Living With Strangers Part I: Craigslist

This is the first in a series of realistic fiction I started writing last year. It is based on my search for a room share in New York City. 

If it weren’t for Craiglist I would be homeless, but also if it weren’t for Craigslist I wouldn’t have flirted with the idea of homelessness at least a couple times in the past few weeks. I mean, other than a top bunk in someone’s bedroom in the Lower East Side for $500 a month, what’s left for people like me when the spawn of the affluent are paying really good money to live like squatters? Because I don’t know what I would tell my mother if I actually decided to be homeless, I press on.

Half of the available rooms in my price range are in Brooklyn, and ninety percent of those are in Bushwick or Crown Heights, and all of them were some sort of awesome.

Awesome five bedroom apartment in an up-and-coming neighborhood just ten stops from Bedford on the L

New roommate needed NOW in AWESOME Bushwick!!!!!!!///////\\\\!!!!

****Awesome roommate needed ASAP in awesome newly renovated Crown Heights apartment ****

I clicked on one ad in which the poster wasn’t too ashamed of their hovel to put up a picture of it. Though they should have been. The grey, dimly lit room resembled the interior of an empty dumpster. The ad insisted that the room was a catch because it was private and featured a built-in closet.

After a few days of fruitless searching for something that looked halfway decent I felt like I’d be lucky to land in a thousand dollar-a-month windowless shaft in some post-industrial, pre-apocalyptic part of Brooklyn with no trees. All along the L line and spilling to every corning of the city, every trust fund baby disguised as a freelance artist is clamoring to live the hardship they were deprived of in their youth, and landlords respond by turning into mad scientists—trying to discover the half life of a New York City apartment. With great zeal they set about bisecting their units ad infinitum until even the most affluent millennial struggling to struggle would not want live in them.

Besides the rent being too damn high, the landscape of Craigslist has become fraught with new dangers. One always had to be fluent in reading between the lines. Apartments described as having a “relaxed, easy-going environment” were always something to look our for, since relaxed meant your reaction to a roach infestation is expected to be “it is what it is”, and easy-going as in you’ll have to be okay with the fact that goop encrusted dishes will be languishing in the sink for weeks at a time while weed stems and bottle caps gather in the cracks of the couch–if there is one.

These days dozens of “roommate services” that have sprung up. The housing situation has gotten so bad that instead of finding people apartments, brokers can now make a living finding people rooms and roommates and getting them to sign a lease with complete strangers. A girl with bad credit has no choice but to hike up her galoshes and sift through the muck and mire and see what kind of strangers she can live with.

At first looking for a room share was entertaining, and sometimes others joined my search. My friend Elisa and I spent at least two hours sitting on her couch, looking at apartments like we were on an Etsy shopping spree. Elisa of course didn’t have to get involved, but she insisted on helping and even confessed to having fun.

“It’s kind of like spying,” she said.

Craigslist is one of the few forms of legitimized voyeurism in a city filled with gawkers, myself included. One of my favorite things about walking the streets is seeing how people curate their lives through their windows. Each window tells a story, whether they are shuttered behind blinds, or if they have flirty lace curtains that inhale and exhale with the breeze, revealing a print of one of Gauguin’s naked ladies. Some have the makings of a pasta sauce, with basil and tomato plants occupying a windowsill. Sometimes a caged bird peers at its free brethren cooing on a fire escape. Other times an old woman, living like a caged bird, spends her day at the window watching everyone who can come and go as they please.

It is through their windows that people show the outside world what goes on inside; some people share a lot, others very little. The drawback to looking inside people’s windows is that you can’t get away from the creep factor. Craigslist is the same, but there, people want you to peer into their homes. Some people, being private, coy, or lazy, can’t be bothered to write more than a sentence about their homes. Others lean towards exhibitionism, and include their personal histories with cat allergies, their life as a vegan, their career as a filmmaker, their entire menagerie that includes a boa constrictor, that they are a holistic health healer who wants to live with like-minded individuals, that they are a male looking only for female roommates who don’t mind sleeping naked in his bed. Some people are stingy with photographs, others take pictures of every corner, treating their Craiglist ad as a spread for Town and Country.

