I was in a desert town in western Mexico when I learned of my acceptance to a graduate program at New York University. I’d applied late: it was early August and school started in September, leaving me less than a month to secure a place to live. It’s no problem, I thought. Two weeks is plenty of time to find an apartment in New York via email.
Yeah, right. Weeks of scouring both Craigslist and the NYU off-campus housing registry led to nothing more than dozens of leads abruptly ceasing communication when they learned that I couldn’t physically visit the place to seal the deal. At the time, I couldn’t see why. However, after living in the city for two years, I now know that the Big Apple is comprised primarily of serial killers. Consequently, I understand the hesitation of a prospective landlord confronted with a voice at the other end of an international phone number assuring him that the check won’t bounce.
Crunch time was approaching and I was disheartened. I had left Mexico and was driving down a dusty highway en route to the Phoenix airport when I got a call from what seemed like the thousandth landlord. My first impression of the man, who I’ll call “Tommy,” was condescending intrigue. Frankly, he sounded ridiculous: his voice was high and squeaky, like an an Oompa Loompa, and mixed the stereotypical “Noo Yoke” accent with an effeminate lisp. Tommy described the single room he sought to rent as “spacious and fully furnished” and noted that the apartment, in which he also lived, had roof access and a washer and dryer. I was desperate for any place to lay my head that wasn’t a bench in Grand Central, and Google Maps informed me that Tommy’s apartment was only a few minutes from NYU’s main campus. I gave the okay and sent him a check.
Within days, I stepped off a plane in LaGuardia in the hot September sun with all of my earthy possessions in two overstuffed backpacks. Dragging my luggage on a bus and then a train, I arrived at Tommy’s hours later, drenched in sweat. The imp-man answering my knock opened the door, looked me up and down, and licked his lips. Not a good start, I thought. Tommy was in his late fifties, no taller than 5 foot, and round. Despite his phone voice, I had not expected an actual Oompa Loompa to be my new landlord. I was mistaken in this regard.
He gave me a tour of the apartment. In his defense, there was access to a beautiful rooftop patio. After that, however, caveat emptor was the name of the game. The washer and dryer were so old that they might have been prototypes from the 1800s. Tommy gave me a checklist of instructions for their use that was only a bit less complex than your average aircraft flight manual. (I only ended up using the washer twice, and the second time resulted in me flooding the store downstairs; I’m probably not cut out to fly a plane either.) Tommy’s most unpleasant exaggeration concerned my “spacious room,” which was not a room, but merely a small section of the long, narrow living room that had been cordoned off with a double layer of bookshelves. A shower curtain, hung from a wooden dowel, served as my door. The shelves reached only two-thirds of the way towards the ceiling, allowing every living room sound to lazily waft into my personal space. And because Tommy slept in a loft over his desk in the the opposite corner of the living room, on many occasions I was treated to an aural nightcap of his midnight wrestling sessions with a Filipino friend.
The full furnishings turned out to be a table, a bed, the aforementioned bookshelves, and an ancient, Pixar-style lamp whose base would detach and crush my toe a week later. The bed came complete with worn, thick, scratchy wool blankets. For all their cleanliness, they might have been the same smallpox blankets that the early settlers gave the Native Americans. Everything smelled like a gas station bathroom, and it was about that size.
Despite the suboptimal situation, I actually enjoyed the apartment at first. The rent was only $900 per month and the location in New York’s Bowery neighborhood – right between campus and the lively Lower East Side – was perfect for a young student. Moreover, Tommy was gone every few weekends, during which I was able to throw small parties on the patio and let friends sleep on the living room couch.
The annoyances began to build, however. For example, Tommy had an anger problem. The first time I watched a stubbed toe send a “grown” “man” into a tiny ball of red-faced rage, it was amusing. The subsequent times, however, made me wish I had a lock on my shower curtain. Secondly, the aforementioned Filipino lover constantly hogged the apartment’s single bathroom. The final perturbation was Tommy’s blatant attraction to me. He once asked me to clean the bathroom and seemed to creepily enjoy my attempts to scrub behind the toilet bowl on all fours.
The straw the broke the Oompa Loompa’s back was an incident in which Tommy came home drunk and, ripping open the shower curtain, barged into my “room” without “knocking.” That wasn’t the weird part, for I don’t really mind invasions of my personal space. What I do mind are a roommate’s unwelcome sexual advances. Hanging on to the shower curtain with one hand, swaying back and forth, a ruddy-faced Tommy leered at me. I was dressed in a tank top and athletic shorts, and Tommy began the unsolicited conversation by suggesting that I put more clothes on. Then he blurted out the following rationale, which I cannot emphasize enough is verbatim: “the neighborhood boys might see your amazing body and fantastic tool, and break in and rape you.”
