The New York Observer; March 1996
Manhattan home economics: If you can’t have the apartment of your dreams, why have an apartment at all? TRACEY PEPPER meets five well-heeled vagrants who’ve perfected the art of crashing all over town.
It was early November 1994. Enrique Olivera, a handsome 33-year-old Manhattan architect, had been without an apartment since September 1994, when he had been forced to give up his regal sublet in the West Village, with its views of New York Harbor, the Statue of Liberty and the World Trade Center. But the holidays were fast approaching, and with them, many social engagements and end-of-the-year jobs at the office. So Mr. Olivera (a pseudonym) decided to postpone the hunt for an apartment until January. He put his armoire (antique) and his bed (Palazzetti) and all but a few of his suits (Paul Smith, Hugo Boss) into storage and spread out a sleeping bag on the floor of his younger brother’s apartment in Brooklyn. “It bought me some flexibility,” Mr. Olivera said. It also increased his productivity; he started staying late at work, sometimes until 10 P.M. “There was no hurry to get home,” he said. “There was no home.”
He and his friends would start each evening in TriBeCa and SoHo at bars like N or Puffy’s, drink for a few hours and then head over to the Odeon for dinner. The tab was usually about $40, $50 a night, but “I wasn’t feeling a pinch because I wasn’t shelling out this monthly fee,” said Mr. Olivera. “I had more fun living in New York than I have had in a long time.” Some nights, he wouldn’t roll into his sleeping bag until 4 A.M. “Soon, it became weeks and weeks,” he said, “and I’ll confess that after a few months, I really wasn’t looking at all.”
Suzanne Moore (not her real name) lived in her office from February 1995 to July 1995. Her last permanent address had been a prewar studio on the Upper East Side, where she’d awoken one night in August 1994 to find a man going through her dresser. “He had a rope and a gun. But I completely controlled the situation. I was able to get him out of there.” By remaining calm, she managed to avoid being hurt, but the burglar took her CD player, her Rollerblades and her peace of mind.
Ms. Moore, a 28-year-old Courteney Cox lookalike who is a publicist for a large corporation, left her apartment and house-sat for a friend in TriBeCa; roomed, briefly and unhappily, with a friend on the Upper West Side and then decided to take a long vacation from New York. But before she left, a company she’d freelanced for offered her a well-paying consultant job that, after a month’s meditation in the high desert of New Mexico, she decided to accept.
“I had procrastinated about coming back to New York because I didn’t have a place to stay,” Ms. Moore said. In February, with $20 in her purse, she took a bus from the airport to the office she’d rented in SoHo. She hid her clothes and bedding behind some boards she had found on the street, and set up house. She slept on blankets on the hardwood floor. Her rent was $350 a month for a space that was as big as the studio she’d fled. The landlord wasn’t aware that she was living there; neither were the artists who rented other offices in the building. She cooked in the common room and showered at her gym every other day, even though she’d put enough away to afford a deposit on an apartment and pay a broker’s fee.
“I was very clever,” she said. “People would ask, ‘Where do you live now?’ and I’d use a friend’s address in the West Village. My closest friends had no idea that I was homeless. I told people I was working late. One of the artists actually said, ‘You inspire me, you’re always working so hard,’ when in fact, I was in my office asleep at my desk.”
Ms. Moore had decided that she didn’t need an apartment. “For five months, I was like, ‘O.K., this is reasonable and inexpensive.’ There was no reasonable explanation for me not to be living in a normal space. I got used to it–I didn’t want to rely on my friends. I convinced myself that I enjoyed being a hermit and having no one know what was going on. I thought it was an interesting adventure.”
For the last eight months, Matt Berman has been living in the Gramercy Park Hotel. Mr. Berman and his girlfriend of five years split up last June while Mr. Berman, the 31-year-old creative director of George magazine, was frantically designing the entire publication from scratch. At the time, moving into the hotel was the quickest and easiest thing to do.
Mr. Berman’s room is bigger than the average studio in Manhattan. He pays $1,600 a month, plus hotel tax–the equivalent to renting a one-bedroom apartment. “But, you figure, you’re not paying for gas and electric. At a chaotic point in your life, it gives you a semblance of order. There’s maid service, clean sheets and towels. I’ve always had these intensely busy jobs, even when I lived in an apartment,” said Mr. Berman. When he actually lived in an apartment, “I was running in, going to bed, getting up, taking a shower, toasting something to eat and leaving,” said Mr. Berman. “I was using the apartment the way you’d use a hotel.”
Life in the Gramercy Park Hotel is “kind of a freak show, Mr. Berman explained. “There’s this freak who answers the phone”—Mr. Berman adopted a low, Harvey Fierstein-like growl—”Gra-mercy Pahk Hotel. Then there are photo shoots going on, so you have all these trendy photographers and their assistants, and models. Other times the bar is filled with nerds from Europe singing dumb songs around the piano.”
