Johnny Comes Marching Home


Location Greenpoint

Rent $1,300 (market)

Square feet 760 (top floor of Civil War-era brick house)

Occupants Kirsten Swenson (art critic; Ph.D. candidate and teacher, SUNY-Stony Brook); Stephen Shapinsky (teacher, P.S. 31, Greenpoint; musician, the Line and Sinker Trust)

This desk—leather panels, pressed gold borders. [Kirsten] My friend’s father’s girlfriend was very close friends with this Russian-literature professor at Hunter. The professor passed away and left everything to my friend’s father’s girlfriend. And my friend invited me to come to the Park Avenue penthouse and just take whatever we wanted. I got the desk, the Chinese rug. She lived in one of those gorgeous brick buildings, small windows, pre-war. Similar to ones in movies from the ’40s, Hitchcock films, not as spacious and extravagant as one would think, very small kitchen, finely detailed. No, I don’t know if she lived with anyone.

Did you find any love letters? No, just this letter exchange with the Soviet government.

I’ll try to get off this topic, but didn’t she have anyone to leave her things to? She was quite old. Nobody survived her, I guess.

This table is lit with blue and amber panels. Stephen made it. [Stephen] With very little know-how, you can design pieces of furniture. Kirsten liked a friend’s George Nelson knockoff. [Kirsten] It was a reissue. [Stephen] We thought it wouldn’t be that hard to knock it off ourselves—some plywood from the neighborhood, the foam store on East Houston. Kirsten did the cushions and there you go. [Kirsten] Fake Nelson hairpin legs from eBay. [Stephen measures the apartment.]

A metal tape measure being pulled out. It sounds like something is happening, something is going to be built. I wanted to talk about the Byzantine Catholic church near here, where I first talked to you outside on a brilliantly sunny Sunday and you were talking about getting married, though not there. Then I started reading about Byzantine Catholicism but I realized that I only cared about the way the light was on that day, far from Manhattan. You are so near the water. Stephen, you look so conflicted. [Stephen] Everybody has this ambivalence and frustration about the waterfront because it’s so close but so underused. [Kirsten] It’s just an industrial wasteland. [Stephen] If they ever develop it, it will price everybody out. [Kirsten] Some of Stephen’s students live across the courtyard. Sometimes we’re spied on. We hear them call, “Mr. Shapinsky.” [Stephen] It sounds more like Mr. Shapeeeeensky.” [Kirsten] After a class on sentence construction, you could hear them yell, “Mr. Shapinsky, what are three kinds of sentences?”

We got this apartment because the realtor confused our application with that of a much higher-income couple with no cat. It is quite a bit nicer than most dumpy places we saw. Then we met the landlords and we got along so well. Our landlady likes that every unit has a teacher. [Stephen] They don’t like the terms landlady or landlord. [Kirsten] We try to say landpeople. My old landlady, she sort of kicked me out. I started dating Stephen and he made more commotion. So I was asked to leave. I was paying almost nothing. Then, when we got this place she and her sister were sort of miffed that we had gotten an apartment on the most prestigious block in Greenpoint, part of the historic district.

People get so excited when their house has a past. I was really depressed once in New Jersey and one of those home shows was on, Secret Walls or something. People were popping up with newspapers they’d found in their house—1856! 1929! Here, we’re just passing through. We sometimes think how people lived in this building during the Civil War. One time Stephen imagined a wounded Civil War soldier coming home to this apartment.

In his dusty blue uniform. I once lived in a former Civil War hospital in another city but only for a week because I could just hear the amputations. The whiskey amputations.