The Great Apartment Hunt, Pt. I
August 6, 2012 § 5 Comments
One of the most stressful things about going to school at NYU was not knowing where I was going to live. Because I was spending the summer at home in Naperville, there was no way for me to tie down a residence without physically being on the East Coast. I was looking for a room to sublease or share that cost a maximum of $1300/month per person. It was difficult for me to wrap my head around the fact that I might have to pay three times as much as any apartment I had ever lived in, but I soon learned that’s a pretty normal budget for Manhattan. Good grief.
The other infuriating thing I learned about NYC apartment-searching is that nobody plans ahead by more than maybe a week, or a month at most. If someone has an opening in their apartment, they want you to come by tomorrow to see it and sign the lease the day after that if not that very afternoon. So for all of June and July when my parents kept asking if I had found a place to live yet, I had nothing to say. Therefore, they decided to ship me out a month before school started so we could get a head start on the process.
We rented a small SUV, stuffed it with my belongings — trying to figure out which part of my massive collection of clothing to bring was a huge burden in itself — and drove out on Saturday morning, leaving my brother to fend for himself at home (he didn’t want to come, and there wasn’t any room in the car for him anyway LOL). The 800-mile journey took us about 13 hours, of which my father drove the whole time, claiming he wasn’t tired.
The next day, we drove from our hotel in Newark to Manhattan, which was a pretty costly 10-mile journey. Crossing a bridge in New Jersey was $2.45, and the Holland Tunnel into NYC was a hefty $12. I mean, I understand that maintaining extensive roadwork requires a lot of money, but $12 for such a narrow and unimpressive passage seemed exorbitant.
Most of Sunday was spent in Chinatown, where, for some inexplicable reason, my father was determined to have me live. We literally walked around collecting phone numbers off street light poles poles and went back to the car to start cold-calling like some kind of rock-bottom telemarketing agency. “It’s better to pick up phone numbers in Chinatown,” my father reasoned, “because there will be less competition. The only people who would be able to find these places are people who can speak Chinese.” And it was true: The great majority of the people we met were from Fujian and barely spoke either English or Mandarin. Even if their apartments weren’t disgusting, I wasn’t keen on living with some random old person with whom I could barely communicate.
I actually had a Craigslist appointment set up in Chinatown at noon, but the rent was excessive ($1275 plus $200 in utilities, a price I was unwilling to burden my parents with) and the apartment seemed a bit too nice, so I canceled it because I probably would’ve been depressed if I saw an amazing place first.
Instead, we visited the first stranger who picked up the phone, and all I can say is that his apartment was genuinely frightening. It was a three-bedroom apartment squeezed into less than 500 sq. ft., with no living room (and barely a kitchen), a tiny, questionably…stained…bathroom and a cramped, gloomy bedroom. It definitely set the standard nice and low for the rest of the day.
My father didn’t come up to see the first few apartments with us (he was usually outside making sure nobody towed our illegally parked car), so he didn’t experience the full magnitude of Chinatown’s nightmarish living situations. Of course, he and mother lived in the ghetto of Chicago’s Chinatown for a few years when they first immigrated, so it’s not like he was unfamiliar with the situation. I think he was so resolute about me living there because he preferred the cheap rent and easy access to food (or he just wanted me to gain character through suffering), but you truly get what you pay for in Chinatown. After seeing a couple of places, it was pretty clear to me that my mother and I had both decided against renting anywhere in the area. We basically kept up the charade of interest just to entertain my poor father, who was working so hard to find me a decent place. It was an impossible task.
Mother was mostly concerned with safety and proximity to NYU, two things we weren’t too sure Chinatown offered. My priorities were to have a clean room and bathroom where I wouldn’t be afraid to touch the walls or floor. The condition of all but two of the apartments we saw were simply unlivable for me. There are people who consider their house a long-term home and make the effort to contain it, and then there are the people who strew things everywhere and let the dirt become permanent. I think the biggest problem was that the buildings were just too old and had housed too many people who simply didn’t care.
In the middle of the afternoon, mother and I swung by my first Craigslist appointment at a “luxury” building right in the heart of the NYU campus. The building was indeed impressive: a sweeping lobby with a doorman and concierge greeted us as we entered, but the upstairs looked rather worn. The man we met was named Maurice — yes, I did consider living with a man if perhaps he seemed innocuous enough. Maurice’s apartment was actually a converted one-bedroom, meaning that he had installed sliding doors to separate the huge living room where he slept.
Mother really liked his place despite the steep price ($1200 plus $200 in utilities; seriously HOW does cable cost SO much?!!?), but there was something off about Maurice himself. He was an old man with a long white ponytail and a European (Russian?) accent, though when mother asked where he was from, he was very evasive and even answered “outer space” before saying “Brooklyn.” He was a bit creepy and condescending toward my poor mother, and she didn’t like that he asked to be paid in cash ($1400 in cash are you kidding me) and worked from home doing some vague business with “artificial intelligence.”
By the time evening (and a typical East Coast storm) arrived, we were all exhausted. I felt the day had been very unsuccessful and even a waste of time if you don’t count how much of an ~educational experience it was to see how some people are forced (or willing?) to live. Father kept earnestly asking me which apartment I would take if I had to choose between the day’s viewings, and I really just didn’t want to answer.