Roommates

I’ve spent time in over 20 countries and at least 40 US states. In my travels, many people have told me that though New York City might be a nice place to visit, it’s certainly not a place for a person to live.

But thank God there is a New York.  One of the best life decisions I made was to make it my home for nine years.

——-

I traveled alone to the City in January 1983, shortly after getting out of the Navy – where I’d done four years, most of it on an aircraft carrier homeported in San Francisco Bay. We had called at numerous ports on the West Coast and in Asia during my time on the ship, but New York City was as colorful and wonderful as any of them. The Met and MOMA were fine museums, but in my 18 days of exploring the city on foot and by subway, and hanging out in the East Village and Lower East Side, I loved the museum that was the City itself even more.

Between 1983 and 1991 I made several more solo trips to the City, once hitchhiking across the continent from San Francisco in the summer of 1986.

——–

On November 11, 2001 I arrived in the City after flying to Newark from London, having spent 18 days in Europe – preceded by over ten years in Japan.  I got a room near Columbus Circle.

It was dusk by the time I took the A train downtown. Ground Zero was inundated with flag iconography.  I was also inundated with the scent of fire, metal and death as I walked around Ground Zero for several hours.  Workers were still digging for the remains of those whose bodily dust still hung in the air.

By that time, I’d passed several people with tears in their eyes, and it was difficult to hold back those welling up in mine.

I slept in the next day.  When I finally got up about 9:30, I turned on the TV in my hotel room to find American Airlines flight 587 had crashed in Queens, shortly after taking off from JFK. All passengers and crew dead.  An American flag superimposed in a corner of the screen.

By this time, the American military was in combat in Afghanistan. The world was a scary place.

——–

After staying in Midtown a couple days and making another visit to Ground Zero, I moved to a hostel in Harlem.  Shortly after arriving there, I began coughing throughout the day and night. Finally, I went to the hospital.  While waiting in line I had a coughing fit and nearly fell to the floor.  A security guard yelled at me to “Stay in line to get treated!”

The doctor told me I had bronchitis and prescribed me antibiotics. I assumed it was brought on by the visits I made to Ground Zero. 

——–

After a couple weeks living in the Harlem hostel, I found a place in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. I went there, to Lincoln Place near the Kingston Avenue subway station, for an interview with the Super, a friendly Hasidic Jew named Ben. He appeared to be in his mid-50s (older and wiser than me, I felt; I was in my early 40s). We talked for a few minutes, and I paid a month’s rent for a small room in an apartment with five other tenants. We shared a bathroom and the kitchen.

——–

One of my roommates in the building was a friendly native New Yorker and born-again Christian, who looked to be a few years older than me, named Nancy. As I drank beer in the kitchen one day, she sat in front of me, thumbing through her Bible absent-mindedly. The cleavage under her blouse, along with the peroxide-tinted strands of hair falling to her face, punctuated the movements of her fingers in her Bible.  She talked to me about religion, the City, and then her family: one son who was a wealthy Wall Street tycoon living in New Jersey and her other son, who was “living Upstate.”

“Where Upstate?” I asked.

She turned her gaze from me to her Bible. When she looked up again, her face was slightly red, and I noticed the lines on her cheeks when her green eyes turned to me.

I took a breath, still feeling the remnants of Ground Zero in my lungs. After coughing a couple times, I took a sip of my beer, and then gazed at her Bible, trying to see what book she had it opened to: Ecclesiastes.

“He’s in prison,” she said, sighing, her head twitching slightly from left to right.

Another roommate, my next-door neighbor on the other side of my room, was Ahmed, a Palestinian guy who appeared to be between my age and Ben’s. In a late-night discussion between him, Nancy and I about New York, the Middle East, and our building—in that order—he insisted on showing me the land deed for the home he had in (former) Palestine, which, he also insisted, our (friendly Hasidic) Super, Ben, had “stolen.”

The next day I walked into the kitchen to cook rice and beans for lunch and saw Ben knocking on Ahmed’s door.  When he didn’t answer, Ben turned toward me.

“Where’s Osama bin Laden?” he asked.

“Afghanistan, I think,” I said, reaching for my box of Minute Rice.

“No, I mean the guy who lives next to you,” he told me.

“Driving his taxi,” I answered.

“Well, I hope he drives all the way to California and stays there!”

Nancy said goodbye to me soon after and moved in with her son in Jersey City. Two aspiring actors whose names I never learned moved into her old room. A couple days later, I noticed a 6-pack of Guinness I had bought had disappeared from the refrigerator.

