In June of 2009, two months after the recession ended—according to the National Bureau of Economic Research—I lost my job. Ever since, I’ve been white-knuckling it with freelance into a poverty not quite grinding but certainly in the neighborhood of acute abrasion. A month later I also lost my apartment, and my life took on a sense of dissolution about which I didn’t feel entirely Buddhist. For a number of months I shuttled among friends’ apartments, then hit a good stretch of freelance gigs and was finally able to work my way into a dirt-cheap three-month sublet. Then the work dried up and I found myself between a rock and not such a hard place: I didn’t have enough money for another sublet, but I had too much to despair entirely.
I decided to rent a furnished room. I wouldn’t require much of my new habitat. I’ve learned that to survive all I need is a computer (which I have), a coffee maker (I can supply the grinder), and a place to sleep. A bed would be ideal, but I’ve seen people on Craigslist renting space on their couches. (When it’s just a couch, do you still set up a time to go look at it? Do they let you lie down on it?)
I did Craigslist, registered with Roomster.com, and posted progressively pathetic updates on Facebook. (Friends indeed! I had nearly 1,500 of them, and not a single one of them even thumbs-upped my plea for help—and I’ve seen dead people get poked on Facebook. I went ballistic. I began insane purges: One day I defriended anyone without a shirt on. I’m now down to about 1,300, but at least I know it’s 1,300 people I really like.)
All of which resulted in little flurries of emails, of varying coherence and uniform uselessness. One respondent described himself as “straight but tolerant,” and when I wrote back and said I was gay, I never heard from him again. But then, I told a gay guy I was gay and never heard back from him either. But I think that’s because I said I was quiet—which I meant as a good thing. I noticed that a number of my prospective roommates mentioned how much or how little they partied. My initial impulse was to simply dismiss the party people out of hand, but potential homelessness is a great prod to tolerance and I decided to open a dialogue instead. On Roomster you can post questions for your potential housemates, so one of my questions was, “Do you party so much you puke?”
Four days before the end of the month, and with no prospects in sight, I got an email from a woman named Daisy asking if I wanted to rent a large room with a private bath in an old (1885) Victorian house in the Ludlow Park section of Yonkers. I moved in two days later.
Daisy liked that I was a writer, and had assured me the house was very quiet, even though there were “lots of other people in it”—some of whom I may never meet. It is indeed an old Victorian house, with odd twists and turns, and pockets of bedrooms tucked into shadowy hallways. I don’t know how many other people are in the house—I don’t know that Daisy knows—10? I’ve run into four or five, maybe six of them, but in the refrigerator I’ve seen names I haven’t yet met.
My cohabiters are roughly divided into two groups: the Bachelors—older, single men of set habits and fairly regular hours—and the International Interns, who are young beyond calculation and say adorable things in shaky English. I feel like we need an older single woman, preferably a lesbian. (A closeted lesbian in Yonkers!) I also thought we needed a morphine addict, but there’s a guy on the second floor who might be my dream come true: I call him The Unseen. Just a sulfurous pink glow at the bottom of his door, always…
Peter emerged from the dark hall in a football jersey and a pair of pajama bottoms that had either cowboys or trains on them The deal includes linens and, miraculously, meals—breakfast and dinner, at least. The linen sets look like the result of someone with ADHD let loose in a Salvation Army. My bed ensemble is a subdued salmon dotted with pale gray birds of paradise, the curtains an effusive paisley against a background of pinks. There’s a circus-stripe cloth on my desk, a faux-Navajo rug on the floor. I once had a boyfriend who was epileptic, and when I first saw the room, I thought, “This could throw Michael into a seizure.”
Breakfast is cereal or oatmeal, plus coffee; dinner is pure cafeteria—and pure comfort. Daisy, in a blue floral muumuu that seems to be her official housedress, putters about the main kitchen (we boarders have our own in the basement) making chili, creamed chicken, Swedish meatballs. We’re welcome to heat up leftovers—but not in the main kitchen after 8:30. Best of all: We can also, whenever we want, have fish sticks. Which I adore. (They’re so Catholic, so Lent.) The vegetables tend to be diner-variety salads—iceberg lettuce, a sad tomato, a curl of carrot for color—or frozen. But you can also cook your own food, of course. So I steamed myself a large bunch of broccoli last weekend, which I think the interns found peculiar. (They just keep smiling.) But I figure if I can eat real vegetables at least once a week, I’m fine with frozen lima-bean-and-carrot medley the rest of it.
