For a couple of years in my thirties, I lived in a studio apartment on the Upper West Side (UWS) of Manhattan. Studio is New York for teeny. It was two hundred and fifty (250) square feet. You know your walk-in closet? Yeah, twice that.
Here, let me give you a tour… come through the door and voilà, you are in the kitchen. Take one step to your right and you are in the LivingDiningBedRoomOffice. In the corner is the tiny bathroom, which is blessedly NOT shared down the hall (which IS a very real possibility in NYC.)
Living in Manhattan is unlike any place else. There are apartments with tubs in the kitchen, windows that open directly onto brick walls, eighth floor walk-ups, and floor plans so narrow you can stand in the center, spread your arms and touch each wall. And people are willing to pay about $1000 per square FOOT for them. There is nowhere more creative in Real Estate Marketing: Cozy = Minuscule, Character = Crumbling, and Location, Location, Location! = Don’t plan to do anything but sleep here, because it is too small to actually live in, and probably doesn’t have a kitchen.
Creative living abounds. Sublets and Shares are ways people hold on to rental apartments for decades paying a low rent, but charging hundreds more as a “side income.” This is highly illegal. This is also highly common. This was the situation I was involved in with this particular UWS studio apartment.
I had arrived in NYC with one suitcase and a few phone numbers, and was able to live as a resident of the city for well over a year without an actual address. I rented a PO Box in Ansonia Station and moved from home to home where I dog sat, cat sat, plant sat, mailed mail, dusted priceless heirlooms in pied-à-terres, and slept on a sofa on the UES owned by a beautiful, talented, lonely trust fund-ette with two dogs, three cats and a penchant for “mood swings” who ended up attempting suicide. (Happy ending, I rang the good people at 9-1-1 and she is still beautiful and talented, but now also happy and healthy.) Everywhere I stayed, I left the apartment immaculate the furry residents clean and happy, and a very nice bottle of red wine with a thank you note. Word got around.
One man with two tiny white dogs requested I give them a paw bath after EVERY walk, so they did not track in any of the “gritty city” into his all white home. One woman had a bird that LIVED on her shoulder and she insisted that “nothing with a smell” could enter the apartment. One woman made melted metal jewelry in her BATHTUB and the only thing in her kitchen was an empty non-working refrigerator peppered with dead flies. You think I am exaggerating but I promise for every story I tell there are hundreds even more bizarre.
So it was that I found myself living one block off Central Park on the corner of 70th and Columbus, in a shoebox of UWS bliss. The deal for this was I (and my suitcase) lived in the apartment and cared for two enormous long-haired cats (and their litter box, eeech) while their “Mama” was out on tour with a famous dancing musical. And on the rare occasion she was in town on a break, I (and my suitcase) would scram. The price for this arrangement was $400 per month to her, which she combined with $400 of her own to pay the $800 in rent money to the man whose name was on the lease, which was rent-controlled and probably around $250. This was technically a Twice Removed Illegal Sublet. I get to live on the UWS, the woman gets to keep her cats, and the man is making a nice chunk of cash each month. Win-win-win.
EXCEPT… the man decided to stop paying the lease, and pocketed all the cash each month, and FORGOT to tell us about this decision. Funny thing about NYC landlords… they are basically invisible… until they smell a way to get rid of a low paying rent-controlled renter, then they hire private investigators.
A very nice man who blended into the street signs apparently watched me for about six months. I lived on the ground floor so he could easily see me inside and out. Think about THAT for a minute. Shudder. At the same time they were sending notices to the forwarded address of the man to whom we were diligently paying rent. Again, he FORGOT to mention these notices to us.
One October evening I arrived home from work to find a large man stuffing everything in the apartment into enormous black garbage bags. A perky red lettered announcement on the door declared that “Jane Doe” was being evicted. Having no idea that rent was not being paid, I was more than a bit confused. You know that feeling you get when something extremely strange is happening to you, when logically you know you are present, but it seems as though you are outside the scene watching you, and you are being played by someone very sweet but totally stupid? Yeah, that feeling.
I actually stood in the doorway and politely said “Excuse me, may I help you?”
As far as evictions go, it all turned out to be WAY better than I could have imagined. The landlord knew I was not the dead-beat renter, he even knew I was paying rent to the dead-beat renter. When he told me the situation I quickly offered to pay him directly. He said once he got rid of dead-beat, the actual street value of the apartment was $1800. Gulp. He let me come in and rescue anything important and then locked the door. He gave me a week to sort everything out and move which was so very generous.
Strangely, that experience did more to motivate me than any other in my life. Never did I want to pay rent again. Never did I want to feel like I could be turned out into the streets at a moments notice. Never did I want to wonder where my next toothbrush holder would be. Within the year I had begged, borrowed and saved enough for a down payment on a one-bedroom co-op at the very northern tip of Manhattan, located on the ideally named Haven Ave. The day I closed and walked into MY apartment, I sat on the wooden floor and had this exact thought. “NOW, I can move away from New York City.” What?!? It was as if my super-ego was all “You think you can kick me out? Think again New York, I OWN you!”
Since that day, a “home” has always been my anchor. With a stable solid home situation I can challenge myself to adventures way outside my comfort zone. Conversely, when I am not feeling stable and solid in my home situation, I find it troubling to try to even navigate Meijer for milk.
What is YOUR anchor? Is it home, family, money, nature, music or something else? When you are feeling out of sorts and overwhelmed, pause a moment and check in with your anchor. Is it stable and solid? Start there. Once you calibrate to re-anchor your anchor, you may find the overwhelm fades and you are able to think clearly again. I know it works for me.
The day I moved all my things out of 54 West 70th Street, I decided to take one final thing with me – I emancipated the “Jane Doe” announcement taped to the door. I made copies and sent them out (with tongue planted firmly in cheek) as flyers that said “I’ve Moved!” with my new PERMANANT address listed on the back.