An Affordable, Safe Place to Live

Brastow Ave., Somerville, Mass., $650/month
Between landlords constantly raising the rent and my mother’s rocky relationship with her third husband, I moved quite a bit as a child. As I grew up in apartments in New Jersey for most of my life—the transition to apartment living on my own as an adult was easy. The transition from New Jersey to the greater Boston area proved to be less easy—my fiancee left me a month after I moved to this second floor three-bedroom in a classic triple decker.

The apartment was at the top of Winter Hill, directly behind Somerville Hospital’s back parking lot. I remember walking up that hill, on the phone with her, when she first said she didn’t want to get married anymore—I made a noise that sounded like a large bird in distress.

The highlight of my short stay was oral surgery that thankfully excused me out of my job’s Christmas party. After a few months it no longer mattered if I lived in a cardboard box or the Trump Towers. Overcome with heartbreak and depression, I quit my first real job and left five months after my arrival, 30 pounds lighter.

Mawhinney Ave., Hawthorne, N.J., $0/month
Upon my return to my home state with my tail between my legs, I became the guy who lived in his mom’s basement. The apartment was a two family house at the end of a side street and stood between an abandoned car lot and a middle-aged couple with a college baseball player son whose temper would occasionally explode. During a horrible storm, the basement where I lived flooded with six feet of water and raw sewage.  Volunteer firefighters  pumped it out into the backyard, and flooded the house behind us, which belonged to a deaf couple and their stay-at-home daughter. Just nine months prior a gruesome murder had taken place next door to them. I was on vacation at the time with my then-fiancee, acting as witness to her mother’s wedding.

I lived in a friend’s apartment for several weeks, on a mattress. My mother’s landlords cleaned out the basement themselves, throwing everything of mine to the curb before raising the rent. The mold returned and we left. Meanwhile the family who lived at the murder scene—a woman and her children—wound up having to move back into the same apartment, after they were unable to find another apartment for the same rent.

3rd Ave., Hawthorne, N.J., $0/month
We moved to a one-bedroom apartment across town. I slept on a couch in the living room. My temp job turned permanent, and I continued to save money to move out again. This, too, was a two family house, with the luxury of a porch and a large backyard. Next door to us was a single mother with a teenage daughter whose laughter from her bedroom permeated the night. I eventually moved to New York. I would return several years later and clean out the apartment’s entire contents.

Stockholm St., Bushwick, Brooklyn, N.Y., $900/month
I moved into a three-story loft converted from a former tea factory in the heart of Bushwick. I shared it with a woman in her forties who rarely left the apartment and was living off a small inheritance. The loft was spacious and was well-built with sturdy walls and exposed brick in each bedroom. But I soon found that the disadvantages outnumbered the perks of living in a cool loft: rampant vandalism from the new college student residents; burglaries; rats; the departure of the friendly neighbors; and rent I couldn’t afford. After NYPD stormed our roof (we saw their feet on our skylight) two days in a row and then put up a watch tower on the corner, I left to regroup on my mother’s couch for three months. It was just as well—I could no longer keep up with rent.

South 3rd St., Williamsburg, Brooklyn, N.Y., $800/month
By a stroke of luck, I beat out a young woman to move into a sublet in a rent stabilized two-bedroom. I moved on New Years Day. My bedroom was shoebox-sized, but I knew I had been blessed with an affordable place to live in a hip neighborhood. My rent also included all utilities and cable, which had been a luxury. I learned to love the neighborhood despite the high price of amenities and went to the Lucky Dog on Bedford Avenue when it first opened. The family across the hall from me always stopped to make small talk and once helped me with a troublesome lock.

My luck ran out when my mother passed from cancer in June, and then my roommate’s father passed in August. She held the lease to the apartment and was the only child able to help her mother; I moved out for her mother to take my place. At first I was hurt and angry, but realized that I would have done the exact same thing if it were my mother. The only downsides to the apartment were the incessant roach problem from March through November, as we were on the first floor of a tenement across from the garbage room, and the bathroom sink being located outside of the actual bathroom. I frankly wasn’t bothered by either.

Onderdonk Ave., Ridgewood, Queens, N.Y., $650/month
This is my current apartment, where I moved to from Williamsburg. I was the only person to look at it when the sublet was listed: an old-fashioned railroad with separate entrances on the second floor of a yellowstone, split between three people. The street was later made part of a historic district. In the past three years (the longest I’ve ever lived in one place in my entire lifetime of moving) roommates have come and gone but next door neighbors have stayed the same and I’ve gotten to be friendly with most of them. I moved here on Halloween. On that day every year as I’m putting on my costume, I look out my bay windows and find comfort that, though both of my parents are now gone, I have a temporary stability through an affordable, safe place to live.

 

Eric Nelson is a writer of fiction that usually isn’t this depressing.

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6 Comments / Post A Comment

madrassoup (#929)

I knew things were going to take an even sadder turn when you mentioned that you’d eventually have to pack up the entire contents of the Jersey apartment. Anyway, here’s hoping that you get to maintain the stability and peace you’ve carved out for yourself in your current place.

On another note, this my favorite Rental Histories piece. Not because of how sad it is but because of how perfectly it tells a story about the many ways the places we live (and how much we pay) are tied to where we are in life, for better or worse.

Also, thanks for giving me the chance this week to leave a Billfold comment that is neither snarky nor eye-rolly.

wearitcounts (#772)

@madrassoup agreed — the mood is so pervasively sad, but done so well. it tells a beautiful, linear story that is more about life and less about rent.

Blondsak (#2,299)

@wearitcounts “More about life and less about rent.” Perfectly said.

@madrassoup Definitely my favorite one so far too.

oiseau (#1,830)

I thought this was really beautiful.

Slutface (#53)

I loved this. I can’t think of anything else to say.

faustbanana (#2,376)

Oh-so-sad and well-written. A great strength comes through in your voice, though. Thank you for sharing.

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