I Can’t Tell My Mother Where I Live : The Realities of Life In a New York Apartment

I can’t tell my mother where I’m living. The thought of being responsible for her sleepless nights, not to mention her subsequent daily phone calls, is just too much to bear. Thankfully, Mom knows nothing about Manhattan geography, and will never, ever visit me here.

Everything you’ve heard about how hard it is to get even the lousiest NYC apartment is true. The simplest path is to get a realtor, but you must pay 15 percent of your yearly rent up front, in addition to your deposit. When I moved here just over a year ago, I opted for a less expensive route, taking over the apartment of a friend, sight unseen. I wasn’t expecting luxury, but I figured that if she’d been living there for two years, it had to be okay. Still, when the taxi dropped me off, I checked the address to make sure there hadn’t been a mistake.

One of the most useful phrases you will learn, should you decide to move to Manhattan to further your career, is “By New York Standards.” It means that, as wretchedly unsuitable as you would consider something were it to exist in any other part of the country, in New York it is not only acceptable, but you are grateful to have it. My apartment is pretty nice (BNYS). It’s big (BNYS) and the rent is cheap (BNYS).

Still, when my roommate and I moved in, making it liveable was a bit of a challenge. The previous tenants’ cardboard boxes, combined with their cat’s litter box and the apartment’s location above the garbage dump, made it the equivalent of Palm Springs for roaches. We dumped the boxes, sealed all food and dishes, and bought plenty of poison. This summer, the bugs are vacationing elsewhere. The lady upstairs, convinced that the landlord would respond much more quickly to complaints from white tenants, developed a system for getting his attention, which involved pouring water on the bathroom floor so it leaked down into ours. Eventually the bathroom ceiling fell in, and we convinced the landlord that he really didn’t want the grief that would ensue should we decide to call the Housing Authority every single day until it was fixed. We got new pipes and a new ceiling.

If it all sounds like Hell to you–well, it isn’t, really. Naturally, I’d prefer to live in a neighborhood where I could walk to my door after midnight instead of taking the Broadway train uptown and getting a cab the rest of the way home. Heck, I’d like to be able to tell my mother where I’m living.

But this place does have its advantages. I can be at any audition in half an hour, by subway. My place is twice as big and half the price of those in better neighborhoods. Best of all, I don’t have to struggle to pay the rent, so my time and energy can be concentrated on what brought me here in the first place: my singing career.

It’s a tradeoff, certainly, and I look forward to the day when I live in a place where I can comfortably have my mother visit. Until then, my apartment with all its faults still feels like home.

Now, if we could just get hot water on a regular basis…

Lina C. Cotman

Lina C. Cotman is an associate editor for Classical Singer. She lives and works in New York City.