In my experience, finding good housing in New York is largely based on luck, and I had that in low reserve. I tried all the usual avenues—Craigslist, friends, friends of friends, acquaintances of friends… and, after a few weeks of searching, I finally managed to be put in contact with a guy who had a spare room to sublet for a super-low price in the Lower East Side.
The owner of this apartment (we’ll call him Doug) was a heavy-drinking, chain-smoking freelance writer who had also recently split from his girlfriend. His ex-girlfriend's office space was in the apartment, which made the perfect bedroom to rent out. I was in a sort of headspace at the time that necessitated a lot of shut-door boozing and miscellany, and I found it highly attractive that Doug seemed to be into the same kind of mopery that I was. Plus, the room for rent was large (for the Lower East Side), seemed cloistered enough from Doug's area that I would have a decent amount of privacy, and—while it gave off the kind of "dude" funk smell that some might have shied away from—it wasn't that big of a deal considering it was also devoid of rats, mold, and water damage. It seemed perfect.
"This place seems perfect!" I said to Doug. And of course, the follow-up: "What's wrong with it?"
"Nothing's wrong with the room," he said a little too cautiously. "But you're talking about the price right? Why it's so low?"
"Ha," I joked. "Did someone die in here or what?"
"No, nothing like that. But something did happen, and I'd feel like an ass if I rented the place to you and didn't tell you what happened here a few months ago." …Ah, the words every subletter wants to hear. And with that, he launched into the best story I've ever heard about NYC housing.
After Doug's girlfriend left him a few months before I met him, he became unable to afford the rent by himself. He quickly found Jack via Craigslist, a recent Columbia journalism school graduate and fellow writer. Like Doug, Jack was also quiet and a loner, choosing to order Chinese food and chip away at his novel instead of getting drunk like the LES revelers on the sidewalks bellow. But he was courteous and stayed out of Doug's perma-sedated way, which is the exact kind of stranger you want to be living with.
After living with Jack for a few months, Doug was running home through the middle of a raging rainstorm, and noticed that Jack’s window was wide open, water pouring into the room. He rushed up the stairs, still dripping wet, and knocked on Jack’s door. Nobody answered, and Doug figured Jack was out. He found his master key, opened the door, and clicked on the light.
Neatly piled into stacks were Chinese food containers, some 10 boxes high, some already toppled, with their half-eaten contents strewn on the floor. The cartons covered all the available area on the floor except for a narrow walkway to the bed and the desk. Doug stood horrified at the doorway, then noticed the water flooding the floor by the window. He rushed over to close it.
Compulsive hoarders—as anyone who's spent a decent time watching TV will know—are not rare. There are between six to 15 million hoarders living in the United States, with many of them carrying on seemingly normal lives outside of their obsessive disorder. This fact didn't make Doug any more comfortable with the toy city of rotting Chinese food in his spare bedroom. He was going to kick Jack out when he got back to the apartment.
Then he saw the boot.
Doug leaned over to pick it up, knowing what the contents were before his fingers even made contact. Spilled out from the tops were strings of Lo Mein noodles, and hard pieces of dried rice. Doug was sure he could see crusted-over mounds of meat and hardened sauce. Sickened, Doug sat down the shoe, and as he did so, he noticed a shadow in the shape of a human body beneath the twin bed.
With absolute trepidation, Doug lifted the bed and slid it a few feet away, knocking over a pile of takeout boxes. What he uncovered wasn't—to his immediate relief—a real person. But it was a person's shape, with a hooded sweatshirt attached to gloves and a pair of jeans, with the other boot tucked into the leg. Coming out of the seams were remnants of noodles, rice, and meat, grease stains pooling through the fabric and onto the floor, spoiled scraps of food filling the hoodie to the brim. Doug scanned the body—and...yep, there it was. Noodles oozed out of the unzipped fly; a glory hole that Jack had ostensibly been taking advantage of all spring long.
Doug called an emergency locksmith who came and changed the locks within the hour. Jack arrived home not too long afterward and found it locked.
"I just need my laptop," he called through the door.
Doug slid the laptop through the mail slot. He could hear Jack's footsteps click down the hall, and the apartment entrance door slam shut. During the following days, Doug hired cleaners to remove all the food that Jack had left behind. Though the room had been cleared of all the takeout containers (along with the Meat Lover, which I've since started using to describe the effigy), the floors and walls scrubbed clean, and the room aired out for days, the smell still lingered.
Doug paused. "So, yeah. The room is cheap. What happened was fucked up." Doug looked ready to pass out, and I felt faint. "I'm sorry, dude. I can't," I muttered, and headed for the door. I regret leaving in such haste now, as the amount of questions I have are overwhelming—Didn't Doug smell something weird coming from Jack's room before he went in? Didn't he notice that Jack never took out any trash? What did he think was on his laptop? I've considered calling him to tie up those loose mental ends (which would lend this story that I've retold at least a hundred times much more credence), but really, I hate to bother the guy. That summer was an especially damaging one for me, and I wasn't the one who had to clean up a leaking sex toy my ex-roommate had constructed out of decomposing Chinese food.
Editor's Note: After reading your comments about the mail slot, we grilled Peter about that detail, and he admitted that he misremembered due to telling it incorrectly for so many years, and it was actually passed through the door crack with the chain lock fastened. So, there you go.
Images via Peter Kassel and Elijah Wolfson.