There is nothing particularly special about the LaGuardia airport. It’s fluorescent lighting paints the room a sickly yellow, everyone wears the face of someone 10+ years older than they actually are, and it has a distinct Black Friday crowd vibe, without the twinkle of Christmas cheer in the air. Basically it’s the place where cheer of any kind, goes to die.
I stepped off the plane in my tattered TOMS after a 4 hour flight in the middle seat, the chorus of the seven (SEVEN) children on board still ringing in my ears. As I began to shake off the cold AC air from my Airbus A319 chariot, I looked down and realized my shoes were now a sparkling ruby red. I was in New York and this was my Emerald City, baby.
To be clear, I knew going into this we weren’t going to find a gigantic 2 bedroom apartment with a sizable living room and walls painted just the right shade of purple (I am only Monica Gellar in my dreams), but I had no idea just how far off base even a modicum of that expectation was. For example, Gramercy Park would be a possibility only if we were willing to have 5 other roommates (we were not) or pay $5,000/month in rent (we were not). So we began our search in the Upper East Side, Harlem, Brooklyn, and Queens.
Before we get into it I’ll say this: nothing will test the strength of a brand new marriage quite like apartment hunting in a city like New York. It will test your relationship, it will test the strength of your very soul, and most urgently, it will test the strength of your bladder and/or colon. There are almost NO public restrooms in the city, and it will only be a matter of time before you’ll be asking yourself, “Would shitting in the street really be that bad?” At least I know I would have Marshall’s support.
It all started on a Saturday. Fresh off the subway in mid-August heat, we began walking around the neighborhood of Flatbush, Brooklyn. We were right in the middle of what seemed to be the perfect neighborhood for us. Trendy coffee shops aplenty, Prospect Park a 5 minute walk away, friendly looking people walking their dogs, what’s not to love? Straight ahead, we saw a tree-lined street bordered on each side with gorgeous, historic brownstones: Lincoln Rd. Yes, please. We practically skipped down the street, admiring the beautiful buildings, in awe of our luck at finding our neighborhood on the first day! Ignorance was such sweet bliss.
We left cheerful voicemails on the answering machines of every single apartment real estate number we could find. The generic voices told us their hours were Monday-Friday. Oh well, we thought. We would spend the rest of the weekend doing fun touristy things, and hit the streets of Flatbush first thing on Monday.
Fast forward through a lovely weekend of sight seeing and shopping, to a phone call I received Monday morning from a broker in Flatbush. He had 2 apartments he wanted to show us, could we be ready that afternoon? Hell yes we could. We arrived to our appointment destination and apartment #1 twenty minutes early, eagerly awaiting the chance to fawn over exposed brick and natural lighting.
The building itself looked like it had just survived a hurricane. In fact, the whole street looked like it had just survived a hurricane. Imagine a Hey Arnold!-esque street block in a zombie-ridden, post-apocalyptic wasteland. “Don’t be so judgmental,” I told myself, “keep an open mind, this block is probably wonderful once you get to know it.” Our broker arrived, and took us inside. As we walked through the lobby of the apartment building, it took me a minute to realize we were actually in an apartment building, and not a prison cafeteria. Small, rectangular windows sat on the wall just inches from the ceiling, letting in smudgy, dust-filtered sunlight. We crammed into the vertical coffin of an elevator, and took it up to the 3rd floor. Ignoring the smell of bleach and urine, we followed our broker to apartment #3c. Oh! What a sight to behold! I’ll break it down into pros and cons for you:
-It had a living room, kitchen, and bedroom with a door
-It was not on the ground floor, making zombie infiltration less of a possibility
-It seemed to be the source of the bleach and urine smell
-Paint was peeling off the wall in inches-thick sheets, with what appeared to be some kind of mold or dark creature living inside the space between the paint and wall
-I could palm the ceiling with no effort whatsoever
-The air tasted like sweat, and despair
-The hardwood floor was stained and sagging, it was what I imagine an old, neglected pirate ship’s floor would look like.
“So, what do you think?” the broker quipped, knowing the answer from the look on our faces. “Well…I don’t love it. Let’s see what else you have.” I said tentatively, not wanting to hurt his feelings if he loved zombie wastelands. He laughed and shook his head impatiently. “I thought you said you wanted an apartment in Flatbush? This is what the apartments are here, this is the neighborhood. If you don’t like this, you aren’t going to like whatever else I have to show you.”
“You see, when I told you we loved the Flatbush area, we were standing on Lincoln Rd, just minutes from Prospect Park.” I said. “Oh, then you should have told me you wanted the Lefferts Garden area of Flatbush, I have nothing over there to show you.” he remarked defensively. And with that, we were out. Our hopes of Flatbush shattered like windows in a vicious, spiteful storm. So this is how it was going to be.
And now, a charming story about the open house in Harlem we went to. I’ll start by saying, Harlem is beautiful. Historic brownstones, towering gothic-looking churches, with soul food and jazz being the heartbeat of the neighborhood. I was excited at the prospect of finding an apartment with such a short commute to midtown.
