The Vermin

When I moved into my first apartment in June 1994, a shared one-bedroom on the corner of 7th Ave and 14th St in New York City, I had only planned on staying 3 months. I never intended to stay for 18 years. Nor did I ever expect to start a family there.

In October 2022, I learned the current residents and storefronts below were hastily evacuated due to a partial wall collapse in the building’s basement. The news did not surprise me. When we lived there, we used to joke with other tenants about the building collapsing one day, and how we hoped none of us would be in it when it did.

While Danny, Kevin, and I moved out in 2012, we still know folks who live there, and are now displaced. I’m glad no one was hurt, and everyone was able to get out of the building safely, albeit with very few belongings. I pray they can find new homes sooner than later.

For the first few months back in ’94, I often sat on the window ledge to take in all the hubbub below. Raising the window was always fraught with danger. The frame, warped and bent, barely kept the pane from crashing to the ground, so a gentle touch was crucial. If it dislodged and fell, it could injure or kill people on the sidewalk below.

Hanging out by the window soon after moving in
Desk set up. Mac Performa ready.

From my bedroom window, I saw and heard nothing but noise. Every 5 to 10 minutes, a bus screeched into the stop below and exhaled a hiss of fumes. The exhaust would rise and seep into the apartment and right up my nose. Taxis, cars, and trucks honked all day and night. The trains on the 1, 2, 3, 9 (yes, there used to be a 9) subway line roared underground and rattled the apartment with aftershocks every other minute. And with a firehouse a few blocks north and St. Vincent’s hospital a few blocks south, the cacophony of sirens never let up. My ears are still paying the price.

Across the street, The Vermeer, a bulky, luxurious apartment building that spanned the entire length of 7th Avenue between 14th and 15th streets teased those of us who lived in the dump I had nicknamed, The Vermin. Doormen greeted residents of The Vermeer. Door rats greeted us.

Below are some of my memories of living, or should I say surviving, in The Vermin.

Pride 1994 at The Vermin
Making Space

My biggest hesitation about adopting Kevin was The Vermin. With its nauseating smells, leaky ceilings, cracked walls, banging pipes, drafty windows, moldy tiles, and perpetual state of disrepair, The Vermin was no place to raise a child.

I suppose we could have relocated to Danny’s even smaller apartment in Morningside Heights. But who in their right mind surrenders a rent-stabilized apartment bordering two prime neighborhoods—West Village and Chelsea—for southern Connecticut?

In late January 2001, one month after Kevin had come home, Danny and I decided we needed more space, or at least the illusion of more space. The partition bisecting the living room had to go. So in early February, we dropped Kevin off at my parents, borrowed some power tools, and headed back to prepare for a do-it-yourself demolition job.

I took the first swing with the sledgehammer. Danny took the second. Plasterboard dust filled the room. Without face masks, we inhaled the particles. But we hammered away, and soon learned the partition and loft were more than a simple room divider. They were solidly constructed and reinforced with the largest bolts I had ever seen. There were vertical wood beams every six inches. When we struck one with the sledgehammer, we’d recoil and almost fall to the floor.

Removing the drywall
And finding many beams

We were woefully unprepared and in over our heads. But with a partially-destroyed wall in the middle of our living room, it was too late to turn back. So we lumbered on for the rest of the day & through the night. At 10pm our downstairs neighbor had had enough of the banging and sawing. He stopped me in the hallway as I dragged a soot-covered contractor garbage bag to the basement. I promised we’d stop by 11pm.

Sunday morning, we picked up where we left off. Around noon, Olga the super, knocked. While she lived in a different building around the corner, she’d swing by The Vermin at random times to swab the common areas with an asphyxiating ammonia-soaked mop. She was anointing the hallway that Sunday and had followed a dust path from the from the basement to our apartment. I cracked open the door, but blocked her line of sight into the apartment.

“We’re building something for the baby,” I said.

Olga glanced at my dirty sweatpants then studied the fake grin on my face. She could have ordered us to stop. Technically, we needed permission from the owner, whom we didn’t know and had never met, to alter the apartment. But we didn’t view what we were doing as an alteration. We saw it as a restoration. A previous tenant had erected the wall without the owner’s knowledge and, as far as we were concerned, we were just returning the space to its original layout.

“Ay, si, si,” Olga said.

She had to know I was lying but didn’t ask to come in or press the issue. Olga had a “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil” policy. She smiled politely and asked us to haul all the bags we had brought to the basement to the curb for next day’s pickup.

