LONDON -- I OWE a debt of gratitude to George Peabody, the 19th-century Baltimore and London banker-philanthropist. In fact he's the reason I have a roof over my head.
My building was erected at the turn of the century after Lord Shaftesbury, one of Britain's leading social reformers, persuaded Peabody that housing for the working class was an excellent use for his philanthropy.
Sometimes I don't know whether to bless him or curse him when I'm struggling up five flights of stone steps to my apartment, lugging heavy shopping bags. Five flights. Ninety steps. You can't not count them after awhile.
But I shouldn't complain. Life on Wild Street, Peabody Estate in Covent Garden is very comfortable. The location is a major plus. George Peabody picked sites in Central London close to people's work. That's great for me: The Sun's office is only a 10-minute walk, and the theater's just around the corner.
And I can afford to live here. Mr. Peabody built these apartments for working people, and the rule still stands. The Peabody Trust, which operates this block and 70 others in the city, is nonprofit. My weekly rent is $38. The same one-bedroom apartment in the same area would go for $300 a week on the open market. Then there's parking in the courtyard at $5 a week, which would get me 90 minutes at a parking meter.
So I have an address as sought after as the nicest parts of Federal Hill in Baltimore, or Washington Place in New York.
This impresses people at parties. Where do I live? Oh, Covent Garden I say, trying not to sound too smug.
Built in sandstone colored bricks, Blocks A to N fold around a courtyard with a parking lot, a small fenced children's play area and the superintendent's office. We even have a few trees. On the far right above the building society is a pretty Victorian cupola looking like a bandstand in the sky.
From the top floor, where I live, the view pans from the 19th century to the 20th. To the left is the towering gray, foreboding building of the Masonic Lodge. (Who knows what's going on in that secretive place when I'm having my tea?)
Directly in front of me the offices of the Civil Aviation Authority loom above my flat. They were designed by a famous architect in the 1970s and look like the inside of hundreds of egg cartons. Prince Charles would not be amused.
The flat is small but I have one of everything. There's a galley-like kitchen with a beech counter I installed which gives me a breakfast table. And there is a living room with a large bay window.
Each floor has one bay window. There's a reason for that. In Peabody's day I wouldn't be sitting here comfortably day dreaming. I would have had my arms in soapy water pounding clothes or washing myself in a cast-iron bath. My digs used to be the washroom for the other flats on this floor. Underneath the wall-to-wall carpeting lies a solid stone floor, which used to make the flat very cold. But that's all changed too.
The Peabody Trust has a 10-year modernization plan for this estate. Last summer it installed central heating. We even have an entry-phone system with brand new wooden doors and gleaming brass door knockers. Finally we're coming into the 20th century.
Some of my neighbors aren't so keen on these new-fangled improvements. There's a high proportion of elderly people living in the building. Many of them don't like change and I hear about that.
The staircase is a good place for gossip. I'm often grateful for the pit-stop so I can gather my breath. I even get presents of plants along with the latest complaints.
My neighbors are a diverse group. There are grannies and babies, British, Nigerians and Chinese. Everyone's friendly, though some are more reclusive than others. I have one neighbor who looks exactly like Prime Minister John Major. He bounces up the stairs in black leather bomber jacket. On second thought, maybe he's a bit too lively for the grey man.
There's a sense of community here. Strangers say hello in the courtyard and the porters are always on hand to fix minor problems. We even have a tenants association.
A lot has changed from the days when washing was drying in the place now occupied by my living room. But the building retains its 19th century character. We don't have elevators, but at least that keeps me fit. And we're still inundated with London's pigeons despite attempts by the estate manager to discourage them.
When I'm half asleep in the morning listening to the background hum of traffic I still get a jolt when I hear the pigeons on the windowsill making their weird purring, cooing noise. Then again, maybe it's the ghost of George Peabody checking on his tenants.
Michele Nevard is an assistant in The Baltimore Sun's London bureau.