The search started well. As I stood outside the door of the first of six apartments I had scheduled to visit one unseasonably warm day in late February, the sun broke through the clouds in an encouraging way. The apartment—a 4-bedroom on the Upper East Side—was promising, if not a perfect match. The roommates seemed genuinely nice and the space was pleasant: good light, a full-size kitchen, maybe not the trendiest location, but a very, very nice one. The room was small, but it had a large window and an actual closet. I would soon understand the rarity of such amenities, but at the time, I simply wrote down the room’s measurements and snapped a few pictures. As it was the first place I saw, I had no reason to assume that there would not be other, possibly better, apartments out there. I rather smugly filed it in the “maybe” pile.
By the second stop—a significantly more expensive apartment in Williamsburg—this bit of beginner’s luck was already slipping away.
I arrived a little before noon to find an apartment thick with pot smoke. The roommates, who appeared to wholeheartedly embrace the Williamsburg lifestyle, extending to the inelegantly and cheaply executed loft conversion where they lived, said they worked in finance. One hazily narrated a tour of the apartment, starting with a partially furnished living room (it came as a surprise to learn that the apartment had been occupied for the past four years) and ending with the medium-sized bedroom available for rent. The “great light,” mentioned in the Craigslist description of the room had apparently referred to the light situation elsewhere in the apartment, as the room did not have a window. Or perhaps it referred to the fact that the room did, in fact, have a light fixture.
The next few weeks could be described as a downward slide, with my expectations crashing like a foot through a rotted floorboard—an indignity I was spared, though it would not have surprised me at this point, at an asking rent of $1,200-a-month, no less. I met a lot of very pleasant people with terrible apartments, or terrible rooms for rent, or at least terribly overpriced ones. I thought longingly and often of that West Harlem apartment. I even went to look at another unit in the same building, but like so many others, it didn’t work out.
There were several strong contenders with equally strong downsides: the owner planned to put the house on the market in August. The roommates were only renting the large, lovely room on the first floor in combination with a small, windowless room in the basement. A communal loft in Williamsburg had glimpses of such brilliant whimsy, even to my hipster-hardened heart—a bathroom with walls housing hundreds of cassette tapes and a built in radio nook, for musical showers!—that I spent the rest of the day trying to talk myself into the unfinished walls, ceilings, stacks of construction materials, and the high price I would pay to live amid such precious detritus.
I also saw places that I could live in, or could convince myself to live in if I reached the level of exhaustion and desperation necessary for such personal persuasion. But like a brat with indulgent parents, I’d always been rewarded for holding out before. I was determined to keep looking. At least until the middle of March, when the real desperation began to set in.
I knew I was being unreasonable, but because so many of my best friendships and experiences and most everything that has mattered since I went to college has been so deeply entangled with the places I’ve lived, it’s hard for me to look at an apartment and just see an apartment.
After one particularly bad day of viewings, I got back to my house in New Haven (sprawling, bedroom the size of a studio apartment, though, yes, it is in New Haven). It was a little after midnight, I was exhausted and so despondent that my roommates, who are generally not prone to physical displays of affection, offered hugs.
“It’s only a few days until March,” one murmured comfortingly. “You’re getting the month’s dregs.”