Munchin on the Ritz
It’s raining. Water squelches in my sneakers, and the blasting summer air conditioning on the train sends a chill down the back of my neck. The hairy guy to my right smells like cheese and shoes. The woman on my left is doing a crossword in Spanish. She sees me looking over her shoulder and pulls the paper away, as though I were trying to cheat off of her test.
This is day five in New York City. This is also day five of apartment hunting in Brooklyn. Shuttling under and over the East River, I’ve now clocked some 15 hours in trains or on platforms waiting for trains. The romance of the rails is beginning to wane.
To be straightforward: Brooklyn was not my first choice. Growing up in Indiana, New York City was as far away from my daily reality as you could get—it was a mirage, an Oz full of important people doing glorious things. As I grew older, I fed myself on an unbalanced diet of Woody Allen movies and romantic comedies with Meg Ryan. I was starving for the city, or at least for my idea of the city. So, finally, to the city I came.
And I wanted to be in “The City”—meaning Manhattan. My fear of the other four boroughs was really a fear of living in suburbia again. I didn’t want to be safe and quiet, with a backyard and easy parking. I didn’t want to park at all—I wanted to ride trains. I wanted to live in an apartment with exposed pipe and artsy neighbors, high ceilings dripping with our collective condensed coolness. Essentially, I wanted to live on the set of Rent.
But there was a reason, after all, for calling the play Rent—the city is no place for a very vaguely employed 20-something with a sadly flat wallet. Craigslist quickly confirmed this sad fact. The only affordable place was a $675/month studio on the Upper East Side, a sublet made exclusively available to female roommates by a sadomasochistic businessman. Sighing, I flagged this post for removal and continued my search. There was nothing under $1,000. Who could honestly pay that? And where did bohemia go?
Ah, enter Brooklyn.
Apparently, everyone else already knew that Brooklyn was cool, long before I did. My hippest of hip acquaintances have been living there since we all left college. They wear jumpsuits and fedoras, and their hobbies include building vertical gardens and trying to reintroduce the eight-track. Their Brooklyn is nothing like Travolta’s claustrophobic grey neighborhood in Saturday Night Fever. On the train, I think of their glitzier version of Brooklyn in order to psyche myself up.
When I arrive in Flatbush, after a commute of over an hour, I wander around for a few minutes trying to find the correct building. I pass two women, who are trailed by a gaggle of children. Two of the kids stop to look at something, and one of the women turns around and snaps: “Whatchu doin? Don’t fall behind, that’s how kids get took!”
Not exactly an encouraging sign.
My potential future roommates are two men around my age—one is quiet and slender, the other is large and loud, full of tales about how cool Brooklyn, and New York as a whole, used to be. Of course, he says, all that greatness is gone now. Because it sucks to have your dreams shat all over, I change the subject and ask the necessary questions about crime, bedbugs, and the daily commute. The large man shrugs, and sighs the sigh of a native explaining his country to an ignorant foreigner:
“Listen, you get what you pay for. You know the rent’s $600 right?”
He says this as if the price alone should sell me. And, if I knew more about New York real estate, it might. But, optimistic despite the rain dripping down the windowpanes, and oozing quietly through a crack in the wall, I decline the apartment.
Next, I make my way through the underground maze for another perplexing hour (probably more the fault of my own confusion than the M.T.A.’s), and I eventually arrive in Cobble Hill. I come out, blinking in the weak sunlight, and am greeted by a different world.
A couple in exercise clothes passes me, each pushing a stroller. Trees shade a café table where a few women talk over absurdly large mugs. Children, presumably theirs, are running around nearby. Apparently, there is no chance of them “getting took.”
I stand in front of the brownstone I am here to see, bemused by this alternate-reality Brooklyn. It’s even stopped raining here. My shoes leave little puddles on the freshly-swept stairs.
The girl who is subletting the room—a windowless, closetless cubby hole (deftly described as “cozy” on Craigslist) in an otherwise lovely apartment—knows she has a good thing going. As soon as I arrive, another prospective tenant mounts the stairs behind me. Yet another buzzes in as we stand in the kitchen, gazing out at a row of—my optimism wanes—homes that look just like where the Huxtables lived.
Much like an episode of The Bachelorette, I am now desperately competing for this girl’s attention, praying that she will love me as much as I love this place—which I’m loving even more because it is so coveted. After wearing out my welcome, I walk the long road back to the subway station. The faces I pass are all young and healthy. And yes, most of them are also white, although the babies are abundant, chubby, and pink.
Hmm, this doesn’t feel right, I think. Cobble Hill suddenly looks to me like Burlington, Vermont, with the addition of subway access to New York City. I love Vermont, but the frustrated Midwesterner inside me wants to move someplace diverse—someplace that will challenge me, damn it. Conflicted, I ponder whether it is the right place for me. The next day, the girl renting the place makes the decision for me: I am not the chosen one. Well, shucks.
For the sake of my sanity, and so as not to pull a variation of an Elvis and shoot the computer, I narrow my Internet search to apartments on the L or the F train lines. I want only female roommates. I will only pay $700 or less. I believe. As the days go by, though.
It is day 14 of the apartment hunt, a day so hot that the street tar sizzles, and the homeless cover themselves in layers to stave off sunstroke. I board the L train for what Hopstop says will be a half-hour ride to Bushwick. In the last two weeks, I have seen over a dozen apartments, all of which were either too far away, too expensive, too grimy, already occupied by the insane, or—worst of all—they just didn’t want me. I’m not even enjoying the subway rides anymore. Life in New York is not proving to be at all like the world of Meg Ryan. It’s more like the city of Travis Bickle.
But then, just like in the movies, I have one of those chance encounters, the kind of thing that gives subways their occasional magic. I must be looking sad, or maybe just hungry, because an avuncular Latino man offers me a Ritz cracker. I decline, but we get to talking. His name is Juan, and he moved to New York from Mexico City 10 years ago. His adoration of this place is not confined to any one borough.
“I love this city,” he says. “Last month, I have a whole week vacation from work, and I just stay in Brooklyn. I just like to be here.”
Hearing this from a real person—not in a movie or a play or a book by Ian Frazier—jolts me out of my funk, just as the train jolts into my station, five minutes before Hopstop said it would.
It was then that I realized that my thinking was all wrong. I had been trying to pin down my fairy-tale ideal of what New York should be, rather than just make a home in what Brooklyn actually is.
My worldview shaken up, I exit the train feeling hopeful regarding this umpteenth apartment viewing. I come out into an industrial area, graffiti blooming up the walls. I pass a laughing group of Asian students, and two burly guys working on a car. A shaggy dude on a street corner chugs a bottle of grape juice, then gives me a smile with a purple mustache. I smile back.
The apartment building that I’m buzzed into is an old knitting factory. I walk into the apartment and look up at the ceilings rising high overhead. The roommates, unnervingly normal, bring me into the living room. It is filled with light from a wall of windows, beyond which the cityscape rolls off into the distance. The sun shines on the worn dining table, strewn with magazines, books, and coffee mugs. It isn’t a perfect stage set—instead, it’s a Home.
I tell the roommates right then that I want to live there. No questions, no nerves. And they want me too.
I have no idea how long I will stay in Bushwick, or in Brooklyn. But for now I will carry with me the words of Ritz Cracker Juan—“I just like to be here.”