If anyone had told me when I was out at 3 am, shopping for bed bug spray that someday I would live in a nice apartment, I would have never believed them.
I was standing in a deli in my pajamas, tired, and with red eyes. I had thrown a jacket over my shoulders, but I felt this was it: the low-point of my housing resume.
“Can I help you?” asked an overly enthusiastic shop clerk, when I walked into the store.
“I’m looking for bed bugs spray,” I replied. I had spent the last hour googling what the black dots on my sheets were that looked like coffee crumbs. It was 2007 and growing up in Germany, I had never heard of bed bugs.
A Google search rapidly closed that knowledge gap and I was terrified and glued to the screen reading about survival rates (9 months without food!) while scratching the bites on my legs.
Before I could even finish saying “bed bugs,” the shop clerk dropped his smile, took a step back, and directed me to a shelf, which was filled with different brands of spray. I chose a can with a black and red design that looked the most deadly. Because that was what I was going for: parasitic death.
I had just moved to New York from Germany and was subletting a place in Morningside Heights to work on my Master’s thesis. Even though I was only subletting, the bed bugs were my problem now.
Besides the bed bugs, I had three other roommates: a teacher, a bus driver, and a psychologist. The psychologist had exchanged his real name for “AJ,” when he moved from India to the U.S., and he never slept. In fact, he always had his door open to remind everyone that while we might be partying, he was working.
The teacher, Jolly, taught in the projects on the East Side and was facing a student body troubled with problems of sexual abuse, the murder of a parent, and domestic violence. She would tell me about these tragic stories and lives only to ask me a second later if she should go for vanilla or strawberry wedding cake.
“I really can’t decide! Life is so hard!” she would complain.
The bus driver, who went by Dondi, was the one on the lease, and even though he was rarely home, he called the shots around the apartment. He was also a dad who shared custody of his 10-year-old son and spent half of the week at his wife’s place a few blocks down from our apartment. Even though he was rarely home, he had turned the apartment into a complete mess by buying items from flea markets and reselling them on eBay to support his income. At times, the apartment got so crowded, with boxes piling up to the ceiling, it felt like our apartment was eBay.
Looking back, I can say with confidence that this was the messiest place in which I have ever lived. Every single piece of furniture looked like it had been dragged off the street, after being put there for a reason.
During my three months living there, I never saw anyone clean anything. One time, I cleaned up the kitchen after it started to smell bad, and was woken up the next morning by Jolly yelling on the phone.
“My roommate is so clean, it’s horrible! I don’t know what to do!” she screamed.
Our kitchen clearly had issues. There was always food standing on the stove that was not from yesterday or even the day before.
The kitchen also had, what Michelle Tea would call, “an original mud floor” that was actually just years of accidentally dropped egg shells, salad leafs, and bread crumbs all coming together under the constant squish of people stepping on it.
If you wanted to take a shower, you had to wear flip-flops, if you didn’t want to go to the doctor days later because you caught a rare fungus species.
And yes, thanks for asking, all of these things are true.
Still, being in New York for the first time by myself, I felt I was living the dream. Even if living the dream meant fighting nightly battles with a nation of bed bugs and wearing flip flops in the shower. This was my life. And I was living it.
When I think about this place now, I am not just reminded of its messiness, but also of its frequent fire alarms that went off a couple of times a week. The first time it happened, I was standing in the kitchen next to Dondi, who was making himself a five-eggs-omelet. Seconds after the alarm went off, I grabbed my wallet, my laptop, and my passport.
“Let’s get out of here!” I said, determined.
“Why?” Dondi asked, puzzled.
“Because there is a fire?” I couldn’t understand how he was not getting THE URGENCY OF THE SITUATION!!!11!!!1
Dondi continued frying his eggs and without looking up, slowly replied, “Yeeeaaah, but it is not in our apartment.”
I was stunned by his calmness, but then quickly went on to think “well, I can’t save everyone,” let Dondi continue to tend to his egg dish, and ran down the stairs.
It was only after a couple more of these fire alarms that I learned to stay calm, shrug my shoulders, and say to myself, “Yeeeaaah, but it’s not in our apartment!”
Even if I had thought the bed bugs were the low-point in my housing career, there was something more stressful to come: my apartment in Washington Heights.
From the outside, it was a beautiful place to look at. That was when you didn’t have to live there. It was a sunny, spacious apartment, overlooking the south-east side of Manhattan and sometimes I could see all the way over to Queens, without even getting out of bed. It was cheap as well, but, oh boy, did I pay for it!
Thirty Magaw Place had the most crooked floors I had ever seen. Just thinking about them now makes me nauseous, and the first days in the apartment I felt like being aboard the Titanic. While it sank.
