Here's Your Sign
Climbing aboard our flight to New York City, we ended up sitting near and chatting briefly with John Terry, an actor who has starred in such films as Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket, the James Bond movie, The Living Daylights and currently stars on ABC’s Lost as Dr. Jack Sheppard's doctor/alcoholic/deceased father.
This is good, I told myself. You’re heading out to look for an apartment in New York City for film school and you’re sitting next to a respected character actor on the most popular show on TV.
It’s a sign.
Sometimes you can misread signs and wonders. Perhaps I should have been paying more attention to the extraordinarily disruptive teenage boys in the seats behind me.
Skip ahead a few days to our last night in NYC. We’re sitting in a restaurant which my wife’s company has asked her to check out in advance of a possible corporate function. Given that she works for the space industry, the restaurant was a space-themed eatery that begins with a ride evoking a trip to Mars, winds your through a celestial promenade and ends inside a giant subterranean room that looks as if it took its architecture and design straight from Total Recall. (Kitsch was the name of the game in this Disneyified restaurant in which your server, dressed in something vaguely resembling a Star Trek uniform saddles up to your table and announces that he’ll be your space captain for the evening—needless the say, the corporate event is out). As we sat waiting for our dinner, I couldn’t help but think that it wasn’t Mars that the place reminded me of. With its rock walls and pillars, and low, red lighting, I imagined that all it needed was a smoke machine or two and it would have been a perfect ringer for hell.
I guess I should start at the beginning.
We arrived in NYC without a broker, clutching a few addresses from Craig’s List and a few flimsy shreds of hope. We knew it was going to be a huge undertaking and we knew we had just a few days to make the impossible possible.
The first thing we realized when we landed was that New York was in the grip of a devastating heat wave. The hundred degree temperatures, combined with the massive humidity, gave the impression, according to the weathermen, of something actually closer to 115 or more. Step below ground into the subway tunnels, which we did all throughout our time there, and the heat jumps an additional 10 degrees or so. Hell, yes? Hell yes!
Luckily we had a safe place to land. My cousin lives in Manhattan and told us we could stay at their place. (Ironically enough, they were on vacation). Retreating to their blessedly air-conditioned apartment just long enough to drop off our bags, we jumped back in the cab and headed off to a realty office that managed an apartment we were interested in through Craig’s List. Unfortunately, it was too late in the day to see any locations, so after filling out some paperwork we returned to the apartment, made some calls and began mapping out our time.
Saturday morning, we took the subway into Brooklyn. Always far cheaper than Manhattan, we felt we had to at least examine all our options. The first apartment was OK but was set in a less than desirable neighborhood. The second was in a beautiful neighborhood, was an attractive and spacious apartment and was the cheapest we’d seen so far. But while it seemed to have everything going for it, the 45-minute to an hour commute back into Manhattan made us realize that Brooklyn simply wasn't practical for our needs and desires.
After a brief visit to NYU and adjacent Washington Square Park, we found ourselves, that afternoon, on the Upper East Side (the portion of Manhattan that is east of Central Park). It was easily our favorite part of the city—clean, tree'd streets rowed with brownstones and overshadowed by titanic skyscrapers. The realty company we’d spoken to the previous day finally called that afternoon while we were taking a break in the shade of Central Park and said that because it was Sunday, they weren’t going to be able to get us into anything. Here for only four days, we were watching our second go up in smoke and we were no closer to finding an apartment than when we’d left Colorado.
Our one consolation was that we’d found an UES sublet that was coming available and would be showing later that evening. We’d scoped out the neighborhood and building earlier and really liked what we saw. The price was also fantastic. Unfortunately, outside appearances can be deceiving and the apartment turned out to be a dilapidated studio with a run-down kitchen, a perpetually leaky bathtub and a toilet in its own tiny room. While we were prepared to make concessions, we weren't willing to go this far.
The only thing that saved Sunday was a fabulous dinner of sushi with my editor at DVDFanatic and her boyfriend, a fantastic up-and-coming director. They gushed about how much they loved living in New York and gave our spirits a much needed push.
Between all the walking and the extreme heat/humidity, lets just say that my legs were a bit chaffed by the end of the night. Such pain has no pride. I raided my cousin's two-year-old son's room, found some anti-diaper rash cream and went to bed comfortable, though smelling like a swaddled newborn.
Monday was a bit more like we'd been expecting and hoping for. While the morning was still somewhat light, the afternoon was filled with a glut of apartments. The reality office we'd visited our first day had several to show us, our original broker who had to abandon us called from Florida with several addresses and a few we'd found on Craig’s List were available for viewing.
