My four-bedroom house in Warrington, Bucks County, was way bigger than a family of two needed. And yet, my husband and I filled every inch, turning one bedroom into a cozy den and another into a gym packed with an elliptical machine, bike, heavy bag, and mini trampoline.
Downstairs, a kitchen that spilled into a family room with a fireplace and soaring ceilings was the dream entertainment space for the enthusiastic Italian cook that I am — one who thinks a dinner crowd of 15 is no crowd at all. A back deck provided an up-close yet nonintrusive view of the bluebirds, cardinals, goldfinches, robins, catbirds, chickadees, hummingbirds, and the occasional horrifying hawk that stopped by the feeders and gardens both morning and evening for a bite to eat.
Then my marriage ended, and I moved into the city, longing for its treasure chest of humanity and endless walkable entertainment options I loved so much when I first lived here after graduating from Penn State decades ago.
Which brings me to my 640-square-foot studio apartment at the St. James, a 16-year-old high-rise just off Philadelphia’s historic and charming Washington Square. My unit is about half the size of the basement in my former home in the Ridings of Warrington Hunt. When I stepped foot in the apartment for the first time, I thought, “That’s the end of my dinner parties. There’s not even room for a high-top pub table, unless I live without a bed.” That’s a sacrifice even this culinary devotee wasn’t willing to make.
Then I took a few deep breaths, gave away some furniture, and got to work on turning an empty, beige square into what my dear fellow volunteers and friends at Back on My Feet — a running group that supports people experiencing homelessness — have dubbed “Café Diane.” It’s a space whose furniture inventory can be counted on two hands, yet I’ve lost count of the number of dinner parties, Christmas cookie open houses, and other social gatherings that have gone on here — without a dining room table and chairs.
How? With something each visitor brings: a lap. My friends are troopers, balancing plates of lasagna, meatballs, and chicken marsala on napkin-covered laps. When the couch is full, they sit on the bed, which is perpendicular to the couch and made up to look less like a bed and more like another couch. They also sit on the floor, the ottoman, or a handcrafted bench — all within reach of the candy dish that’s always kept replenished in a nod to my beloved, sweets-loving late Aunt Phyl.
Two hallway closets, enhanced with self-assembled shelving units on wheels, hold my clothes, free weights, and luggage. A three-tier rotating shoe rack in the entrance hall holds my footwear. One wall of the only hallway is covered with pictures of a life-changing trip to Rwanda in 2015. It is a daily reminder of a place where people live sparingly and yet with enduring gratitude.
Pictures of places I’ve been and people I love are my primary decoration.
Strands of miniature white lights in three different areas help keep the apartment feeling festive when it’s empty of company. In the daytime, sunshine takes care of that, compliments of a wall of south-facing windows.
Yes, at 17 stories up in a neighborhood of cement, brick, cobblestone, and asphalt, my bird-watching opportunities are drastically different. My view now is of another winged variety — jets whose takeoffs and landings 12 miles away at Philadelphia International Airport are constant entertainment that I watch from my couch. I also have an unobstructed view of the nest where those other birds — our Super Bowl champs — play. And in summer, the night sky fills with Phillies fireworks.
To get a comfy wing chair out of a remote corner and into a prime TV-viewing spot, I recently rearranged some furniture — not that there are too many options when you have to accommodate an oversize entertainment unit and matching hutch made by artisans in my favorite U.S. region, the Southwest.
I put the chair just under the Café Diane sign, a gift from someone who knows just how much I’ve come to love my little place.