It takes just those two words for my heart rate to go up and a sickly sweat to break out on my forehead. Apartment hunting in New York? Horrible. Disgusting. Adventurous? Terrifying. Wonderful. Awful. All of those things.
I spent some time in NY before making my actual move out east, which was helpful to get a sense of the lay of the land: employment, neighborhoods, restaurants, bars, lifestyle. I had some vague ideas about where I wanted to live and what kind of space I hoped to find, but it was pretty idealistic. “Something like my Berkeley apartment, but maybe with an outdoor space for the dog. With a garden. Yeah.” If I couldn’t afford that kind of space in Berkeley, there was no way I’d be able to afford it in New York on the same salary, but hey – a girl can dream. Needless to say, these hopes were soon crushed by the brutal reality of NY Craigslist and the perils of apartment hunting. First of all, the rents are insane. There are neighborhoods that are more affordable, but they’re mostly out of the way or have higher crime & drug rates. There are, of course, those rare rent-controlled finds, but you’re not getting one of those spots unless you know somebody who knows somebody. Or, unless you’re willing to pay a broker a paycheck or two to find it for you. Aside from rents, many of the people renting/sharing/posting are also viably insane. Craigslist is the most convenient, but also most abhorrent, way to find a place out there.
I visited some pretty mediocre apartments that month. I saw a couple of decent ones, many that were out of my price range, and many that I could afford but wouldn’t ever want to live in. The best of these, and by ‘best’ I mean ‘worst,’ was a room for rent in Bushwick, just off the Myrtle stop on the L train. The ad on craigslist advertised a spacious garden and a shared 2br that allowed dogs. The room was being rented for $800/mo, cheap by NY standards but moderate-to-pricy for Bushwick. But then, outdoor space can add hundreds onto the rent. It seemed worth a look.
When I got off the train, the neighborhood was bustling a little bit. This was part normal bustle, and part police bustle, although I couldn’t really tell what was going on across the street where the cops were crowding. I went on my way and found the apartment for rent. In retrospect I can only hope the police were standing there planning to bust the guy showing this room. The man who came to the door was a tan Will Ferrell look-alike with an enormous rhomboid jaw – like Quagmire from the Family Guy. He was aloof and spacey, like someone who’s done too much nitrous oxide, or is maybe just heavily medicated. The door into the apartment opened into the bedroom for rent, what turned out to be a living room with a door on it. For $800. From there we entered the kitchen/dining room, which was a small, stretched-out space with just enough room for a small table and chair. The other end of the kitchen opened into Quagmire’s bedroom, which contained a desk and a full-sized bunk bed. I didn’t realize that bunk beds came in sizes other than TWIN. Quagmire was looking to rent out his upper bunk to a third roommate, for another $400 or $500. Quagmire works from home and is currently unemployed. A door from his bedroom opened into the backyard, which had some promising-but-overgrown raised bed planters that hadn’t been tended in at least a year. One side of the yard was connected to the neighbors’, the other bore a colorful mural of two big-booty ho’s in apple bottom jeans.
This sounds pretty weird as it is, right? Quagmire was a creeper and his place was insanely overpriced considering how small it was, probably because he was trying to cover rent without actually working or paying any of it himself; it was off my list as soon as I saw it. And this was not even taking into consideration the two prairie dogs living in a cage in his kitchen. That’s right, prairie dogs. Squeezed in between the refrigerator and a bedroom door was a 2’x2’x2′ cage with two brown prairie dogs, desperately trying to become one with their sunlamp. It was one of the saddest pet situations I’ve ever seen, but not because of any overt abuse (like dog beating or other violent acts) – the desperation in their posture was unbearable. These two little guys had what is perhaps a decent sized cage, but all they cared about was that tiny little sun lamp. They were entirely immobile except for occasionally shuffling to try to press themselves harder against the lamp. Nothing existed to them except that warm bright light, not me or Quagmire or even each other. I commented on this, and Quagmire responded “This is the best part of their day” with a wry smile. He added that he sometimes took them outside for a little while. If this was the best part of their day, I can’t imagine what the rest of it looks like for them.
I knew as soon as I met this guy that I didn’t want to live there, but I knew as soon as I saw the prairie dogs that I needed to get the fuck out before I was instructed to rub the lotion on its skin. Don’t get me wrong, they’re cute little guys who don’t smell strongly or make much noise; in fact they did very little the whole time I was there aside from press themselves longingly into their lamp. Not too different from keeping a large hamster I suppose. Except that they’re fucking prairie dogs, and they belong on the fucking prairie.
In the end, I knew somebody who knew somebody. I moved into my new place on June 1. God save the queen.