I am sitting at my desk in my coop one day on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, paying my monthly expenses: coop mortgage; coop maintenance; coop insurance; four other kinds of insurance–health, for four people (I’ve got a stay-at-home wife and two kids); life, in case I die on them; disability, in case I collapse; and car, in case I abandon them; along with the home phone; office phone; cell phone; wife’s phone; credit card; wife’s card; and on and on: three inches of sedimentary expenses, that have accumulated layer by inexorable layer, into a crushing stack of bills. And when I do the math: one month of income minus one month of expenses, I get a figure of minus-one-month of income. I just spent twice as much as I earned. Turning the black numbers on my computer screen’s financial software red. Leading me to transfer enough savings over to my checking account to balance it and turn the red numbers back to black. Which leaves me, at my current fixed rate of spending, with about three more months of savings to go before both accounts are red. Financial ruin. A conclusion that leads me, as it did the last time I reached this conclusion—last month–to hyperventilate. To not be able to breathe. To start dying. Because, I can’t go on living like this. I can’t afford to be me.
The problem is, I can’t afford not to. Because I am my lifestyle, the most important, most expensive part being my coop on Central Park West; movie stars, moguls, and hyperventilating me.
I didn’t grow up wanting to be a coop. I was raised by my mom to believe I could be anything in life—as long as it paid well. So I thought I’d be the president of the United States. Or an NFL quarterback. Or a rock star. Then when I got to college, a Nobel Prize- winning writer—who I read somewhere got a prize of $500,000. I’d been writing lots of papers at the time and this seemed like a logical career path.
So when I graduated from college, I rented a little apartment with my girlfriend on the Upper West Side and started writing marketing speeches for pharmaceutical executives who were selling drugs for things like seasonal allergies, and then a few years later as drugs got more sophisticated and I moved up the speechwriting food chain, erectile dysfunction and schizophrenia—to subsidize me writing Nobel Prize-winning stories at night about, well, nothing—because I was too tired at night to write about anything much but erectile dysfunction and schizophrenia.
Until after years of sporadic struggling, and listening to my mom advise me every Sunday night on long-distance life planning chats that “Dreams are important. But renting is for nothings,” I decided I wanted to be a something, and I bought a one-bedroom coop in a fancy building on Central Park West.
When mom visited it, she proclaimed, “This is something. But isn’t it a little small, honey?”
I said, “Space is money, mom.”
She said, “I see no reason why a bright boy like you can’t double your income every year.” Never having worked a paying job in her life.
This sounded like an excellent financial plan to me, so to get a jump on my future of infinitely-doubling wealth, I got straight to work doubling my monthly nut. I bought the studio next door to my one-bedroom, then combined the two spaces and renovated everything. Then subtracted my wife’s salary when she stopped working to have a baby. Then added the baby, and then added another. Then sent the first one to private school. Until I found that I had stopped even trying to write stories, in order to write speeches to write checks in a coop where I worked, ate, slept and, on occasion, asked myself: Who are you?
The answer was, the coop. In the same building as Keanu Reeves’s. Neo is my neighbor. And I am his. For another 90 days, at least—at which point eviction proceedings begin for non-payment of maintenance.
Which is why I’m sitting at my desk, hyperventilating. So I get up and walk to the lobby to get some air and get my mail, which today includes a letter marked “Personal” and addressed to “Resident” from a neighborhood real estate broker; when you are your coop, brokers are your friends. I open the letter, and it begins, “Dear Resident: Do you know what you’re worth?” going on to describe how the rise in real estate values has quite possibly made me worth more than I realize—a value that she, my friendly neighborhood real estate broker, would be glad to determine with a no-cost appraisal of my apartment.
And that very Sunday, as I’m reading the New York Times real estate ads—comparing my worth to everybody else’s on the Upper West Side—I see an ad for our apartment. The broker had come over, talked to my wife, and listed it without ever asking us: a bold ploy to win our business that evidently is successful with the bold residents moving in to fancy buildings like mine.
