Review of My One Month NYC Sublet
As this is a travel section and not a navel-gazing personal essay/rant depot, I’ll not go too deeply into why I have spent the last four weeks in my home city of New York. Suffice it to say, I had to travel here from LA for medical reasons. I’m OK now, thank Science, but as my tenure in the city that never sleeps comes to a close, I’d like to offer some thoughts on the temporary domicile I chose instead of: a) my childhood home (too hot, too much parental involvement, too uncomfortable for my wife and I, especially while recovering from a procedure), and b) my brother and his girlfriend’s apartment (which is very nice, but would have felt like imposing on two young people who already have very busy lives and don’t need to play nurse nancy). Alas, I’m not alone: More and more people are now choosing to look for extended stay options (especially for medical trips), even in cities where they know people, especially given that new types of hotels designed explicitly for extended stays have been popping up over the last couple of years. (See my forthcoming March article from Inc. magazine on these joints; I’ll link to it at some point.) Still, I decided a more personal, home-style approach would be best for us.
The first thing I thought I’d do was check out Craigslist (no dice, lots of sketchy real estate agents) and then look into sites like AirBnB.com as well as this one wildcard site recommended to me by a touring musician. (I’m not actively linking to any of these, by the way, because I can’t quite endorse one with such limited experience; visit them on your own and make an independent decision. I ended up finding the best option for us on the wildcard site, but that’s not to say that you won’t find the best spot for you on any of the others.) Yet one thing that all of these sites failed to address in an attempt to remove the personal aspect from long-term stays is renter-rentee security: surprise, but it’s smart to include a standard sublease agreement. Especially if you’re headed somewhere for an important reason. Last thing you want, of course, is to arrive at the joint you’ve secured after paying a stranger a few grand via PayPal to find out you’re not even allowed to stay there, especially if the owner lives in another country. That such an arrangement is OK with some people — even people who own expensive real estate — only speaks to an objective lack of intelligence in a world rife with identity theft and shysters. (Why do dumb people always end up with great real estate? Perhaps a question better left for another piece.)
Anyway, that was our situation at the beginning. I had to lobby for a real sublease agreement — even though it protects a landlord as much or more than a renter — and then be labeled as someone who “is always bargaining.” It worked out — although just upon arrival, when it was too late to make other plans, it was explained to me that the building containing my temporary unit was a co-op that specifically banned subletting. Which meant that as the days and weeks went on, I was not able to come and go in a sort of stress-free way, despite some very nice doormen: I had to instruct all guests (and there were’t many of them) to pretend they were friends of the owner; and the general stress level that I could be kicked out at any moment was ever-present if not extremely high. Not really what you want when you’re paying a lot of money to stay somewhere for four weeks so a surgeon can use an extremely advanced technique to keep you healthy for the rest of your life. But I digress.
Rental method and landlord issues aside, I found that using one of these sites was fairly easy — that is, if you believe in blind trust. So, too, was communicating with the landlord — although, be ready to deal with virtual communication a lot (which means having to deal with people who may not be bright enough to communicate maturely via e-mail — or in certain cases, to be available, or speak English), and with a number of other unknowns.
In our case, we ended up in a roomy, bright one-bedroom apartment with high ceilings and lovely hardwood floors on the east side of New York City, near the 59th Street Bridge. It had clean white walls, a comfortable queen-size bed, professional cooking appliances, cozy living room furniture, flatscreen TV (sans good cable channels), and Internet (although I had to buy an Airport Express from the Apple store to get my Wi-Fi humming, but that was a small $100 concession). In all, it was a fine choice, save for the aforementioned social and communication issues.
What I’d like to write about more, however, is the sort of philosophical issues that come with uprooting yourself and staying in someone else’s apartment for more than just a couple of weeks. This wasn’t a crashpad. It was truly a temporary home. I had my family visit. I cooked in the kitchen. My wife often engaged with the building staff — and did laundry with other families’ hired help, while pretending to be a resident to many people who could have been co-op officers. After the procedure, I became a regular at a couple of the neighborhood restaurants. I visited a bar. I bought a humidifier in the Bed, Bath, & Beyond.
I was in the place long enough, in fact, that I began to have issues with the neighborhood. Why is the Food Emporium so damn expensive and gourmet-seeming when they never have a fresh piece of salmon that could rival my Los Angeles fish joint? It’s great living by the bridge for Long Island visitors, but the car noise is really something for which I did not sign up, given some of the headaches I had to weather. In other words, this wasn’t quite hotel living — or even extended-stay hotel living. Especially being in the space for more than a few weeks. This was literally temp-living. Temporal displacement. And even though it happened in the city that raised me, I still felt as if I was always dialoguing with an “other,” always playing pretend.
