It’s Not You, It’s Us: Apartment Hunting in Brooklyn

January 21, 2015 | 1 book mentioned 24 14 min read

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What you do when apartment hunting online, and what a lot of people do, I imagine, is you plug in your preferred neighborhood/price range/amenities/etc., and then out pops a long list of results that you further refine by imagining a very specific and very fictionalized narrative involving a version of yourself that isn’t necessarily true right now but could be true if you lived in apartment X. No, you’ve never wielded a wrench for any longer than the time it takes to pass it to your dad, but why couldn’t you fix a fixer-upper? Or be the kind of person to share one bathroom with six other roommates? Or live with a Ukrainian family that’s gone for five months out of the year, but whose kids you’re expected to babysit as per your new rental agreement?

I asked myself these questions a few weeks after my girlfriend came home one night (while I was sautéing garlic shrimp in our L.A. apartment) and told me that it was over. We’d lived together for 10 years in eight different apartments on two separate coasts, and although she said that it might not feel like it right now, this was going to be a good thing. She said that now, I’d finally be able to move back to the city I loved: New York.

Returning home to your parents’ house after a breakup is a little bit like crawling back into the womb 30 years after you’re born: it’s kind of embarrassing and unpleasant for everyone involved, but once you get settled it’s really not that bad. Mom turned into a kind of gastronomic DJ, taking nightly requests and cooking up a few of her greatest hits, while dad hovered around my bedroom and offered sage advice like, “We never really thought you guys were all that compatible to begin with,” and “When do you think you’ll start looking for your own place?” — which is around the time I happened to stumble across a 2-bedroom townhouse in Park Slope for $900 a month. It had crown moldings and vaulted ceilings and stained glass windows above the doors. It was the first place I found where you didn’t have to superimpose better versions of yourself onto the provided pictures. You could be mediocre at best, or even obnoxious, and still take full advantage of that atrium overlooking the backyard. So I emailed the owner and got this reply:

Dear David
I thank you for your interest in my house and assure you that I and my daughter from London who has lived there for 10 years with me love it as much as you will. Rest assured that it is in excellent condition and that included in the price are heat, hot water, cable, central air and free Wi-Fi! However, there is one thing you should know before I can rent to you my daughter’s apartment, whose name is Rosemary, and has been sick in the hospital with a very rare illness…

The letter went on like that for a few more paragraphs, explaining that the money was needed up front in order to secure both the apartment and, conveniently, to help cover the cost of Rosemary’s hospital bills.

coverHaving been living at home I’d had the opportunity to catch up on a few movies I’d been meaning to watch, namely Captain Phillips on DVD, and I couldn’t help but imagine a gaunt, Somali man sitting in the pirate’s equivalent of an Internet café. I wondered if these sorts of schemes ever worked and if so on whom?

“Hey Dad,” I said. “Check out this amazing apartment I just found.”

After reading the letter my Dad looked up and raised his eyebrows like wire-transferring $900 U.S. into Mrs. Potter’s Western Union account was something I might want to consider.

“I mean it’s sad,” he said, “that her daughter has cancer of the meninges, but David: You’d be a fool to walk away from that price.”

My sister said that in her experience, you couldn’t really rent a Brooklyn apartment if you weren’t already living in Brooklyn and that yes, it was a catch-22, but that was why so many couples were prematurely moving in with each other and inevitably breaking up, and then being forced to live with their exes while trying to find another place, which was exactly the situation my sister was in now. She said that if I didn’t mind a little awkwardness with regard to her ex boyfriend occasionally stopping by, I was more than welcome to sleep on her couch. Also, she said she’d been thinking a lot about our similar situations and, at least financially, didn’t it make sense if we lived together?

It did. And we’d actually done this for six weeks once before when she was living in Chelsea and I was in college. We got into a fight one night and Lauren ended up throwing my books out her 7th-story window and I ended up trawling the streets of SoHo at 3:00 in the morning hoping that something bad but-not-too-bad would happen to me so that she’d be riddled with a lifetime of guilt and regret. But we were older now. We were more mature. We had learned from out past mistakes and we could — no, we would — live together.

So I showed her a place I’d found online with tin ceilings and exposed brick walls I thought she’d like, and a stand-up Jacuzzi that later, she’d tell me, looked like it belonged on a porn set.

“Do you think it’s a Somali scam?” she asked (apparently she had also just watched Captain Phillips on DVD).

“Maybe it’s like a gem,” I said.

“Maybe it’s a scam and we’re going to get murdered when we show up,” she said.

“It’s on 9th Street,” I said. “Ninth Street is super-busy. You can’t get murdered on 9th Street, I don’t think.” “Don’t bring your financials,” she said. “And don’t bring cash. What’s this person’s name?”


