries just about anything one might need for a dinner party or a quiet evening at home.
Hosting New York at Night meant going on air at midnight. How did that affect your lifestyle? Having a dinner party must have been a challenge.
The job started at midnight and went to 5:30 a.m. week nights, and until 6 a.m. on weekends. I pedaled everywhere on my bike -- partly because this neighborhood is rather isolated from public transportation, partly because I've been bicycling since I was 15 years old and my parents sent me on a trip where we sometimes pedaled across Canada and America. That's where my bike lunacy started. Anyway, I had to leave my apartment no later than 11:30 p.m. to get to the studios in time. What that meant for dinner guests -- and I loved to have people over -- was that I Ieft my own parties while they stayed and chatted. When my friends went home, they made sure to blow out the candles and pull the front door closed.
I always thought it rather nice that I could invite people over and then leave them to entertain each other when I wasn't there.
Do you have any favorite parts of the neighborhood?
I do love Carl Schurz Park, around East 86th Street, and the life that you can watch there. I mean you can freeze your buns off in winter, and in the spring and summer, stroll at ease. Then there are those denizens of the dog run -- dressed in raincoats over their bathrobes and pyjamas.
Any natural or unnatural disasters in your apartment in recent years?
Oh, my, yes. Because the building is old, the results of renovations can ricochet from one apartment to others. That's what happened when I returned to my apartment one evening. I heard a gurgling in the bathroom. Suddenly, the bathtub and toilet made this horrendous noise and exploded, flooding two bedrooms and my rug with water and mud and roots.
We spent quite some time cleaning up -- and I have to say that the initial sound was quite scary. Two months later it happened again. I must have been quite a sight screaming down the hallway. Turns out that a building renovation swept concrete down the drainpipe and no one noticed. Eventually, the pipe had to be replaced.
What is the one thing you would change about New York?
The architecture. It's just not a universally pretty city architecturally. In London and Paris, I love to walk and look around.
What do you love about New York?
The variety and the anonymity. In Cairo, even spending casual time at home, I always have to dress nicely so that I represent my family well. Here in New York, I can be anything I want. I can walk around looking like a shlump in a comfy coat or be quite elegant if I so desire. I can enjoy a hibernating sort of day or a five appointments and dinner out sort of day, all in the same week.
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