After learning that my friend Anna was a prostitute, I moved out of her apartment located on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. I desperately searched on Craigslist for new roommates. None of the places I saw seemed to be good options. I figured the next roommate would be a crackhead or a serial killer with my luck. And unfortunately, even a studio in one of the worthwhile parts of NYC (Manhattan below 96th Street or East River Brooklyn or East River Queens) can cost upwards of 3k. I did not have the kind of success in my day job or in my writing that could afford a proper residence. It was either live in a high crime ghetto where rent was cheap, or do the roommate thing. But of courses, crazies, con artists, and other assorted freaks come with the territory when you’re dealing with roommates.
So what was I to do? Living in Manhattan would let me walk to work. I worked as a waiter in a wine bar/restaurant in Chelsea. Saving on commuting time would be great, plus I’d have all the convenience in Manhattan if only I could afford to live there. Various friends suggested I move into the subsidized apartments for artists. But those apartments had massive waitlists, I soon learned. Getting into an apartment like that could take years. What was I supposed to do, live in the shelter in the meantime? I finally decided to rent a room from my friend Yosef. Now Yosef I knew was a bit unconventional. He had two local income apartments in Chelsea that he rented out. I had been his friend for years. So he decided to give me a good price on one of the rooms. I moved in. Upon moving in with him, I learned that Yosef was more devious than I dreamed. In one of the apartments, he rented out both bedrooms for $1,000 dollars while he slept in the living room. His rent was only $500, so his profit was $1,500. He worked part time as a swimming instructor. But Yosef was such a schemer he had food stamps, and he went to the soup kitchens for free food. On top of that, Yosef carefully monitored the neighborhood for anything thrown out. Chelsea always has people moving in and out of town, students, interns, medical residents, law clerks, theatre industry people, film industry people, professors, etc. People often throw away good good because it’s not worth it to ship. So Yosef would scan the streets for good garbage. This way he got his air conditioners, his microwaves, his beds and other furniture all for free. Ditto his plates, pots, pans, drinking glasses and other kitchenware. The only thing Yosef paid for his apartment was his laptops, smartphones, and tablets. Yosef loved electronics. Electronics,and vacations to Brazil, Colombia, Venezuela, the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico were the only things Yosef was willing to spend money on. He was the king of being cheap, as I called it. He called himself the king of craft. Though Yosef was a bit extreme, I would say as a freelance writer I learned a lot from him. Working as a waiter and freelance writer paid poorly. In order to be able to pay my rent I needed to cut costs where possible. So each day I worked in the restaurant was a free meal on the house. That in itself helped tremendously. I did go to the soup kitchens like Yosef. I even learned you could get free groceries from certain soup kitchens. I needed to cut expenses on food so I would be able to party at the city’s most exclusive clubs. I looked up a good friend of mine from my Cornell University days. I hadn’t seen Virginia since graduation. But I looked her up and found out she lived not too far away.
Virginia was a freelance writer and a temp. She also occasionally waited tables as well. She had been living in hipster Brooklyn with her boyfriend until they fell out with each other. She went on the boards at her job looking for a new room to rent. Isabel, a woman who worked at one of Virginia’s gigs was renting out a room in a Lower East Side housing projects. Virginia accepted the room as it was cheap and within walking distance to all the places she loved. Unfortunately, shortly after moving in that building, a couple of people not known to Virginia got shot. But she and Isabel were questioned by the NYPD, along with many other building residents.
As for me, I was taking advantage of all the area had to offer. I’m an excellent swimmer, and there were several New York City Parks Department Recreation Centers nearby. These city owned gyms offer yearly membership of $150 dollars, and they have pools. I went swimming at least 5 days a week. When I could afford to do grocery shopping I went to Whole Foods and Trader Joes. I eat a lot, and what I was getting for free from the restaurants and the soup kitchens didn’t cover all of what I liked to eat. Events at various film organizations were within walking distance. I frequently attended events at Tribeca and IFP. At one of these events, I met documentary filmmaker Lukas. Lukas had a phd in astrophysics from Harvard University. He had tried to move further in the academic world, and it just wasn’t working out for him. So he decided to do documentaries on various scientific topics. Lukas was a pretty smart guy and we started hanging out. I learned he had done volunteer work for the UN across South America and Africa. He always kept himself busy. However, he hadn’t made it big as a filmmaker. Depression came in, and he turned to coke which drained his already meager finances. Now, having come across my share of frauds and psychopathic liars, of course I didn’t believe Lukas’s claims. So I did my research and found out he told the truth about his educational and work history. That was pleasing.