“The person we’re going to meet before we get mugged.”

“Hana,” I said.

“Hana what?”

“I don’t know.”

“Well can’t you find out?”

I shook my head.

“Why not?”

“Because that’s weird,” I said. “I’m not going to ask her what her last name is. She sounds nice and I thinks she’s a real person and I don’t want her to think that we’re weird.”

“Dave,” my sister said. “You’re my brother. And we’re about to go look at a porn set to see if we want to live there.”

When I met Lauren outside of the apartment she hugged me and asked if I was ready to get gang-banged.

Hana showed up a few minutes later and to our relief, she was not a Somali pirate at all. She was from Croatia, I think, or somewhere vaguely Slavic where people have high cheekbones and long, blonde hair. I wondered if she was looking for a roommate and if she’d ever tried garlic shrimp before.

We followed her up a quickly sketched staircase and inside where it looked exactly like the photos except smaller. Smaller exposed cooling ducts, smaller tin ceilings, and smaller porn vibes.

“There’s a urinal in the bathroom,” my sister pointed out.

“Yes,” Hana told us. “This is very unique to this apartment. No other apartment has urinal like this.”

I walked into the bathroom and my sister nodded at the stand-up Jacuzzi. Later she would tell me that it reminded her of a Winnebago shower, or a shower where “murders happen.”

“Do you have the dimensions of this room?” Lauren asked, standing in the smaller of the two bedrooms.

I looked at Hana who was shaking her head. She was so cute, Hana. So pretty and nice. I probably would’ve fallen in love with anyone if they promised not to leave me after ten years. Talking out of the side of her mouth she said, “I don’t know exactly, but I’m about four feet this way?” She spread her arms and touched her fingers against one wall and then, to our delight, she began to spiral in lazy circles across the length of the room. I didn’t know if we were supposed to clap when she was finished, but a few mental calculations later and she announced that the whole thing was maybe eight feet by six?

“Perfect!” I said.

I wondered if Hana measured everything like this, or just apartments. I guessed that she was probably my age. Did she have a boyfriend? It would be weird to ask. She mentioned something about living in Queens. I could probably live in Queens. I could live anywhere so long as my apartment was measured in pirouettes and tour jetes.

Lauren widened her eyes.

“Can we come back tomorrow and take some measurements?” I asked. It would be like a second date.

“So? Well? What did you think?”

“What did you think?” my sister said when we were outside, walking.

“Beautiful,” I said. “A little foreign, but I really loved it.”

“What about the urinal in the bathroom?”

“It’s unique,” I said.

“Also, did you notice that there were speakers in the walls? And how there were wires draped all over the floors? And how you couldn’t open that one closet? And the lights in the hallway were blue? Why were they blue? I felt like I was at a nightclub.”

“Huh,” I said. “I didn’t notice.” I pictured inviting Hana over for some clubbing when my sister was out.

“I think we’d get murdered in that bathroom,” Lauren said, and then she shook her head. “I’m really sorry, Dave. I don’t think I can picture myself living there.”

She said that she was already in talks with another real estate agency and that I was kind of on my own now, so I texted Hana and told her I couldn’t meet her for measurements. At least I was breaking it off with her instead of the other way around.

The next afternoon my Nike Fuelband said that I had already walked 15 miles. I ruptured something along the top of my foot because of the 10-year-old Pumas Mom told me not to wear, and then I drank 2 liters of coconut water in order to rehydrate, only to find out afterwards that coconut water can be a really powerful laxative for some people — but I’m getting ahead of myself.

It was 2:30 when I limped into the real estate agency that had a dusty neon sign out front that was only partially lit. Inside it smelled like burnt coffee, but coffee that had pockets of morning breath in it that I kept accidentally walking into and then, like a tired boxer, weaving away from long after I’d already been hit.

“Hello?” I asked.

“Hello,” a voice said.

Someone, about my age with slicked back hair and an expression that can only be described as dripping, pulled open a room divider that I’m almost positive was his bed sheet. He shook my hand, introducing himself as Anthony and then offered me a seat long after I’d already taken one. He looked sad, Anthony did, like he hadn’t rented an apartment in months, and he kept glancing over his shoulder at a fish tank that had a plastic model of Manhattan’s skyline in it, but no discernable fish. I wanted to help him out, to make him happier, and he said he wanted to help me too, so we agreed to meet somewhere on the other side of town where he told me he had a place that was exactly what I was looking for.

He pulled up in a silver Town Car and sat in the driver’s seat for a really long time. He looked sadder than he did before, and occasionally we’d catch each other’s eye in the rearview mirror and I’d smile at him and he’d look away like he hadn’t seen me. He was shuffling papers and giving off the impression that he was very busy; so I tried to look busy too, fake scrolling on my iPhone, whose battery had just died.

