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Open House

Do I Deserve This Hell’s Kitchen $1,495 Studio Apartment With a Shared Toilet?

Is this where I belong?

(Hell Gate)

It was drizzling last week when I made my way to a four-story brownstone in Hell's Kitchen, on 46th Street between Eighth and Ninth Avenues. I was there to meet a real estate broker named Tomer Meir, who had agreed to show me a studio apartment being rented for $1,495 a month. A dog sitting in the window of the parlor-floor apartment and watching the empty windows on Restaurant Row perked up as I climbed the stairs. 

Tomer, a tall and bald middle-aged guy with a neatly trimmed beard, olive skin, and glasses, led me through hallways paneled with dark wood up to the third floor. The first thing he showed me was not the apartment, but a toilet. "Here's the toilet," Tomer said, as he swung open a black door, unleashing a white fluorescent light that was almost blinding. The commode itself even seemed to glow ominously. The light hummed. An empty toilet paper roll holder protruded from the wall, and there was a single brown wooden shelf by the toilet's side, but no sink where one could wash their hands. This toilet was, he told me, the only one on the floor, and shared by all of its residents, but in case anything happened, I could always use one on another floor. 

(Hell Gate)

The toilet "room" was so small that it was hard to see how anyone standing up to pee could do so without feeling the wall behind you. How many knees had touched that little shelf, I wondered, how many "accidents" had soaked into its pores? The light's hum seemed to grow slightly louder. Suddenly, Tomer shut the door, bringing us back into the dark silence. Then he opened another one just across from it.

Here was the studio apartment: a room about ten feet long with a single naked light bulb dangling from the ceiling and one wall of exposed brick. The floors were wood made artificially gray. A wooden ladder painted white led up to a loft about two feet below the ceiling. A mattress was already up there. I asked Tomer where it came from, but he didn't know. 

I asked Tomer to give me a minute alone in the space, and he shut the door behind him, revealing a sink about the size of a college textbook in the enclave between the door and the closet, which, at about four square feet, was kind of comically normal-sized compared to the tiny room. 

Is this where I belong, I thought. The monthly rent was almost exactly a fortieth of my annual salary, precisely what I should be paying. Tomer had asked what I do for a living, and when I told him I was a journalist, I swore I saw pity in his eyes. I did what I knew I had to do, and climbed up the ladder and onto the mystery mattress, which looked…clean enough. Lying there, staring at the ceiling, it seemed to expand, a white portal to other dimensions of possibility. I imagined waking up to this white ceiling every morning, carrying my own roll of toilet paper into the bathroom in the morning. How would I furnish the space below? Living like this, which of my possessions would even be worth keeping? A couch, I suppose, for entertaining.  A dresser, maybe a bookshelf. I would need something, after all, to house my roll of toilet paper. 

I had seen some cactuses in the window of the building next door, and wondered how many I could buy with the cash I'd get from selling all of my shit. Maybe I'm a cactus guy.

I was getting ahead of myself. Perhaps appropriate for an apartment on Restaurant Row, there were no facilities for preparing food of any kind, save for the mini fridge and microwave shoved in a corner that Tomer assured me I could keep. 

Is this my rightful place? (Hell Gate)

I climbed down the loft's steps and, looking out the window at the Midtown view (a shed on top of an adjacent building), called out to Tomer that he could come back in from the hallway.

(Hell Gate)

I was about to start saying my goodbyes when I remembered that I hadn't seen the shower yet, so we squeezed back into the corridor. I could hear voices giggling from a nearby room. "What are the neighbors like?" I asked Tomer, but he said he wasn't allowed to discuss that. He swung open another door in the hallway, revealing a single shower stall inside. "I've never seen that before," I said, turning to Tomer, "just straight from hallway to shower, no transition." Tomer said nothing, he just looked at me. I looked at the anonymous products stuck into caddies hooked onto the door and fell down another contemplative rabbit hole. Who was responsible for cleaning the shower, or the toilet for that matter? How did you put clothes on after showering? Did you have to leave them in the hall? Did everyone in this building wrap themselves in towels and tiptoe back to their apartment after cleaning themselves? What happened when they ran into someone on the way back? 

"Well," I said, "I guess that's it." Tomer again said nothing. We shook hands and I walked back out into the misty mid-day. I looked for a place to sit down and have lunch. The bulbs in the sign above the bar in the basement of the building, Don't Tell Mama, were unilluminated. The piano bar, where Broadway legends had played, was closed, so I walked down Restaurant Row tugging at locked doors. 

I finally found an open bar, and sitting down for a chicken sandwich, I realized that living in that apartment was someone's New York dream: some actor probably, who would think that that mystery mattress was what New York had to offer them, take it or leave it. To them, the hallway shower would be just another part of the sleekly minimal lifestyle of an up-and-coming creative. This was the kind of apartment you tell yourself you'll reminisce about over martinis once you've, you know, made it, once you've gotten that big role, or maybe sold that script or that tell-all auto-fictional novel-slash-memoir. I ordered the side salad to better embody the fantasy.

My reverie was interrupted by a man with a fringe of blond hair chatting into his phone. "How am I going to start something with no income?" he asked his friend on the other end. I continued to eavesdrop, and it became clear he was a career journalist with years of experience who had recently been laid off from the Messenger, the $50 million media faceplant that collapsed spectacularly last month. Now he was interviewing for a job at, he told his friend. "Rent is like $2,500-plus a month," he said. Paying for a car, for health insurance and bills, he said, "that's four grand coming out of your bank account each month. That's gonna go real quick. I've had enough."

"I can't keep on working in this fucked up media industry that keeps laying people off," he said. "Pets will always be there."

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