A Young Woman, From Providence to New York
by Jaime Green
Where have you lived, Jaime Green?
Providence, RI, June 2003 — May 2004, $450/mo.
Senior year of college was exciting for several reasons, among them: permission to live off-campus. Magical words of rent checks and Queen Anne-style houses and futons for beds. (The year before I’d lived in a single with its own sink — a coup! — and an oversized armchair in which I often fell asleep at night, with the light on, not moving to my bed until 6 a.m.) Seven friends and I lived in the three apartments in this house, but I mostly saw the two guys I lived with — James, one of my best friends, and a friend-of-a-friend who filled in when our intended roommate got stymied by university housing rules last-minute.
I went off the meal plan this year, and you could say I started cooking? I remember Easy Mac and the yellow rice that comes in foil packets and bulk purchases of soy milk. Our third roommate actually cooked. He roasted sweet potatoes and made mango sorbet that he stored in a tin in the freezer. He burned incense and when his girlfriend came to visit, the only sounds that came from his room were giggling. We painted our living room dark blue. We had a Halloween party on all three floors of the house, and we never got the fake cobwebs out of the big shrub by the front door. Our landlord owned the adjacent buildings, so we did our laundry in the basement of the house next door, a house occupied by an off-campus frat. One day in the spring I went to get my clothes from the drier and saw, through the little basement window, a bunch of shirtless college boys writhing on the green astroturf carpeting in some bizarre pledge-week initiation, and I decided my laundry could wait. We moved out the day after graduation — me, James, one of our upstairs housemates, and her yowling cat in a U-Haul to New York City.
Upper East Side, NYC, May 2004 — July 2007, $900/mo. — $950/mo., I think, by the time we left
Looking back now, we were insanely lucky. This apartment wasn’t amazing — it was fine, the sort of sardine tin that you find packed with recent grads in so many Upper East Side walk-ups — but we found it in one day. James and I came down to the city for ONE DAY in April and not only did we find our apartment, but I interviewed (twice) for what would be my first grown-up job, working the front desk at a talent agency. They asked me when I could start, and I offered Monday after I finished finals. Which was three weeks before graduation. So for three weeks I commuted between Providence and New York, sleeping on an air mattress in an empty apartment during the week, packing up my stuff and missing out on end-of-college freedom on the weekends. (My first night in the apartment I bought a TIME magazine to read, because I was overwhelmingly homesick and alone, and my mom had always had a subscription.) We lived here for three years with a rotation of third roommates — a friend from college who left to get married; a friend from college who left to move in with her boyfriend; James’ sister who became one of my best friends. When I try to picture it now, it’s muddled with the apartment my little sister lived in, one block away, years later — the same sort of tiny, cramped space in a nice neighborhood.
For the first year, I worked a second job on Saturdays renting audioguides at the Met. I walked through the Upper East Side every weekend and felt lost in the obvious wealth. It was a weird neighborhood — there were no children in our building, just 20-year-olds and a couple of rent-controlled elderly folks. But we were on the edge of the zone where the very richest people lived.
For the last two years there I had the bedroom with windows looking onto First Avenue. Our last November, we ate pancakes on the fire escape while the marathon streamed by. Our couch took up the whole living room, and one bedroom was so small you needed either a twin bed or a creaky metal loft from Ikea. We adopted cats. And after three years, James, my longtime roommate, decided he was ready to move into his own place. I was about a year from feeling ready, but I couldn’t imagine finding a new roommate situation, so I struck out on my own.
Inwood, NYC, August 2008 — July 2013, $900/mo. — $1052/mo.
God bless rent stabilization.
