The Couch Diver



E 42nd St & 5th Ave, New York, NY 10017

Neighborhood: Midtown

I was sitting in a bathroom stall in late June on the third or fourth floor of The New York Public Library, back past the Charles Addams drawings, and I began to think about my old schoolmate Derrick Foster. I ran into Derrick about 10 years ago, long after I had known him in grammar school, and we chatted about old times. At the end of the conversation he suggested we get together some time for a more in-depth reminiscence. He didn’t use those words, except maybe for the articles and pronouns, but I knew that’s what he meant. He said he would give me a call.

“Where do you stay?” he asked.

“You mean where do I live?” He shook his head.

It had been a long time since I had heard public school talk. I lifted my arm and pointed to a section of town. “With my parents,” I said. “Same place.” Derrick had been there a couple times when were in school together. You could almost say we were friends back then. After eighth grade, until that time ten years ago at our chance meeting in a bar, I only saw him in the newspaper (he was a basketball star at a different high school) and once, maybe twice, from the bleachers when my school played his. That’s how we came to know each other; we played basketball together from fourth grade through seventh, my last year in the sport.

About two years ago I began what would become an nine-month tour of “couch-diving,” the term young urbanites give to sleeping – actually temporarily living – in apartments rented by friends. It’s what young professionals sometimes do before they are on their feet, or when they move to a new city, or when they are in the throes of a crisis such as a break-up or a firing. My reason was that I was looking for an apartment to buy and I didn’t want to sign another year’s lease. I figured I’d dive for two months, three months tops. I’d spread my stays out across the couches of three friends – in three different apartments – never overstaying my welcome anywhere, all the while keeping life interesting for me too. I began to like the nomadic lifestyle. Not having an address. Buying dinners for my friends since I wasn’t having to pay rent or heat bills. Being able to use this line on everyone who hadn’t seen me in a while and asked me where I was living: “You mean tonight?”

Eventually, for about the last six months, I stayed with a couple friends who suggested I should quit the shuffling routine and just plop my mattress against their living room wall in the day and take it down at night. Forget about the couch, they said. And so I did. And it was fun. Like college. Three single fellas hitting bars, concerts and restaurants, and oogling girls like it was what we did, as in Q: “What do you do?” A: “Oh, I sleep on a mattress in my friends’ apartment and we go out every night and live like we’re back in college. I have a day job, too.”

Life was a breeze then. Finally I found a one bedroom to buy and I closed the deal and moved in and the couch-diving, thankfully, is a sweet memory in which no one got hurt. No one ever got cramped, no one weirded out about money. All cool. On the toilet, somehow, back in the cool refuge of the corner stall, up and away from the heat of Fifth Avenue and the congested corner of Sixth Avenue and 42nd Street – my southbound entry to Bryant Park on route to the library – Derrick popped into my head. And those words popped in there too: “Where do you stay?”

It sounded so temporary at the time. Before I asked what he meant I thought about it. Does he mean live? Because a while back I stayed in a hotel in Phoenix. He must mean “live,” but I should ask anyway. I’d felt a little guilty about saying that I live in the same place I did when we were kids, even though I was only a year or so out of college. I felt guilty that my parents were still there. That they were together and alive and providing a home for me. Derrick’s mom was doing fine, he said, but who knew what ever happened to his dad. Maybe Derrick didn’t even know. We were never close enough for me to ask about that when we were kids.

One night Derrick and a couple other kids from the projects had no way home after a game so our coach, another friend’s dad, offered to give them a ride. Coach always gave me a ride home so I rode along over to the projects. It was a shocking scene for a kid from my neighborhood. There were people walking in all directions. Kids half hanging out of windows and shouting down the block. Dali-esque cyclone fences, uneven sidewalks and pockmarked streets that were gray and worn.

On that toilet in the library I realized that when Derrick asked me where I was staying he wasn’t sure what I would say. Everything I took for granted as a kid was precious to him. Hell, he was giving me credit when he asked where I was staying. He didn’t assume that I was still the mama’s boy I had been in grade school. He saw me as a man – as an equal – because God knows growing up where he did, he lived a year for every one of my six months. I started thinking about how good I’ve had it all these years and how I have the means to just bop around New York, searching for adventures, getting fat on good food, quaffing booze as if it’s what I do. And when I need it I can dive on someone’s couch and stockpile a little dough for a place of my own. And all the while I never worry once.

I have no idea what Derrick is doing today. He might be buying and selling countries from a Wall Street office for all I know. Hell, he might have been in The New York Public Library when I was in the bathroom. Wherever he is, my guess is he’s doing all right and his kids, if he has any, aren’t growing up in the way he did. It’s crazy what you think about when you’re on the toilet, really crazy. If I ever see Derrick again I’ll tell him about the time he jumped into my head at The New York Public Library. I’ll ask him: Remember that time I saw you in that bar and you asked me where I was staying? And he’ll say yes he remembers seeing me but no he doesn’t remember asking me where I was staying. No doubt he’s got other things to think about and he’s not still dwelling on that.

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