Now everyone probably thinks if Virginia, myself, and Lukas were all having how could we afford to drink in the expensive bars in the area. Well, we looked young. I carried a backpack with me (I would go swimming earlier in the evening before going to the bars). Lukas would have his briefcase, and of course Virginia would have her purse. We would just tell the bartenders we wanted juice and that we didn’t drink alcohol. They would sell us big glasses of cranberry juice for $2. And we would sneak away at different points to the bathroom, open our bags and poor vodka or other hard liquor in the cranberry juice. We always carried booze in our bags. Granted this was low class but you do what you have to do in New York City. Isn’t that the whole point of being there? Lukas, Virginia, and I were the broke Ivy League crowd. We weren’t ever going to be Presidents, CEOs, or lawyers. Everyone always wondered why people like us attended top level universities and didn’t follow in whatever politician’s foot steps. We didn’t bother to explain. No one will ever really know why someone does or doesn’t do something. But we all felt that we missed our ship. Certain things have to be done in a very narrow time frame career wise, and if they are not done then you’ve more or less indefinitely lost your chance. You basically need the right internships and summer jobs, and your first job or two after graduation is critical. Things at Lukas’s post doctoral program ended horribly after a massive falling out with the professor he worked with. That was the end of him in academia. Virginia and I just never got good career building jobs in our first year after graduation, and after that things went downhill. So both of us gave up on normal things and ended up doing the freelance writer thing. All three of us exchanged tips on how to cut expenses and get over in New York City. Lukas had the rare cheap studio in a busted up tenement building in the Lower East Side. He got wind of this from another friend of his who hooked him up. Lukas was lucky because tenements in the Lower East Side continued to be bought out by developers. The new owners would evict those legitimately not there ,and buy out the remaining people. The tenements would be either gutted and renovated, or demolished and replaced by luxury condominiums.
As bad as things were, we all held on to the hope we would make it. Now hope can be seen as good or bad. While it is nice to be positive, if you keep hoping for something that never happens that absolutely sucks. It’s something that many artists agonize on. Most would be artists will not make it. There’s a line of thought that says since your likelihood of making it is so small, money cannot be a primary motivation for doing artwork. You have to do your art because you love doing it above all other things. I feel that way about writing and swimming. I will do those two things no matter what. So I am in the school of thought do what you love because you love it, but understand you may face indefinite poverty because of it. The stereotype of the starving artists is a fairly accurate stereotype.
Yosef on the other hand, was far from starving. He’d come along away from the housing projects of the South Bronx. He took the money he made from his low income apartments and invested it in the stock market. During the latest bull market, Yosef sold some of his stocks at the height of the market and made a huge profit. He reinvested. How could Yosef do this and not get caught by the welfare department? Yosef’s schemes new no bounds. He placed all his ill gotten money in his grandfather’s account, who he had manipulated him to name him the sole heir in his will. He had never driven a car, but with his newfound prosperity he decided to take driving lessons. He got his driver’s license. Yosef had his grandfather buy a house and a car in upstate NY. Yosef would began spending his weekends in the countryside.
Yosef nearly got busted. He took interest in a crackhead girlfriend named Nora. She was from Florida. After Nora stopped crack, she gained weight and became fat. Yosef manipulated her into moving back to Florida getting a Section 8 apartment there, and renting it out while she lived with in New York with him. Yosef took the money from that too. What possessed his girlfriend to be this dumb I’ll never know. But anyway, they had a huge fight and the girlfriend turned Yosef in to welfare fraud. She was furious when he called her a fat ass ox. But Yosef was slimy than a snake. He and the other roommate living with us were all over 6 feet tall. So when the welfare investigators came over and searched the apartment, Yosef made sure we were gone that day. He claimed our clothes and possessions as his own. By this point he had already thrown Nora’s clothes in the garbage, so her clothes were not a factor in the search. Yosef then proceeded to turn Nora as living in New York to the government, and she lost her apartment in Florida. She became homeless.
My days and my social circle in Chelsea would soon come to a quick end. In all this time, cocaine was taking a serious toll on Lukas. He decided to leave New York City and return to his native Oregon. I would miss him, but I understood. I saw him off at the airport. Virginia had grown weary of being a struggling writer in New York. She felt she’d never achieve her dream of being a property owner. She felt her financial state limited her dating and marriage options as well. She had grown depressed. She decided to return home to the Midwest. So out of the crew that just left me and Yosef. Only a developer bought the building that Yosef was in. They wanted to gut renovate this tenement. They offered Yosef 40,000 to leave. Yosef laughed at this. But the developer seriously wanted all low income people out. Yosef was eventually able to negotiate $200,000. He accepted the buyout offer and left. He still had another low income apartment in Chelsea. I declined living in it. I began the search of looking for a new roommate all over again. Then I said the hell with it and I hit the road. As for where I went to, that’s a story for another time. But after all this time I do miss my Chelsea crowd. Sadly, we did not keep in touch. But New York City is like that, people are in and out of town all the time.