We all know the stereotype of urban ascetics. They resist material luxury. They make their own yogurt, churn their own butter. They live simply and self-sustainably in a small studio with a foldout couch or air mattress. They have no conventional responsibilities, no goals beyond graduation or the next gallery show. They are single artists in the morning of their life. They are not middle-aged parents.
Meet Emily Duff—a 26-year West Village resident who lives with her husband, two children, a dog and a dozen guitars in a 340-square-foot apartment on Hudson Street. “I’m really happy in this tiny little space,” says Duff, who turns 50 this year. “I can’t imagine my life any other way.”
What others would call constrictions, Duff calls creative compromises: Her shower is a phone booth–size alcove next to the kitchen sink. Her door-free bedroom triples as a dining and living room. Her kids—a boy and a girl—share a bunk bed in a room the size of a walk-in closet. Of all the limitations inherent in this compact living, only one really bothers her: “I haven’t had a bathtub to lie in in 26 years.”
Duff has become a master of spatial resourcefulness. But what makes her micro-lifestyle even more staggering is how it compares with her previous digs. Before moving into her current apartment, she lived alone in a 2,000-square-foot Tribeca loft—a perk of her employment as the personal assistant to actor Harvey Keitel and his girlfriend Lorraine Bracco, fresh off her breakout role in Goodfellas.
“As Lorraine and Harvey’s assistant, I was working as everything. I was a cook, I was looking after her kids, I was reviewing scripts,” she says. Bracco bought Duff her first computer, a gift to encourage her writing.
Duff was 23 and hobnobbing with all the Village habitués. She jammed with Rosanne Cash. She traded mixtapes with Laurie Anderson and Lou Reed. When she applied for the apartment she lives in now, she used Robert De Niro as a reference.
The 1,660-square-foot downsize to Hudson Street followed Duff’s stint with Bracco and Keitel. To sustain herself in the mid-1990s, she played local gigs, managed a recording studio on Gansevoort Street (through her connection with Cash) and was a chef at an Australian restaurant. Just down the street from it, Duff met her future husband, Skip (coincidentally, an Australian). She gave birth to their first child, Sylvia, now 11, in the post-9/11 baby boom; a son, Henry, followed three years later. A few years from now, her apartment will be inhabited by two angsty teenagers in bunk beds.
“It might get harder when they’re older,” Duff concedes. “Or it might not. We’ll see.”
When the walls start closing in, she loses herself in her music. An accomplished guitarist and songwriter, Duff has played in neighborhood venues for nearly 30 years. Today she heads the Emily Duff Band, a five-person outfit steeped in country-soul—“sweet-and-sour rock and roll,” as she describes it. Last month she headlined a show at Rockwood Music Hall on the Lower East Side; next month she opens for Shawn Colvin and Steve Earle at City Winery. In her three decades in the Village, she has played just about everywhere.
But like all things, her neighborhood—her home—is changing. “It used to be an area that you could afford, because it was all artists. Now my neighbors are celebrities and bankers, lawyers, rock stars,” she says. “They’re not my people anymore. I feel like the welfare mom of the West Village. The neighborhood has changed, and I have remained completely the same.”
Her brand of urban asceticism isn’t entirely a practice of self-discipline and abstinence; it’s about living simply and making the most of what you have. Today Duff raises her kids by the same principles that have guided her own life. Every night before bed, the whole family—Sylvia on keyboard, Henry on drums, Skip on bass and Emily on guitar—carves out a little space for peace in the bustle of New York City. The harmony is exultant. “I find my god,” says Duff, “in guitars and my kids.”
She tells me all this over a pot of tea on a Thursday night. As I drain my cup, and my questions, and prepare to leave, her attention is drawn away. “I like this one of Sylvia’s,” she says, pointing to a piece of artwork on the fridge. “She had to do a still life, but she could only use 20 strokes.”
I reply that it reminds me of the classic Dr. Seuss legend—when challenged to write a book using only 50 unique words, he wrote Green Eggs and Ham.
“Exactly,” says Duff. “Art within restriction. If you can be happy within boundaries, you can be happy anywhere.”
All photos of Emily Duff courtesy of Emily Duff