While it’s important to surround yourself with exceptional people and to do fulfilling work, nothing can keep you as grounded as having a home that you love. This is the cardinal rule for surviving NYC, too; the days and people and cost are so unforgiving, that having a sanctuary to which you can retreat, relax, and rejuvenate should be every person’s top priority. When I moved here, I knew I would probably end up in Brooklyn; most of my friends suggested I try Williamsburg. I looked at a half-dozen terrible, not-worth-the-cost arrangements there, when my ex Dan (@grossypelosi)—always looking out for me—asked for leads from his friends. His high school pal replied that she had an opening in her rent-stabilized, $750/month Prospect Heights 3-bedroom. I hustled to the 2/3 train later that night, and took it for 30 minutes into foreign territory. I popped out in the crisp January evening, with no clue as to where I was, but humbled by the very first thing I saw: the majestically lit Brooklyn Museum. I walked down Eastern Parkway, which, with the enormous Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Arch at one end, feels like Champs-Élysées minus any commercialism. There’s also Prospect Park, the Brooklyn Library, and Botanic Garden all on one side, across from a never-ending row of stunning pre-war apartments. “Do people in Manhattan realize this is here?” I wondered, already enamored—and even before I discovered the brownstones, charming restaurants, buzzing pubs, and quiet coffee shops. The room was in a row-house building, a first-floor unit. It was in the very back of the apartment, removed from any noise and with a large window that opened into the private backyard—which was only accessible through this space. It was a small room, big enough for a bed and a shelf, but at this point I only had three bags of belongings. I knew I needed this place, no hesitations. I charmed my potential roommates—two witty, intellectual best friends—over wine, and got a phone call an hour later with an invitation to move in. I knew this apartment would finally keep me anchored, and that Prospect Heights would be the foundation for the fruitful years ahead.
The more stories I heard about other people’s housing misfortunes—from bad roommates to stubborn landlords, from bug infestations to rent hikes—the more I realized how lucky I was to have landed where I did. Many of my friends were paying twice as much as me to have even less space in noisy corners of Manhattan, a tradeoff that seemed entirely illogical. Not only did they have to pay way more, but they didn’t have quiet nights and weekends, nor did they have pristine, enormous Prospect Park just minutes from their stoop. It had all the perks of Central Park—even the same architects—minus any touristy gimmicks like pedicabs and horse-drawn carriages and street performers. My commute was 30 minutes, which is probably the average for most New Yorkers, even those living in lower Manhattan, and after any long work day, the stress melted away as soon as my eye caught the Prospect Heights brownstones. I had the best setup of nearly everyone my age, or at least those who had to earn their own keep and pay their own bills. For three years I stayed there, tolerating minor things like fussy radiators and occasional mice in the kitchen—nothing was so bad that I ever thought of leaving, especially for the price I paid. However, when my close friend Daniel (@danielseunglee) had a bedroom open up in his apartment in Crown Heights in November 2014, I decided to gamble my sanctuary and move slightly east. It was just $100 more for twice as much space, which was timely since my tiny room was now brimming with accumulated belongings. This new place was a third-floor walkup, still rent-stabilized, still a row-house, and still back-of-house, away from any noise. Plus, I’d have only one roommate, who was also a best friend. It all made perfect sense, like I’d be trading the old haven for new. I had it good, but I still thought I could do better, so, I rolled the dice and cut myself free of that three-year anchor.
My move took place a few weeks after I got that wooden gypsy idol, Heather, from a roadside antique shop. I set her up on the desk in my new room—I had space for a desk!—alongside various trinkets and candles and whatnot, and just below a framed drawing of a friendly, burly bear. My room came together very quickly, as I didn’t want to waste time settling in and calling it home. One morning in early December, I woke to the sound of a man screaming bloody murder, and I jolted upright just as the framed bear illustration leapt off the wall and shattered onto my desk. I jumped from my bed and tiptoed carefully to examine the scene, and there, underneath the face-down bear and broken glass, was Heather. Nothing else on the desk had been affected by the fall, despite the fact that she was neighbored by other objects; the bear somehow came off its mount and leapt atop her. I tried making sense of it, wondering what could have possibly caused this. And what of the man screaming in agony? I picked up Heather and examined her closely again. No tarnishes. She stared back, smiling and clutching her bible. I felt goosebumps everywhere. All of this happened in the span of 30 seconds, and then, to make matters even more curious, my alarm went off while I clutched her in my hands. I had been setting the buzzer for 7:09 a.m. each day, since July 9 was the day I met and fell for Romeo. So on this morning, everything had happened at 7:08, waking me just moments before my assigned 7:09: a scream, a leap, a crash, an alarm.