Part two of the restoration stretched into the week. While Kevin napped, I patched holes, sanded, and prepared the walls for finishing touches. The following weekend, we left Kevin with my parents again—which was fine with them—so we could paint.

Wall and loft finally down
Kevin took over the corner
State of Disrepair

Something in The Vermin always needed to be repaired or replaced, and since the super was unreliable, I did the handyman work myself. I replaced radiator valves, faucets, electrical sockets, grouted the bathroom tiles (three times), installed a new sink and a vanity, unclogged and resealed pipes, fastened handles and hooks, fixed stuck drawers, and patched wall cracks on an ongoing basis. I didn’t mind. Fixing things was therapeutic and in my DNA. As a kid, I often dissected and operated on faulty electronics and appliances to see if I could get them to work again. I once deconstructed a perfectly fine and functional VCR just to see how it was put together.

A view of Danny from the bathroom. I was probably in there fixing something.

But in the winter of 2001, as a part-time stay-at-home dad, every flaw in the apartment magnified into unmanageable monsters that ate away at my energy to address them. Hot showers in The Vermin were a cold commodity, a crapshoot depending on the mood of the boiler. It tripped off every other day and constantly needed to be reset by the super who was slow to respond. And yet, regardless of the boiler’s status, there always seemed to be enough hot water to get scalded whenever a neighbor flushed their toilet.

Even Superboy couldn't save The Vermin

Second-hand smoke from the ground floor pizza shop guys smoking unfiltered cigarettes in the basement drifted up and seeped into our apartment. The Vermin wheezed with emphysema. We knew we had to get out before the building’s lungs collapsed and caved in on us. We just didn’t have the resources to pack up and move. (While it may be true that money can’t buy happiness, it can certainly help with mobility. We had happiness.)

Fun and joy often broke out inside
And outside too
Seen, Heard, and Repeated

Kevin’s summer camp counselor and soon-to-be pre-K teacher stops me outside the classroom before dismissal and pick up.

“Can I talk to you for a minute?” he asks.

My first reaction is panic: did one of the kids have an allergic reaction to the cupcakes Danny made for Kevin’s birthday?

“Is there something wrong?” I ask.

“We’re wondering what you’re teaching Kevin at home,” he says.

“What do you mean?”

“Well,” Brandon says, “Kevin’s been singing the same song over and over all day today.”

“Okay, which one?”

“At first we weren’t sure what he was saying, but then…” Brandon pauses.

My mind races. Did Kevin drop an F-bomb? We don’t censor music at home. If an explicit song comes on, we don’t jump to turn it off. My belief is if we make something taboo—like a word—he’s more apt to say it to get a reaction. Danny disagrees. He thinks we should limit Kevin’s exposure to explicit language. For me, there are no bad words, just bad intentions.

I’ve told Kevin not to repeat certain things he hears—like me yelling ‘use your fucking blinker’ to idiot drivers on the road—because other people don’t like hearing words they think are bad. Words are just words, I say. I think he gets it. Maybe I’m naive in expecting a four-year-old to discern the difference.

“He’s been chanting,” Brandon says, “‘Hey-hey, ho-ho, George Bush has got to go.’”

I bite my inner cheek; it’s all I can do to keep from laughing.

Front row seat to Antiwar protests in 2004
Kevin wanted a sign

“Now, I don’t necessarily disagree with him,” Brandon says, “but we don’t, well, this is not the place for that. You know what I mean?”

“It’s not us,” I say, defensively. “He picked it up over the weekend. The staging area and lineup for the anti-war protest march took place right underneath Kevin’s bedroom window.”

It’s true. Thousands of people marched up 7th Ave from The Vermin to Madison Square Garden to protest the Iraq war and Republican National Convention. From his balcony seat, the chants caught Kevin’s curiosity.

“We’ll talk to him about it,” I say.

Brandon cracks a smile and leads me back into the classroom.

Kevin’s all packed up and ready to go. He gives me a hug.

On the way out, Brandon wishes him a happy birthday. “By the way,” he says, “the kids devoured the cupcakes.”

Kevin chants with the protesters

Time to Say Goodbye

In the summer of 2011, at the same time marriage became a possibility, so did getting a new apartment. A housing lottery opened for a building still under construction. We met the income requirements and applied. Over the years with other lotteries, we rarely met the qualifications. Our income was either too low or too high.