Eventually he got out of his car, crossed the street, and handed me a clipboard.

“What’s this?”

“You have to sign it,” he said. “It’s company policy.”

“What for?”

“Because we’re walking into an occupied residence and this states that you’re not going to take anything.”

“What would I take?” I asked.

Anthony looked at me like he was going to slit his wrists.

“You’d be surprised,” he said.

The address of the apartment he was going to show me was three streets and one avenue away from the address that he told me to meet him at, and I felt like he was leading me to some Batcave that only he knew about. I wondered if he ever blindfolded his clients, or spun them around in circles, or threatened their family if they talked, but he didn’t talk much, he just lumbered forward, sighing heavily every couple of blocks. I wanted to ask Anthony questions like why was he sadder than before? And wasn’t it nice to get outside? And what was he doing in his Lincoln town car that whole time? But he was stopping in front of an apartment across the street from a cemetery now and pulling out a ring of keys.

“All right,” he said. “You ready?”

The hallway was barely wider than shoulder width and when we reached the top of a long, narrow staircase, Anthony knocked on a door and then took a few steps back. He was sweating so I smiled and said something stupid like, “Hot, huh?”, which made him visually sadder.

Was this the apartment I was going to get murdered in? Would Anthony murder me? Or would he try to help me if I was getting murdered? I’m not sure that I would help him, honestly. I think I might offer some advice over my shoulder as I was running away like, “Stay positive,” or “Thank you for all your help.”

He opened the door and we walked into the kitchen where there were two twin redheads sitting on a blow-up chair in the corner of the room.

“Oh — hello,” I said.

“Hi,” they said in unison.

“This is the kitchen,” Anthony said. “Pretty good size. Decent refrigerator. Good space all around.”

I nodded, wondering why there were redheads in blow-up chairs, and if this was what Anthony had been so upset about. I felt that on the one hand if I looked at them directly, they might lunge at me, but if I didn’t look at them they would do something worse, so I spent the whole time pretending to be impressed by things I wasn’t actually impressed by, like how the windows opened almost all the way, and how there was very little water-damage under the sink, and how the smoke detector was actually a smoke detector/carbon monoxide detector, while secretly I was watching them in my periphery.

It must have been 80 degrees outside and 95 in here. Anthony was sweating. The redheads were sweating. I was sweating.

“How do you guys like living here?” I asked, figuring that if I kept them talking it would be harder for them to sneak up on me.

“Good,” one of them said.

“Nice,” said the other.

I remembered seeing something on an episode of Oprah once about how prisoners that appealed to their captor’s humanity had the greatest chance of escape so I told them that I was just getting out of a 10-year relationship and then followed Anthony into the bedroom. The only reason I knew it was the bedroom was because there was a blow up mattress on the floor. Later, I’d realize that the twins’ penchant for inflatable furniture had nothing to do with aesthetics and everything to do with that narrow hallway we ascended when we first walked in. Real furniture was not an option in this junior 1-bedroom apartment that was across the street from a cemetery.

I couldn’t really picture myself living here. But I tried anyway. I had a premonition of standing in the middle of a pretty-decent sized kitchen, sautéing garlic shrimp for my blow-up girlfriend.

“Here’s the bathroom,” Anthony said, opening the shower. The tiles were covered in scum and there was a sizable puff of red hair clogging the drain.

“Want to see the basement?”

I shook my head.

“Decent-sized storage,” he said.

I shook my head again and we left.

Outside, Anthony wanted to know what I thought of the place, so I lied and said that I thought it was really nice, which made him smile. He told me to put down a deposit to make sure that nobody else took it and I lied again and said that I would, and then told him the truth, and said that I had to go.

My next appointment was conveniently located within walking distance from the cemetery, and although I felt my stomach lurching, I figured it was just residual fear.

I was going to meet Kiki, a 30-year-old nurse-in-training who had complimented me so many times in her reply email, I almost didn’t care what her apartment looked like.

When I got there two girls were sitting on Kiki’s stoop.

“Kiki?” I asked.

The first girl shook her head and explained that they were waiting for Kiki also.

“Ah, double-booked,” I said, trying to make small talk.

The girl who was talking to me, and who was now touching my shoulders a lot, looked exactly like the actress Lindsay Lohan if Lindsay Lohan got stung by bees. Her quieter, larger counterpart, who I nicknamed Silent Bobbie, said nothing at all — didn’t even look up — she was too busy being engrossed with The Simpson’s game on her phone.

“If worst comes to worst,” Lindsay said, “we might have to arm wrestle you for the place.”

I smiled.

“Or mud wrestle,” she said.

I smiled again.

