Revenge of the Mouse Coffins

Gentrifiers Beware! The Home You Bust Up May Be Your Own.

  Filmmaker Michel Gondry—director of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and The Science of Sleep—has taken over my old East Village apartment. I'm talking about the large, run-down Avenue B loft we got kicked out of last year after a long, expensive legal battle. The one my husband and his brother took turns living in for 15 years. The one we mistakenly believed was rent-stabilized, that we'd live in forever.

Last month we went back and snooped. We stood across the street, gazing wistfully at the newly landmarked building, alternately admiring and cursing its recent facelift, nostalgic for the shabby-chic way the place looked back when it was typecast as a graffiti-covered slum in Jim Sheridan's 2002 film In America. Normally when we stalk our former digs, we don't get too close for fear of encountering the landlord, once our friend. This time, something drew us nearer. We peered through the front-door glass and spied Gondry's name on our old mailbox.

My husband and I have nothing against Gondry personally. We're actually big fans of his movies. It's hardly his fault the East Village has transformed from the cheap place you went to live in squalor while you strove to make it as an artist, to the place you aspire to go once you've made it.

illustration: Danny Hellman

But we can't help wondering whether he knows that a struggling writer and a musician got pushed out so he and his son could move in. And whether Gondry is shelling out top dollar to live in the space completely renovated—or in the same rustic, bohemian conditions we did. The transformation of the East Village is not news at this point. It's a now familiar story, and I've been on both sides of it. In fact, being booted from Avenue B might just be my real estate karma: In 1993, I displaced a struggling painter from a decrepit tenement on East 13th Street.

It was an apartment I once thought only a true New Yorker could love, with lopsided floors and doorways, rotting windowsills, lumpy plaster walls, a bathroom in the kitchen, and the world's tiniest bedroom—7 by 7 1/2 feet. I paid $722 per month when I left in 2004. Now someone's paying about $2,100 for it.

That tenant I displaced turned out to be notorious outsider artist Joe Coleman, well known for painting the poster for the movie Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer and later the subject of a documentary, Rest in Pieces: A Portrait of Joe Coleman, narrated by Jim Jarmusch. He was the kind of person who gave the East Village its gritty artist cred.

The brutal February night I went to see the apartment and met Coleman, I had no idea who he was. I just knew he seemed a little off. A few weeks later, a Village Voice cover story about Coleman tipped me off. The artist, who paints detailed, grotesque folk portraits of murderers like Charles Manson, Ed Gein, and Carl Panz ram, was peering out from under the headline "Serial Killers and the People Who Love Them."

That winter evening, a long line of young prospective tenants wove down four flights of stairs to see the "spacious" railroad apartment, which had been advertised as a "two-bedroom" in this newspaper. Standing at the end of the line, I figured I didn't have a chance. But then I saw that the line was moving quickly—too quickly. When my turn finally came to look around, I saw why everyone else had left so abruptly: Coleman and his stuff were freaking people out.

The living room had thick, black velvet curtains, and bizarre, creepy objects: a fetus in a jar; wax renderings of bloody, severed limbs; illustrations of people with their guts pouring out. And there was Coleman, decked out in Civil War regalia and sporting long, wide mutton-chop sideburns. He was missing several teeth and scowling, aggressively—cartoonishly—at the realtor from a corner of the kitchen, presumably not too happy about being evicted.

Still, I couldn't imagine I was the only person who could see past all of Coleman's gore and seething to the exposed brick walls, the decent amount of space, the relatively low rent. But no one else applied.

When I finally moved in, I found the apartment hadn't been renovated as promised. There was a massive hole in the sagging kitchen floor, many of the walls were peeling, and ceilings were buckling, threatening to collapse. I had no idea then that I was paying more than three times Coleman's $234 monthly rent for these conditions.

More curiously, when I arrived, I stumbled upon jewelry boxes stashed in cor ners here and there. I nearly died when I opened one—it was a coffin for a dead mouse. I opened a second—another dead mouse. I quit at two, gathered them all in a garbage bag, and ran them down to the pails in front of the building as quickly as I could.

A few years later, at a screening of Rest in Pieces at Anthology Film Archives, I introduced myself to Coleman and told him I lived in his old space. I found him much friendlier than the first time I'd encountered him.

"Did I leave you any . . . uh . . . gifts?" he asked, rather sheepishly.

"Yeah, thanks a million," I kidded.

"Sorry about that," he said. "I did that to get back at the landlord for making me leave my home."

Now I know how he felt.

 
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