Started from the Basement Now I’m Here (Another Basement): A Rental History

apartment in photo is 10000x more charming than in reality

1746 Kilbourne Street, Basement $750/month (my half)

My first apartment was a damp, concrete basement in D.C.’s Mount Pleasant neighborhood. I didn’t see the place before signing the lease, and I think my roommate — a dear friend from college — might still carry some of that guilt. But first apartments occasion battle. The listing highlighted the “exposed brick” walls which were actually brick walls that had been painted over with a sponge to vaguely resemble something that looked like what someone who had never before seen brick thought brick looked like. We painted every surface over the course of several weeks (including the exposed brick, which we did after convincing the landlord that I was an expert in “faux-brick technique”). One wall was a bright “Youthful Coral” that did, actually, look youthful, just like we did, way back then.

We scavenged all our furniture, dragged a massive canvas of a horse out of our overgrown backyard, killed our first cockroaches. Our landlord found used appliances to replace our other used appliances when they inevitably stopped working. Everything flooded. The handyman, Eric, was in his 70s and duct taped our shower door back on when it fell off. Once he brought over a very young boy in a crop top he called his “assistant” who spent an hour modeling my vintage sunglasses.

While taking out the garbage one evening, I saw two teenagers crouching in our back alley, guns in hand. I turned off all the lights inside and sat on the floor, completely still, for a full hour. We stayed because it was the first thing that was ever ours and ours alone, and because we loved the neighborhood, our friends all around us, loved being 24 and 25 in the heat of a D.C. summer, loved the roof parties that felt like something out of a novel you once read about early adulthood, where we pressed cold beers against our sweat-soaked necks, let watermelon juice drip down our chests, our limbs too loose to climb back through the windows, down the ladders, we might never make it back to earth.

When my roommate left to teach at a summer camp in Maine she looked me in the eye and said, “Please don’t sleep with him,” referring to one of the guys who lived above us and who had helped us blow dry the pipes when they froze that winter. “Never,” I said, and then promptly did. None of us had air conditioning that year so he bought an industrial fan that he aimed at our bodies as we lay naked in his bed. Later, I would sit on the floor of my bedroom and listen to him on his deck telling his friends he’d heard I was a slut.

But that wasn’t what made us move, nor was it the human shit my roommate found in front of our door on her birthday, but rather that at some point the swamp tried to reclaim us, and we came home after a week away to find all of our shoes covered with a thin layer of green mold.

up on the roof

1835 Lamont Street, Apt #3, $875/month (my half)

We only moved a block away, but it might as well have been a new world. Our apartment was on the third floor of an old row house and had two skylights, which made both of us tear up when we saw them for the first time. There were hardwood floors and beautiful old doors with crystal doorknobs. “I want to make love to these doorknobs,” I said during our viewing, and the property manager asked if he should give me a moment alone. Afterwards we realized neither of us could remember having seen a toilet, so blinded were we by the natural light. I still think it’s the most beautiful place I’ve ever lived, even though the kitchen was a hideously tiny add-on and the bathroom floor sloped perilously under the claw foot tub. In the summer, under the sun that flooded the space, the air went close and warm, dark yellow, like oil whipped to thickness in a jar.

We probably killed at least two dozen mice while living there, although we never managed to get rid of the raccoon family that lived in the ceiling above my bedroom. We fostered two perfect cats who took care of the mice for a while, and when the wind was right, you could hear the monkeys screeching from the zoo on the other side of the ravine. Our neighbors grew tiny tomatoes in the front garden that tasted like ash. I twisted my ankle and my roommate brought home a bottle of Firefly vodka and I drank until it didn’t hurt anymore. I tried to write my thesis, a novel about talking fish. We woke up at 4am to watch the royal wedding and I made coconut pancakes. My boyfriend moved in and then moved out, collecting his belongings while I was at Disneyworld trying to get over him. I put most of what he left behind in a shoebox on the curb with a note saying “My scummy ex-boyfriend left this stuff behind” and it was all gone by morning. It was only in the last few months I lived there that my roommate and I realized you could climb out the bathroom window to drink wine on the roof and watch the sun go down. I never wanted to leave.

if you squinted, you could almost forget it was new york

442 Sterling Place, Apt. #11, $975/month (my share)

But I did. I moved to New York to get over that boyfriend, which worked, because in New York no one looks twice when you weep openly on the subway, and somehow that disregard is actually healing, over time.