The first apartment we saw was actually a medium-sized, well-kept studio in a very nice UES building. Aside from the fact that it was a studio, we were very impressed. And, at just shy of $1,600 a month, in our budget. Still, we wanted a separate bedroom. Nice as it was, we decided to push on. The apartments in lower midtown, while only blocks from NYU, were abominable—tiny hovels half the size of most U.S. prison cells. It was clear the the lower into Manhattan we went, the more impossible it was going to be to live there. Should we take the studio? It was certainly nice and surely we could make it work. We called the realtor who showed us the studio and told him we had one last place to check out.
“Hurry,” he said, “My boss has been asking for the keys and I lied, telling him I didn't have them. He's got people here to look at it. I can't hold him off much longer.”
Watching the afternoon evaporate and with the knowledge that we were leaving the next day, we knew we needed to act fast. The last place we looked at was in the middle of renovations. The bathroom was nearly something out of a luxury hotel, the kitchen fitted with new appliances, new hardwood and marble tile everywhere, the living room was spacious and the bedroom...looked like it would have trouble fitting a dog bed.
“Is the studio still available?” We rang back, rushing from the building.
“Only if you get over here now!”
Racing back to the reality office we were pleased to discover that they had begun laying out the paperwork and that the apartment was on hold for us. While not sold entirely on the place, we were nonetheless satisfied that we could make it into a nice place to live. While dotting the i's and crossing the t's, the senior broker at the firm began scowling a bit.
“You know, of course, that to be approved for an apartment in New York, you must make 40 times the month's rent in a year?” he asked.
Actually we didn't know that coming out. Our broker hadn't told us. It was something we discovered upon arriving. While our combined incomes in Colorado more than covered the cost, in New York, I'd be a full-time student and would have only a part-time job.
“Yes,” we replied and showed him how, with some totally legitimate but nonetheless creative accounting, our numbers worked.
“Well...hmm...yes, this might work.”
With that we were hustled out the door to the management office, yet one more hoop through which we had to jump. The management office was high powered and intense, the sort of electrically charged environment rendered so well in movies. When we finally sat down with the manager in his glass office overlooking Broadway, we saw the scowl again.
“You don't make 40 times the month's rent.” He charged.
“Well actually, if you apply this and this...,” we countered...
“Well what about...”
“I said no.” Silence. “You need a guarantor. This is how it works in New York City. You need a guarantor who makes at least 130K to co-sign.”
Hold on a sec, buddy. I got a few of those here in my cell phone. WHAT!?
“I'm sorry. There is nothing I can do. This is how it works in New York City...everywhere in New York City. Goodbye.”
I left that office wanting to quote Shakespeare. No, not “Romeo, Romeo...” or “to be or not to be” but the sorts of villain's speeches that the bard did so well, speeches where the antagonists spoke of tearing out babies entrails with their teeth or propping up exhumed corpses on the front doors of their friend's houses. I was breathing smoke and tasting flame. It was hours before I stopped hoping someone would try to rob us on the subway so I'd have an excuse to vent my bottled up rage.
The injustice of it all unnerved me. It wasn't even that I was pissed off just for our sakes. It was the entire system; the machine that chewed people up and spit them out without regard for anything above its bottom line. And this was just an apartment. What's more tragic, is that it's situations like this that turn institutions like NYU into the elitist hubs they've become, populated by often mediocre trust-fund babies while poor but genuinely talented auteurs are shut out in the cold.
Tuesday we slept in. There was no point in trying to look at any more places. We'd made some calls and confirmed that that was the same treatment we'd receive anywhere else we tried to rent. We salvaged what remained of our trip before heading for the airport at the American Museum of Natural Science where my wife's friend is a director. He wasn't there, but his secretary graciously gave us some tickets to spend what few minutes we had wandering around a fascinating exhibit on the life of Charles Darwin and seeing a planetarium show. After six or seven extremely weather-laden and turbulent hours in flight, we arrived back in Colorado Springs, basking in the dry, cool air.
So, what now?
Now, I am just over three weeks away from leaving for school. I'm still going. I'm looking into coming to New York alone and staying with my cousin or in a 30-60 day sublet apartment for the month of September. That will give me enough time to activate my G.I. Bill once school starts and find a part time job. That done, we'll be in the clear again. I can find an apartment and bring my wife and things out at that time.
This is certainly not what I planned on blogging about today. I'd imagined a far different post.
Obviously I need some more practice at reading signs. Or a friend with $130,000. Any takers?