Years ago, a troubled co-op board in Harlem rented me an apartment that was uninhabitable.
I wrote a few letters, stopped people in the laundry room, and tried to bargain kindly, until finally I went downtown to a courthouse. The woman who spoke to me was harried and tired. She asked three questions before concluding I had no rights in the matter. She shouted, “Next!”
Out of frustration, not willfulness, I stayed put. I kept talking. My eyes began to tear, then brim, like some damsel crashing a wedding with a gun.
“Oh, for Christ’s sake,” the woman sighed. “You wanna know what to do? I’ll tell you what to do.”
I waited. What secret did she know?
“You stop paying,” she said. “You open an escrow account. You know what escrow is, you ever heard of escrow?” I nodded even though I it was probably just a word I’d overheard in an elevator once. “If you put your payments in an escrow account, it shows you’re not a deadbeat. You lose if you look like a deadbeat.” I agreed. Wholeheartedly.
The process involved other things—letters, forms, phone calls—yet within two months, the co-op board apologized and gave me a much larger apartment for the same price. To this day that apartment remains my most prized and beloved New York home. It offered such space, such sunlight. Who knew you could fight and win?