The Stairway at 185 Elk Street
Updated: Feb 12
185 Elk Street was a three-storied row house. We lived in “the Principal and Basement levels,” which meant the lowest level, half beneath ground, and the main floor above it. That main level was accessible from the high wooden stoop outside or from the door under the stoop that led to the basement hallway staircase. That lowest flight of stairs wasn’t open, with a shiny banister and ceiling fixture, as was the middle level staircase, the one that that led from the second floor to the third floor flat. The basement stairway was completely enclosed in dark, lacquered wainscoting to ensure against loss of heat or privacy. We did most of our living on the basement level, where the heat from the parlor stove and the kitchen stove kept us warm, as we gathered around either the kitchen table or the dining room table in the back half of the basement parlor. The room was big, with space for Gram’s rocker by the window, a couch and side chair, a full dining room set, including a china closet, and a telephone table with a little seat attached.
When I think of that stairway to the second floor, I don’t remember light at all. I remember the dark, for sure! Once that door with its tight springs slammed shut behind you, all light and heat were gone until you got to the upstairs hall and pulled the string that hung from the light there, if you could find it. You waved your searching hand around, knocking the little metal bell-like thing at the bottom of the string in crazy arcs. The trick was to hold your hand quite still, moving ever so slowly under where you thought the string should be, feeling each empty space gingerly, until your fingers brushed against that little silver bell on the end of that string. Even when you moved ever so carefully, it still swung away from your hand at the slightest touch. A first-grader had to stand on tiptoes to get near it. You learned to stand absolutely still, waiting for the bell with its string, magically connected to the saving grace of light, to come to its place of rest. You grabbed it. You breathed again. You exhaled into the miracle of forty watts.
Coming down the stairs was worse. You had to turn off the light at the top of the stairs and feel your way down, hands running along the wall’s two-inch tongue and groove slats, eyes on the strip of light shooting under the door at the foot of the stairs. Six-year-old legs can’t move fast enough, coming down those dark stairs. But, it was a race for life, to swing that door open and hear it slam behind you as you welcomed return to the glow and hiss of Gram’s basement parlor stove.