“Miniature is always a more perfectly realized universe,” says Toni Schlesinger to one of the apartment occupants in Five Flights Up, a mesmerizing collection of her weekly Shelter columns for the Voice, which she wrote from 1997 until this February. Bringing a playwright’s sensibility to the task of capturing New Yorkers’ verbal idiosyncrasies (her theater pieces have been staged at P.S.122 and other venues) and documenting the distinctive features of the homes they make for themselves, Schlesinger didn’t tape the interviews; instead, she wrote down only what she wanted to remember, giving the pieces the surreal stylized intensity of ’50s noir. In a Soho loft provided for the occasion by an anonymous benefactor, I spoke with Toni about her new book, as the photographer set up equipment for her Shelter-style portrait.
[Toni] I’ve always had a little sadness with Shelter. There was the real estate aspect. When people would say to me, Oh, we love to read the rents . . .
That’s the crazy thing about it—people open up so much to you, these private things to do with money. I mean, isn’t that intimate? Well, I used to have to do a money column. People wouldn’t tell me how much they made. But that’s a whole other thing. I preferred Shelter—
No, no, I see. —wait, I’m losing my train of thought. [Indecipherable back-and-forth.]
[ Firmly. ] I want to hear the decisions about organizing the columns into the book. Some people talked to me about a book, but anything that approached sort of a useful manual —
Oh, god, of course, that would be out of the question— I was just appalled. So initially I did kind of look at the book geographically. But that also made no sense because it’s so associative. Just because somebody was living in Williamsburg didn’t mean they didn’t talk about 50 other things! And in the course of these eight years I realized there were certain—you know, I even have more topics that aren’t in there . . .
Imagine if there was a CD-ROM edition, where the person reading it could sort it by different principles—you know, if basically each reader could make her own arrangement for that occasion. I thought the categories you made really worked. For instance I love animals, and I loved the “Zoo” section, and I thought, “Of course you have to have a section that’s especially about animals”—not that there aren’t animals in the other sections but— I know, that became tough.
Then you have the interconnections. Like there’s the rooster in “Zoo,” and then there’s, like, the other rooster that draws it together [the Coney Island one, in “Water”]—you know what I’m saying. But if you had it on a kind of interactive CD ROM-type version, then you could—if you wanted to read it chronologically, you could sort them all by date. I think I would not give up—
You wouldn’t want to give up your control. No. No, no, no, no, no. This is my canvas. But what happened was, they tried to do an index. And they thought what a wonderful surrealist index it would be. Oh, yes, wasn’t this a good idea. Then I go to Paris for a week because I have a free apartment—I have this frigging index with me. The index made me insane. Just because Williamsburg gets mentioned all these places, it’s not about Williamsburg.
You would have to have a much more demented and creative index, I think. But it didn’t really matter, because the things worked in their context. It didn’t matter that you would look up . . . well, cocker spaniel‘s not in there . . . but it didn’t matter that you would look up—
Snake? oh dear—
Oh no, I love—it comes through so strongly—you hate snakes! [Laughter.] You hated it that those people had snakes in the dining room! But I would never admit it in the columns!
No, it’s pretty clear. [More laughter.] I realized, after eight years, that there would be stories that had to do with collective living. And those were “Utopia.”
So you had a sense, by the time you were doing it, that there were three or four categories that you pretty much had to have. Oh, I knew more than that. And “Miniature” and “Giant” came from stagework. Because it used big proportions like, you know, Brecht and puppet theater and big political things and power. And somebody once noticed about me, this is in my first piece, that I have an enormous obsession with proportions. I have no sense of proportion but it’s all about feeling little or big. And that’s something I’ve always loved about New York.
OK, what I think is that this is basically a good time for us to wrap up this part of things. And get you in the hands of the makeup person. This is great. You would do great in Hollywood!