Places I’ve Lived: From Millionaire’s Row to a Closet, A Love Story
by Kate Tellers
Bellevue Avenue, Newport, R.I. $0/Mo.
I made $80 a week, plus board, at my first job after college. We lived four to a room in the servants quarters of the Astor family home on Millionaire’s Row in Newport, R.I., and portrayed the Astor family and their domestics. Most visitors had only ever heard of John Jacob Astor IV, notorious for being the richest man to go down in the Titanic (in the movie, he’s shown sinking, crying and hugging his money).
We re-created the year of 1891, and the Titanic sank in 1912, so there was a general undercurrent of rage towards tourists who tried to make us break our carefully crafted characters, and see 21 years into the future. I helmed an uprising and convinced our employers to replace a moldy wooden board that had been shoved into one of our two shared refrigerators and was buckling under the weight of cold cuts, Totino’s Pizza Rolls® and turn of the century rot. We worked 12 hours a day giving tours of the upstairs/downstairs, teaching German tourists the Schottische and other traditional Victorian dances, and earnestly skewering The King’s English dialect. At night, we raged on the veranda resulting in streaking, broken glass and vomit in the Rose Garden (and, once, a little in Lady Belle Herbert’s mouth the next morning as she simultaneously gave a tour).
Cypress Street, Brookline, Mass. $400
I moved to Boston with $35, and spent four months renting out the closet of a three-bedroom apartment that my best friend from high school shared with three college friends. All of these women had chosen career paths that allowed them full bedrooms immediately upon graduation and did not, like me, cry when their share of the groceries came to $20. I bought a single dorm mattress for $25 which I duct taped and carried home. T. Sasha, the rep at my temp agency, could identify me by the staccato of my 7 a.m. anxiety breaths, and, after a month of daily phone calls, placed me as the receptionist at the Tax Man, an agency that serviced primarily the criminally insane during high season.
There was more broken glass, and my fellow receptionist quit, but called regularly to hiss menacing things like, “I can smell your thong,” because I asked her to repay me for the week where I bought her lunch every day. After that, I got an “unprecedented raise,” and rolled in a cool $11 per hour. On my last day, one of the accountants told me that he knew I would make it as a “musical comedienne,” and cried. But I made enough money to move out of the closet.
Willow Street, Cambridge, Mass. $650/Mo.
My first lease! I found a tiny two-bedroom just outside of Inman Square with my college roommate, a practicing Orthodox Jew, pot enthusiast and fine artist who spent most of our senior year making prints of women’s backs and pears. She walked to work at MIT, while I rode the T two stops to my perma-temp job working for a lawyer in between his lock-ups in MacLean Psychiatric Hospital. He had four daughters, one named Laurel after both his wife and sister, and would take calls from all the Laurels between the collect calls from the jailed pedophiles whose cases he was in the process of appealing.
At home, we kept a half kosher kitchen where I bought her dishes at Passover, and agreed to only cook bacon when she was away on Saturdays for Sabbath. My boyfriend visited almost every weekend. One Saturday night, we demanded munchies and he came out of the kitchen with microwave popcorn and, when he told my roommate he checked for the pareve symbol, she cried and asked him to move in with us. And then there were three.
36th Street, Astoria, Queens, N.Y. $660/Mo.
Lady Belle Herbert moved to New York, and offered me a room in her apartment. She paid next to nothing, because technically she didn’t occupy a bedroom — just the space behind a sheet in the living area. When I asked her how she could ever bring anyone home with her (because I was 24 and my relationship was falling apart), she told me that “nobody ever comes to Queens” which, when my relationship did crumble, I found to be false. That could be because I had the master bedroom which included a half bath, balcony and walk-in closet. This space proved to be crucial not just for man-friends, but because the kitchen was so roach infested I set up my coffee machine in my bedroom and lived on bagels from a cart and take out wonton soup. I quickly discovered, via the paraphernalia left behind, that my chorus boy roommate was using the space in the day to vocalize and take bong hits between auditions and his shifts at Mars 2112.
West 4th Street, Manhattan, N.Y. $700 to $900
My second lease! I found a 400-square-foot apartment in a sixth floor walk-up just a few doors down from where Bob Dylan wrote “Positively 4th Street,” and moved in with Ava Astor and her boyfriend (then fiancé then husband). Their bedroom had the exact footprint of a double bed, which meant that when they lofted theirs, they finally had a place where their feet could touch the floor. My room was slightly larger, but I still had to precariously stack a TV on suitcases on an armoire — it crashed on my way out the door to a job interview.
A worse crash followed when I tried to remove my air conditioner on my own (never do that), and it fell out of the window and (in my mind) ended the life of an innocent entering the sex shop six stories below. In reality it shattered on the fire escape of my third floor neighbor, who, thankfully, was high and didn’t notice.
In any other city, our apartment would have eked by as a studio, but if you put up enough walls anything can be a two-bedroom, two bath — even if one bathroom is just a toilet surrounded by drywall in the middle of the livingroom/kitchen. Somehow we managed to host a six-person sit down Thanksgiving dinner, and a series of swelligant parties for tens of revelers where, in the morning, the walls and dog food bowl would be splashed with red wine from people climbing over each other to re-fill the hummus bowl and visit the bathroom/closet.
My last roommate was small and apartment-sized. She introduced me to her art school friend in a bar in the basement of our building. The friend wooed me by scaling the six flights up and down to walk my chihuahua in the morning, and bringing rosé and cheese for us to lay out on a blanket on the roof at night. This will come as no surprise, but: Reader, I moved in with him.
Skillman Avenue, Williamsburg, Brooklyn, NY $850
The second door downstairs opens with a kick, our only sink is in the kitchen, and, somehow, the stars aligned, and both our upstairs and downstairs neighbors lock one partner out during fights so that half of the rage plays out at high decibel in our hallway. Our apartment, though, is on one entire floor, and I have sunshine in the bedroom when I wake up, and sunshine all day in the kitchen. Most of my best friends are a few minutes walk away — so is McCarren Park, the East River, 24-year-old women who somehow don’t look ridiculous in your Aunt Mary’s Christmas sweater and the pickle enthusiasts who love them, the friendliest wine store, the cheapest wine store and, as evidenced by the gargantuan response to my neighbor’s unattended smoking grill, the family and loved ones of every single member of FDNY Engine 235 Battalion 7. Also, it’s the perfect return address for our wedding invitations.