Bourbon Cowboy

The adventures of an urbane bar-hopping transplant to New York.

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Location: New York, New York, United States

I'm a storyteller in the New York area who is a regular on NPR's "This American Life" and at shows around the city. Moved to New York in 2006 and am working on selling a memoir of my years as a greeting card writer, and (as a personal, noncommercial obsession) a nonfiction book called "How to Love God Without Being a Jerk." My agent is Adam Chromy at Artists and Artisans. If you came here after hearing about my book on "This American Life" and Googling my name, the "How to Love God" book itself isn't in print yet, and may not even see print in its current form (I'm focusing on humorous memoir), but here's a sample I've posted in case you're curious anyway: Sample How To Love God Introduction, Pt. 1 of 3. Or just look through the archives for September 18, 2007.) The book you should be expecting is the greeting card book, about which more information is pending. Keep checking back!

Saturday, February 03, 2007

A Miracle in Bushwick

Finding an apartment in New York City is a terrifying, dog-eat-dog experience. And it's all the worse when your entire stake is just under $1300 and you have to live for two weeks on whatever's left over after first and last month's rent. Living space is tough enough to find: cheap living space is a virtual impossibility. I even started looking for places outside the city, off in New Jersey. This isn't a bad idea, I'm told, if you're near the PATH train, which is everyone's chief link into the city (15-20 minutes to midtown, depending on the breaks). But the only place I could find in Jersey for my $500 price tag was an 8-minute bus ride AWAY from the PATH. Which would be, I'm guessing, a 30 minute drunken stumble across town if I come in late at night after the buses stop running? No thanks.

I called about a place on Long Island, then found out there were literally no subways there. I interviewed for a BEAUTIFUL $500 place only three blocks from me, then never got a call back. I was starting to get desperate, since I'm supposed to be out of here by the 14th.

So I started calling every single listing on Craigslist, no matter if it was in Astoria, or the far end of Queens, or wherever. This isn't as many as it looks like because (if you check the listings yourself you'll see) most of the best rents are for "Female Roommates Only!" So it comes to between two and four listings---listings which you are essentially competing with every other tightwad in New York for a shot at. And I wound up with two places to see yesterday, and two more for today.

The first looked wonderful: It was for $500 in Jackson Heights, Queens, and as soon as I stepped off the train I loved the place: busy, vibrant, bustling---all the things I love about the city. The only problem: there was some screw-up with the 6 train (which I took to the F), and not only were there only two trains in the time I waited (normally they come every five minutes), but the ones that came were packed to thickly that literally no one could get on. The 6 has never treated me with way before. I stood at the 32nd street 6 station for 45 minutes waiting for a train when I could have just walked ten blocks to Grand Central. As a result, I was late to meet with the guy, and when I got off the train and called---after I'd been on the subway for an hour and was only a block away---he said, "I'm sorry. A guy just handed me the money." Aaargh!

The next stop I was dubious about. $400 for what had been described as "An eight by eight room" in what was, I was sure, a much crappier neighborhood. The guy was showing the apartment at 7:30. It was 6. According to HopStop, it was going to take me 85 minutes to get there---making a C shape from the F west out of Queens to the A south down Manhattan to the J east back into Brooklyn. I knew it was going to be close, and that if I missed it by so much as five minutes, four guys would show up at 7:30 and it was, as the ad said, "first come, first served." So, with bitter defeat still stinging in my mouth, I called ahead and left a message to let him know I was coming, then I raced back to the platform, hopped on the F...and then, sadly, discovered that I had gotten on the wrong train. I didn't find out until I was almost at the end of the line in Jamaica Plain. I had to get off and wait for the F to take me back.

Fuck, I thought. That's it.

I felt the sudden eerie calm of the thoroughly screwed over. I'd now spent ninety minutes on the train, and it was going to take ninety more before I was back in Washington Heights. Clearly I'd lost out on the apartment by now---if I headed right back I would be at least forty-five minutes too late. So I'd spent most of my Friday evening on the subway and had no living space to show for it and the noose was tightening. But I still had two other $500 places to look at tomorrow (both were more of a commute, but still, any port, etc.). And I'd brought a few books with me, and a notebook. So I got off the F train at whatever station is three beyond Union Turnpike, and waited for the E that I needed to get back.

It felt like a long time, and two more F trains passed while I sat there, basically alone in a darkening station. Then an E train pulled in, and I raced over...and it didn't open its doors. The driver shook his head at me, then drove off. The hell? I checked the map again. Ah! The E goes on this same track, but it doesn't actually stop here! I should have taken one of the Fs! F trains, indeed. I took the next one.

There were other missteps along the way: once in Manhattan, I was supposed to switch to the A train to get home, but got on another E instead. And what with one thing and another, even though I'd left work at 4:30, it was 7:10 before I found myself back at the A station on 42nd street, finally ready to head home.

Then a very strange thing happened.

As I was checking the time, my cell phone buzzed. "Number Withheld" was calling me--which is weird, because I have literally never gotten reception in the underground subway before. (When the 1 pops aboveground around Harlem, sure. But never underground. And certainly never on the A!) I answered, and it was the guy from the $400 apartment, calling to announce that he was there early, waiting for me.

