Surfing the City

Mr. Levy has surfed as well as been a host. Two years ago he and his girlfriend couch-surfed across South America. Last fall, he made it to Beijing, where he split his time between a bachelor pad in a kinetic working-class neighborhood and a luxurious, spacious apartment in the diplomatic district—all for free, of course.

Scrolling through user profiles of New York members, you’ll see that most people are on the south side of 30; Mr. Slone said he’s noticed a “hippy-dippy vibe” among couch surfers, and sees an overlap between the couch-surfing and Burning Man crowds. Which makes Paul Hsiao, a bespectacled and a soon-to-be 50-year-old computer repairman, something of a couch-surfing anomaly. A converted Baptist who is a great believer in the couch-surfing ethos, Mr. Hsiao was wearing a red beret and a $100-bill-patterned tie on a recent afternoon in his computer repair shop in Brooklyn’s Kensington neighborhood. Originally from Taiwan, he discovered the couch-surfing Web site from a Harvard student who was staying in his house. He said he has hosted about 10 surfers, and likes to perform magic for his guests (he belongs to two magicians’ associations.) He also likes to take them to coffee shops in Park Slope and, if he’s not busy with work, Manhattan. Mr. Hsiao is married and has two children in high school; his wife and kids don’t seem to object to his willingness to open the home to visitors.

Not all couch-surfing tales end smoothly. Tina Mancusi, a singer-songwriter with wavy brown hair and delicate facial features, once hosted a surfer who turned out to have fabricated her entire life story. She arrived at Ms. Mancusi’s one-bedroom Murray Hill fifth-floor walk-up claiming to be in her late 30’s, but her appearance suggested something closer to 50. The woman, whom Ms. Mancusi later learned was a photographer from Philadelphia, made herself at home, helping herself to a breakfast of scrambled eggs and sharing overly personal life stories. Later, when they visited an art gallery, the woman pretended that it was her work that was on exhibit. Ms. Mancusi made a run for it when her guest starting hitting on the men in attendance.

Strangely enough, however, most surfing experiences seem to go well. After almost 100 guests, for example, Mr. Slone said he had yet to have an awful situation. Yes, a drunk couch surfer did break his wardrobe, and others were
messy. But the bigger problem among hosts is burnout: There are only so many mornings one can climb over hung-over Europeans on the way to the fridge before it gets old.

In late November, Ms. Mancusi decided to host a New Year’s Eve Party in her 600-square-foot apartment. She invited about 60 friends and, on a whim, posted a message about the bash on couchsurfing.com. Erin Fisher from Torrance, Calif., R.S.V.P.’d; so did John Pierre, from Kenya. The night of the party, between 200 and 300 people—including Germans, Australians, Brazilians, Japanese and even a few Canadians—showed up.

“Everyone,” said Ms. Mancusi, “was superfreaking fantastic.”

Surfing the City