Studio in Tenement


Location Spanish Harlem

Rent $754/mo. (rent-stabilized)

Square feet 500

Occupant Karen Estes (freelance transcriptionist; writer, a/k/a Aaron Vlek)

I didn’t think it would be like this. I have a big medieval fetish.

Thirty candles, dark heavy drapes, a picture of a man in a hood. Do you hang out a lot at the Metropolitan’s medieval wing? Yes! In fact, I’ve lectured at the Cloisters. I find the period full of a crudeness that’s very primeval and organic. I’m very drawn to the mystical. I lived in Japan when I was six, in a house behind a huge Buddhist statue. I’m from a military family, did the San Francisco art thing until I moved to New York in ’88. I’ve been in this apartment since fall ’99. Before that I was up in Hudson with a friend, renovating a medieval-revival church for a rock musician. It’s a very bizarre mix of people up there—rich New Yorkers, people on welfare, and the classic rural group who brag about inbreeding. We lived there for a year, until Hudson revealed itself as just too weird, even for us.

When you picture yourself in a medieval setting, do you see yourself as a fair maiden with a pointed hat like a cone that has chiffon attached to the end? No, but there is a part of me that is a monk, consciously focusing on the contemplation of the self in my monastery, my temple, my craggy lair. Here I am collecting and creating my own stations of the cross, the stages Christ went through as he was carrying the cross. My objects are my archetypal stops along the way.

The brown velvet drape with the gold satin lining? I got that at Pier 1.

The mysterious wooden chest? That’s from a place that makes replicas for Pottery Barn.

The rabbit furs on the table? From Tandy’s, a craft place in California.

How about that picture frame with nothing in it? Will I soon see my own face? And those stone statues? They are Anubis, the Egyptian god of the dead . . .

Did you ever see that movie The Mummy, you know, the one where he drags his foot? Anubis is not about someone being wrapped up in bandages. He is about being reborn into a new world. Every moment we can die and be reborn as something new and wonderful . . .

Look at all these books! History of Secret Societies, Condensed Chaos, My Life With the Spirits, Voodoo and Hoodoo. Here are a bunch on Aleister Crowley. I heard he was a satanist! Do you have magic rituals in here? Yes, but they are not about making something happen to someone else, but to the self. I’m in a magical group called the Temple of Set. There are just about six of us in New York. We watch videotapes, maybe a documentary on Gurdjieff. I do believe there is more in the world around us than just what we see, hear, perceive . . .

Let’s talk about your neighborhood, Spanish Harlem. That Don Paco Lopez bakery, where people have to put their sprinkle cookies and sugar doughnuts on a silver tray and bring them to the cashier, certainly is hopping. Next door is the Salsa Museum. When I asked the owner if he thought the neighborhood was gentrifying, he rolled his eyes. Though I don’t imagine everyone’s apartment looks like yours. It just occurred to me, are you into Santería? No! Even if I was, I’d feel very uncomfortable going into the botanicas around here. They’d know I am not part of their culture, you know, whites glomming on to the ethnic path of others. You can’t just become a Native American shaman by dancing around some drum. My focus is on the transcending of the limitations of the self. I created a space that you walked into and sensed. Whenever people come, they stay for a very long time. It’s always an animated conversation. Hours have passed. That is magic.

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