A few weeks after applying to the new building, we received notification that we had been selected. It was a complete surprise, and a stroke of luck we didn’t expect or anticipate. If we accepted the new apartment, our rent would double, but so would our living space. We already lived paycheck to paycheck and I worried about the additional cost. Once again, like he did 11 years earlier about us becoming parents, Danny insisted we could make it work.

I wasn’t convinced. And neither was Kevin. He and I didn’t like sudden changes and were comfortable with the status quo. For Kevin, The Vermin was the only home he ever knew, and he didn’t want to leave. For me, I worried about burning through our paltry savings and returning to a life in debt.

But as a soon-to-be teenager, Kevin would no doubt come to resent the confinement and lack of privacy. Besides, how much longer could Danny and I sleep in the living room but keep traipsing through his bedroom to get our clothes? All three of us needed privacy. We had lived with none for over a decade. So with that in mind, we took the new apartment and signed the lease in October 2011.

Last Christmas in The Vermin

Despite all the angst living in The Vermin caused over the years, our hearts were heavy. After all, it was Danny’s destination the night he found our son. It’s where Kevin crawled and took his first steps on the uneven and splintered floor. So many of his boyhood memories took place there. What started as a temporary summer sublet just for me had turned into our family’s home.

For all its flaws, The Vermin was where I learned about love and became a man. But the place had served its purpose in my life, our lives. And now it was time to say goodbye.

Empty but for the memories
One Thing Leads to Another

We still had many months left on our lease when we opted to move in 2011. We asked family and friends if they knew anyone who might be interested in taking over our lease. Our friend Michael put us in touch with his friend Cathy, who was currently looking for a place. She swung by for a look-see. A week later she said she would take it. In early 2012, we moved out and she moved in.

Later that year in October, Cathy called me out of the blue to ask if she could give my contact info to an editor at The New York Times. Cathy had written a personal essay for the paper, and while working with the editor, had mentioned the story of the family—us—that had lived in her current apartment. The editor was curious: would I want to write something for the paper?

My initial reaction: Me? Write for The New York Times? Are you kidding? No way I could do that. I write plays. I write dialogue, not articles or essays. I doubted I could craft a compelling essay, and I feared embarrassing myself. So instead I crafted a polite email declining the opportunity. Just as I was about to click send, a glimpse of reason triumphed over my fear: What’s the worst that could happen? Give it a try. If I wasn’t happy with how the essay turned out, I could then decline the offer.

The editor and I exchanged emails. She said since our story had been previously shared in Parents magazine, whatever I wrote would need to be substantially different to work for The Times. I interpreted “substantially different” as a preemptive rejection. Nevertheless, I told her I’d give it a try.

Writing in a coffee shop in The Village

Ideas percolated for a week, but nothing “substantially different” came to mind. What could I write about? And then it hit me: share the story of how the judge who finalized Kevin’s adoption in 2002 married us 10 years later.

On February 28, 2013, I stared down another “make pretty” PowerPoint presentation in my cube at work when the essay, We Found Our Son in the Subway, went live on The New York Times website. Within minutes, emails flooded my inbox. Friends called and texted—our family story covered their Facebook timelines.

We were completely unprepared for all the attention. Back in 2000 when Danny found Kevin, he heard from just the local press, but now it was local, national, and international media wanting interviews. And they were relentless. They repeatedly called and sent e-mails and messages via every possible channel and platform. Some tracked down and called the home phones of my sister, brother, and parents.

Danny and I were uneasy about granting interviews and going more public than the essay. Not only did we want to protect Kevin’s privacy—he was only 12 years old—but with the Supreme Court about to hear arguments on two historic same-sex marriage cases, we knew we could be asked about those cases, and the stakes seemed overwhelming. What if we said something wrong? We were just two men raising our son the best way we knew how, not spokespersons. In the end, we agreed to 4 interviews: Anderson Live, The Brian Lehrer Show, NBC-NY local news, and CNN.

Danny and Pete on The Brian Lehrer Show
Anderson, Pete, and Danny
Our day with CNN in the city
Kevin checks out the NBC-NY camera

Our lives changed. Doors opened to me as a writer, including the opportunity to write a children’s picture book, Our Subway Baby. We were invited to The White House to celebrate Pride month with President Obama and then Vice President Biden.

Everything about that visit was surreal, read more about it here.

Kevin in Washington DC
Kevin and Danny in The White House

I often reflect how that temporary sublet in The Vermin—one that I almost didn’t take back in 1994 and almost didn’t leave in 2012—created or spurred some of the biggest and most wonderful changes in our lives.

One of my favorite photos taken in The Vermin. Our living room was often just one big play pen.

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