From Elisa’s living room in Queens we peered into apartments all over the city. At first there were constraints. All I wanted was a room share in a decent place, with nice people, with at most a 45-minute commute to my office. And a park in walking distance. And a common space. For less than a thousand a month.

I had been living in the same apartment in Washington Heights for four years; it was half a block from Highbridge Park, had a yard, and even a large common space. I paid little over $700 for my room and utilities. But real estate had become a different beast. Elisa and I quickly realized I was asking for too much, so we starting applying different metrics. The quality of the ads became very important. How awful is the grammar? Are there more than three sentences? How liberal is the use of exclamation points? Are amazing and awesome used more than five times? Did someone take the time to post pictures? But we made sure that each ad I responded to had at least one thing I would like. Other than that the only original parameters that remained in effect as we scanned Craigslist were the price cap and commute time.

Our heads were bowed and our faces were bathed in the glow of our respective screens—Elisa was using an iPad, and I was borrowing Elisa’s computer. Every one in a while we came up for air and reported our discoveries.

“Hey Robin, these people have a dog—look how cute he is! I think this place would be good for you.”

The one picture that was included in the ad showed a golden retriever snuggled into the crevices of a couch, like a giant throw pillow. Elisa sent me the link to the place—in Lefferts Gardens. Amazingly, it was less than $900 and looked to be only a block away from Prospect Park. Then she found another place with some nice bay windows somewhere in Crown Heights, then an apartment with exposed brick, and another that had a view of the Manhattan skyline from the rooftop. I found a place with a lesbian who liked to dance while she cooked. Another prospective apartment had a living room decorated entirely with maps. We searched in Harlem, Washington Heights, in parts of Queens I had never heard of, and all over Brooklyn. Most of the places looked good, but I was not going to be happy with just good.

“This is pretty awful.”

Elisa remained optimistic for my sake.

“Hey there’s this one with an Irish girl who seems nice. And I like the decorations she has on the mantle.”

Elisa pointed to a picture revealing a common space that had a defunct fireplace with the mantle still intact. A painting and some candles were artfully arranged on it. There was a couch and an armchair. A real common space! The ad’s creator revealed many details, including that she was from Dublin. There were four roommates who shared three bedrooms; the Irish girl and her boyfriend inhabited the third. She didn’t seem concerned with overpopulation, however, as she explained in the ad: Everyone has a different schedule so it’s almost like you won’t have any roommates!

I actually like it when I can interact with my roommates, but heck, you can’t always get want you want.

I sent at least eight emails that night. The first people I reached out to were the people with the dog in Lefferts Garden. I told them my particulars. Civil servant. Likes to cook and throw dinner parties. Does not have a live-in boyfriend. Friendly Midwesterner. Not new to the City. Not a substance abuser. I customized each email to include details that would make it evident that I had in fact read the entirety of the Craigslist ad. I have sublet my own room out enough to know that there is a subset of desperate fools, usually couples, who don’t bother reading ads and miss out on important details. They copy and paste one-sentence particulars (We are a nice couple with a pitbull and want to move in immediately.) and send it off to hundreds of people a day.

So, before I sent my own copy and pasted messages, I include at least one detail to signify that I am not one of those people. I would love to walk your dog! I had a sublet in Astoria once—such a nice neighborhood! I, too, like dance parties in the kitchen!

The Irish girl was the only one who wrote back.

THE END. UNTIL NEXT WEEK. For now, here are some windows.

Inwood

Inwood

Harlem

Harlem

Harlem

Harlem

Williamsburg

Williamsburg

East Harlem

East Harlem

Harlem

Harlem

Riverdale

Riverdale

East Harlem

East Harlem

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “Living With Strangers Part I: Craigslist

  1. Chris kilmer

    “It is through windows..”
    This is a seductive intro to a wonderful insight. This story grips me…the anguish of the search….the advertisements landladies and lords use to lure the desperate.
    And I dearly love the candid joy of the window gawking section of your story. This is just perfect stuff and your photos aquire powerful intent as they embrace your words. Dad

  2. I keep returning to this story….the photos are enchanting as well. dad

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