The malleability of our physical environment is expected enough, as we evolve so do our homes. My own walls have waned and waxed in response to four roommates, two cats, forty-seven broken wine glasses, six to seven bottles of Extra-Strength Advil, a handful of horrible vices, some cooking catastrophes, a steadily improving taste in booze and steadily stagnant taste in men.
At one point it inherited this gray, stone cat figurine inset with green glass eyes, a perma-astonished expression enhancing its creepy. Origins: unknown.
Your first apartment in New York City isn’t usually destined to be much of a home. In the sticky heat of 2010, we expected a refuge at best. Temporary, interim to something we would actually invest some character into. The expectation for design and decorum might have hovered slightly above that of our collegiate counterparts who were shocked that Christmas lights were not, in fact, sold at Crate & Barrel, but we knew fastening those curtain rods above the windows is a rite of passage that gets delayed.
This was going to be a memoir, but I resigned the lease, again.
We admittedly found the apartment by luck. Subtle hangovers, a steady rain, and the fatigue from days of seeking out shelter on this city-wide scavenger hunt kept the three of us under the covers of a queen-sized bed we shared in this Alphabet City studio belonging to a friend of a friend of a friend. We’d already missed a few appointments, phones buzzing from the anger of scorned brokers. Once awake, we sat on the floor and ate handfuls of cereal out of the box in silence, waiting for the rain to stop, and when it did, feeling unexplainably defeated we dragged our heels to go face the next contender.
The apartment’s skeleton sung of its potential. The ceilings were so high. There was so much room for our egos to grow.
Since skirting out of my childhood house at 17, I had moved a total of 14 times before pushing my pin into the New York City map. The nomad in me shrunk with anxiety when a two-year lease was on the table. The permanence of that notion, staying put, was altogether refreshing but absolutely terrifying.
And yet I wasn’t even the one to excuse myself from the leasing office, white with nausea.
The early chapters in my study of NYC revealed that permanence is often an illusion. It took all of eight months before movers were right back in our apartment, the one departing a roommate who hid the fact he hadn’t paid rent in five months. Dozens of intercepted late notices, legal threats, stakeouts turned stalking, yelling, tears, amplified anxiety and a slew of notarized documents culminated amicably to the tune of a Pinot Noir-fueled sing-a-long to Disney’s “Anastasia” as three sweaty Russian men lugged the first life out the front door of 1C. I never felt more comfortable, my feat sunk into the floorboards like memory foam. I was still home.
That ex-roommate recently made his way back up the walk-up, Prosecco in hand. Against all odds, some things do endure.
As would be expected, I capture this contentment less frequently now. But some nights – in search of something or other- we scale the fire escape, delicately pulling ourselves up the ladder bolted to the ancient brick, echoes ringing off each rung as we climb. There’s that sense of home so simply manifested in the extension of my roommate’s arm as I eclipse the edge, reaching for my hand, or alternately, my beer bottle – whichever appears more vulnerable at the moment. We stand together, blood pressures settling, scanning the skyline that maps out the city’s EKG, its irregular heartbeat spiking and plummeting, persistently breathless.
But there are lots of roofs on which to spend the hours tocking toward morning. As everyone around me floats in and out of high rises, brownstones, sterile-looking converted spaces and illegal commercial lofts, they conquer new neighborhoods and in a way, identities. I pulsate with envy. Why can a location change offer such promise, such a fresh start? What do you gain from speed dating the city in your youth? Why do I yearn for that illusion, masochistically stir-crazy in my own comfort? My home is aesthetically adored, but some places hold on too many ghosts for their own good.
The interior design itself is stained by several spirits, each lingering within their own contributions, suffocating the square footage. Most of the decorating took place during our first winter in the apartment, and as such it permanently resembles something out of a Pier 1 holiday issue. Euphoric, we overdid it entirely and dragged in a Christmas tree that took up half the living room, ever endangered by a smack from the ceiling fan. As the Pandora holiday channel slowly phased out and we ran out of cloves to burn on the stove, time got the best of us and the tree sustained through early April, almost burning the apartment down during a bacon situation. The descent down the stairs left a trail of brown bristles, thick as a bathroom carpet, a path we (ever-so-cleverly) redirected from someone else’s front door, hiding until the super cleaned it up.