That is literally what he said. To this day, I have not understood Tommy’s admonition. It’s both factually inaccurate and batshit insane. My body and tool are passable at best and, if there are “neighborhood boys” in the Bowery, I have not encountered them. Moreover, I don’t think that my provocative manner of dress necessarily prompts their uncontrollable, violent lust. (Isn’t that victim blaming?) And I shudder to think of how exactly Tommy familiarized himself with my tool, unless the aid of surreptitious video recording equipment was involved. (Perhaps that was the reason the Elf on the Shelf in my room had camera lenses for eyes.) In any case, I moved out of Tommy’s within days.
A friend sympathized with my American horror story and let me stay with her for a little while in a cramped studio apartment on the Upper East Side. However, as the end of the fall NYU semester approached, I realized that I needed to find a place to stay the following spring after I returned from a month-long winter vacation. Returning to Craigslist, I compiled another shortlist of freakshows.
Before long, I identified a prospective landlord, who I’ll call “Ben,” that I was able to meet in person a few weeks before I left New York. Like Tommy, Ben was around five and a half feet tall and overweight. But the word “round” was an understatement: at three hundred pounds, “spherical” was the better adjective. Also like Tommy, he had an effeminate voice. Well, perhaps “effeminate” isn’t the most apt word; Ben had the voice of an actual woman. When he opened his mouth, it sounded like a few extra X chromosomes were struggling to assert themselves. I decided not to judge Ben’s book by its uncomely cover. After all, the man was in his seventies and exuded a grandfatherly – or perhaps grandmotherly – air.
However, a few more peculiarities gave me pause during our meeting around the apartment’s kitchen table. The fist-sized cockroach ambling up the wall behind Ben should have been a deal-breaker. The fact that the apartment smelled like raw sewage on a humid night should have been a deal-breaker. Ben’s resemblance to an elderly, obese Jeffery Dahmer definitely should have been a deal-breaker. Nor did I look forward to the sleeping arrangements: I’d be in the apartment’s single bedroom, accessed from the living room where Ben alternately slept on the couch or a hospital bed in the corner.
Nevertheless, I took the place. The location, in the West Village near the L train, was amazing. Moreover, Ben would allow me to store some luggage there during the month I was to return home on NYU’s winter break, preventing me from having to lug plastic bins of clothes and toiletries to and from bus stations. Ben accompanied me to a nearby bank, where I transferred a few thousand dollars into his account while he made awkward advances towards a young female banker and I pretended not to know him.
When I returned to New York in the new year, several suit jackets I’d left in Ben’s closet had attained a distinctly fecal aroma. Moreover, I’d learned that the cockroach I saw earlier was a popular fellow; his entourage included dozens of earwigs and gnats. Indeed, the apartment was a house of curiosities. There was always an inch of standing water in the bathtub. Near the front door hung a disturbing, inexplicable picture of Ben’s deceased wife and then-teenage daughter in the midst of a tongue kiss. (This is not an exaggeration.) However, the most interesting part of life with Ben was the olfactory sensation. I soon identified the cause of the apartment’s aroma: the old man was incontinent.
He didn’t try to hide it. Several times per week, I’d come home to find Ben’s damp, stained bedding draped over a box fan to dry. On other occasions, the fan would be pointed at the living room couch or hospital bed. (Ironically, the bathroom seemed to be Ben’s least favorite spot to relieve himself.) Once, I quietly opened the front door at four in the morning, returning from the bar with a female acquaintance and expecting to tiptoe past a sleeping Ben to my room. Instead, the open door revealed my septuagenarian roommate hovering over the kitchen table, naked from the waist down and cleaning his posterior with a towel. I quickly shielded the young lady’s eyes like a celebrity facing paparazzi flashbulbs as we rushed into my room without a word to Ben.
After this incident, our relationship soured. I didn’t dislike Ben because he courted cockroaches like Cameron Diaz courts zany romantic comedies. I didn’t even dislike him because he was incontinent. When people get old, cleaning becomes more difficult due to decreased mobility and bowel movements occur at inopportune times. I understood this (especially since I’ve had many an inopportune excretion myself). No, the real reason I disliked Ben was his refusal to wear a diaper. I assumed it was a matter of pride, unless he actually enjoyed the stained sheets and awful aroma resulting from his frequent fecal escapades. In any case, I endured the situation for a little while longer before I threw in the (soiled) towel.
In the Simpsons version of the future, “smell you later” has replaced “goodbye” as a valediction. My time with Ben was ending, but I was was ready to move on. To paraphrase Ralph Wiggum, “smell you later, Ben. Smell you later forever.”