A little known fact to lots of folks here in the online age of the 21st century; there was an equivalent to the rural outhouse here in NYC up until fairly recently. Many tenement apartments (four or more to a floor in the late 19th/early 20th century buildings and always walk-ups) had their ...um...water-closets (“WCs”) in the public halls on each floor. “WC” was the discreet way of saying “toilet”, and thousands of people actually shared their toilets with other apartments. Little doors in the halls with NO apartment letter or number on them, they concealed a toilet ONLY, with just enough room for you to sit or stand and pull the door closed against you (YES! AGAINST YOU!) and latch it with a slide bolt usually.
"Noisy use" was frowned on, as were any unpleasant smells....and it took work and discernment to avoid both. Timing and a pack of matches were a person's best friends. Hangovers, vomiting, extreme and/or explosive bouts of diarrhea, etc. were the end of the world... Taking turns was done as discreetly as possible, much like the early cooperation on the telephone with so-called party lines.....but that's another story entirely.
My first apartment in NYC had a water-closet in the hall....but I considered myself lucky, very lucky, to have my own bathtub under the counter in my enormous kitchen. Many folks had to share a bathtub in the hall as well as a toilet, and you scampered in your chenille bathrobe from your front door to both the WC, and the bathtub closet next to it and then back home again, before someone knocked on one door or the other to “hurry up!”.
Some of my most romantic early memories in the city are of candlelight baths in my own kitchen during a blizzard with my first great love, Greg, in that old cast iron bathtub with the claw feet, the counter flipped up, a cherry pie in the oven, a hearty beef stew bubbling away on the huge gas stove. Clanking steam coming up in the radiator and beginning to hiss merrily…. The candles, maybe a dozen or so, flickering in the unthreatening drafts through the 100 year old window sashes, rattling from the wind gusting off the East River. And I remember the scratchy reception on the little radio playing old holiday music the whole week after Christmas just to keep things cheerful and glad. Being poor and struggling was so much lovelier somehow back then. I worried and went-without, but I never felt hopeless or lost. And every morning, even in those first freezing days of January, was a bright and bracing adventure, and the world always held its sunny arms open to me as I ran down the steps of that old tenement…
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