The subsequent Christmas our glass table shattered. I wasn’t metaphorical enough back then.
I met a man who embraced a nomadic stretch-of-the-legs at the onset of his time in New York, avoiding the sound of settling, bent on returning to wherever it was he came from. A healthy mix of other’s irritation, encouragement and a spurt of spontaneity found him with a newly balanced checkbook and an empty apartment, now a home, these days staring up at the same ceiling as he falls asleep. That was 10 years ago.
Another friend just put a down payment on a two-bedroom right off the 4, 5.
They say to stay away from social media when you’ve been drinking. Online apartment postings should be lumped into that recommendation.
The first few months we were basically running a hostel. We barely had furniture, we barely had our bearings, but we had guests. People from every corner of our respective woodworks showed up with a bag and a bottle of booze in tow. The apartment was cluttered with bodies at all hours, and in those early days it was electrifying. But one day a longer-term live-in called “a roommate meeting”, his intent to address the etiquette of refilling ice cube trays. We visited the hardware store less often after that, cooling it on making copies of our keys, agreeing to tighten up our guest policies. As if he knew we craved that sense of ownership, our super finally fastened little labels on the mailbox bearing horribly misspelled versions of our last names. 1C was finally ours. A coat of paint went up about then as well. If I recall correctly, we were all dating assholes at the time, and the bright, latex colors felt protective, like maybe they’d keep the evil spirits away. It hasn’t worked yet.
Every few months, we pour a glass of wine and tend to the junk drawer. It’s notoriously entertaining, an amalgamation of our chaos. The best addition, by far, is a set of house keys that someone forsook rather than return and reclaim. The honorable mention would probably go to a condom printed with the words “got consent?” Most of these abandoned items amassed belong to people who are no longer tethered to the apartment in any way. It’s an unspoken agreement, but we limit the amount of nostalgia we’re allowed to feel about this.
But that wistfulness always creeps in from somewhere. We had a bar across the street patronized almost exclusively by men over 65, and, as New York goes, it just closed one day. It was the sort of place that became an extension of our living room, remote control included. No one really bothered us, but our tab was regularly picked up by those impressed at “how young and accomplished we are.” I don’t think we ever admitted how encouraging it was to hear that, probably because none of us have heard it since. Another bar settled in, and I remember being stunned when that staff started fluctuating, quantitative commentary to the passage of time. Resistant as we may be to change, the place had been around for long enough by that point to endure it. I wondered if it was us growing stagnant.
But I stay because I have this desperate fear of living alone, I think, maybe. Not in the whole made-for-TV “I’ll die and no one will find me,” sort of way, there’s just a comfort in having warm bodies nearby. And solidarity.
One afternoon in the early days of last fall, I was violently hungover with my roommates, basking in Essa bagels and the vague recollections from the night before, lounging about our lack of plans. Then a cockroach scurried across the floor and directly into my bedroom. We froze. After all of our male friends hung up on us, my trusty roommates wasted no time to lay out the workings of a battle plan, animatedly talking strategy of how to excommunicate this motherf-cker back to the fiery hell it came from. We emptied out the contents of my entire bedroom into the living room, and armed with Solo cups, hunted the bug. Three hours later we’d basically tired the thing out and, and terrified of the crunching noise it would potentially make, managed to trap it, run it out to the curb, and fling it into street, screaming the whole time. We stand behind the absurdity to this day.
Whenever our living situation updates in some fashion, as it has several times within 1C, we throw a corresponding party. We’ve found that calling it “housewarming” encourages people to bring booze. A guaranteed free-for-all, this biannual fete has become a trepid experiment for our own bemusement, anxiously spooning together different corners of our ever-evolving New York worlds. And it always goes well, until it doesn’t. Stand up, my treacherous friends.
Another housewarming is on the kitchen calendar. I could never walk away from an in-unit washer/dryer combo. The thought is just blasphemous.