Australians who move to New York are faced with a make or break trade off. The Australian accent has a currency in the city unparalleled elsewhere in the world. Pipe up with that twang here are instantly sexy because you come from far away and you talk funny.
The novelty of this is offset by certain sacrifices that one makes when they choose to become an exotic bird in an overcrowded cage. The food isn’t going to be as good as it is in Australia, ditto the coffee. These are hard adjustments to make but certainly not insurmountable.
The true culture shock of moving to New York arrives in the form of the space deficiencies. High-density living isn’t a new thing in the city. The first multi-story railroad apartments went up in the Lower East Side during the 1830s. That was prior to the need for a bathroom in every apartment, over thirty years before the first elevator was installed in a New York building.
My current apartment is on the fifth floor. The advantages of this include a panoramic view of Manhattan and glutes that get more amazing each time I ascend each flight. On the minus side negotiating five floors three or four times a day quickly becomes an exhausting prospect.
Once inside the apartment one discovers that the size of the bathroom, like that of many apartments in the city, is negligible. That’s because it was installed in a corner of the kitchen way after the building was constructed, as an afterthought, when hygiene became cool.
There’s no sink, and the toilet is sandwiched tightly between the wall and the bathtub. The bathroom door is on an angle making it a very tight squeeze if you choose to close it while you’re on the can. So I don’t. And I can do this because I live alone. To an extent this is a luxury. A little more than I can afford but way less than it should cost in this area of Brooklyn due to the fact that I got lucky.
I can’t overstate the perks of living alone, but the one thing about New York is that you are never really alone because people like to come here. Australians visit the city for a week or two or five. And these people need somewhere to stay.
Most people I know can’t afford a hotel for three weeks. We’re artists, existentially hampered and financially impaired by our vocation. I use we because I was once that guy who rocked up to the city without planning my accommodation, figuring that I would just work it out. Working it out usually involved finding someone else’s couch or bed to sleep on.
If I’m entirely honest entering the city this way is a form of hustling. You’re relying on your wit and antipodean charm to endear yourself to someone to the point that they will house you. It’s a tall order in a town where space is a premium. Somehow I managed to pull it off.
Now I find myself in my own apartment looking at the situation from the other end of the barrel. Just how long do I allow people to stay for? When I was a couch surfer my rationale was always that I had come a long way, and my friends should be accommodating. When I arrived I found that each night I stayed with my friends had to be meticulously negotiated. Even after this protracted process accommodation wasn’t guaranteed.
One friend whom I will quote later in this article actually cancelled me at 4pm of the afternoon I was supposed to go over and stay because she was ‘too busy’. The fact that this meant I might have to spend a night on the street didn’t resonate with her. She needed the whole apartment to wash her hair before jetting abroad the next day.
Despite the obvious presence of luxuriant spare room, my ex partner who has lived here for the last eight years says ‘I don’t let anyone stay for more than two nights. Otherwise it just gets too much.’ But what exactly is too much? My aforementioned friend offered this detailed response:
‘Guest impacts ranged from: sleeping with head out of the window because guest spilled amyl nitrate on floor & passed out, kicking guest in the face while guest slept because guest set house on fire before going to bed, trying to talk guest one and guest two into sharing living space with each other, rescuing guest from snowy sidewalk out front where guest thought it would be ok to sleep, guest throwing dead pigeon at housemate, threatening to kill guest, guest deciding to fall in love with couch surfer and get married in Jamaica queens, guests breaking in through window, losing guests, guests coming home having being “robbed” (ie they fell over and lost their bag), three guest couples breaking up during their stay, two couples getting married during their stay, having to put up guests parents for wedding of initial guest, guest becoming dear friend who learnt KRS song for me before giving me synthetic painkillers that made me vomit in the Bodega, guest getting drunk and trying to kiss housemate, guest ruining public relations with block on our behalf.’
It’s an exhaustive list. The respondent was so flummoxed by the question she was unable to provide a lucid answer to the question of how it made her feel. I turned to her roommate who provided this response:
‘Over the two year period we were in New York we had 37 guests, some for months at a time. The door was always open and it was the least precious I’ve ever been about sharing space, as opposed to in Australia. It was a pain the arse when guests were disrespectful, like the amyl nitrate story and the sense of entitlement that people felt.’
There’s a big difference between offering your space for two days and two months. This month my friend Annie is coming to the city for three weeks. I said she could stay with me for one. Feeling bad that I didn’t offer more time I again consulted members of the expat panel. The consensus was ‘One week is actually a long time.’
When I thought about this I realised that they were right. Two people living on top of each other in my shoebox apartment will be a tight squeeze. I will have to close the bathroom door. Annie and I are inevitably going to hear every noise and smell every odour the other makes. To say that we will bond is an understatement. Though I think the visit will make rather than break our friendship I anticipate that a week in each other’s pockets is going to be more than sufficient.
NB *Dear Annie stayed one night before declaring my apartment has bedbugs. She currently resides in a glass tower over on Bayard Street with a more affluent friend.