Living situations offer lots more than roofs over our heads
THE FRENCHMAN, The Italian, The Mexican, The Texan and I had all answered an ad on Craigslist.org for rooms in an apartment in Berkeley. You couldn't beat the price, but the location — across the street from a pub — was a mite sketchy.
That experience four years ago helped me define my criteria as I looked for an apartment in New York this month: dishwasher: yes; elevator: yes; four roommates: no; proximity to booze hall: no.
In Berkeley I ended up living in the same room as "Esperanza," a student of English literature from the University of Mexico City. She was the first person I'd shared a room with since my sister, and I hoped she would be the last.
It wasn't her fault that I got irritable about my personal space and felt a little out of sorts.
I'd gotten used to the privacy of my old, drab, shabby one-bedroom. And even the nicest roommate can't be as unobtrusive as no roommate.
The Russian politics class I was taking mentioned Vladimir Zhirinovsky, a crazier and more popular sort of Russian Pat Buchanan. He once explained his particular brand of "nationalism" this way:
"Nationalism is a separate apartment ... you will visit your neighbors with pleasure, and also have them as guests, but you will not share their dining table or toilet. ... I might feel sorry for the homeless or those who had their homes burnt down, but I am not obliged to let them stay overnight.
"Especially since there are many of them, and I only have a two-room apartment."
I could see what he meant. When I couldn't get into the bathroom on the third try, I got annoyed. My individualistic streak popped through. I tried to stay out of Esperanza's way.
One night, I lay on my bed after my nap. The CD of Russian choral music had run its course. My roommate was away on campus, writing a paper. The sun had almost set.
The blinds on my roommate's window were up. The headlights of cars going north and south passed in opposite directions on the walls and the door, always fading on my wall if they were going south, and on hers if they were going north. The headlights beamed into the room every night when I turned off the lights, even if I closed the blinds.
Some were brighter, some softer. Some lasted longer, some went faster through the cycle of brightening and fading. This happened every evening, since I lived on busy Shattuck, and people are always driving up and down that street, taking individual journeys on a common road. I imagined that in the morning people drove one way to be mistresses and returned at night to be cheated-on wives.
Over the course of my six-month stay in that little international house, I got used to those reverse shadows on my wall, just as I got used to the noise from midnight World Cup matches and constant overheard conversations in languages I didn't understand. And I got to know my flatmates a bit. I proofread The Frenchman's history papers. In exchange, he made Nutella crepes and explained that the "Happy Birthday" song in France is just the American song translated into French, and not the nutty three-quarter-time tune I'd learned in high schoool. We'd been singing the same melody, traveling on the same musical road, all our lives, and I hadn't known it till then.
I'm glad I won't be living with strangers again, here in New York. My home will be my own sanctuary. But the strangeness will be everywhere else; the conversation in the pubs a few blocks away will be in Croat and Greek, if not in New York-accented English, and I have trouble communicating with the supervisor of my apartment building because English is his second or third language. I wonder how Zhirinovsky would feel about that. Dishwasher: yes; elevator: yes; international house: double yes.
Because I am not yet a New Yorker, I feel like the new roommate from abroad, a guest in this new city. I feel so alien in this crowded new world that a bedroom door doesn't stave off the oppressive otherness.
But nationalistic me can take comfort in what I learned from The Texan, The Mexican, The Frenchman and The Italian: There's always someone on the other side of the door, or the border, and it'll always be someone more like me than different.