Living with Strangers: Crown Heights

The Irish girl’s name was Charlene. We agreed to meet outside her apartment on Dean Street in Crown Heights. It was about 20 blocks from Prospect Park, which is still technically walking distance. I was in the neighborhood fifteen minutes early and decided to wander about. The streets of Crown Heights were verdant with mature trees and lined with undiluted swaths of brownstones whose lovely exteriors belied an extreme anomaly in New York City housing.

 I was a few blocks away from the apartment imbibing the small of a jerk chicken when I got a text from Charlene saying she was finally home from Midtown, where she worked as a sales associate at a boutique shoe store. I expected her to tell me she was a bartender or a waitress; I hadn’t met a young Irish person in New York City who wasn’t a bartender or a waitress. I was surprised to learn she worked in retail. But surely she would be pale and freckled—and if not pale and freckled, then sunburnt by the fierce Yankee sun.

But Charlene ended up being the tannest Irish person I had ever met. She could have passed for a New Jersey Italian. Her dark, curly hair was swept up into a subtle side-tail and she wore a black t-shirt with a print of a car wearing a crown.

We met at her stoop and she gave me bubbly smile accompanied by a firm handshake, as if I was buying an apartment from her instead of renting a room. I followed her into the building and down a red-tiled hall toward her apartment on the ground floor. As we entered she pointed out two bedrooms near the front door, but not the third bedroom that her ad mentioned. So I inquired, concerned that I would find it in the living room, partitioned by sheets.

“Oh, it’s separate from the rest of the apartment,” she said. “It’s down the hall.”

Down the hall was delivered like a question. I around to see if there was a hall beyond the bathroom.

“Oh, no, down the other hall,” said Charlene. Her confusion at my confusion was evident even behind her retail poker face.

“Where’s the other hall?”

“Oh, it’s out the door–you know the hall you came through?”


She pointed out the apartment entrance and down the hall, to a door about twenty feet away, amputated from the rest of the apartment.

“That’s me room.”

Besides feeling a little voted off the island, being in such a room would yield serious complications to one’s bladder and hygiene, among other things. I thought of what it must be like for Charlene every time she wanted to take a shower. I imagined her wrapped in a towel, with her ear to the door, listening to see if anyone was coming down the stairs before darting into the hall, hoping and praying that her towel would not slip while she fumbled with the keys to open door. Hangovers and midnight diarrhea would also be problematic.

“You’ve never seen an apartment like this?”

I had not, but apparently Crown Heights was full of them.

down the hall

down the hall

The grand tour continued after I reoriented myself. First Charlene took me to the room she was trying to rent out. She stood in the doorway as I made a cursory glance. A full-sized bed and a large drawing desk made room for little else. The occupant, a college student who graduated in May, had installed a shelf that wrapped around the circumference of the room, hovering just a couple feet below the ceiling. The diversity of books added a touch of vibrancy to the tooth-colored walls. I wonder if the college girl was afraid of one of the larger tomes landing on her in her sleep.

I asked Charlene why there was a room opening up, even though it is usually a moot point to inquire about exiting roommates. People generally respond with reasonable answers or well-rehearsed lies. I don’t have a foolproof method of knowing if someone’s bullshitting or not, but I might get concerned if my question is followed by a long silence, a sigh, darting eyes, or a blank stare. If one can answer promptly with a story that’s not too rich or scarce in detail, I figure we’re getting somewhere close to the truth. The only things that would really deter me from moving into a room are bedbugs, poltergeists, or if someone was brutally murdered in it—things people don’t generally fess up to anyway.

Charlene’s explained that her roommate was unable to find work and was moving back home with her parents. It was a plausible scenario but  I was not sure if I liked the room anyway. It was small—something I am willing to overlook if there is a nice view with natural light, but the blinds over the window were drawn and I felt like I was in a cellar.

“Can I just open these?” I asked more as a formality more than for permission, since I already had my hand on the cord.

“Sure—there isn’t much of a view.”

There was a good view of a neighbor’s wall right across from mine, but not of much else. It was then that I decided I didn’t want to live there, but went through the motions of the rest of the tour.

Charlene pointed out the door to the other bedroom as we headed down the hall towards the common space. At this point I was tired, and she seemed tired, too. Tired of being on her feet, tired of selling things, and maybe wondering what all the other three-bedroom apartments in New York City looked like. But she persevered and kept playing retailer.

“This is where Tricia lives. She’s such a sweetheart. And she’s never home—she usually stays at her boyfriend’s.”

I wonder what Charlene really thought about Tricia. If it were up to Craigslist ads and apartment tours, one would think that every roommate in New York City was superlative.

Charlene then led me to the kitchen. In the manner of Vanna White, she pointed to and named each appliance. This is the microwave. Here’s the espresso machine. And the juicer. And the dishes and silverware, and the pots and pans. “This is all mine, but I share it with everyone—it’s for all of us to use.”

Same went for the couch and the armchair in the living room, which was adjacent to the kitchen. The fireplace looked a lot less festive than it did in the Craigslist ad, but there was ample light flowing from each of the windows. I looked outside and noticed that there was a large yard in the back.

picture from

“Can we use that?” I told Charlene I’ve always wanted to have a garden. I actually have a yard now, but only the landlord’s wife and mother are allowed to plant things in it and since there are no keys to the gate I have to climb over a fence to get in.

“I don’t know…the landlord isn’t here very often, so—but I don’t know. I think so.”

No was clearly a dangerous word for retailers.

I didn’t like the apartment, but I wasn’t ready to scratch it off my list for the simple fact that the place was not horrible, and I would have a common space and a slight possibility of having a garden—and because it was better than being homeless. And my list was not that long to begin with.

Charlene and I agreed to stay in touch. She seemed nice enough, but honestly I really hoped I wouldn’t have to talk to her again.

THE END–for now. Stay tuned for the next week’s installment, and be sure to read last week’s post: Living with Strangers Part I: Craigslist


1 Comment

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One response to “Living with Strangers: Crown Heights

  1. My goodness. What an ordeal, Yet the writing makes the task bearable, loved the “voted off the island” paragraph as always you shine a light on every day folks… They become actors within the framework of you narrative. Dad
    Strange photo of the two girls in blue at the end of the hallway. I like it.

    Sent from my iPad

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