Even though I had no roommates, I was far from living alone. First of all, there were the herds of roaches that tried to be respectful of our shared spaces during the day but became very active at night. Whenever I would walk with my bare feet into the kitchen at night and turn the lights on, they would frantically scatter in all directions. Then there were the somewhat bigger house guests.
One time, my mom was visiting me, and we went out to the deli to get some food. When we came back to the apartment, I took off my shoes and walked into the living room when I stepped onto something warm and squishy: a mouse. Not just any mouse, but one that had just died, moments before, right in my living room of what I’m pretty sure was nothing other than old age.
“I don’t want to have mice living in my apartment,” I complained to a friend.
“They are not living in your apartment, they are living in your house,” my friend tried to calm me down. “There is not much you can do about it.”
I tried not to think about the crooked floors, the roaches and mice living with me, and possibly crawling all over my sleeping body at night. But then the shower thing happened.
It was early Monday morning, and I was just done taking a shower when I realized I couldn’t turn it off.
“What do you mean you can’t turn it off?” the super asked me twenty minutes later.
While my apartment turned into a Turkish bath, I had gotten dressed and had hunted down the super, who was only good at one thing: hiding.
I had recently learned about the power of bribing and was very hopeful that we (my twenty-dollar bills and me) could take care of this issue quickly. So while I described my problem, I casually slipped him a few twenties and was starting to feel pretty badass. I was really doing it! Grown-up-stuff!
“So is the shower knob broken?” the super asked, taking my twenties without looking up.
“The knob is fine, but I just can’t turn the water off.”
Hot steam was welcoming us when we entered the apartment.
“How long has the water been running? For a few days?”
It was beyond my imagination how anyone could have thought one would live and sleep and eat for days next to a steaming hot shower that was as loud as the Niagara Falls.
There were other minor things in the apartment as well. In the winter, the heat could either be turned off completely or it would be so hot that I would be sitting in shorts and a tank top in front of an open window, watching the snow falling over New York. But somehow I got used to these things.
I have little recollection of what else I did during that year (I was a graduate student at Columbia University), other than to take care of my ailing apartment.
One thing, however, pushed even me, even the most patient caregiver, over the top. That was when the ceiling fell in. It came right down to my bed.
It was 2010, and it had been a stormy spring. A few bricks had fallen off the facade of the house, and water had been coming in where the bricks had been. Eventually, this brought the ceiling down.
At first, I tried living with the situation. After all these troubles I had with the place, I felt I could sit this one out as well. If nothing else, I was tough. I moved my mattress and belongings into the living room and decided I would just not think about the bedroom anymore.
That was before the apartment started to smell. It turned out that the hole in the wall was not the biggest problem, but rather the entire wall, which had been soaked from the rain and which turned the entire apt into what smelled like the inside of an aquarium. It was also in danger of collapsing completely.
When I was unable to bribe the super to even set foot in my apartment, because he was too afraid to make it out alive, I knew it was over. The apartment had won, I had been defeated. I moved out and was done.
Back then, everyone I knew had their crappy apartment stories. Stories about crazy roommates, bed bugs, non-responsive supers, people who would not leave a party and camp out in your living room for days.
I had no idea what people in comfortable living arrangements talked about because I didn’t know anyone, who lived in a high-rise doorman building.
“This one doorman takes forever to open the door for me.”
“Sometimes, I get my packages on the next day. It’s tough.”
“I have a crush on my doorman.”
“My doorman has a crush on me.”
“My dog has a crush on the doorman.”
As you can see, I have very little imagination what problems people living in these buildings have.
And yet. Now that I’m past thirty, I have an apartment in which everything works. I have a bed that is comfortable to sleep in, a shower with hot water, and a stove that heats up stuff. I don’t have a herd of cockroaches that hustle through my kitchen every time I turn on the light. Instead, I have a husband who has way too many books that are scattered throughout our apartment. And that’s it!
My domestic life doesn’t make for interesting stories anymore. Happiness is so much harder to describe and so boring to read about. I don’t have roommates who are complaining about the lack of storage space for their fetish gear or who are getting high by inhaling nitrous oxide from a whipped cream can. When I think about how this part of my life is probably gone forever, I am not only glad, but also a little bit nostalgic.
“Are you missing the roaches sometimes?”, I ask my husband, who is dusting our lamps as a symbol of his love for me and my sustaining dust allergy.
“No, that’s crazy!”, he replied. “Why would I miss them?”
What I would like to recall about the domestic life of my thirties is this: my husband doing the sexiest thing in the world, fighting against millions of dust mites.
“Do you remember all that dust we used to have?” I want to say when I’m ninety and living in assisted housing.
“Oh yes,” I imagine him replying. “It was brutal.”