I had never lived in the uber-quiet and wealthy Sutton Place area, for instance. My New York, growing up, was Tribeca, the Upper West Side, West Village, Brooklyn. Sure, I’d run up and down 5th Ave. as a kid on his way to dates at the Met Museum. Sure, I’d enjoyed the requisite and overpriced dessert a few times at Serendipity 3. (Before John Cusack made that lovely film we all bought to sit on the shelves next to Kubrick and Orson Wells.) But this micro-hood, so close to the Upper East Side, was a foreign place to me. And I was living in someone else’s home, picking up someone else’s mail, looking at pictures of someone else’s dog, treading lightly (and very cleanly, to the point of anxiety) in someone else’s space, whether or not he or she lived there full-time anymore. I never knew until I tried it, but it’s an odd experience, getting up in the middle of the night and being able to make it to the bathroom and/or kitchen without having to think about it, or even open your eyes, given that it’s not your kitchen or bathroom. It almost makes you question who you are, inside, and how you got there. Was this a parallel world?
As I type out this little ditty, I sit at some sort of uneven but stylish nickel or zinc-plated wooden table with a Dali-esque view of what I have come to call Our Smokestack Garden, just outside the living room window. Maybe it would feel less surreal to be here all the time — if, say, there were just another building, or a view of the river, in this direction. But sometimes I wonder just what my residential reality is. My home is in Los Angeles, at the moment, but my family lives in this metro area, and I have seen more of them this month than I have most years, living out west. Of course, I could quote Billy Joel or the smug, pandering “Away We Go” film and say that I’m home wherever my wife and I sleep. Yes, poets of pop culture: you’re right. But living in a sublet for a month in another city is a new type of Slow Travel — one that messes with me on the ontological and philosophical level. Especially when it’s in another city for functional reasons — as opposed to, say, Spain for a holiday.
The more I stay here, for example, and the more occasional visitors I receive in this living room (my friends and family have been great about coming by to see how I’m doing, while still treading ever-so-lightly and never upsetting the quiet balance of the whisper-filled co-op), I feel like I’m hosting them somewhere that is partly mine. That the space itself, filled with sophomoric art and luxury appointments in a swanky portion of New York City, says something about me the way my real apartment in LA does. That I must remind myself that something important to my life — in this case, recovering from surgery — has happened here. I fear that I may have memories of this place that last longer and function differently than memories of, say, my favorite hotel on Sardinia, or even my father-in-law’s home in a rustic portion of central Italy, where I spent a few weekends last year on assignment. That I may associate this space with too many unpleasant memories.
In a way, the place is too personal. I almost feel as if I would have benefitted better from staying in something more impersonal but still full of home-grade amenities like an AKA Hotel. But for people on something of a budget, it’s just much more cost-effective to try the one or two-month sublet. It also gives you more true home-y amenities, which you need if you’re going to be handling something of a medical nature.
Please excuse the absence of pictures and video in this piece. Of course, they would help, and entertain. I just thought long and hard about taking readers on a walk-through and explaining my thoughts about various matters, including a kangaroo pelt resting comfortably on the bedroom’s leather sofa, an antler lamp, and the sign on the door opposite the dining room table that says “Pls Do Not Open,” as if it wouldn’t just be easier to lock the damn thing. But I don’t want to incite more irrational behavior from the landlord. (For the record, I haven’t cared about what might exist behind this Pandora’s Door, but others, including my wife have, and it’s just a funny conversation topic, although I have never let anyone try to open it. I’m sure it’s just some sort of a private closet, or else an old door that led to the apartment next door — this pre-war building was likely cut up into smaller apartments at some point. Still, I guess the possibility remains that it’s a portal into another dimension.)
In the future, I’ll try to avoid another one-month sublet from the random stranger advertising on the Internet. It’s certainly a valid, timely form of Slow Travel, in the sense that it’s instantly available and puts you in direct contact with the local community as a true/mock resident. But it’s just too much of a mindfuck (technical term), and there are just too many unknowns, especially if you’re subletting for a very important reason. Which is why I had initially sent out a note to a bunch of friends asking if they had knowledge of someone in the city who might want to enter into such an arrangement with us. Chances are that the timing just wasn’t right. But to sublet — or, I would imagine apartment-switch — for more than a couple of weeks, especially for serious life reasons from a stranger that could have all sorts of personality issues (stupidity, for instance)?
I’m not sure that’s an option for me in the future, and I’m really looking forward to leaving on our agreed-upon departure date, and in leaving the place in the exact condition that I found it (cleaner, even), lest someone more irrational cashes a deposit check I probably shouldn’t have sent overseas to begin with. What’s next? I do have to remain in NYC for a few weeks. So, please make those guest beds, mom, says the 33-year-old married professional. It looks like there’s a reason we don’t toss around the word “home” as casually as it might appear, and pinging between real homes owned by my family members is likely a strong way to improve the taste in my mouth that this Slow Travel experience has left me with. Away We Go.
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