He’s already hooked up an answering machine to the phone in his room, and is now having a line installed for his own phone and fax. “That was the only thing that was killing me—$400 phone bills. It costs 80 cents a call. So it’s dangerous because now I think I’m going to stay forever.” He laughed. It was the laugh of a man who is putting off the inevitable.
For most of the city’s young professional class, living in Manhattan is an exercise in making compromises and in coping. “The reality,” said Mr. Olivera, “is that it’s very difficult to have a pleasant, ‘typical’ life in New York. Very few people have that. You realize that you’re not alone. A lot of people have strange living arrangements. How many people do I know who’ve moved into spaces that have no bathroom?”
Granted, few new apartment buildings have been built in Manhattan in the past five or six years, aside from developer Daniel Brodsky’s West End Towers, a 1,000-unit building (200 apartments are designated low income) in the West 60’s that went up at the beginning of 1994 and is now full. Many co-op and condominium owners are not renting out their apartments, and yet more people continue to pour into New York.
“Most people understand that they’re not coming to New York for the quality of the housing,” said Brian Edwards, director of leasing at the Halstead Property Company. “People do not move here for that. The reality is small spaces, high rent. People come here for career objectives, not because they want the Taj Mahal.”
Mr. Olivera, Ms. Moore and Mr. Berman did not want the Taj Mahal; they did not even want Trump Tower. They were successful Manhattanites; they simply wanted a nice place to live. But in the tightest rental market in years, they each decided that not having a home—for six, seven, 10 months—was better than just settling for an address. For a change, they chose not to choose at all. They convinced themselves that homelessness was merely an alternative life style.
Mr. Olivera confessed that he would think, “I don’t have an apartment, no big deal, I’m having a great time. I’m an adult, I’m a professional. But I came to New York with certain ambitions—to be an architect. Something as fundamental, as simple and basic as a place to live, and my inability to even deal with it, certainly, was demoralizing.”
One broker snorted when told of the $350 a month Ms. Moore paid in rent on the office she lived in. “She was lucky that the office happened to be in SoHo! She should have thought, ‘I got a very good deal.'”
Ms. Moore did not share the broker’s assessment of her good fortune in being able to live in her office for five months. “This city,” she said, “is a lesson in learning how to take care of yourself in the most acute circumstances.”
When Matthew Altman decided not to renew the lease last June on his Murray Hill apartment, his parents told him to move back home. They live in a center-hall, colonial-style house in Manalapan, N.J., a well-heeled suburb 50 miles south of Manhattan. Mr. Altman, a 26-year-old telecommunications consultant who had the look of a man who’d spent a lot of time in Century 21, agreed. He figured he would commute into the city and spend weekends at friends’ places in the Hamptons or Martha’s Vineyard. That was fine for a few months, but by September, the commute, which involved sitting on a bus for three to four hours, was getting to him.
So he started sleeping in different places all over the city. For two and a half months, Mr. Altman spent three nights a week at a friend’s one-bedroom loft in the Flatiron District. Gradually, his friend became more and more tense. “He felt I was invading him a little. I tried to break up [my stays] so he wouldn’t rip my throat out.” Mr. Altman quickly learned to leave a few suits at the office.
For six months or so, Mr. Altman simply didn’t look for an apartment. “I knew that I had places to stay and that people would be receptive to me. But by the end, it began to irritate me.” Not to mention his friends.
Some nights, he’d sleep in a friend’s extra bedroom in Brooklyn, or on another’s couch on the Upper East Side. Mr. Altman also crashed a few nights a week at a two-bedroom apartment at 89th Street and Columbus Avenue. “They had three couches and at times, there’d be two people staying there. It was like the fraternity all over again.”
Andrew Bower (not his real name), a successful Australian screenwriter, has been re-enacting the fraternity days he never had. When he and his girlfriend of four years split up, two guys he worked with offered him the spare room in their apartment for $500 a month. It was around the corner from his office and he had nowhere else to go, so he took it, thinking it would only be for a few weeks.
Five months later, Mr. Bower was still living in a gloomy basement alcove that passed for a room. “I like to romantically think of it as being in the merchant marines and being below deck,” he said with a grin, the skin around his eyes crinkling. He insisted that his living situation was “temporary”; indeed, most of his belongings were in storage. He also insisted that it wasn’t bad, living in a place with a Nerf basketball hoop and littered with comic books and Pavement CDs.
As he entered the apartment, having stopped for a six-pack of Corona to go with the burrito he’d order for delivery, someone named Jay was cooking pork chops. Mr. Bower threw his keys on the table. “How’s it hanging, baby?” he said to Jay. Jay didn’t live there; he was staying on the couch while he looked for an apartment. Mark, who actually did live there, walked in. “Oh, you missed it last night,” Mr. Bower giggled. “Mark said, ‘Hey, let’s pretend we’re Hootie and the Blowfish. I’ll be Hootie and you blow me!'” That cracked him up. “You know, Jerry Seinfeld is gay-gay-gay,” Mr. Bower added, nodding toward the Seinfeld episode playing on the TV. “I’m crapping you negative.” Mr. Bower is 35 years old.
