1 Places I've Lived: A Black Tub, Missed Sunsets, And The Original Airbnb | The Billfold

Places I’ve Lived: A Black Tub, Missed Sunsets, And The Original Airbnb

Where have you lived, Anna Wiener?

2009-2013, Eckford Street, Greenpoint, Brooklyn, $1000/mo.

This apartment! It felt like a stage set. I loved it desperately and didn’t deserve it at all; how my friend Maya found it is still a mystery to me. It was on the top floor of a small, three-story building; everything, including the stairwell, slanted at about fifteen degrees. When Maya and I moved in, we were told that the place used to be an illegal nightclub, with an underground tunnel to the laundromat next door. The landlords had broken down the wall between two studio apartments; we slept in walk-in closets and had two bathrooms, two living rooms, and no privacy. The ceiling was popcorn plaster and the fixtures in one bathroom were black. As far as I know, nobody ever snorted cocaine off the rim of the tub, but everyone mentioned the possibility.

The Eckford Street apartment was beautiful, and constantly surprised us with new ways an apartment can be broken. Birds lived in the ceiling and when we asked the landlords to clear them out and seal up the entry hole, one got trapped inside, leading to an infestation of maggot flies. We had water bugs and roaches, a brief spate of bed bugs, and mice; I once had a stand-off with a pigeon in the stairwell. For a little while we filled one toilet up with water from the bathtub, transported from faucet to faucet in a lemonade pitcher. One hot summer, my bedroom ceiling collapsed. My boyfriend at the time, Michael, lived down the street, which was convenient in its own ways — for walks back and forth, for meals, for sleepovers, for fights — and he went up on the roof to explore. What he discovered was that the cause of collapse was an uncovered chimney, gaping open to accept the rain.

It didn’t matter. Maya and I threw dinner parties with too much pasta and not enough forks. We chattered about our jobs and cried about the future and both tried furiously to write. We were paranoid about bedbugs and if we went to a vintage clothing store or particularly dodgy bar, we would take our clothes off in the hallway and stuff them in plastic bags, which then went in the freezer for an indeterminate spell. We fought with and consoled one another, smoked out the window and drank too much on weeknights, and were, generally speaking, deliciously, miserably, blithely 22.

After two years, Maya moved in with her boyfriend, and my friend Kelsey took her place. Kelsey had a cat, Ahab, to whom I was allergic. I was fond of Ahab and slightly mean to him, and when Kelsey was out of the apartment I’d sometimes stand in the doorway to her bedroom-closet, apologizing to the cat for not petting him. We built a swinging saloon door to keep him in Kelsey’s space, which he quickly learned to leap in order to luxuriate on my sweaters.

After Kelsey came Lee, a handsome chef who would do masculine things like oil his boots and roast chickens in milk and walk around the apartment with a towel wrapped around his waist, smelling like oak. He had no furniture, just books and a surfboard. We had a small Christmas tree that year, and when it grew brittle, Lee threw it out the window.

The landlords never raised the rent, even when our one-year lease expired, and they paid for every utility, including our electricity — we ran the air conditioning through hot summer nights and felt both lucky and terrible.

When I moved to San Francisco after three and a half years of living in Greenpoint, I did so with equal parts remorse and relief; it was the end of an era that had already ended some time ago.


April 2013, Rausch Street, San Francisco, California, $85/night.

I moved to San Francisco for a job, which was a great idea that I executed poorly. After two furious weeks of day-drinking with patient friends while haphazardly packing up the Eckford apartment, I arrived in April with two duffel bags — a pair of clogs, one sweater, and no towels — feeling moderately unhinged and completely unprepared. When I got to SFO I was too anxious to leave the airport (what would I do once I left it?), so I ate a sandwich at the terminal Starbucks and checked my email, did busywork for two hours before gathering the courage.

Eventually I made it to my Airbnb, where the room I rented — a selection made solely for its proximity to my office — was in an airy apartment located in a spotty neighborhood called SoMa. The apartment was not, in fact, close to my office at all; something I had misjudged because San Francisco is the enemy of cartography. The room was comfortably familiar in the manner of an IKEA showroom, and had doors that locked only sometimes. I later discovered that it was owned by a founder of Airbnb — was maybe even the original Airbnb? — because, well, of course it was.


