In Prague, I lived in a building a lot like the one(s) in this photo from The Third Man. Not enough light; the faucets barely worked; there was a weird film poster of “Nanuk of the North” left behind by the previous tenant. And I mean weird. Like a cockamamie merger of Eskimo soft-porn and man and dog buddy adventure. But I loved that place, and it still gives me chills thinking about it.
My little ground floor flat had all the creepy romance of an Alfred Hitchcock thriller, but without the style. I remember the way my neighbors used to spy on me. Really spy on me – eyes pressed to their peepholes. They knew what I was doing in real time and reported my comings and goings to my landlord with a scrupulousness that bordered on the insane – as in, “She carried her grocery sack in her left hand, although we know she is right-handed” (no joke). They called me the Amika – which is basically a slur for “American girl” on par with “guido “spic” or “chink” according to my landlord, and were aghast at how many people were always coming in and out of my flat. Since many of my friends were guys, they naturally assumed I was some sort of hooker. In fairness, they simply had no imagination for the every-day-is-a-party kind of life that a post-graduate ex-pat girl in her twenties could enjoy – or that a lot of my so-called customers were gay. Actors from the theater I was a partner in, who came by to pick up a script, or complain about a director, or have a drink after a long rehearsal.
By day, my building was your typical, timeworn, turn of the century apartment house: swarming with left-over communist snitches, and in desperate need of some tuck-pointing and a decent paint job. But at night it transformed into a place of rough and tumble glamour. Echoes from the grimy, weed-infested courtyard included an opera singer, some guy with a perpetual, hacking cough, and racket from the neighborhood pub which filtered in from the pub’s kitchen. It grew louder when the cook burst out of the backdoor to smoke. He’d leave the door propped open and a cacophony of clinking glasses, folk music, laughter, ribald conversation, and the occasional fight would float up and up and up – all the way to the top floor units – maybe eight stories.
My neighbors might have minded that I didn’t use my dominant hand to carry groceries, and they might’ve minded my choice in friends – or that I had any friends at all, but nobody seemed to mind about the noise. We all knew that was magic. No matter how much we all hated that the hot water ran out before we could rinse the shampoo out of our hair, or that there was a weird fungal smell vaguely reminiscent of three-day old dog poop that permanently infused the air; at night, we were living in a black and white movie and our conventional lives became mysterious, even exciting. An actor with a slight lisp and boyfriend trouble became a customer; a common tattletale became an agent; an aspiring singer perhaps a tragic heroine. And the coal-stained bricks and chipped tiles? Mere evidence of a life well-lived.