First came the mice. It was early winter when I heard them scratching their way across the long wall of my studio, setting up camp in the wall behind my bed. At first, I thought knocking for minutes at a time could scare them away. When that didn’t work, I tried banging the wall with a hammer and later, blasting rock en español. One desperate Sunday morning, I nailed a hole in the drywall and stuffed in a box of D-Con pellets, one by one.
Though mass murder was what I had in mind, I’m now certain the mice invited their friends over to laugh at the crazy human and snack on the treats I’d showered upon them. After all, these were Williamsburg mice. And this was probably the least toxic meal they’d had in months.
Despite my efforts, their stance was clear: they weren’t budging. Well, I wasn’t either.
I’d moved into the Mafia rowhouse basement two and a half years earlier with the intention of staying a couple of months. I’d hoped to find an apartment where it didn’t feel like midnight at noon. A place with no history of flooding, and floors thick enough that a night of love for the guy upstairs didn’t mean the terrifying buffalo stampedes to which I’d grown accustomed. And speaking of the guy upstairs, though we had separate apartments and bathrooms, we shared a kitchen and phone line. Also, he was my ex-boyfriend’s best friend. I’d say the set-up was like a sitcom, only then the mouse episode would have lasted only 30 minutes.
Sure enough, I was the envy of my friends. Some paid over $1200 for Manhattan studios even smaller than mine. Who cares if their ovens didn’t make their pillowcases smell like salmon for days? For $600 a month and no lease, I had options. And this is what my friends, who toiled in cubicles to pay for their shoebox apartments, would have given their functioning bathtubs for. Though I too had an office job with a salary and health insurance, the money I was saving would someday give me the freedom to chase my dream of becoming a hip-hop dancer. I’d taken hip-hop classes for years at my gym, and I just knew I was star material. I’d get around to auditioning for the next J.Lo video. Someday.
Then came the rats. I’d become a pretty heavy sleeper from years of living below someone who probably got heel spurs from walking so heavily on uncarpeted floors. But the early morning pipe-chewing going on in my bathroom was enough to awaken my grandmother who refuses to wear a hearing aid. My landlord called the exterminator, who appeared to be the twin Frankie Avalon never spoke about. Frankie’s twin exterminated my dream of shaking my booty at the next MTV Video Awards when he told me “there’s a world of rats beneath this floor.”
Now, mice I could live with, but rats big enough to have audible footsteps? A “world” of them? J.Lo be damned, my new dream lay in the Voice classifieds.
The first place I looked at, a walk-up studio in the East Village, had indoor-outdoor carpeting, kitchen appliances installed just after the discovery of fire, and a strong odor of beef chow fun. If that was what $1,189 would get me, my rat’s nest was a bargain. After all, the rats were in the wall, not the actual apartment!
I was almost resigned to life with the pets I never asked for when my friend Rebeca told me of a studio available in her building. Since her rent was second-cheapest to mine in our circle of friends, I gave her landlord, Herman, a call. The place fit almost all of my qualifications. Rent under $1000 a month, check. Rent-stabilized, check. Windows many feet above the sidewalk, check. Sturdy floors, new stove, bathtub, check, check, check. J.Lo video? Uh-uh.
“So do you want it?” asked Herman. “The realtor just brought in somebody who’s very interested.”
The apartment was everything one could hope for in a cheap studio. But I’d never signed a lease before. And without the money I was saving in the Brooklyn basement for my hip-hop dance career…well, didn’t that just make me an office drone?
A few weeks later, I moved in. I’ve been here now for eight months. I pay a few hundred more in rent, making me Friend With Second-Cheapest Apartment. Sometimes I think of getting started on my career as a Flygirl, and I’ll probably get around to it one of these days. But right now, sitting on my couch and feeling the sun on my face feels like an accomplishment in itself.