I was making very, very little money, working in nonprofit theatre, when I went looking for my first solo apartment. I looked everywhere in the city, or what seemed like everywhere at the time — Astoria, Washington Heights, Bed-Stuy, and somewhere near Prospect Park that I can’t identify now because I was so disoriented by Brooklyn — for something I could afford. I knew playwrights who lived in Inwood, the remote, northernmost neighborhood in Manhattan, and I had a hunch. It felt foreign, not at all like The City, but it was pretty. And it was the only place where I could afford a one-bedroom, rather than a studio, and where I felt safe on my walk from the subway. I knew this apartment was my place when I saw it — a second-floor one-bedroom in a big pre-war walk-up, a kitchen with space for a small table, a living room, and a real bedroom. The floors slanted a little but the bedroom was bigger even than my room had been in Providence, and I’d been seeing square, kitchenless studios for the same price just twenty blocks farther downtown. And it was rent stabilized, which mattered, yes, for the capped rent increases, but also for the sense of control, for knowing that my rent could never be suddenly, gratuitously hiked, that I could stay for as long as I wanted.
This was where I learned to be a grown-up. I bought a second-hand Crate and Barrel couch and took 15 months to fully unpack, but when I did, I hosted a party. I taught myself to really cook in this kitchen, with ingredients from the farmers market that this neighborhood somehow sustained year-round. I tried and failed to find a second cat to keep my cat company. My boyfriend moved in with me in 2010, and only then did I start actually using my living room as a place to be, not just a place to pile things. He sometimes shouted out the window at neighbors holding full-voiced conversations in the courtyard at 1 a.m. But still, we lived on maybe the quietest block in the neighborhood. A block from the subway, and steps from the intersection of Seaman and Cumming. On summer Sundays I walked five minutes to a boathouse with free kayaking on the Hudson. I started running in a park along the water.
Sharing a cheap one-bedroom is probably the only thing that made it possible to pay off the credit card debt I’d accrued while living beyond my tiny means on the Upper East Side. I started grad school and my boyfriend took on more of the rent. This made grad school much less terrifying, although the psychological effect was much stronger than the impact on my debt. Still, I’m grateful.
Every winter my super would string an amazing hodgepodge of Christmas lights over the entryway courtyard. I could see them glittering out my windows, and they gave my nighttime bedroom a green and red glow. The idea that I am entering a holiday season without them this year is very sad.
Crown Heights, NYC, July 2013 — present, $2,200/mo.
The idea was that, once I wasn’t commuting to Columbia every day, but now just twice a week to teach, we didn’t need to be uptown. All of my boyfriend’s friends live in Brooklyn. He works downtown, and this way he could take one train instead of three. I have friends in this neighborhood, too. And for this, we more than doubled our rent.
Our apartment, even still, is underpriced for where we are. Before I found this place, I saw a railroad one-bedroom with a bloated hall for a living room, for $2,000. I saw an apartment, four blocks farther out from the heart of the neighborhood, where not only was the previous tenant’s red shag carpeting still present, but so was all of their abandoned furniture. And some of their pantry goods.
We found this two-bedroom through Craigslist — I have found each of my NYC apartments through Craigslist — and an hour before I was scheduled to see the apartment, the broker called to tell me an application had been put in. “But an application isn’t a lease — you can still come have a look.” I did, and then my boyfriend did, and then I hounded the broker with texts, reiterating our interest, checking on the status of the rival application. After five or so days, the broker started to lose faith in the first applicant. He said we could drop off our paperwork and credit check fees, to be processed if the first one fell through. We were worried we would never see those checks again, application or not, but that Saturday we hustled down to Brooklyn — looking at apartments clear across the city from your home always sucks (which I always seem to do) — to sign our lease.
Our building used to be the radiology wing of a hospital, and it is hideous. The whole block is. Scrawny trees, subway tracks, brick slab towers. But the inside of this place has turned out to be a gift. We have a nook of a kitchen, insanely high ceilings, and massive windows in every room, facing north and full of sky. (Construction is newly underway across the street to take a big chunk of that sky view away.) It is rent-stabilized, it has an elevator, and did I mention the second bedroom, where I can do yoga and grade papers and from which I am typing this now?
For the first time since freshman year of college, I live in a place where the radiators don’t clang like a gnome is stuck in there with a hammer. I’ve started biking lots of places — Brooklyn is most of the reason but the elevator helps, too, the reduced impediment to get the bike to the sidewalk. And I don’t know if it’s something about the new space, but our cats are almost starting to get along.
Jaime Green lives in NYC.