“I still feel like we could hang it from the ceiling,” Amelia said.
“How are we going to get our clothes if they’re hanging from the ceiling, Amelia?” I asked as I poured orange juice. It was another typical breakfast conversation about storage. No wonder, since splitting a room with three girls meant constantly rearranging the furniture.
Imagine 300 square feet for 3 girls. That was our world. Marcel the cat roamed freely between kingdoms and the kitchen table was neutral territory. That was where all the decisions were made.
As a kid who grew up in Staten Island, one may wonder why I worked so hard to afford Manhattan. At times, I held two jobs while attending school. My middle class Italian-American family was just a train ride away. “Free rent,” they offered. Still, I craved a life in the city.
I was raised with the creative sensibilities inherited from an immigrant family. When my grandparents moved to New York from Sicily, my mother and siblings slept in the living room, one bed fashioned out of a reclining beach chair. I grew up listening to stories of my parents’ crazy lives, and watched them commute for their careers every day. I knew they were doing it all so I would never have to live how they did. Financially that didn’t work; emotionally I wanted to be just like them.
I schemed to live in Manhattan after reading Just Kids, by Patti Smith. Her co-dependent life with Robert Mapplethorpe reminded me of my high school partner in crime, Zoya, a Russian-Nepali agnostic Jew from Brighton Beach. In high school, we’d cut class and take the Staten Island Ferry to the city. We already had minimum-wage jobs. Zoya worked at her mother’s gymnastics studio and I toiled at a seedy pizzeria. After our first year of college, Zoya had saved enough to join me in my Brooklyn apartment. We were 19. She snagged a barista job at a posh French cafe while I worked as a bookseller. I’d rescued Marcel Duchamp, the tuxedo cat, a Staten Island transplant just like me. He had the attitude to prove it. We loved our new independent life together — but we dreamt of Manhattan.
There was no way we could afford $3,500 for one bedroom, so we got creative. Zoya met Amelia, a girl from Seattle crashing with family friends. While the price of one room anywhere in Manhattan was reserved for the elite, the price of one room divided by three was something our part-time paychecks could handle.
That decision brought a $1550 room down to $516 each. So, there we were, 20 years old, in a building built in 1900 between Bowery and Chrystie, four flights up, exposed-brick, cigarette butts everywhere, with a splendid view of the back of the New Museum. Two years later, I still love the alleyway we called our backyard, the light that warmed the room best at three o’clock, and the aroma of home-cooked meals in the hallways.
Sharing such a small space takes grit. We got used to making sacrifices and having no private space. Showers were often accompanied by a roommate sitting on the toilet, making conversation.
Before we got our beds sorted, we slept together on a rotating schedule. We started with two mattresses one person could sleep alone every night. The system ensured that privilege was split evenly.
Whether it was collecting furniture off the street in high heels or brushing our teeth in public bathrooms when the water shut off, everything was a party because we made it so. Our life may have seemed strange to others. But we found a rhythm and made it work.
During the year we spent together, Amelia would rise first. She was a graceful blonde who always wore a blue silk robe around the house as if she were a 1950s housewife. Her loud smoothie machine invited us to join her for breakfast, whether we liked it or not.
Zoya and I stuck to black coffee and toast. We found a third chair on the street, high enough to reach our tall wooden table. But before then, the last one to the table sat on the radiator or the window. When we weren’t debating the most efficient laundry system, or reciting our schedules for the week, we listened to Democracy Now or flipped through Vogue, while swatting away Marcel’s attempts to lick the vegan butter stick. On a rare simultaneous off-day we’d stroll around the neighborhood we worked so hard to afford. That meant photoshoots in fish stores, gallery-hopping, and browsing through used bookstores. We’d watch a basketball game in LES and go pretend-shopping in Soho’s boutiques. We’d curate ridiculous outfits: monochrome yellow, layers of costume jewelry, lingerie, even long black gowns in the afternoon.
This is not how I imagined my future living situation while I spent all those days on the ferry or crossing the Verrazano Bridge from Staten Island to Brooklyn. The New York of my parents’ time is becoming more and more of a fantasy. That is, less famous dance clubs, more salad places, and higher rent. My peers love those salad places, and think $1,500 for a bedroom is a steal. I love them, and their decision to move here from the Midwest, but I know they’re the reason I have to work twice as hard to continue to live here. I also know they’re the reason my mother is losing her job, because there’s now less room for girls from Brooklyn who started as a secretary, and more room for overeducated, under-informed college frat boys who like the idea of New York but not its reality.
A running joke among us three girls was that I’d write our story, Zoya would make a film about it, and Amelia (the burgeoning politician) would restructure housing laws so other folks wouldn’t have to bunk up to live in a formerly working class neighbourhood. I dream of landing a writing job at a glossy magazine much like my mother when she was my age. In the meantime, we’ve found our own way to fit into this rapidly changing city. Right now, coming home to people who love me, pouring wine and dancing in the kitchen beats pristine white walls, elevators, and ventilation any day.