"I'm at the 42nd street station," I said. "I'm going home. I assume three or four people will be there before I even show up, and I've been on the subway for almost three hours. I don't see the point."

"42nd street?" said the guy (his name was Andre). "You can get here easily. Just take the A to Fulton and switch to the J. It'll be maybe twenty minutes."

Not according to!, I wanted to say, but here's the thing: I was mostly afraid of taking the place because in addition to the competitive rent, I also assumed it was in a shitty neighborhood. Certainly I'd already missed my good thing in Jackson Heights. But this guy didn't sound skeezy, as even the Jackson Heights guy had. Something about his voice reminded me of a calm, laid-back brother I knew in Tallahassee named Quentin. His voice actually seemed to radiate trust over the phone. So I said, "Ah, what the hell."

"Great," he said. "I'll see you there."

And then, when I got to the Fulton/Nassau station, it took me forever to actually find the J train, and when I got on it I again went in the wrong direction, got off at the next stop, turned around, et cetera. I felt like a tourist again. And it was eight o'clock before I finally made if to the place for the come-one, come-all, seven-thirty meeting.

But it turns out I was the only guy who showed up. Because another odd thing happened which I didn't see but heard about later: it rained like hell all over Bushwick for the next thirty minutes. It was back down to spattering when I finally arrived, but there was water everywhere, dripping down the subway steps and pooling in the corners. Andre said, "I think it was the rain," he said. "A bunch of guys canceled and said they couldn't make it. And I showed this room to two people and they didn't want it."

"This room" is a eight-by-eight room in a third-floor walkup in what you might call a dodgy neighborhood. That much I expected. What utterly stunned me was that I liked it.

Perhaps first you should know that, for about a year, when I first moved out of my parents' house, I lived in a 6 by 9 room that rented for $125 a month. I slept in a loft bed that kept my head inches from the ceiling, and under the bed I had my computer desk, my dresser, and a tiny TV. At one point I had to decide whether to put in a bookshelf or keep the window. The bookshelf won. (After all, if you like sunlight so much, just walk the hell outside! It's only nine feet away.) I still remember that first apartment warmly, because although it looked pretty crappy on paper, in my heart I felt secure. "Yes, it's sort of subhuman," I'd tell myself, "But I can afford it."

This place felt the same. When I look around at my current room---which is about 9' by 16'---I'm mostly struck by the large amount of wasted space I have, which always winds up getting filled with books. Empty space for its own sake is something my brain simply doesn't understand. So the less space I have, the tidier and more organized I become. But here's the other thing: when I was told this place was an 8 by 8 room, I thought that's all I had. But there's not only a very clean bathroom and a surprisingly large kitchen (shared by three other roommates, one of whom is right next door, so I admit I'm a little worried about noise), but I have my own closet down the hall for storage space! I checked it out and it looks like I'll be able to store ALL my books in there, AND all my games, and I might not have to get rid of anything I own! (Well, except the exercise bike, but that was a given.) "But Dave," you may ask. "Where will you keep your clothes?" The same place I always do: in a bin beside the bed where I can see it all. I've owned three dressers in my life and I've never used them. Even as a kid all that I ever kept in them were socks and the occasional pencil.

My friend Jeffrey has a term for it that I've been using ever since: claustrophilia. I love my tiny little place already, because it is tiny and because this makes it absurd. And because---oh, because most of all!---I can afford it. I can not only afford it, I can easily afford it! I never thought that would happen in this city.

As for the neighborhood, it felt a little bit like the barrio back home---the seamy southern end of Fourth Avenue, for those of you who know Tucson. The street was deserted, but there was a busy street nearby (Broadway; the Brooklyn version). Quiet area, but parked cars everywhere---the good kind of quiet (unlike, say, the warehouse district in Kansas City, where there aren't even any cars because no one wants to be there). Bars on the lower windows, but old bars...and a few new buildings with no bars at all. In short, this place, shitty as it looked, smelled of gentrification. Welcome to Bushwick.

"You know why I think?" said Andre, who it turns out even looks a bit like Quentin: same height, same tilt of the head, same jawline, same post-hippie chill vibe. "It's because now Williamsburg is so expensive," Andre said, "everyone's moving out here. Last week I rented an entire building of one of these places to students at NYU and Brooklyn College, and we've started to get musicians and artists too." I'm sure it could be spin, but from what I've seen I believe it. Which means I'm going to start socking away money against my next move, because who knows when they're going to turn around and raise the rent some more? But for now, I have the keys in my pocket, and I'm heading out there today with some measuring tape to see what I can keep and what I need to get rid of. I've got a friend with a car and with any luck I'll be moving next weekend. But as of today, I seem to be a Brooklynite.

By the way, I don't believe in Providence, but the story about the magic cell phone call---the one that convinced me to see the place when I'd given up hope---and the sudden rainstorm that cleared out all my competitors, are both true. I mention them, not because I think there's any larger meaning to them, but because some of you do. And since I'll be living in a rather seedy neighborhood, I thought you might like further assurance: if little miracles are anything to go by, apparently this is where I was meant to be.

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Anonymous kentaro said...

thanks dave, i enjoyed reading that.... here's where i would interject some meaningful comment, but tonight....i'm just saying hi.. take care.

2/05/2007 12:51 AM  

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