One of the thespians walked around naked on his trips between his room, the bathroom and the kitchen, and one time in mid-January I saw him climb out of his window and try to open the window to my room – naked, drinking a Guinness.

“What are you doing?” I asked him through the pane of glass, thinking he was tripping on acid.

“Looking for my clothes,” he said, as he crouched for a few seconds on the broken concrete between our building and the one next door, as snowflakes swirled around his long brown hair.

Apparently, he never found his clothes. I never saw any on him.

By that time Ahmed and Ben were suing each other. I never found out the details of the litigation, but Ahmed told me that Ben was paying him enough money for him to move to Los Angeles.

——–

I called a number on an ad that was placed – along with many other ads – on the wall of one of the Japanese stores in the East Village. The woman who answered the phone directed me to an apartment on 10th Ave., between 54th and 55th in Hell’s Kitchen.

I paid a month’s rent and a month’s deposit for the room, which was the size of a large closet. Two Japanese women in their 20s were my roommates. One, Sanae, drank large quantities of vodka every night with a succession of boyfriends. The other roommate, Naoko, was a sometime student. In order to keep her visa, she went to an English as a Foreign Language school – sometimes. A few weeks into my stay Naoko borrowed my cellphone while I went to the nearby bodega for a sandwich. When I came back, she was gone and so was my cellphone. She had locked it in her room, forgotten about it and gone on a three-day excursion with her boyfriend.

After a few months in the apartment I made a visit to the bar that had just opened next to our building. The Super’s assistant, James, a hulking African American guy with a gentle disposition, worked as a bouncer there part-time. He bought me a glass of Chianti and told me my vodka-loving roommate, Sanae, was overcharging me for rent. I finished the Chianti, thanked James, then talked later with the Super, who then talked with the landlord, and the rent for my closet-sized room was reduced from $600 to $400 a month.

By that time, I had cultivated a client base for the freelance work I was doing – writing, editing and translating (Japanese and Spanish to English). As autumn of 2002 began, I was ready to leave my roommates from hell. Two visits by the police, who had been called by either Sanae or her boyfriend during violent spats they had one night, was what spurred me to depart quickly to a place on 119th Street in Harlem in October that year.

However, that wasn’t the end of my business in Hell’s Kitchen. The landlord didn’t give me my deposit back, and I had to take him to small claims court to get it. Finally, five months after leaving the room, I received the $600 check.

——–

Before leaving Hell’s Kitchen, I’d begun supplementing my freelance jobs by working at an English as a Foreign Language School (a different one from that which Naoko sometimes attended), commuting to its branches all over the City, teaching people from all over the world. A typical class might consist of a student from the Dominican Republic, sitting next to someone from Haiti, sitting next to someone from Israel, sitting next to someone from Lebanon, sitting next to someone from Afghanistan, sitting next to someone from Italy, sitting in front of me – with people from ten other countries in five continents making up the remainder of the class.

——–

I spent six months in Latin America, doing freelance work, and then came back to the City – living in Astoria and Corona, Queens for a few years. That was followed by five months in Japan – doing more freelance work, then again back to the City for a few more years – living in Elmhurst, Queens.

Some Queens roommates were good, some bad, some worse than bad: living with a girlfriend from Taiwan in one apartment was good; my computer stolen in another was worse than bad.

In one apartment, I lived with a woman named Monica, who’d moved to New York from Colombia after her husband, a police officer, was murdered in a shootout with gangsters.

After living in the apartment for six months, Monica’s boyfriend asked me if I would marry her – so she could get a visa. She was undocumented and he was too. Instead of getting married I decided to leave that apartment.

——–

Since I was 18 and got my first apartment in Grand Rapids, Michigan, I have lived in apartments in San Francisco, Oakland, Dallas and several cities in Japan.

I wanted to live in New York because I felt it was a mecca for the searching artist/writer and romantic inside me. I still feel that way about New York today.

I lived in a total of ten apartments in nine years, with a total of almost 20 roommates in New York City – without ever having signed a lease agreement.

These days I live in my own spacious apartment in Yancheng, Jiangsu Province, China, rent-free and teach high school students who plan to study in colleges overseas, mostly in the United States. Some of them are now living in New York, with their own roommates.

I still consider New York to be home and would love to return there. I hope to get an apartment of my own when I do return.  When you hear of any that are rent-free, drop me a line.

***

Don MacLaren’s writing has appeared in numerous publications.  He has recently completed a memoir about his years as an expatriate, which will be published at a date to be announced.  You can learn more about him at: donmaclaren.com

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