Daniel and I smudged the apartment with sage, cleansing each room with smoke to ward away any bad spirits that Heather carried with her. Daniel believes in ghosts and the supernatural, and he worried about what sort of curse I had brought to the apartment. I found it a little silly, but played along because whatever had happened in my bedroom was disconcerting. Romeo was unsettled by it too, but pointed out that the black bear must have played some part in protecting me. I really loved Heather though; she was unique, a memento on my desk, a reminder of Romeo. I refused to actually rid of her, and picked her up that next night, while the sage still lingered in the air, to tell her this: “Whatever baggage you’ve got, it ends with me. I’m going to win this one.” It was a challenge, really, and maybe an acknowledgment that I believed in the supernatural, too. Try me, old woman; nothing can shake me. I’ve been weak, and I’m not going back. I positioned her where she stood before, as if to prove to this silly doll that I had order. I re-framed the bear drawing the same day, and hung it above her again. She had a new neighbor, too: a small black bear figurine that Romeo bought for me, to look over her shoulder and keep me safe. I think Romeo felt some guilt, as if our togetherness created some sort of bad juju: “This bear is for your peace of mind, bub. Or maybe mine.”
I harassed the landlord daily to get us a new lease, one with my name on it that I could sign, one that fixed me to the stabilized rent and that would keep me there just as long as I had been in Prospect Heights. The tenants below us had recently moved out, which allowed him to hike the rent on the new guys moving in. Given the increasing popularity of the neighborhood, I understood why he didn’t want my name on the lease, why he hoped we would also leave. So, I bugged him regularly, hoping that the nagging would have him finally deliver the document he owed us. Soon, I had a second complaint, too: Our top-floor unit housed the release valves of the building’s heat pipes, which steamed out into our kitchen and bathroom. It wasn’t just hot air, though; it also exhausted a pungent, sulfur-meets-burnt-plastic smell. I dreaded going home every day, since my stomach would turn over the second I walked in the door. I would get takeout to avoid using the kitchen, and would sprint to my bedroom to eat it. Showers were short, and I would have to breathe through my mouth to avoid feeling uneasy. Daniel’s sense of smell must be compromised, because it only added to my angst that he didn’t find any harm in the matter; I must be crazy. Paranoid, I suspected foul play from the landlord, like maybe this was some old building owner’s trick for smoking out unwanted tenants. Perhaps I was just getting what I was paying for; I assumed the smell would eventually wear. At least I still had my room, which was free of pipes and instead heated by a radiator that I could control. I didn’t have to worry, so long as I had that reprieve. So long as I had some control.
One morning in mid-January 2015, I woke to the radiator spilling hot water; in a few minutes it had already lost a half-gallon. I was used to this happening a few times each winter at my old Prospect Heights abode, and knew how to bleed the pipes in order to get the steam flowing through. I received a text later that day from the landlord: the water had leaked into the apartment below mine, where the new tenants were living (and paying much more). He asked me to leave a key under the mat so he could examine the radiator while I was at work. I obliged, asking him to please bring a new lease (as I had been requesting) and to finally address the stench (as I had been requesting). He agreed to handle both. I returned home that night to the familiar rancid smell, and found exactly zero leases. Furious, I hurried to my bedroom and slammed the door, only something was different about my sanctuary: it was hot…boiling hot, in fact. The radiator was on full blast, and I could feel the searing metal from across the room. I tried turning it off, only now it was locked on. I texted the landlord: “What did you do to my radiator? Why is it locked? And where is the lease? And did you even look at the pipes to fix the stench?” His response: “Is the radiator leaking?” Now I was boiling: “No, you seemed to have fixed that. Congratufuckinglations.” Then him again: “If it’s not leaking, then there is no issue.” I screamed when I saw that text. I was livid, but could do nothing. I plugged in the air conditioner, which had a built-in temperature gauge. It said that my room was 116 degrees Fahrenheit (roughly 47 degrees Celsius), and the cold air it generated was doing little to combat the internal heat source. I felt even more helpless now. There was a pit in my stomach, a desperation I had not felt in over five years, ever since that panic attack in San Francisco. This was supposed to be my home, my sanctuary.