Being the experiences and adventures of a young, single, appallingly poor, surprisingly clean, twenty-something magazine proprietor and philosopher in Gotham.
by Daniel Tippens
January, 2012 — Arrival — Defrauders and Dope Fiends
As I got off the bus, I took note of the smell in the cold Manhattan air, an amalgam of kebabs, marijuana, and exhaust. I took out my phone and tried to find the nearest subway that could take me to my first apartment viewing. I regretted my choice in gloves, which were cut in such a way that my fingertips hung naked outside of the warmth of cotton. Dexterity at the expense of heat — a poor decision given that the cold hindered my dexterity anyway.
Despite the advice given by every decent guidance counselor, I had decided to attend NYU without ever visiting the campus or even Manhattan. This excited rather than concerned me, as I was eager to be thrown into a sink-or-swim situation and to see which way I came out. I headed down the stairs to the subway, and was disappointed to find there was no change in temperature. I knew the city couldn’t heat every subway station, but I had hoped that the hundreds of people huddled together beneath the streets alongside me might function as a kind of human radiator. The train squealed to a stop, and I brushed shoulders with a dozen peacoats and scarves as I stepped inside. The train had a faint smell of body odor, which was surprising given that it was the dead of winter, and I got a whiff of it every three or four breaths.
I approached the apartment building that contained my first potential apartment. My budget was around $800 per month, and I was coming from Baltimore City, where $800 a month would have gone a long way, securing me a spacious private studio with modern furnishings. I naively thought that same would be true of Manhattan. At first, when I saw the luxurious complex rising up in front of me, I thought I was right. The building had a canopy extending outward, and lights filled the building’s interior and exterior in a pattern that reminded me of the way a carnival looks from a distance. An adjacent, fine-dining restaurant was buzzing with people, and I became even more elated when I realized the building was only a block away from Washington Square Park, ideal for me given its proximity to NYU. I asked the doorman where apartment 9C was, and he gestured toward the elevator and had me sign in.
I scanned the room numbers on the ninth floor, and rang 9C’s doorbell. A decrepit old woman came out, holding the door slightly ajar. She wore tinted glasses and her gray hair hung unnaturally stiff, not budging despite a fan blowing vigorously against her head. She spoke quickly, like an impatient cashier trying to get through a long line of customers.
“Are you Kevin?” She asked, askance.
“Yes I am, ma’am, I’m here to take a look at the room you advertised for $850 per month?” (This was slightly over my budget, but I figured I could negotiate her down.)
“Yes, Yes! Come on in! I’m Ruth.”
The door opened into a very narrow hallway leading to the living room, and I had to press up against the wall to enter the apartment without touching her. The apartment was dark, lit only by small lamps on the floor and desk. Despite being a spacious, true one-bedroom, It was an absolutely disgusting place. The floor was invisible, covered by old newspapers, books, and dirty clothes. A futon lay open with pillows and a thin blanket on it, and the putrid smell filling the room made me suspect that there was a small ecosystem thriving beneath the mess.
“I sleep in the living room right here.” She said, gesturing at the futon. “You will sleep in the main bedroom. Here are the rules: no frequent overnight guests, no staying out past midnight, and you must keep your room tidy.”
“Okay, understood,” I said, raising my eyebrow at her last rule. She was willing to sleep in filth as long as my room remained a pleasing sight? A weird situation in which to invoke the “do as I say, and not as I do” command, given that I was a prospective tenant, and not her son. She went to the bedroom where I was supposed to sleep, and I took the opportunity to peek in her refrigerator, which was just outside what I can only describe as a kitchen-in-a-closet. A wall of food wrapped in tinfoil filled the fridge, mold protruding from it in various places, as though it was planning to make a connection with its friends on the living room floor. I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw that even in the freezer, shit was growing out of the food. They must be extremophiles, I thought. How the hell is this possible? I was under the impression that such organisms only existed at the bottoms of volcanoes or in the South Pole. I quickly peered into the kitchen, and my Get the fuck out! alarm instantly went off at the pile of lighters and mound of burnt spoons that I saw inside. This eighty-something hoarder was also a junkie.