April-June 2013, Beaver Street, San Francisco, California, $1240/mo.

I spent most of my time in this extremely beautiful and weirdly adult sublet crying my eyes out and trying to learn JavaScript. For the most part, these two things were unrelated; after a few months, they both stopped. My roommates also worked in tech, and we all kept different hours. The apartment was on top of a hill, facing Castro Street, and I would go down the hill in the morning for coffee and see men with defined abdominals wandering around in tiny silver nut-hammocks, and I’d walk back up the hill feeling flabby and inadequate. The room I sublet was bare, and I compulsively filled it with chairs I bought off Craigslist. One evening I invited my friend Daniel over to watch the sunset, and we sat up on the roof eating olives and crackers; there was no sunset, and then it was dark. “I thought you knew,” Daniel said. “The sun sets in the other direction.”


June 2013-present, Cole Street, San Francisco, California, More than I want to admit/mo.

It’s possible that I found the last studio in San Francisco. It seems irrational to live alone in a city with rents like these, but I tell myself that this is an unsustainable luxury, an idyll — an extremely selfish gift I’ve given myself for the next year or two.

The apartment is one room, under 300 square feet in total. I can vacuum the entire place without plugging/unplugging, and I’ll never cook fish in here again. I’m very close to Haight Street and its collection of sky-high catcallers, all of whom want to sell you crystals and incense and kush, and the other night a skinny man in a Joker mask was seen slipping through my building’s basement gate — but who cares? In the shared backyard are a palm tree and a redwood, and inside are my books and all those chairs and a few valiant succulents. It’s rent-controlled and sunny and it’s home, yes, and despite the above I fantasize about living here for at least the next 25 years.


Anna Wiener is a New Yorker who is surprised she still lives in San Francisco.


21 Comments / Post A Comment

samburger (#5,489)

AH this gave me so many feelings SO MANY


This is beautiful. Thank you!

Heather F G (#6,074)

Commence serious apartment envy/desire to move to the West Coast…

madrassoup (#929)

It seems like a cheat that you don’t mention how much you pay for your current place. If this were Thought Catalog or something I’d understand, but it’s a personal finance site. Plenty of people have shared details about things that cost “more than I want to admit,” but admit it they do. That seems like the cost of entry for writing on a money site (within reason, of course).

I feel like this column generally works because it contains a balance of personal flourishes and hard numbers, both of which function to create a picture of where a person has been and currently is in life, and how the person feels about it. The coy ending doesn’t really work for me, especially when 1) you’re talking about a city where practically everyone but people who work in tech have been priced out, and 2) on a more philosophical note, lots of people ask themselves “how much am I willing to pay to be happy where I live?”

highjump (#39)

@madrassoup Yeah. I really wish I knew that price too.

@madrassoup Yep, just came here to say this. I liked the rest of the article, but this is a finance blog-no good to hold back.

AitchBee (#3,001)

@madrassoup Why would you submit a rental history if you don’t want to admit how much you pay in rent? Can I write one where I refuse to list the cities I’ve lived in?

Meaghano (#529)

@AitchBee You can disclose or not-disclose whatever you are comfortable with! This site is not a public filing with the SEC. I know the format for this post especially is all about listing your rent so it’s a little different — your complaint has been registered and I’m talking to Anna about it, maybe we will update it later.

But in general demanding more information from people is not something we do or are interested in.

AitchBee (#3,001)

@Meaghano I think there’s a distinction between the editors of a site saying “Hey, this feature on our site is predicated on a certain level of disclosure–if you’re not comfortable with that you should write something else about apartments you’ve lived in” and “demanding more information from people.”

madrassoup (#929)

@Meaghano: But it’s not outrageous to ask that when contributing to a column where people almost always include their rent (unless it’s included in their salary or something), they be willing to do just that. No one is forced to contribute to this column, and likewise no one reading it said “and also what about your W-2.”