A friend knew that two girls in her building were looking for a new roommate, so I moved into the vacant room the same day that Hurricane Irene hit the city. The apartment was already furnished, already a home, so it asked very little of me and I gave it very little in return. My roommates were lovely, welcoming, deeply human individuals, and I was a wench. I had learned to channel all of my anxiety about my breakup and the move into my surroundings, so I wanted everything to be under my control at all times, and fell into complete hysterics if a pillow I’d placed on the couch had been even slightly rearranged. I should not have had roommates, but I was making 30K a year and couldn’t afford to live alone.

My roommates were both younger and one had the energy of a pogo stick. I’d wake up at 4:30am to the sound of her making protein shakes. I once came home to find her smoking weed in the kitchen with seven random people she had met “on the roof.” We fostered cats, again. One of them got fat and peed on everything, so we always left the windows open and wore a lot of sweaters. I fell in love with Brooklyn, with our wide, tree-lined street, even with the asshole who organized our garbage and shadow boxed on the sidewalk late at night and was rumored to have been a bodyguard for Malcolm X.

The day we moved out I left before my roommates. When I went back later to drop off my keys I got halfway down the hallway before realizing the new residents had already moved in. Their belongings were piled in the centre of our kitchen and living room, foreign objects, a couch standing on its end, a desk tucked up against the stove. I froze. By some stroke of fortune they were out, so there was no one to catch me there. But it made my heart lodge in my throat — not just the fear of being found in someone else’s apartment, but realizing that it was now someone else’s apartment. I had lived there for a year, my first year in New York, my first full year out of school, my first in eight years being truly single. So much had happened in that space it seemed like I should have been etched into its walls. I had been out for fewer than eight hours and already it belonged to someone else. I was bowled over by the temporary-ness of this, the way we live now, this strange monster of a city. By the realization that I would only ever be an interloper.

I slipped the keys from the ring and left them on the stovetop. I turned off the light.

move-in day

429 Lincoln Place, Apt B3, $1050/month

This apartment was a unicorn — a rent stabilized one-bedroom in Prospect Heights for $1050 simply did not exist, but here it was, occupied by a friend’s boyfriend who was moving to Michigan. I barely looked at it before signing the lease. I talked the broker into letting me have it despite not making the requisite salary, because I needed to live alone, it had to happen, I would have murdered my next roommate, I was sure of it. When I finally went to check things out, I realized the place was unequivocally a dump. There were mushrooms growing in the shower. There were odd protuberances in the walls that looked as though someone had stashed a dead dog and then hastily tried to plaster over it. There was half a fish frozen into the wall of the freezer. There was an old painter’s sink in the middle of the kitchen. It was not charming. It was disgusting.

My parents and I painted all of the walls, spackling them back together when the rollers ripped off hunks of plaster. My dad re-grouted the shower, but the persistent leaks kept breaking the tiles. We removed the fish, but the freezer never worked again. I learned how to use a power drill. I shouldered all of my weight into making that apartment mine, making it softer, making it a home. It resisted.

Still, I relished living alone. I’d walk around my apartment touching the crumbling walls, broken doors, thinking “mine,” “mine,” “mine.” The silence around me felt like it had form. When I was 12, 13, I used to imagine myself living in New York City, walking around a small apartment in my underwear, eating Chinese food from the carton, wine bottles lining the floor. I don’t like wandering around in my underwear, but I did drink a lot of wine, and if I came home late and tipsy I would buy a carton of veggie lo mein for $3.99 at the greasy Chinese place around the corner.