This was not the street in Harlem to look for any of these things. As our Uber driver dropped us off, he looked at me with a mix of amusement and pity in his eyes. He seemed to be trying to communicate with me telepathically: are you sure this is where you want me to drop you off? I smiled reassuringly, yes. Yes this is where I might live (or die.)
It became immediately apparent we were not welcome on this block. Intimidating men leered at us from their stoops, “Hey babbbbyyyyyy” a man catcalled from across the street. The broker poked his head out of the door, “You here for the open house? Come in, come in!” he beckoned to us quickly, looking around shiftily. A promising start.
He showed us two available apartments in the building. The first was still filled with the previous tenant’s belongings. It looked like someone had packed an entire house into a single room. Dirty clothes littered every surface, the prison-grade bed covered a fake fireplace in the exposed brick wall. Was this someone’s apartment, or was a homeless person squatting in here? I put my best non-judging face on. “I love the brick, and the little kitchenette is cute” I said, referring to the microwave in the 5×5 room sprinkled with rat feces.
“Actually, that’s a full kitchen. Not a kitchenette.” I stared at him blankly. He got the hint, and led us to the next available unit, in the basement. Mercifully, this one was empty. While I could probably simultaneously touch the opposite walls of the unit with my hands and feet laying on the floor, no amount of exposed brick and soul food in the world could make me consider living in this
terrifying shithole apartment. This broker did not pick up on our facial cues as swiftly as the last one had. “4 months of rent upfront will move you in. We are at the start of our busy season, everyone thinks they will find something better, but they always come back once they realize the reality of the New York real estate market. We’ll need all necessary paperwork from both of you, and your guarantor.” Nick is a no-bullshit sort of man, one of the many reasons I love him and married him. However, displaying any sort of attitude on this block, in this crackhouse apartment building, could put us in danger. “We’ll be in touch!” I said cheerfully before Nick could tell him off. Heavy with disappointment, I summoned an Uber to get us back to our midtown hotel room. We descended the stoop stairwell to get to the sidewalk when Nick nearly ran into a large, intimidating man by accident.
“Get the F*** out of here!” he growled. We scurried across the street, wanting nothing more than to get the f*** out of there. A drunk man rapping along to the song in his headphones as he threw empty whiskey shooters at passing traffic danced near us as we waited for our car. Harlem was officially out. So, that was the worst of our experience. There were many other disappointments and unreturned calls, but let’s skip to the good part now.
It was a warm, clear afternoon in Bushwick, Brooklyn when we finally found our home, the day before we were set to leave. Sunlight filtered through the many trees lining the street of Bushwick Ave and our broker was on time, friendly, and loved dogs. The building was not the architecturally baroque haven of my dreams, but it was lovely all the same. He led us to a ground floor unit (all the easier to move your furniture into, my sweet) and revealed that he and his pregnant wife also live in the building (all the more safe and reassuring, my dear). The apartment is small, it consists of a bedroom (with a door!), a bathroom, and a kitchen. There is no conceivable place to host guests, but that is the least of my concerns at this point in the game. The coffered bedroom ceiling has beautiful decorative molding, and natural light pours in through 3 large windows. The bathroom is tiled, and has a bathtub. The kitchen has high ceilings, a pantry, and new-enough appliances. Not a single piece of rat shit in sight. This was home. We knew it the moment we walked in.
“We want it” I told him as Julie Andrews frolicked through flower filled meadows in my mind. We exchanged the necessary information, and began the week-long process of filling out mountains of paperwork, and emptying our savings accounts. It took a lot of courage, patience, and stress-eating, but we did it. We were officially moving to New York.
Upon exiting the subway stop near our midtown hotel, high from the success of finding our apartment, we witnessed a woman jump to her death off an 18 story building. It was shocking, sickening, and the most horrifying thing I have ever seen. Streets were blocked off, cops and fire trucks swarmed the area, and I tried to stumble into my hotel building without vomiting. I reached out to my friend that lives in the city, asking for reassurance that this was not a bad omen. She assured me it was not, that it happens literally every single day, and well, it was just New York.
That’s the thing about this city: it tears you down, shocks you, terrifies you…and then it lifts you back up again. Yes, you see rats and cockroaches and suicides and people jerking off in the middle of the sidewalk. It’s expensive and overcrowded and seemingly impossible to survive in. But then there’s music, and life, and happiness filling every other corner. A jazz band in a subway station makes the air buzz with saxophone. A quartet serenades you on the subway car with light up your whole day smiles on their faces. A woman sings heartbreakingly beautiful opera under a bridge in Central Park. Families walk their dogs, lovers stroll hand in hand, old men play chess, and there’s a good place to eat every few feet. New York is beautiful in it’s triumphs and it’s tragedies. And while it tested every limit I have, it also showed me what I’m made of. It showed me I can make it here simply because I’m willing to work hard enough to do so. So bring it on, New York. We are ready for you.