Which reminds me of another reason I want to sell my apartment: I loathe my fellow residents.
Which is also a reason to stay: to make them see how loathsome they are.
Where I come from, the whole point of being alive is to win—money and arguments, the more dysfunctional, the better. For example, last Christmas, my next door neighbor—a 42-year-old female dot-com tycoon–submitted a formal complaint against me for storing my personal property in a public space: Exhibit A, a time-stamped digital photograph of my Christmas tree leaning against my front door while I filled up the Christmas tree stand in my living room with water. Now, some people might ignore such a complaint, or knock on the neighbor’s door and offer her eggnog. I on the other hand decided that the proper response was to run for the board of directors of the coop, on a platform of exposing neighbors like the dot-com tycoon as loathsome—notwithstanding that everyone moving into the building is just like her, and I have neither the time nor the interest to serve on the board of directors, and moreover if I sell my apartment I won’t even be here.
So I’m sitting in my home, reading the ad in the Sunday Times and seeing my coop—my self—for sale, for the first time, daydreaming: what would it feel like to let go…and be someone else? To care about things other than winning arguments and contests for money and approval that make me hyperventilate?
Which leads me to call up another real estate broker: a low-key guy who is aggressively anti-aggressive and who tells my wife and I that he hates people like the dot-com tycoon next-door more than we do; he understands us completely as customers. And he comes over with a photographer, and the next Sunday our apartment is for sale again, with pictures.
A few weeks later, sitting on my desk is a signed Contract of Sale from a would-be buyer, waiting only for me to counter-sign and send it back. It’s my birthday. So I take the day off and mull it over—staring out the window at a view that I may never again be able to afford and that I can’t afford now—unless, once and for all, I abandon any hope of doing work that I care about, and instead commit the rest of my life to trying to double my income. Like I was raised to do.
That night, my wife throws me a little birthday party with a few friends on the roof deck of our building. It looks out over Central Park and Fifth Avenue and midtown, so just standing there makes you feel like a movie star. Across the street, you can see a terrace filled with pink bougainvillea–a terrace that used to belong to my friend Ted, who sold it so he could do more in life than simply work to live there. It’s a beautiful summer night, so everyone lines up at the edge of the roof to watch the sunset.
Then my friend Andy jokes, “What DO you do for a living?” Not knowing that I bought my coop at the bottom of the market, and that I’m about to declare personal bankruptcy. Why spoil the party?
My friend John says, “This place is incredible.” Which feels like he’s saying, “You are incredible.”
I say, “I’m thinking of selling it, and living someplace cheaper.” Then I tell my friend Ted, who’s staring at his old bougainvillea, “Please say you’re happier now than when you were living there, above your means.”
“Absolutely,” says Ted. “When I don’t think about that terrace.”
A few hours later, for the first time in memory—which is usually squeezed blank by the crushing weight of my overhead–I have a dream. I’m sitting on the face of a dark mountain—about halfway up, which is where I live in my building—holding on to a ledge, frozen in terror, trying to slide down without falling. Pebbles are rolling out from under my shoes, into the abyss. When suddenly, from behind me, it’s Puff Daddy: white warm-up suit, sunglasses, bling. He was up at Keanu’s place. “This the way down?” says Puff. I say, “Yes.” And off he goes—like a blingy mountain goat; this is his territory. Then I see a cave in the side of the mountain with a young boy in it, who is also afraid to move. I say, “I can help you,” lying—I need help myself. When bougainvillea-Ted appears and says, “There’s an easy way down…over here.” And he takes one boy’s hand and I take the other, and the three of us start walking to Lincoln, the president I wanted to be growing up, who was shot for taking the road less traveled, before giving his name to a street in Brooklyn where my wife and I have been looking at affordable rentals filled with people my mom might call nothings, which in my dream feels like something much, much closer to home.