Once Upon a Time in New York: A Sublet of One’s Own
On Loving And Then Leaving The Perfect Illegal Sublet
“Do you want my apartment?” My friend T asked me this because she was moving in with her girlfriend and she knew I had been bouncing around sublets all summer. I was supposed to move in with my friend C because her roommate was moving out, but then her roommate decided to stay. Meanwhile, I was living in my friend Y’s place while he was on tour with a theater company in Europe for the summer, but then the tour was cancelled halfway through and Y and I were crammed together in his apartment. I was in my current situation because the boyfriend I had been living with had broken up with me. I knew it was a bad decision to move in with him, but the apartment I was sharing before that had rats.
T’s place was an illegal sublet, a studio apartment in the East Village. The lease was held by our old professor, K, who had not lived there for over a decade, having long since moved to a girlfriend’s nicer, bigger apartment. K said he kept this apartment because some day he might not want to be a professor anymore and he might go back to being an actor and a stage director and thus would need a cheap place to live. (He made no mention of what would become of his relationship in this scenario). I thought this plan was highly unlikely given that K was now the chair of the theater department, but everyone has their fuck-it-all fantasies.
I should say that this was in the mid-1990s. I was to pay K $360 a month in cash in an envelope slipped under his office door. This was far cheaper than what most people were paying for a shared apartment and it was mythically cheap for a studio apartment. The apartment was one room with a kitchen that was little more than a hallway to the front door. It had only two working outlets and the bathroom had only a dribbly shower. If I wanted to make toast, I had to plug the toaster into the bathroom outlet.
I loved this apartment.
When you are a young artist, ambition revs your days. I had so much to prove—discipline, rigor, risk, audacity—and I made so little money, that I didn’t have time or space to think about how I was living my days. I arrived at this minuscule apartment after dragging my futon up two flights of stairs by myself and realized that this was the first time I had ever lived alone. I had always been someone’s roommate or lived with a partner and I had never signed a lease. I still hadn’t signed a lease, but finally, I had my own apartment.
What I began to notice was that unless the phone rang, I would not be interrupted. No one would walk in on me rehearsing or writing or talking to myself. I was alone. I set up my video camera in the corner of the apartment and recorded myself working on choreography, then I would review it and refine it for hours, then tape over myself the next day. I would fill pages and pages of notebooks, not worrying about anyone judging me for spending so much time alone. I spent days by myself in that apartment. Unless I had a rehearsal or a job, I didn’t have to leave and I didn’t feel compelled to escape. It was only when I went to performances that I saw people and had a social life and eventually met the person who would be my new girlfriend.
In the building next door lived my friend C’s mom, Rose. Rose was a painter and she had lived in the neighborhood for decades. She made money babysitting and doing odd jobs. One night, my friend’s band was crashing with me (the four of them and me all laid out took up the entire footprint of the apartment). They arrived at 5AM and when I went downstairs to let them in, Rose popped her head in the doorway. “Hey Andrea,” she said. “I forgot my keys, could I come in and climb over the roof to my building?” I said sure, and Rose, in her sixties, darted by the catatonic 20-somethings to parkour her way home.
I went over to Rose’s apartment once with my new girlfriend because my new girlfriend wanted to buy one of Rose’s paintings. In her apartment, the easel took up most of the room. Rose pulled out large paintings and leaned them against her refrigerator. They were fields of saturated color—beautiful blurs that had an underlying structure and a sense of movement. There was a spaciousness to them even though they were contained by the canvas. There was something emotional in them, a kind of inner atmosphere that expanded beyond the frame. Rose shuffled through her paintings, pulling out one after another. There were hundreds of them stacked against the walls.
Rose’s apartment was about the same size as mine. Her only furniture was a bed and a table and the easel. She had some shelves for storing her artwork, but that was it. Rose was up early on that roof-hopping night because she didn’t want to miss any of the natural light. She had long ago left her husband and her old life to dedicate herself to her work. Her work was what pulled her through her days. Her days were organized around painting, around the actual paint with little concern for notoriety or marketability. When we left that day my girlfriend said, “She reminds me of you.”
I didn’t think this was a bad thing, but I wondered if my girlfriend saw it as a flaw. I didn’t think it was odd to want to live cheaply with only what you needed. I didn’t feel it was wrong to dedicate yourself to your art. Weren’t we all trying to live this way? Didn’t Rose, eschewing the art world and conventional markers of success, represent something pure? I had a friend who would introduce me at parties as “This is Andrea. She’s a true, poor, starving artist. The rest of you are posers” and I would take it as a compliment.
I lived in this apartment for three years. My girlfriend had her own studio apartment a 30-minute walk away. She also had a deal, but she paid twice as much as I did. And her apartment had a weird layout—the shower was in a closet by itself. There was no bathroom in the apartment, it was across the hallway with a toilet and a sink and had to be kept locked. She hated her apartment and wanted to move. She suggested we find an apartment together.
There is an all-encompassing thrill at the beginning of a new relationship, the flood of love and potential. You want to be interrupted. Your heart flips when your girlfriend shows up unannounced, yelling up from the street, and you run downstairs to open the door and kiss her. You are so happy to be interrupted from whatever it was you were doing, whatever mark you were about to make on your canvas. Your love is ambitious. You know that as soon as you walk out the door, as soon as you set up house together, nothing will be the same again. Maybe I was stupid to give up that apartment and move in with her to a place I really couldn’t afford. But I am an unsettled person. I like movement. I don’t trust stability. I like possibility. And to move toward what might be possible, or might not, you cannot stay in your most perfect illegal sublet forever. A sublet, by definition, isn’t really yours.