We went to visit Robert Englebright on a Saturday in late May. Though I had seen his place before, I had only been there on one cold night in December. Because the calendar had turned, and we were inching closer to the Summer Solstice, by the time we made it out to his place again, we had a lot more light.
That Saturday he was about a month and a half away from completing his move to Chicago. Though he had found one apartment that he liked back home, as negotiations had stalled, he would be going back again to look at a few more places.
We talked about his experience looking at real estate in Chicago, as compared to the New York mar- ket. He mentioned how he was making his rounds and meeting with old friends, and preparing to leave New York behind. He mentioned his love of looking out the window from his bedroom, and how he would sometimes spend entire afternoons in there, just watching the light fall across the back wall as the sun sets.
Although Robert and I had dinner one last time between this interview in May, and when he actually left in the middle of July; now that he’s in Chicago, and I’m in New York, I realize what our friend- ship meant to me. When we spoke, we spoke openly and honestly. And although he’s only a plane ride away, it feels as though the distance is quite a bit longer.
Isaac: Have you ever had any epic dinner parties here?
Robert: No. I haven’t had any epic dinners here.
Isaac: So you don’t enjoy cooking?
Robert: I love to cook actually. That’s one of the reasons why I’m looking forward to moving back to Chicago, having dinner parties.
Isaac: The kitchen just doesn’t allow it?
Robert: Well, the kitchen would be fine. I actually read an article, and I don’t remember if it was in The New Yorker or in The Times, but there was this article about how there was a cook who made an entire Thanksgiving meal from a kitchen that was one of those . . . afterthought kind of kitchens, and she made an entire Thanksgiving meal. So I could definitely cook in that kitchen if I wanted to. But also it’s just . . . I’m out here in Flushing, and nobody ever comes out here. And I don’t have a dining room table.
Isaac: When you were a kid, do you remember spending any time decorating your bedroom?
Robert: Hmm, that’s a good question.
Alex: That’s a great question!
Robert: No, my mother did. I didn’t decorate my bedroom. My mother did.
Isaac: Did you like the way that she decorated? Robert: Ha, well, I had no reference at the time. Isaac: You never had any reflections, or taste.
Robert: I liked it. I mean, I wouldn’t like it now, but I liked it then. I liked that she color coordinated everything.
Isaac: What color was it? Robert: It was red. Isaac: Like a crimson.
Robert: Yeah, the curtains. And the bedspread. Those things were red.
Isaac: And you all lived in the same house for pretty much your entire childhood?
Robert: Yeah, my parents bought the house shortly after my brother was born. And my father lived there until about four years before his death.
Isaac: Was that about forty years? Robert: About fifty years. Yeah. Isaac: Is it still in the family?
Robert: No, it was sold. And my father was just constantly doing something on it. He was constantly renovating --- well, not renovating because they bought it new. But he was constantly doing something to it.
Isaac: Fixing things, adding things?
Robert: Well, he decided that he was going to put beams in the ceiling of the living room. Beams, as though it was an old tudor kind of thing. And so he did that. And also so the basement was just an unfinished basement when they bought the house, so I can remember being a young teenager and he decided that he was going to build two bedrooms and a bathroom in the basement –– wait, oh no –– I know what it was. So the house was small. It was only three bedrooms and a bathroom, but there were four kids. So my two sisters lived in one bedroom, and my brother and I lived in a bedroom, but we got to an age where we just couldn’t do that anymore. And so then he built those two bedrooms downstairs. And that’s where my sister and my brother had their bedrooms, and they had a bathroom. So things like that. He added on a patio in the back.
Isaac: That’s cool. Robert: Yeah.
Isaac: So, have you ever thought of building your dream house, and if so, where?
Robert: I have, yeah. Where? No, I haven’t thought about that.
Isaac: What would the house be like? Robert: I’ve actually drawn up plans. Isaac: Oh yeah?
Robert: Yeah. I used to love to. So part of what I studied in college was architecture. Art and architecture. And so I knew how to do plans. And so this was a combination house and studio. And the studio had this wall of glass that faced south. And so there would be these panels, so it was curved, and it would be south-west, and these panels would cover the windows. And it was a very modern feel, and it was kind of sprawling all on one floor.
Isaac: Is it anything like -- what’s the name of the house that you went out to see -- Fallingwater?
Robert: Fallingwater. No, it was more modern. It was more -- do you know Mies van der Rohe?
Robert: It was more Mies van der Rohe.
