Monday, December 12, 2005

The Roommate Shuffle

Artists in urban cities, unless they’re born with a silver spoon and a nanny, or fortunate (or unfortunate) to have a patron to their art, must live with roommates.

My first roommate was a human lab rat who subjected himself to different physical and emotional tests in various medical facilities around New Jersey against his family’s best wishes. He’d disappear for days on end, and would return thinner and more sallow than the previous weekend. He thought he was helping the medical community; all the while he fell apart and slipped farther from reality. He was the roommate who talked me into hawking podiatrists in the dead of winter. It was probably after my experience with Mr. Kline.

I don’t remember how long after that he continued along his journey or if he disappeared in a medical basement somewhere in Central New Jersey.

Next on the list was a female kleptomaniac who made no qualms about taking designer lipsticks, skin or hair care products. She was instrumental, so she says, in our getting my current apartment. She wasn’t unattractive; yet she was a great bullshit artist. I didn’t admire her for cunning or thievery, but her bravado. I asked several friends and acquaintances from high school and college to relocate to NJ/NY, and it was she who packed her bags and moved up north.

We remained in the one-bedroom apartment in NJ for a few months, before the floor fell out from under our feet. My first cat was a gypsy, too. The sequence might be off these many years later, but I think I took her back to the “cat lady” in Stuyvesant Town for safekeeping until I landed on all fours.

I remember living temporarily with this prissy Nubian girl and a bossy Asian chick the bold klepto met and befriended (kudos to her for being a smooth talker). I knew on some level being with her, I’d be fine. She was a survivor, and too vain to be homeless. I found out later the lengths she went through to remain in NYC, and the bodies left in her wake.

Fast forward. We find an apartment listed in The Village Voice. We met with the landlord in the East Village, and I saw her “work it”. I will refrain from a characterization of the landlord, yet let’s say we’re not fond of each other.

We move into the apartment and it went downhill. She became complacent, irritable, and unsure of her sexuality. She went through of a series of jobs; one of the most colorful was at a strip club in Times Square where she sold drunk patrons watered-down beer who weren’t allowed to cop a feel. She moved upstairs in the same building with another roommate a few months later.

Students, Con Artists & Inconsolables. The “condition” I had (some symptoms persist) for rescuing birds with broken wings or scoundrels playing possum got me into more trouble with succeeding roommates.

I lived with a peeping tom who always had to pee the MINUTE I stepped into the shower. He could be at school, and instinctively know I was disrobing en route to the shower. (It probably didn’t help matters that I had a clear shower curtain back then.) He was a nice guy, but I asked him to move out in favor of a co-worker/club kid. HUGE MISTAKE. He had NEVER lived on his own, and he and his filthy, trifling girlfriend regarded the apartment as their own den of iniquity. I had to have a friend force him and his cohorts out of the apartment. I didn’t actually see the gun my friend allegedly had in his leather jacket . . .

Sometime after that fiasco, I wasn’t content to live alone. I had to have a roommate. There were two Spanish con artists within a year and a half of each other. The memory of the long distance calls left unpaid and his failed seduction sting like a bottle of unopened ammonia left in a hot southern cellar. The second one was my first introduction to “metrosexual” years before it became a part of the lexicon. With those two, I often thought I’d wronged someone in a previous life, and they were here to avenge their loved ones.

Mr. Metrosexual used his deep baritone voice and Spanish good looks to beguile women and men. At the time, I thought of him as the male equivalent of the female klepto. Both had chutzpah I envied. Why couldn’t I do or say one-third of thing they did without remorse?

New York City can be a lonely place for transplants. When we decide to pack our lives into boxes, bags, and trunks, and ship via the USPS or private courier, there’s a secret hope that we can transport the sounds and smells of home.

In packing a life into suitcase, the hope is good memories will go along for the ride. If it were as easy as flipping through a family photo album or a school yearbook that we’d be able to hear those voices, and reach out to touch those faces, no one would be homesick.

When reality sets in and the people in the photos haven’t materialized in the living space, disappointment soon follows. We hear the cadence of grandmother’s honey-tinged voice and the smell of three-alarm chili despite the lack of evidence.

Cost of living is a deciding factor in seeking out a roommate or roommates, but it isn’t everything. I’ve had my share of bad roommates, and I’ve also had compatible, trustworthy, and respectful ones.

The klepto said to me one evening before she moved out, “You need a roommate with lots of money, and who’s never home.” That I remember this many years later, is only to point out she was dead wrong. My more successful roommates were compatible because we were different yet complementary. The peeping tom cared for my cats, cleaned common areas of the apartment without asking, and was a genuine guy besides the aforementioned predilection.

The second successful roommate happened into my life through a cultural group. We got along better before we lived together. You never know a person until sharing a roof. Our problem was that I fell into a big brother role which he didn’t like. My younger brothers are in Texas; it was unfair to try and recreate a familial relationship while learning to live together. NYC brings out the best and worst in people, and under a microscope of another’s eyes, it can be doubly so.

Rounding out the third slot as my most successful roommate (does this sound like a reality TV show or what?) was a would-be writer who locked into my caretaker/big brother role. Whereas the roomie prior to him rejected that part of me, he embraced; no he needed someone to watch over him. Our living environment at times felt like father and son. He’d do something and I’d reprimand him. I’d feel like a bad parent, and apologize. At the end of the day, I enjoyed living with him, despite the disagreements and misunderstandings.

Again, I am my mother’s son. I learned how to be a parent and caretaker, and it worked in various situations, others I’d just as soon change the water in the aquarium. The tropical fish need me to survive unlike my past roommates. Mustn’t forget the cats, which have a mind of their own and have been with me for years. Hey, they are roommates, too!

No comments: