Lime Legal

NY blues

Published 01 March 2024

Patrick Quinlan craved quiet after growing up in the hustle of an overcrowded New York house

The house I grew up in was crowded – five kids and my grandmother living with us, too, in a semi-detached. My parents were Roman Catholics, so they just had as many kids as came. The folks on the other side of the wall had eight kids and two tenants, one in the attic and one in the cellar. We always slept two in a room, but they slept three in a room.

When I was young there was a door between the two houses. You could go through the door and be part of the other family. It was noisy and fun and claustrophobic, too. Both families were struggling financially and there was a lot of drinking on both sides of the wall. I could go to dinner the other side – no one would notice that I was there and my family wouldn’t notice that I was missing. There was constant noise and jabber.

For a while we were so crowded that my bedroom was a walk-in cupboard on the second floor. Later, when my grandmother moved in, she took a whole room for herself and I slept in the living room.

A few years after I left home I spent a year working in a homeless centre. It was a soup kitchen in a ghetto – a violent neighbourhood with gang fights, murders, hundreds of crack vials lying in the street. One night I woke up on the third floor and watched a shoot-out between rival gangs on the rooftops. But I liked living there.

I witnessed some profound things. One day I happened on a teenage kid who had been shot on the street and I was there while he died. It seemed like a turning point – his death was an incredibly profound thing that made me think something had to change. But the next day it all just carried on – gangs and crack and violence – business as usual.

My worst home came later, in an old factory loft in Brooklyn that had been cut up into apartments. It was infested with cockroaches and the heating pipes would start knocking at five in the morning. It was bleak and dark, just an old factory with walls put up, a raw space with old light fixtures hanging down like a turn-of-the-century sweatshop. Eventually the place was condemned as unfit for human habitation.

I lived there because my girlfriend liked it, but that relationship ended when I said I couldn’t stand it any more. There were no trees or green spaces in that neighbourhood – it was entirely factories with an expressway half a block away. The building was right off Metropolitan Avenue where there’s traffic night and day. It was loud and dirty, a post-industrial place filled with struggling artists.

At weekends, while I was living there, I started going to a place called Goldens Bridge, 40 or 50 miles north of New York City, to go hiking or climbing. I found someone advertising for a housemate in the classified ads – that was the best place I’ve lived. It was an old summerhouse on a lake on an acre of land, with a big stone fireplace, a 100-acre nature reserve nearby, an apple orchard it was idyllic.

I lived in that place four years and every morning I would see birds, foxes and deer. We always had fires and I would chop the wood. In the winter you could ski out the front door.

That place was so quiet – the three of us in a big house, nothing but the woods nearby. I grew up in a dense urban neighbourhood with lots of people around. I think that only gradually I came to realise that I wanted to live differently, that I craved quiet.

Patrick Quinlan is an author. His latest novel – The Takedown – is published by Hodder Headline.