“Or we could have a dance off,” she said. “Or a staring contest.” She widened her eyes, and put her face close to mine, so I laughed uncomfortably, hoping to concede defeat.

“So what do you guys do?” I asked.

“Oh, we’re comedians,” Lindsay said.

The whole time we were talking, Lindsay kept touching my shoulders and chest and telling me things about myself that I already knew like how I was wearing a button down shirt, and how my hair had some product in it but not a lot, and that my sunglasses were aviators. I felt more self-conscious than flattered, really, and spent the whole time scanning the street for signs of Kiki.

When she finally showed up she was wearing an all-spandex outfit and carrying a rolled-up Yoga matt under one arm and walking a black lab, whose name, she said, was Goose.

“Hi Goose,” the girls sang, dropping to their knees and scratching Goose’s ears and rubbing Goose’s belly.

Silent Bobbie, who had said nothing up until this point, was now telling Kiki how much she loved dogs and Lindsay was saying, “I don’t love all dogs but I really love this one!”

I couldn’t believe it. I was being thrown under the proverbial bus. We hadn’t even set foot into the apartment and already we were elbow deep in mud pits.

“I like dogs too,” I heard myself say.

I squeezed between the two of them and got down on Goose’s level and started petting her head at the exact moment Kiki stopped watching me.

“So let me give you the grand tour,” she said. “Come on Goose!”

“He’s licking me so much I don’t know if he wants to go,” I laughed.

I hated the thought of living with Kiki — couldn’t imagine doing it — the whole place was dark and cluttered and she’d turned her living room into a makeshift bedroom where she said that she and her boyfriend spent most of their time. Still though, a certain part of me wanted her approval. I wanted her to pick me over Laurel and Hardy over there. I wanted to win at apartments — to be crowned the Reigning King of Roommates.

Maybe I was looking at it the wrong way. Maybe Kiki and her boyfriend and Goose and I could snuggle up on their makeshift bed and watch Saturday morning cartoons. Had I told her that I could cook? I could make Sunday brunch for everyone! I could over-function like I had in my last relationship. Under special talents on my imagined resume I could write: will consider indentured servitude.

As I was leaving, I couldn’t help but remember what my ex-girlfriend said during those last few weeks when we were breaking up.

“It’s not you,” she told me. “It’s us.”

My last interview was with an incredibly soft-spoken girl named Sara who had the odd and distracting habit of rolling her eyes back into her head and fluttering her eyelids whenever she spoke. She arrived at the front door barefoot and braless under a blue cotton dress, and was so quiet, it should be pointed out, that the sounds my stomach was now making, occasionally drowned her out.

I, by contrast, felt like I was yelling at her, that my every movement was taking place at hyper-speed, and that I was giving her the impression that I was so ecstatic about this closet-sized bedroom she was showing me, I might induce in her a seizure or a stroke. She said that we could move all of the cleaning supplies off of that shelf in my would-be bedroom, and that I could sometimes use the living room, but most of the time she’d prefer that I make myself scarce. Also, she said, the rent was $1,300 a month.

“Do you maybe want to sit down and talk about some of your interests and what you like to do and maybe what you expect out of me as your roommate?” she asked.

My stomach made a sound like it was going to the bathroom inside of itself, and then I don’t remember much after that. It happened in bits and pieces, really: me doubling over on the F train and running down Atlantic Avenue and tumbling into my sister’s apartment, past her living room and into her bathroom, where I sat down for the first time all day. I checked my phone for any new emails.

Dear Dave,
You seemed like a really great guy but unfortunately, I don’t think it’s going to work. All the best in finding someone. Sara.

The place that I eventually settled on was a clean, well-lit studio off of 5th Ave, about the size and shape of a small rectangle. The girl that showed it to me texted me before I came over to say that her friend was visiting from out of town and that they’d had, “A really rough night,” the night before. I asked her what time we could meet after 12:00 and she said, “Sounds great!”

“1:30?” I asked.

“No,” she said. “240 7th Street.”

I figure that if I ever get a chance to tell my ex-girlfriend about my new apartment, I’m going to be honest with her. I’ll say that it’s better than the first two places we moved into when we were kids, but that it can’t compare to some of The Greats we ended up living in together while we were growing up. Dad mentioned on the phone the other day that I didn’t have to worry about rolling out of bed and stumbling into the bathroom anymore; now I could just roll and go. But all of my books are within arm’s reach, and whenever my neighbors throw a party in their backyard, I can’t help but sit in my window and pretend like I was invited. I’ll say all of this, but I’ll also say that I like it, because I do. I’ll say that like a lot of New York apartments, mine is decidedly small: wherever I go, I’m already there.

Image Credit: LPW

's work has been published in various literary journals including McSweeny’s. He currently lives in Brooklyn, NY, and can be contacted at