A few months ago, he was living with a woman he cared deeply for. Now he’s sharing a small space with two men 10 years younger than him. Mr. Bower chose not to view that fact as a regression. “That’s like saying, ‘Don’t you wish you were 21 again?’ That would be counterproductive. It’s good to be around guys and do guy-stuff again. When I moved in, they said they would tear me down and build me up and that’s what we’re doing here,” he said, grinning. “Yep. So life in storage; that’s fine for a while. It’s minimalism. It’s Prada living. I use approximately one dish a day.”
He suddenly got up from the table and started retrieving glasses and dishes from around the room. “I’m not questioning my own worth or judgment. Am I going to model my life on this? No. I’m just in a sort of holding pattern. Just enjoying the break from the tyranny of choice.”
Late, late one night in February 1995, Mr. Olivera and his friends were drinking and flirting with the female bartender (a former model) at Don Hill’s in SoHo. When they went to leave, Mr. Olivera realized that someone had walked off with his coat, and with it, the keys to his brother’s apartment.
“I had to call him at 4 o’clock in the morning and tell him I lost my keys,” he said. “That was terrible. It was like calling my parents. It’s like, ‘What a fuck-up I am. I don’t have an apartment and you have to open the door for me.'”
Mr. Olivera was also beginning to get serious about a woman. “It got really strange,” he recalled. “She’d say, ‘Where do you live?’ I’d reply, ‘In my brother’s living room.’ When she asked, ‘Can I come over?’ a basic practicality began to sink in.”
He started looking again–until an architect friend with a well-appointed two-bedroom apartment in Park Slope offered Mr. Olivera a six-week house-sitting stint. “Not only was I still enjoying not paying rent, but I also enjoyed having a decent apartment,” he said. Then his boss asked him if he’d like to watch his place for a week. Mr. Olivera’s search for an apartment was again derailed.
He began a new period of vagabonding, “distributing my stuff around,” he said. The real turning point came, Mr. Olivera said, “when I caught myself with five different sets of keys in my pocket. I was like a realtor. I was carrying around my brother’s keys, three sets of friends’ and my boss’ keys. I realized, What the hell am I doing–waiting to collect a sixth set?”
In August, through an ad in the Sunday New York Times, Mr. Olivera finally found a tiny studio on the first floor of a building in Chelsea. The floors were scratched, the walls splotched with spackle. There was a working fireplace. But if Mr. Olivera were to light it, it would have torched the bed, the edge of which was about two feet from the grate. The place wasn’t perfect, but he didn’t have much choice: His brother was moving in with his girlfriend. “I figured, I’d do a little here and there and make it a nice place to be, if only for a year.”
In November 1995, a month after settling in Chelsea and a year after Mr. Olivera had been ejected from his West Village aerie, a new tenant moved into the apartment directly above. Right away, he began to make what Mr. Olivera described one recent evening as an “exceptional amount of noise.”
As if on cue, a thumping began on Mr. Olivera’s ceiling. “See?” he said. He rocked back on his heels with his arms folded across his chest. A weirdly triumphant smirk played across his face. “It’s that shit at 3 o’clock in the morning that drives me up the fucking wall!”
When it first started, Mr. Olivera went upstairs and spoke to the neighbor, who apologized and promised to put down rugs. “Well, a few weeks go by, and I could not fall asleep because this guy was up all night. I’m not sure what the hell he was doing because in addition to him dragging furniture around, there were people being buzzed in at all hours.”
The next day he called his landlady and declared that he would not pay any more rent until someone talked to the guy upstairs. “I guess they contacted him because he left me a little note: ‘Either you’ve never lived in a New York apartment before or you just get your jollies out of making other people’s life hell.'” Mr. Olivera decided that he didn’t really love the apartment. He faxed the neighbor’s note to both the management company and his landlady. After three months, he was on the move again.
Mr. Olivera recently found an apartment in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn. Seven months ago, Ms. Moore moved into a three-bedroom NoHo apartment, which she shares with one roommate. Mr. Bower is waiting for word on a screenwriting job before he wades back into the real-estate market. Mr. Altman made a stab at finding an apartment, but after losing out on two great places in a row, he is back riding the bus from Manalapan. It’s been 10 months since he had a permanent address.
Only Mr. Berman seems to be keeping the torch lit; he has no immediate plans to leave the hotel. “But I don’t use the room service; I figure that’s going wild,” he explained. “That’ll turn me into one of those old nuts, like Salvador Dali, living at the St. Regis. I don’t pop in for a nightcap before I go up to my room either. I won’t dive that far into hotel life. But talk to me in six months. Maybe I’ll be down at the bar around the piano, singing.”