Still, the propriety my parents had instilled in me compelled me to view the rest of the apartment. The bedroom was surprisingly clean, with a gorgeous view of midtown, which would have made a great companion to my impending long nights of studying. To this day, I don’t know why I did this, but although I knew I would never take the apartment, I started to negotiate the rent, trying to push her down to $800 per month. She said “no,” and I said that I couldn’t take the apartment, and then she caved. “Okay, $800 a month.” With the smell beginning to give me a headache, I told her I would be in touch after I looked at more apartments, and hurried out the door. The mental image of the colonies in her cold storage followed me closely.
I came to find that in Manhattan, with my budget, pretty much every room-share I looked at was either a shithole like Ruth’s or was being rented out by an elderly person who was looking for a tenant who could double as an informal aide — someone to help them maintain the apartment, or be available to help if they should fall or have a sudden heart attack or stroke. Neither of these situations was appealing to me. New York was once the landing zone for needy immigrants, but clearly now only the wealthy could afford to step off the boat with anything approaching comfort. I wondered if any landlords had started to install prison toilets — out in the open, in the corners of apartments — to cut costs.
My bus ticket back to Maryland was for a couple of days later, and I needed a place to sleep. I had foolishly expected to secure an apartment that day and had failed. With no backup plan and no place to sleep, I would have to pull out some desperate tactics to avoid sleeping in the subway (somehow it completely eluded me that I could just stay in a hotel). It began to feel as if Manhattan might eat me alive, and I found myself preparing to con my way into a bed for the night.
When I was in middle school, I played Diablo III online religiously. Against our parents’ permission, my brothers and I would stay up all night playing — we called it AN’ing, which stood for “All-Nighting” — and we would build our characters and search for items, until our eyes hurt from a combination of exhaustion and prolonged exposure to the monitor’s light.
As I started to concoct a plan to get a bed for the night, I was reminded of a scam I had run on Diablo III, which I called “free for trust.” My goal was to acquire high-quality items that would benefit my character, by inviting people to play a game. I would tell players the rules when they entered: you drop any item on the ground, and I pick it up. I then drop your item, returning it to you, and give you an additional free item of corresponding value. If you drop a common, invaluable item, you will get a similar one in return. The more valuable the item you trust me with, the more valuable the item you will receive. The more you trust me, the more you get.
Players would inevitably drop low-value items to test me, and of course, I would abide by the rules at this stage. As time passed and pleasant conversation ensued, they would drop increasingly valuable items. The key was to get them to forget they were even playing the game, and make them feel as though the conversation was the real reason they were sticking around — the game was just taking place in the background. If I succeeded in this, the climax would come. I would tell the players that I have a really good item I need to get rid of, and wondered if they wanted to get it for free. The players would hesitate, telling me they had a really good item of corresponding value, but they weren’t sure if they could trust me. I would tell them it was no big deal, that they didn’t have to, and that they could just enjoy the (mediocre at best) items I had given them. When they dropped the good item, which was far more valuable than all of the shitty items I had given them combined, I would abruptly exit the game.
I was never going to rent from her, but I phoned Ruth and said that I wanted to take the room. I told her I was hoping I could spend the night there and would pay her the security deposit and first month’s rent in the morning, should the experience be a positive one. She agreed.
I arrived at Ruth’s and lay on the bed in “my room,” looking out at midtown. It was painfully clear that my budget simply wasn’t going to get me anything in Manhattan that was even remotely adequate, and I began to weigh my options. I couldn’t raise my budget, and would either have to take one of these shitty apartments and deal with it, until I could afford a better place (which seemed unrealistic as a full-time student), or I would have to search for a place in another borough, probably the Bronx or Brooklyn. I still had one appointment set up in the East Village for the next day, so I tried to put my bad options out of my mind, tossing and turning, before finally falling asleep. I woke up the next morning and went to the living room, wading through the piles of shit on the floor. Ruth was in the closet-kitchen rifling through her cabinets. I wondered if she was looking for a morning heroin or meth pick-me-up.
“Good morning, Ruth! Thanks for letting me stay here. I slept pretty well.”
“Glad to hear that, So you’ll take the place?” Her eagerness was manifested clearly in her voice.
“Yeah I think so! But I need to run some errands and pick up cash to pay you with since I don’t have my checkbook. Could I leave my luggage here and pay you when I return later tonight?”
“Yes, yes, Kevin, not a problem. We’ll handle everything later tonight.”
I had no intention of paying her, of course, and was going to spend the day apartment-hunting some more. In retrospect, maybe this was a risky con, given that she was a hardcore junkie. My first week in New York, kicked off with a harsh beating by Ruth and a gang of geriatric drug fiends.
With my fingers crossed, I showed up at my last apartment viewing in Manhattan, in a building on St. Marks place, and I started to think about my time before coming to New York. I had basically lived as a hustler in Baltimore city, working double shifts at a restaurant and couch-hopping in order to save up enough money to pay rent for the first semester at NYU. My coworkers used to tell me I was antisocial, because never would go out with them, but I liked to think that I just had my priorities in order. I couldn’t help but think that my life as a hustler in Baltimore had hardly changed, as here I was scamming an old lady for a bed to sleep on, so that I could secure a good apartment.
A handsome young real estate agent named Josh met me with a wide smile that strained his face, revealing a set of impeccably white teeth. His hair was gelled and combed up into a mini fauxhawk, and when he shook my hand, still smiling, I felt comfortable with him. Maybe it was just because he wasn’t eighty years old and on smack.
“Hey man, I’m Josh. Thanks for being on time! Let’s head up to the apartment. Is this your first time in New York? Are you a student?” He fumbled with a keyring so full, I assumed he was moonlighting as a janitor.
“Yes to both questions. How about you? What’s your story?” Josh turned his head as we walked up the stairs so that I could see his eyes while he spoke.
“Well I used to make 80K a year as an administrator at a corporate real estate brokerage, but I decided to partner with a friend, and we made our own firm. Now here I am!” He spoke from behind that smile with a confidence and calm that was disarming, and I thought I might make my first friend — or at least a contact — out of him. “So have you seen a lot of apartments? How has the search been going?” In a friendly and comical tone, I told him about Ruth, and the elderly people who were trying to avoid nursing homes by renting out to young people, and he laughed, nodding his head.
“Yeah man, on your budget you will mostly get those kinds of situations. But trust me you’re about to see a place that I guarantee you will fall in love with. It’s your own studio and comes fully furnished with a corner television, storage space, and even a functional desk and desktop computer. There are shared bathrooms on every floor, but the Superintendent cleans them twice daily and every tenant is happy with them. You’ll never have to fight for a shower. There’s rooftop access for you to meet some of the other young professionals and students living here, and you’re just a few blocks away from NYU. It’s perfect, dude. Ah, here we are.”
He opened the door to the studio, which was really just a small 8×10 room with a high ceiling and some storage space above the door. I’d seen walk-in closets twice the size of this unit, and I would later come to find that if I lay down and extended my arms, I spanned more than the entirety of the room’s width. A bunk bed took up most of the space, and a small desk was squeezed between the wall and the bed frame. Light poured in through the window which looked out at a brick wall belonging to a neighboring building, about 400 feet away. Not much of a view, but the apartment was clean, had natural light, was fully furnished, and didn’t house an elderly junkie. I could bring in my luggage and be a New Yorker in an instant, and for the first time, despite the drawbacks, I could see myself in this place. Sure it was small, but I would be out most of the day anyway. All I needed was a clean place to sleep.
“This is perfect, man. What do I need to do to take it? I need to move in as soon as possible. Classes start in a week and I … uh … barely have a place to sleep right now.” My voice carried clear undertones of relief and joy, and Josh nodded his head vigorously, smiling all the time.
“I knew you’d like it. No old ladies to care for, no mess, and no curfew. There’s light pouring in, cool neighbors, and like I said, you’re just steps away from NYU. We never have trouble renting these apartments. In fact, if you were to move on it any slower, it would be gone by the end of the day.”
This little speech struck me as unnecessary, given how much excitement I had already expressed about the apartment. I began to suspect there was something he knew that I didn’t. “Let’s head back to my office and get started on the paperwork.” We walked toward the office, which was on Broadway, in the heart of Greenwich Village.
“Do you make pretty good money as an agent?” I asked, trying to maintain a pleasant conversation.
“You know what, I really do. The job is pretty fucking great. Most apartments in Manhattan turn over in the summer, and I bust my ass and make a year’s salary between May and September. The rest of the year is pretty chill, and I rent a few apartments here and there. Last year I made twenty five grand in the summer, and was able to pretty much coast after that.”
We arrived at his office building and our shoulders were touching in the small elevator that brought us to the sixth floor. I joked about how the elevator’s rent was probably $600 per month, and he laughed.
“I’ll use that joke with future clients.”
We walked into his office, which was really just a small room, with two futon couches facing one another pushed up against the walls. A pristine electric guitar hung from the wall just above one of the futons, and a microwave stacked on top of a mini fridge occupied the far corner of the room, across from the guitar. At the end of the office, a man with long brown hair sat behind a large oak desk. Josh sat down on the futon, and the man behind the desk stood up to greet me.
“Whatsup man, I’m Sean, the head broker here,” he said cheerfully with a smirk, extending a long, lanky arm that made me think of orangutans, “So you’re interested in apartment 10C in the St. Marks Place building, right? Good choice, it’s a deal man. Have a seat.” I would come to find that Sean uttered the word “deal” as frequently as others say “um.” When he said it, his head would quickly jut out and retract like a pigeon picking at food, and he would heavily emphasize the ‘d’. All of his decisions, even personal ones, were determined by what he considered a “deal.” At one point, he told me about his girlfriend and her daughter, and after describing the relationship’s financial benefits and relatively few drawbacks, he beamed and said, “Deal, right?” I had never met somebody who reduces his relationship decisions to fiscal calculations.
Sean sat down, and I placed myself in a small chair, across his desk, with such short legs I was forced to look up at him while I spoke.
“Yeah, I was telling Josh that the apartment is perfect, but I feel like I’m being interviewed in this tiny chair, are you trying to make me feel inferior or something? Maybe we should switch chairs if we come to a negotiation phase,” I raised my eyebrow playfully and smirked, and Sean’s eyes narrowed as he laughed.
“Glad to know it’s working. I think I’ll keep my chair if we get to that negotiation part, but I can see you’re already playing the game to get a good deal. You’re going to do well here in New York. So anyway if you want to move in, I’ll need first month’s rent, one month security, and the broker’s fee.”
Now I understood why Josh had continued to up-sell me even after I was clearly sold on the apartment. “The broker’s fee? How much is that?”
“The standard New York fee is 15% of you annual rent payment, but we are a small firm and we can negotiate. I never let a fee prevent a client from getting an apartment.”
I wondered what he was doing for me that could justify such a large fee and why there were brokers in Manhattan at all. Couldn’t landlords just rent apartments themselves and cut out the middlemen? It turns out that, yes, they can, but what brokers bring to the table is free labor and an illegal screening process of which the landlords can deny any knowledge. Are you a lawyer, journalist, police or fireman? If so, you will find it incredibly difficult to find an inexpensive apartment in Manhattan. Landlords avoid these prospective tenants like the plague and for obvious reasons. Nobody wants to have an article titled “My Bad Landlord” published or Lawyer v. Landlord brought to court. Worse still, some landlords pass along outright racist screening criteria to brokers. Yep, I later learned of at least one landlord who said no blacks allowed. In return for these favors, brokers collect fees, and gain exclusive access to rent out a landlord’s apartments, guaranteeing the broker some income. Sean pulled out a calculator and bent over the desk so that he could fix his eyes on it.
“Okay, so 15% of your annual rent would be $1,440, but I can do much better than that.” He began typing vigorously on his calculator, mumbling numbers and outcomes, like he was negotiating with himself, “13% would be.. Hmm, I can do better… 11% could work… 1,056… let’s get you closer to a month’s rent… 9%… okay. I can give you a deal of 9% of your month’s rent for $864. Just slightly above one month’s rent, that’s better than any other firm you will deal with in Manhattan.”
“Honestly I hadn’t anticipated a broker’s fee. I don’t know if I have the funds to make that work, man.” I thought dismally about how I might have to start weighing my bad options again.
“Here’s the way I like to think of it,” Sean reasoned, “Your rent is $800 per month, right? Well, take the broker’s fee and divide it by twelve, and that’s how much extra you’re paying per month on top of your rent. Really, with the fee your rent is just…” He consulted his calculator again, “$872 per month, and you’re just getting that extra 72 each month out of the way upfront. That’s really not a big bump above your budget.”
I squinted at Sean, whose affect was becoming less orangutan and more shark-like. I wondered if he had done any scamming of his own in his youth. He spoke quickly, with a tone that was just forceful enough to come across as a command you felt compelled to follow, but weak enough to give you the illusion of control. He also gave the impression of being capricious, but in retrospect you could tell that he had all of his moves thought out well in advance.
“No, it’s not, but I really don’t have the funds. I had planned my finances out pretty precisely…” He cut me off, and applied pressure. In my “Free for Trust” terms, he instigated the climax.
“Well, unfortunately I can’t go lower than that. These apartment go really quickly and we have no problem renting them. So it’s your decision to take it or leave it. You can take some time to decide, but honestly we have several appointments to show the place today, and it will be gone by the evening. In New York things move quickly.”
Despite the fact that Sean had just contradicted his earlier assurance that he never let a fee get in the way of a deal, he was persuasive, and was pulling the same move I had used on my Diablo III victims — feel free to leave, buddy, nobody is forcing you to drop that valuable item. I hadn’t encountered this level of pressure in a sale so directly before, and his tactics were working. I thought about the organisms growing in Ruth’s freezer and decided I would make it work, somehow. But I wanted a slightly better deal, if for no other reason than to feel like I had some say in what happened.
“Can I see your calculator?”
Sean’s primate-like arm allowed him to slide the device across the desk without getting out of his chair, and I tried to combine what little leverage I had with some humor. “I have enough to make it by with an addition of $66 per month. That’s a fee of one month’s rent, between 8% and 9%. You get to rent the apartment right here, right now, to a good tenant, benefitting your reputation with the landlord, and I get my apartment. Is that acceptable? Or is the way I look in this small chair making me come across as unpersuasive?”
“I like you Kevin,” Sean said, chuckling and leaning toward the desk, “I’ll take the deal if you consider working for me this summer. I’ll need another agent, and you seem to have a natural talent for this. You could make twenty grand in a summer, and pay your entire year’s rent, or have a huge wad of cash to fuck around with in the city. It’s perfect for someone like you.”
The offer was both flattering and tantalizing, and I wondered if I should put two years as a Diablo III scam artist on my resume before I gave it to him. I had no other plans set in stone for the summer, and the prospect of paying my year’s rent with just one summer of work was pretty damn appealing. I wouldn’t have to wonder how I would afford to live in Manhattan, and I’d be able to focus on my studies without working a second job during the semester.
“It’s a deal.”
I took a deep breath as I approached Ruth’s building, praying that she wasn’t tweaking or in some other horrible state. The doorman recognized me, and welcomed me to the building by name. As I waved and greeted him in return, I thought, “Fuck, Ruth must have already told him I was moving in.” I prepared to hold my breath as Ruth came to the door. She opened it wide, invited me in, and began walking down the narrow hallway so that I wouldn’t have to wiggle past her.
“Did you get your errands done?” She asked, eyeing my empty hands.
“Yeah I did, thanks for asking. But I have some bad news, and I feel terrible telling you this, but I spoke with some people about living in this apartment and ultimately I concluded I can’t move in. I’m really sorry.” This was my first time bullshitting a senior citizen, and she detected it immediately.
“Are you fucking kidding me? I let you sleep here last night. You said you would take the place, and I turned away another possible tenant because of you. I’m going to have to start my search all over again. What the hell?”
I had never heard an eighty year old woman curse like this. I felt like a child being scolded.
“I’m sorry, do you want me to pay you for the night I stayed? I have the money…”
“No, just get your things and get the fuck out of my apartment. I don’t want to see you again.”
I gathered my luggage and started toward the door.
“I’m sorry again, Ruth…”
“I don’t want to hear it. Fuck you. Just get out.”
Little did I know that I would hear “fuck you” on a depressingly regular basis, when I worked in real estate the following summer.
(This article was originally published on The Electric Agora)