Railroad Apartment in Former Funeral Home


Location Williamsburg

Rent $1400 (market)

Square feet 1000

Occupants Zipporah Lax (art teacher, P.S. 161 in Harlem), Sara McGrath (art teacher, Beginning With Children in Williamsburg)

“Pray for the dead and the dead will pray for you.” That tune keeps going through my head, driving me mad. Likely because we’re in a former funeral home. You said your apartment used to be the viewing room; embalming was in the basement. So many funeral homes were designed in the early 20th century with those torchère lamps. And then the bereaved would come to see the dearly departed, but maybe one of the bereaved was a murderer, or if it was a 1970s TV show, it would be a rich, bratty widow, sobbing. Anyway, I thought you’d be all gloomy looking with long velvet gowns and candles, but you’re so cheerful and homey with that pan of brownies on the stove. Of course, you are children’s art teachers. Could there be any profession more good? What’s on the wall with the fringe? [Sara] It’s a traditional Mayan men’s shawl. I got it in this town in Chiapas where every man was wearing one. I’ve traveled a lot. [Zipporah] Sara and I met in college. We went to Pratt. I thought she was really cool—a fellow traveler. [Sara] We used to have a map above the kitchen table. We had to take it down because we just kept talking about where we wanted to go all the time. [Zipporah] The map sucked us in too much. [Sara] I want to go back to Mexico for a year to become bilingual.

It’s important to know a place deeply. Otherwise, travel is just about skimming over surfaces, having long discussions with bellhops and busboys. [Sara] I’m from California, San Luis Obispo. My parents met coming back from India. My dad had gone there on a spiritual journey, but the guru turned him away. He and my mom were on a ferry from Belgium to England. My dad didn’t have money for the fare, so he was trying to sell some beads. He thought my mother was a snotty American. Then I was born in Scotland. My mom was 19. When I was 19, I was taking that same ferry once. I looked around and said, “Where’s my future husband?”

You’re wearing all these beads. You must be preparing. Zipporah calls it my art-teacher jewelry. [Zipporah] My parents met traveling, too, on a kibbutz in Israel, but then they came back to Miami, where I grew up. Sara’s and my stories are so similar. Sara is like my fifth roommate in this apartment. I moved here in 1999. I found out my grandparents used to live in Williamsburg. My grandmother was Mrs. Farber’s secretary at the Farberware factory. [Sara] My dad grew up on the grounds of Broadmoor, England’s largest hospital for the criminally insane. [Zipporah] Your father’s so sunny and airy. [Sara] He’s been in California a while.

There’s so much knotty pine here—sort of a potbelly aesthetic. [Zipporah] So Alpine ski lodge. That’s my landlord. He did a lot of home improvement after it was a funeral home. When I moved in, I found little antlers on the fireplace. My landlord said, “You can tell we like the country.” [Sara] Zipporah did a lot of work in here. [Zipporah] Sara likes to decorate. That’s why she’s so much fun to live with. [Sara] I lived in 15 homes before I was 18. You’d think I’d have few possessions with all the traveling. [Zipporah] Sara’s a collector. She came here with three suitcases; one was all full of pictures. [Sara] I moved in last fall. I was gone from New York for a year traveling. Zipporah offered me the room in August. Before September 11, I really wanted to look around first. I know it sounds crazy. My past two situations in New York were both offered to me by good friends—one said, “I’ll look for the apartment on the Lower East Side, you bring the Earl Grey.”

Everyone wants you to live with them! I wonder who will be next. I do have someone waiting for me in Mexico—”Forever,” he said. “Para siempre.” [Zipporah] He sent her a birthday card that sings.