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It's no secret that private and semi-private outdoor space in New York City is at a premium. For those of us without the luxury of balconies, roof decks or common garden areas, we must work that much harder at figuring out how to get outside the confines of our tiny units.
When I first moved to Manhattan I had a sixth-floor walkup rental in a rundown tenement, just about six blocks from my current place, where I could easily sneak onto the roof, although technically it was prohibited.
While it was too hot and dirty to tan up there in summer, I’d often sneakily go up there late-night.
Some summer nights I’d sit on the couch and flip channels aimlessly, the smuggled-in air conditioner (my lease said due to a past electrical problem tenants were not allowed them) wheezing like an old man, I’d wait until the lights were out in most of the apartments and only the bodega was open (so as not to be heard by my neighbors and difficult landlady).
Every now and then laughter from nearby bar patrons fluttered up as I tiptoed up the stairwell and snuck up to the roof. A friend had warned me to beware of roof rats at night — is that even possible? I still don't know, and I never saw any— so tingly with the potential for danger and feeling like an outlaw, I’d prop the door open with a piece of wood, my heart racing.
The traffic below sounded exotic; the surrounding buildings with windows like eyes, heavy lidded and unblinking, stared. I conjured the dirty roof into a penthouse that only I could access.
My other outdoor refuge was my fire escape. It's illegal to use a fire escape for anything but escaping fires, but like generations of New Yorkers before and no doubt afterward, I smoked cigarettes up there, my legs dangling. I loved the grit of Hell’s Kitchen and liked to watch the odd characters who congregated outside the OTB below.
My last building had no roof access and no fire escape so I was excited when I first moved into my current place knowing I’d once again have a fire escape. I no longer smoke, but it is still sort of fun being able to sit there every now and then and watch traffic roll up Tenth Avenue.
My apartment is only on the second floor though so the view isn’t much. Actually, it doesn't really seem worth climbing out there and getting window soot on my butt.
My upstairs neighbors, meanwhile, treat their fire escape like a jungle gym. They often let their two young children on the fire escape to play.
Imagine my surprise when walking around scantily clad mid-day and I see a woman race to my window. I nearly had a heart attack, unsure whether she was a peeping Tom or trying to break in. Turns out the ball she was playing with on the fire escape above me dropped one flight below to my window. (This seems really unsafe, but not as unsafe as the next thing I found out about those who inhabit my building.)
In my current building, because the condom throwers live on the top floor and the tenants up there seem to stack their garbage bags in the hall corner instead of going downstairs to dispose of them, I avoided venturing up to the roof.
Then one night a friend and I got curious about whether the roof was in good condition and whether I could lay out up there to catch some sun. We walked up there after dinner and with each landing closer to the roof door the smell of weed got stronger. Ah, I had come upon the “smoking lounge” of the building.
I met a girl who lives on the fifth floor who was sitting on the roof stairs smoking, the door propped open.
I introduced myself and explained I didn’t want to bother her; I just wanted to see if the roof was accessible to tenants.
While there was no alarm on the door, she said it locked automatically, so just to be careful to always go up there with a piece of wood and a cell phone. She said the super is sort of an asshole (duh!) and if he sees the door open, he will lock it without checking to see if anyone is on the roof.
This happened to her the week before when she went up there to smoke. She said it was around midnight, the door slammed shut and she was in relative darkness. Unfortunately she had forgotten her cell phone and was barefoot. She banged on the door for a long time with no response.
She tried screaming to nearby apartments but unfortunately our building faces the back of the avenue, and no othe building. She said she was getting more and more panicked and desperate – and not because of imagined roof rats.
By 3 a.m. she was exhausted—I suspect she must have peed on the roof-- and had to be up at 5 a.m. to get ready for work.
She said she finally did something so dangerous and so harrowing that just leaning over the roof to to hear her story made me dizzy.
She climbed over the edge of the building hanging onto the roof ledge (there is nothing but a five-story drop) and putting her feet onto a partial ledge that is about four inches wide, scuttled across it for about three feet. She then took a figurative leap of faith as well as a literal leap, onto her own fire escape at least six feet below.
Miraculously she landed on it perfectly and climbed in her window. But that was all I needed to hear, and I decided never to go on the roof again. I also suspect I know where Spiderman lives.
Also by Kelly Kreth: