Moving during a global pandemic is not ideal, except for the fact that there is very little traffic. As I parked up in Philadelphia, I was worried that my new neighbours would smash the windows of my Zipcar when they saw its New York license plate. I wanted to tell them I was one of them – it had been 12 years since I’d moved away to New York, but I was finally ready to come home.
Philly would provide for me. Philly would soothe my soul. Philly would make everything better. Philly would fix all my problems. I’d had over a decade of housing nightmares, insane housemates, horrible landlords, weird apartments. It was time to make a change, by finally moving away from their one common denominator – New York City.
I awoke on his couch one night to find he had removed my boots and socks and was going to town on my toes like some perverted hybrid of a vacuum and a lawnmower
My first New York apartment was in Greenpoint, Brooklyn in 2008. After the cable got shut off for the 47th time and I awoke to find a Rorschach-looking explosion of jello shots cascading down our 4th floor staircase after yet another after-afterhours party, I started to wonder if living with a drum-and-bass DJ was the best life choice. Especially since he had a penchant for doing nude photo shoots with random raver girls while I was at work… in MY bedroom.
From there, I moved into the East Village and formed an instant bond with my new roommate. We dubbed our apartment “The Rock Show” and spent countless hours having dance parties in the kitchen. His barefaced lies didn’t bother me much, because they really didn’t affect me much – like when I questioned him about our suddenly black bathroom. “Uhhh, what!? No, Molly, I didn’t spray paint in the bathroom. It must be mould.” Or when I asked him – the only other human in the apartment – if he had eaten my food. “Uhhh, what!? No Molly, I’m actually allergic to pumpkins, so I couldn’t have eaten your pumpkin bread.” His claim to roommate fame was cemented a few years later after I awoke on his couch one night to find he had removed my boots and socks and was going to town on my toes like some perverted hybrid of a vacuum and a lawnmower. He never gave those damn socks back either.
My next adventure – and somehow it gets even better – was moving into my dream apartment in the Lower East Side. An apartment which I had seen posted a few years earlier and thought “If I could only live in a place like that… I would really have made it in New York City.” Well… my roommate there (pathological liar #3) was an actor who practiced bloodcurdling screams with no warning, let his dog defecate all over our roof deck (he swept the results into a fly-covered pile that he left to bake in the sun for months) and claimed to have had his ears removed – without his knowledge or permission – and reattached farther back on his head. I bailed within the year.
After that, it was back to Brooklyn. Bushwick, to be exact, into a three-bedroom (well, technically two-and-a-half-, but who’s counting) with two amazing women. One of them was an alcoholic sleepwalker who worked in a psych ward. When she mixed whiskey and sleeping pills she would enter a fugue state and wander into my room in the middle of the night. She is the reason I still lock my bedroom door every night. The other was a budding polyamorist actress who would break into ear shattering opera songs without warning and would lift weights directly in front of the TV when you were trying to watch it.
From there, I moseyed on over to Ridgewood, Queens, with my bestie, and had what I THINK is the only single month of total normalcy in my NYC living experience. Then an internet-famous beauty queen moved in and it was all shot to hell. She didn’t understand how door locks worked: she would put the key in, jiggle it, then walk away. She also didn’t understand how window locks worked either, which led to our apartment being burgled a year down the road. But it was a Saturday morning discovery that was really the cherry on top for me: poking around in the freezer in search of breakfast inspiration, I found a Ziploc bag filled with dead skinned mice. They had been stored next to my ice cream for over a month, because that is when she took her first (and apparently only) taxidermy class.
Enough. I needed a break from roommates and found a place of my own, back in Bushwick. It had a private yard and a dressing room. It was my dream space. All mine. My problems were over. One afternoon I was out back sunbathing with a white wine spritzer and I noticed police swarming over my neighbour’s rooftop. They had dug up a dead body in the backyard. Because of course. I assumed it had been there for decades. Incorrect. It had been there less than a week. Life got pretty wild after that. It took a full year for the police to arrest someone. My neighbours sold the murder house and moved, leaving behind everything they didn’t want (including dirty clothes and food), which led to an infestation of roaches, rats, you name it.
I moved one neighbourhood up, to Williamsburg, Brooklyn. I’d enough insanity and needed some good old, boring, overpriced gentrification, which also meant jumping back into the world of roommates. I found a quiet apartment, and an even quieter Japanese roommate. She liked to cook elaborate meals which she ate out of tiny, tiny bowls. Aside from the fact that she was 40 and didn’t know how to change a lightbulb, she was a pretty good roommate. The apartment’s downfall was not my roommate, it was the nefarious management company. I had read the litany of horrible reviews for them online before moving in, but dismissed them. How bad could it be?!
Reader, I found out.
One Friday night, a few months into my lease, I was awoken by my roommate screaming at me, through a cloud of smoke and a deafening alarm, that we had to leave. The first floor of the building had flames pouring out of it. This was just the beginning of my building drama. The management didn’t care about the soot and smoke in our apartment. Word on the street was that they might have set the fire for insurance purposes, to push out the rent-controlled tenants. Shortly after the fire, we started having gas issues. The hot water and heating disappeared regularly. We were without cooking gas for four months. I hosted Thanksgiving with two instant pots and a hot plate (it was still damn good though!). One morning the bathroom ceiling caved in and created a water feature on the back wall. I called the building’s plumber but he told me he had taken the day off because it was his birthday. One morning a live rat fell through the kitchen ceiling while I was cooking dinner. Then the management raised the rent by $200 a month. As I learned from the first season of America’s Next Top Model: “If you don’t stand for something, you will fall for anything.” I said no.
I felt drained. I felt angry. I couldn’t believe that after all the effort and love that I had poured into NYC, that THIS was how she would do me. Because of course I blamed NYC. NYC had to be the common denominator. I was about to turn 40 and knew I needed to pull the trigger. I needed a change. I told my boss I was giving up my comfortable, stable, well-paying job. I called a friend who owns a mortgage-free house in Philly and has talked for years about us moving in together, and told him my plan.
Then I turned 40, New York closed down and I got COVID. All in the same week.
Was this a sign?
Once I’d moved, my friends kept asking “How is Philly?!” I didn’t know how to answer them. Philly wasn’t Philly in 2020, the same way that New York wasn’t New York. Everything was closed. There could be no housewarming or dinner parties, no bear-hugs from long-lost friends or laughter-filled evenings spent bellied up to the bar in a filthy dive. But there will be.
There could be no housewarming or dinner parties, no bear-hugs from long-lost friends
Re-entering Philly during this unique moment in history made me an observer rather than a participant. I noticed things I didn’t before. Philadelphia is an aggressive city. In NYC, everyone takes the subway: you’re pressed up against people from all walks of life, at least twice a day – homeless people, drug addicts, crazies – and while New Yorkers are alert and aware in those situations, they know to delay interaction as long as possible. That reads as tolerant. In Philly, most people have cars, so they’re quick to detonate, knowing they can just hop in their car and be done with a situation. But the flipside of that, and what I love about Philly, is that everyone will talk to you. Most people in NYC don’t even make eye contact.
I always knew I’d move back to Philly. I know it is my forever home, that holds my forever heart, and it is where I will settle for good. Am I ready to be fully settled yet? Doubtful. London is already calling my name. But while I’m here, I plan to make the most of it. And as the city wakes up little by little, so does my heart. There’s a different type of energy here than in NYC, a different type of grit that will keep me motivated.
And while I won’t have as many batshit-crazy roommate stories, I’ll certainly have my fill of batshit-crazy neighbourhood stories. On my first Saturday back, someone unloaded a gun into a car five feet behind me. It’s finally time that I accepted the truth: Wherever I go, the crazy will always find me. I am the common denominator. C