Newcomer Pal Craves Semiotics of the Stoop; I Spill (Some) Secrets

A good friend just moved to New York from Washington, D.C. Her office has put her up in a one-bedroom in midtown, and she’s started apartment hunting in her slivers of free time—enlisting me, as someone who has endured this process half-a-dozen times over, to help.

A few days after she got here, she phoned me from work. “I have to ask you something,” she said, lowering her voice to a near whisper. “Everyone I meet asks me where I’m living. And when I tell them midtown, they all make the same face. It’s as though they know something about me, just from the neighborhood. What am I missing?”

“More than I can tell you on the phone,” I said. “Just make sure you mention the words ‘temporary corporate housing’ when they ask. It’s very important.” And we made a plan to meet later in the week. I was about to initiate a dear friend into the semiotics of New York real estate. I thought I should cushion the blow with a nice dinner and a few glasses of wine. She had no idea what she was getting into.

More than any other town I have heard about, New York revolves around real estate—not economically (though I’m sure to a certain extent that’s true) but conversationally. New Yorkers can happily spend entire evenings analyzing the delights and disappointments of one another’s apartments. No first encounter is complete without the inevitable question—“Where do you live?”—and the answer (complete with tales of the hunt, digressions into the ideal apartment that got away, and explanations and excuses about the ramifications of the apartment that stuck) can determine the speaker’s placement in the hierarchy of the listener’s esteem. All replies are scrutinized with the eagle ear of the psychoanalyst. In New York, where you live is who you are, and an apartment (like a cigar) is almost never just an apartment.

I was recently accused of being guarded when I told someone that I lived in the West Village. “But where in the West Village?” my interrogator asked. “Why are you hiding your home?” To many in this town, concealing your address is like sitting down for a conversation while sporting a ski mask—a way of stubbornly, and ostentatiously, withholding crucial clues. Because everyone has his or her own set of assumptions about what exactly it means to live where. My friends and I are very clear about the difference between a studio in the East Village and a one-bedroom in Carroll Gardens. But we’re surprisingly reluctant to state these prejudices aloud. Addresses let us say things without really saying them. “I’m not sure what I think of her,” we’ll say. “She’s a little too Lower East Side.” And the other will nod in a knowing, sympathetic way. Enough said.

Two nights later, in a little restaurant in the West Village (on Carmine Street, if you must know), I tried to explain what was going on to my friend. The city, I told her, was a little like college. Your neighborhood would become your clique. Don’t dive into anything until you know the players. But this wasn’t any help. She wanted me to be the guide, to say the things that I was most unwilling to say. She wanted me to lay bare the meanings of different neighborhoods. Was I willing, even in the name of friendship, to go this far?

I started small, trying to avoid saying anything, really. I talked about subway lines, about convenience; she looked annoyed. “One woman in my office told me she would never live on the Upper East Side,” she said plaintively. “And another one told me that’s the only place she would ever live. And I liked them both!” I felt myself raise an inner eyebrow. She liked a woman who loved living on the Upper East Side? Clearly, I was going to have to be more delicate in my discussion than I had thought.

The diners at the table next to us, unconsciously eavesdropping or by pure coincidence, launched into a discussion of cities around the world that they would never be willing to live in. “Bolinas? Never—too many hippies,” chortled the woman to my right. “Oooh, I hate Barcelona,” added her companion. This sounded like safer territory. I’ve never been to either Bolinas or Barcelona, but I suddenly longed to discuss the finer points of their real-estate markets. I dipped a conversational toe into historical demographics. This seemed safer … more quantifiable. I felt all right telling my friend that a lot of couples with young children lived on the Upper West Side, and that Union Square was home to a seemingly infinite number of N.Y.U. dorms. And surely no one would deny that the West Village had a rich gay cultural history. I actually used that phrase, “rich gay cultural history.”

Which is when I realized that I had to start over. Actually, I told her, the West Village was so expensive now that the unifying quality of most of its residents was the size of their bank accounts. Though, of course, there were holdouts from the old days, lucky enough to have long-term leases or to have invested early. But the real gay scene had moved north, to Chelsea. Except, of course, along Christopher Street, which was still showing evidence of the aforementioned “cultural history.” Everything I told her needed to be qualified and requalified; the deeper I dug, the less certain I became of anything I was saying. I was of no use at all—I couldn’t even stand behind my own cherished stereotypes. “Go to a lot of parties,” I told her weakly. “Ask everyone where they live and see who you like.” The truth is, I told myself, my stereotypes wouldn’t do her much good. Maybe this was the true sign of assimilation as a New Yorker—having your own neighborhood prejudices. And in the meantime, I did have one definitive thing that I could, with confidence, reveal.

If she could find the Holy Grail of New York real estate—the rent-controlled apartment—all bets were off. Inconvenience, a dreadful reputation (for snobbishness, or self-conscious hipsterhood)—all are trumped by the concept of a really good deal. I have another friend who endured cohabitation with her parents for two years in order to put her name on the lease. She became accustomed to watching the emotional contortions passing over new acquaintances’ faces. “I live with my parents on the Upper West Side,” she would say, watching for the mix of pity and scorn. And then she’d wait, just long enough for them to settle into it, before she dropped the bomb, the two magic words sure to create an agony of envy among even the proudest of householders: “rent-controlled.”

I didn’t know where my D.C. friend would feel most at home, or what the new home would say about her when she found it, but I could tell her that if she could use the phrase “rent-controlled” when someone asked, she would be sure to meet with universal, if grudging, respect. And all her address would really say about her was that she was lucky. Other than that, like the rest of us, she was on her own.