Isaac: But you don’t know where you would want it to be?
Robert: I’m trying to think of when I drew that. It would probably be somewhere in Chicago. It would have to be somewhere where there’s four seasons.
Isaac: You’d want to be able to observe the change in seasons?
Robert: Yeah. Like have five acres. Yeah. But I’d still want to have a gardener. In case I didn’t really want to have to deal with it.
Isaac: Do you like gardening?
Robert: As far as a garden, like a vegetable garden, I would want to do it myself. But as far as mowing lawns, trimming the grass . . .
Isaac: So a bit like a grounds crew. Robert: Like a grounds keeper. Because mowing the lawn is almost right up there with fishing.
Isaac: You don’t like fishing?
Robert: No. They’re two of the most boring activities I can think of: fishing and mowing. Isaac: Have you ever been on a riding mower?
Robert: Yes. That’s fun, actually. But after a while . . . after a few weeks, the novelty kind of wares off.
Isaac: Sure, I hear that. Five acres is a lot of acres.
Robert: Five acres? Yeah, that’s a pretty good size.
Isaac: It’s amazing how you think about space differently after you’ve lived in New York for a long time. Whenever I go back to Indianapolis, or to visit my parents who live in Louisville now, I just think . . . there’s so much space! The houses are actually apart from each other.
Robert: Yeah, it’s true.
Isaac: Do you remember anything specific about your first day in this apartment, or your first night?
Robert: Yeah. How filthy it was.
Isaac: Your landlord didn’t tell you about that?
Robert: Well, I moved in as a roommate. And by the time I found this place, I was just so desperate, so I just took it. And at that point, well, even now . . . I’ll make due. So I met the guy, he was a nice guy, he lived here, and he was looking for a roommate. And he gave me the big bedroom. But it was at night when I met him the first time, and I didn’t really see how dirty the place was. Isaac, it was really disgusting . . .
Isaac: Clothes on the floor?
Robert: We’re talking about, and honestly, no exaggeration –– I don’t think in the six years that he was here . . . there’s parts of this apartment that he never cleaned. Never. And just little things, like there was a leak underneath the sink. Right? So instead of calling the landlord and saying, “I have a leak underneath the sink, do you mind fixing it?” All he would do was stack up towels underneath, but wouldn’t bother taking them away. So when I moved in there were . . . I don’t know how long they had been there, but they smelled really disgusting. He had this pile of wet moldy rags underneath the sink. And the bathtub . . . I spent five hours cleaning the bathroom.
Robert: I couldn’t set a foot in that bathtub. It was just amazing. So, that’s kind of the first impression.
Isaac: And when was that?
Robert: That was six years ago. And then he was here for about a year. And then he moved in with his girlfriend.
Isaac: How’d you find this place? Robert: Craigslist.
Isaac: Did you look at any other places in the area?
Robert: No. Not in the area. I didn’t. I looked in Washington Heights. I would have liked to have stayed in Manhattan. But what I liked about living out here, I just loved the fact that there’s a park right there, and then the pool and the ice rink. That sealed it.
Isaac: Cool. And you just saw the add on Craigslist and you though, I guess I’ll think about Flushing? Or you were thinking about Flushing before?
Robert: No I wouldn’t have thought of flushing.
Isaac: So you saw the add first.
Robert: Yeah, and it was far out. I’d never been out here before.
Isaac: And you were moving away from the Village at the time?
Robert: No, Midtown.
Isaac: Where were you Midtown?
Robert: That was Fifty-Seventh Street and Tenth Avenue.
Isaac: Westside. Robert: Yeah.
Isaac: 7 Train, right?
Robert: 1 Train. Yeah, the 1 stops at Time Warner Center. So it was kind of there, the D and the 1.
Isaac: So you’ve had one roommate who was here before you, and then . . . you mentioned that there was an opera singer who lived here?
Robert: Yeah, so then, what I did . . . I was living here by myself and I decided that I would try Air BnB, and so I did that, and that’s how she found this place, Air BnB actually. But this was her first time in New York, of actually living here. And she was going to Queens College for music, but she was only going to
be here for a short period of time -- a month, or two months. Initially it was just a short term thing, but we got along really well, and so she went back, and then she came back, and I think she lived here for a year and a half before she got her own place.
Isaac: And then after she moved, you just had the place to yourself?
Robert: Yeah. But actually, between that guy and she moving in, I had other roommates, just off and on. It really depended on whether I needed the money, and if so, I’d put something up. But then after she left it was just me.