I paid my rent by tracking down my super, Elvis, who had three or four teeth and wheeled a shopping cart around the neighborhood. He couldn’t really climb stairs, so when my bedroom ceiling sprung a leak that filled multiple pots every night, he stood on the street below and sighed up at my window. Not once in the two years I lived there did I speak to or see my landlord.

I turned 30 and threw a dinner party. We sat on pillows on the floor and I lit candles to distract from the water stains. I adopted a kitten. I fell in love. I got fired. I started taking medication for anxiety.

The apartment got worse, even as I got better. My oven began to fail. Tiles broke off of the bathroom floor in long strips. My cat would chase them around the living room. Water trickled then poured through the walls of the closet and bathroom. I was afraid to turn on the shower because the movement of water through the pipes caused more and more tiles to break. Each day I would come home to find bigger chunks in my bathtub. Someone hired someone to fix it, and for weeks I had a huge hole in the ceiling and wall covered by a plastic sheet through which I could see the building’s guts. Black and green mold spread through the place, the walls wet to the touch. I was manic, feverish, dousing everything with vinegar and bleach to keep the mold from spreading, watching my cat for signs of a cough. The insanely cheap rent, which had initially seemed holy, a sign, became a curse. Friends who had once stared daggers at me when I told them how much I paid begged me to leave, which I could finally afford to do, having found a new job that nearly tripled my salary. Still. “I deserve this,” I told them. “It’s fitting. We’re both a little rough around the edges.”

One day I brought our office handyman home to see if he could patch the ceiling and take care of the mold. He stepped around the hole in the hall stairs, frowning. When he walked in to my apartment, he immediately brought his t-shirt up to cover his nose and mouth. “You need to move,” he said, backing out slowly.

taken by the realtor before i moved out

425 Lincoln Place, Apt. 2RT, $2000/month

I moved to the apartment building immediately next door to mine. For the first few months I regularly tried to use my new keys to open the old front door. The apartment was in a co-op, beautifully kept, adult, and twice as expensive as my previous place. It was compact and efficient, with everything I needed and nothing I didn’t: laundry in the basement, a storage cage to compensate for a lack of closet space, a freezer. I worked at a start up, learning an intoxicating new language comprised wholly of acronyms, I was finally making real money, the city looked juicy and strange. I started bookmarking sample sales. I’d run the dishwasher before falling asleep and the sound was soothing, the white hum of home. From one window I could see a sliver of the Brooklyn museum.

I loved the built-in bookshelves, the afternoon light, the preciseness of the space. I got rid of extraneous furniture: my dresser, kitchen table, desk. I bought those expensive candles and thought, “This is a place I could make home.” And then I decided to leave New York for good.

On the night of the super blood moon, not long before I left, I climbed out on my fire escape. I watched the blue line of the neighborhood stretch out around me, the other figures on my street also sitting silent on their fire escapes, all of us looking up.

Toronto’s High Park neighborhood, basement, $1450/month (Canadian)

My mom came to New York to help me move. I drove us in a rented U-Haul out of the city over the Verrazano and she pressed her hands against the window and cried, mourning my departure in a way I couldn’t.

“That’s Staten Island, mom,” I muttered as she said goodbye.

This apartment is frictionless; it offers no resistance. It has an exposed brick wall, but for real this time. I’ve lived in six apartments in the past eight years, which doesn’t seem like many, although perhaps it is. I think the temporary nature of this phase of life is really sinking in: I care less, or put less of myself into these homes. I arrange the same furniture in some approximation of how it used to look; I hang the same paintings in the same formation on the wall. The cat spends a week or two completely disoriented, and I wait impatiently for him to calm down.

I’ve returned to a basement, but I won’t stay long. I haven’t unpacked my books, so the apartment remains anonymous to me. I’ve lived in Toronto for five winter months, so the city, too, is anonymous. I feel us watching each other, wary, waiting for the other to blink.

Read more rental histories here.

Support The Billfold

The Billfold continues to exist thanks to support from our readers. Help us continue to do our work by making a monthly pledge on Patreon or a one-time-only contribution through PayPal.