I think you’re projecting beyond what I and AitchBee said. Fair enough, since it probably taps into things that have come up/comments on this site related to your own financial situation. But the responses were very clearly framed within the context of this long-running column that on this site has come to constitute a particualr genre of writing with attendant conventions (i.e. disclosure about rent; that’s really it).

samburger (#5,489)

@madrassoup I dunno! I think it’s pretty clear that the author is uncomfortable with her success/privilege/etc. JABBING VIOLENTLY at a bruise seems like an unreasonable way to thank an author for writing a fairly revealing piece for our enjoyment and edification.

annawiener (#6,395)

Hi guys! So, I hear you, and I think you are right! I love the Billfold and don’t want to compromise the integrity of this column. Initially, I had high anxiety about [everything] disclosing my current rent, mostly because it means, to a degree, disclosing my salary. After a few comments that pointed to this being disingenuous, I’ve come to agree — this is both a personal bank statement and a portrait of rental markets in two extremely expensive cities, and ultimately it’s the latter that’s more interesting. I moved into my current apartment in June 2013, at the peak of tech-fueled rent explosion in San Francisco, and the rent is $1800/month. (It is as bananas as it seems right now — I saw $1700 bedrooms in 2BR apartments, and decided that in the long run this just was a better idea.) This is something that I can afford — for now — though I recognize it is an absurd amount to pay, even/especially when it’s on the lower end of the scale for studios in this city right now. As for why I’m embarrassed to admit that I make enough money to afford this, that’s a different story — perhaps one tied to feeling like I don’t deserve it (why not? I work my ass off), or feelings of deep guilt for contributing to severe inequality in a city I’ve just arrived in — and it’s one I’m still sorting through; hopefully I can write about it sometime soon. Does all that make sense?

OllyOlly (#669)

@annawiener you do you Anna.

AitchBee (#3,001)

@annawiener I definitely understand not wanting to share how much you pay in rent (I mean, your case is a little more “I have complex feelings about my success,” mine is “Look at all the dumb things I’ve done with my life!” so…I won’t be submitting a rental history anytime soon)! Your points about gentrification/the relative cost of living with roommates/your feelings about what you pay in rent are just as interesting as “the number.”

highjump (#39)

@annawiener Thanks Anna. From one reader’s perspective, I read this series because it is more specific and interesting than the “rent in New York and SF is expensive!” story I can read a lot of other places.

I live in DC, and while it wouldn’t cost quite that much to live alone, it would cost about $1500* which I am one promotion away from sort of affording. Until then I’m stuck in group houseland.

*not willing to compromise too much on distance to work, sorry not sorry. No Petworth.

@annawiener thanks for the piece and for the reply. Like Meaghan said, this isn’t the SEC, and you can disclose as much as you want. I will say that you shouldn’t feel bad about your income at all, but if you do have issues with contributing to the gentrification in the SF area, there are a lot of ways to help:

1. Financially by supporting a fair housing/affordable housing advocacy group

2. Politically by actually voting in local elections

3. Ethically by speaking out against abusive practices any time you get a chance and volunteering to speak at affordable housing events/city meetings.

These are, of course, just suggestions. It’s not your responsibility, but if you’d like to help, these are just some ways.

annawiener (#6,395)

@i’llnamemypuppyavonbarks Thanks! Right there with you. I wish these points came up more often in this particular discourse.

Human Centipaul (#3,559)

@annawiener No need to overguilt yourself! That isn’t really an absurd amount to pay where you are at all. In a vacuum, sure, but anyone can hop on Zillow or Padmapper and quickly realize that you are a reasonable human being.

@annawiener it costs $12000 for a studio in *Chicago*, rents in cities are bonkers, and it’s even more insane that I saw $1800 and was like “ooh, she got a deal.” My well-being increased exponentially when I moved in by myself; it’s a lot of money, but it is so incredibly worth it.

Allison (#4,509)

@Jake Reinhardt Where are you pricing studios in Chicago? I’d say $1200 is more on the high end for a 1BR than standard for a studio

in_parenthesis (#4,213)

@annawiener Love this! It totally makes sense. You can afford it, you deserve it! Good for you, lady. Why have roommates if you don’t need or want to?

An aside, I’m actually not too far from you, also in a studio (though it’s more of an attic in one of those great Victorians that was converted to a studio…) I love it, and I love our neighborhood.

EmilyAnomaly (#4,238)

I love the rental histories part of The Billfold and this is a favorite. Anna, have you considered using an air purifier to run while cooking fish? I have a small studio as well and I have found this helps. Mine was around $45 I think. I originally got it when I had a roommate who would burn bacon every morning, but run it now whenever I cook something moderately pungent.

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