I was down in the lower kitchen making myself a cup of tea one afternoon, and something covered on the stove smelled good. I peeked, and it was three Italian sausages simmering in tomato sauce. As I headed back upstairs, I heard someone coming out of their room on the second floor. At first I thought it was The Unseen, and nearly spilled my tea. But it was The Unseen’s next-door neighbor, a bachelor I still hadn’t met, one of such long standing that his name was actually written on a shelf of the refrigerator: Peter. Peter emerged from the dark hall in a football jersey and a pair of pajama bottoms that had either cowboys or trains on them. He looked a bit like a strongman in the circus—shaved head, curled moustache—and I pictured him in his room bending nails in his bare hands while he watches Oprah. And he did indeed have a firm grip when he shook my hand and introduced himself, then continued on his way to, I assumed, the pot on the stove. I’m really bad with names, and with so many new ones to learn, have been pulling out the mnemonics. So I headed up to the third floor muttering to myself, “Peter/sausage, Peter/sausage, Peter/sausage…”
The Parisian interns—a couple: Amir and Nini—are at the other end of the hall from me. One night in the main kitchen when Amir was explaining the garbage cans to me and telling me about his English classes, I mentioned I had a job interview in the morning. The next day he asked how it went, I said fine, and he said, “Well, keep me update!” He and Nini force themselves to talk to each other in English, grow frustrated, and collapse into French. In the morning they take endless showers and, when they come out, make a little puppy face and say, “Oh! Was I too longue?”
Most of the interns will be leaving later this fall, off to Paris, Malawi, Brazil. We bachelors are another story. Daisy tells me one guy has been there more than 20 years. Though you get linens and dinner, you have to supply your own toilet paper. Personal food should be marked. A couple bachelors padlock their doors when they leave the house, but that’s a little too “shelter” for me. I’m not in a shelter. I’m a boarder.
I had trouble getting to sleep the night after I agreed to take the room. I was happy, of course, to have a place to live, but found myself suddenly unsettled, vaguely anxious, about living in a boarding house. I tried to calm myself. I told myself that boarders are just people who live in rooms where the bedspreads aren’t their own. I remembered that I had boarding houses in my blood. My Irish grandmother kept a boarding house, and the nice thing about family gatherings there was that I could leave the family and go upstairs and talk to strangers. She had three boarders: a man (reputed to be a Mason) with a flip-open pocket watch, an elderly woman with lilac talcum powder in a pink tin, and a painter named Max. I wasn’t supposed to bother the boarders, but Max always invited me in and let me watch him paint: Wisconsin-y landscapes, for the most part; a crystal-blue lake, some rocks in the foreground; little dots of dandelions and daisies. He was very good at fir trees. His deer needed work.
But I also remember a black-sheep uncle who at one point in his misadventures was staying at a boarding house, and how my mother and my aunt would shake their heads and sigh at the thought. And my grandfather—the father of the boarding house uncle, the husband of the boarding house grandma—died, it’s said, in a flophouse. So genetically I’ve got a lot of weird housing going on. And my discomfort wasn’t really about staying at a boarding house; it was about “ending up” in a boarding house. With morbid clarity I could see relatives flipping through a photo album years from now, and some little grand-nephew or niece saying, “Who’s that?” and they’d say, “Oh, that’s Uncle Jeff. He ended up in a boarding house.”
I lay a lot of my feelings about boarding houses, however, at the feet of Tennessee Williams. As one regional theater put it, promoting an evening of his “hotel plays”: “Williams set many of his plays in hotel rooms and boarding houses—way stations between life and death, dream and reality.” In one of them—Vieux Carré, which takes place in a rundown New Orleans boarding house—the lead character is a writer who is struggling with his literary career, poverty, loneliness, homosexuality, and a cataract. (For the record: My eyes are fine.) There are a couple other homosexuals in the house: one predatory, one orgiastic. The predatory one is also tubercular; someone else in the house has leukemia; two old ladies upstairs are starving themselves to death. And the landlady is burdened with having to represent the entire South. The play closed after five performances. So I don’t really mind ending up in a boarding house, but I definitely don’t want to end up a Tennessee Williams character: waxing lyrical, over-establishing metaphors, and having sad but redemptive sex.
Besides, as I said, I was only looking for a bed, not a way station between life and death, dream and reality. It’s an old house, it can be drafty; I usually have to wear a sweater, but I don’t feel particularly haunted by death. And the dream-and-reality thing doesn’t matter—it’s silly, in fact. I don’t need a boarding house to waver between dream and reality. I can do that anywhere. For that matter, isn’t a way station just a place with a bathroom? Like on a car trip? And think of all the times you have to go to the bathroom between life and death. So I’m in the right place, with the right people. The man down the hall has no discernible personality, but he doesn’t have tuberculosis. The international intern from Malawi gave me one of his Diet Cokes, but it didn’t feel predatory. And Daisy only represents South Yonkers.
I’m going to go put my name on my milk.