Now that my job search is complete, I am moving on to my number two priority, an apartment. I love everything about New York, except the apartment hunt. It's brutal. I've never experienced anything like it. 15% broker fees, brokers who are keen to show you exactly what you DON'T want, and a very tight market. At the moment the vacancy rate in New York is 1%, the lowest it's been in decades. I had heard of the legendary "shoebox apartment" though I'd never seen one until today. I went to a see a "cute studio" on West 64th street. I am not exaggerating when I say that it was 150 square feet, if that! My sister, Weez, has an adorable miniature dachshund and this apartment is too small even for him. Still, I am optimistic.
My friend, Dan, keeps telling me the perfect apartment is out there. He's taken to sending me uplifting text messages. I appreciate these - they arrive just when I feel like I may never find a place of my own. So I spent some time walking around neighborhoods, collecting phone numbers from the precious few "for rent" signs on the upper west side.
Pounding the pavement in search of an apartment is tiring work so I took myself to Cafe Lalo on West 83rd Street. In the movie You've Got Mail, Meg Ryan waits in a cafe to meet than man she's been flirting with on-line. That scene takes place in Cafe Lalo. It's a lovely little spot, lovelier than I remember. Classical music playing, marble everywhere, huge windows that open out on a tree-lined street. I was thrilled to see it.
I walk up to the counter, order myself a big piece of apple pie and a coffee. The woman at the register just stares at me. And I stare back.
"A what?" she asked.
"A coffee?" I said.
"What's a coffee?"
"C-O-F-F-E-E. Tea, hot chocolate, coffee..." I felt terrible because I couldn't figure out how to say this without sounding like a jerk.
"Oh, you mean a cAUffee."
I was stunned! This woman was implying that I had an accent, the wrong accent. I haven't had an apartment here since May 2001. Still, had I been away so long that I was now a foreigner in my own town? I was always under the assumption that you could take the girl out of NY, but you couldn't take the NY out of the girl.
I then sheepishly handed over my AMEX card.
"Oh, we don't take those. Only cash. It'll be $8.50"
"Sorry. Here you go," I replied, shocked at the cost of a slice of pie these days! "Is it okay if I sit anywhere?"
"You want to sit DOWN?"
"Is that okay?" I asked. I was growing increasingly less comfortable.
"I guess," the woman said as she rolled her eyes so much I feared they'd get stuck in the back of her head.
I walked over to the far corner of the bar against the window and made myself as small as possible. The pie and cAUffee arrived a few moments later.
I sat staring out the open windows for almost an hour, eating my pie (which wasn't all that tasty) and drinking my coffee (that was much too strong.) How could this have happened? And if I wasn't a New Yorker anymore then what was I? I realized how much a home defines us, shapes us, and the way people view us.
A homeless woman walked by me and stopped in front of one of the flower baskets hanging on one of the lampposts. She began to run both her hands through it. It took me a moment to figure out what she was doing. It had rained that morning and she was washing her hands with the water still clinging to the flowers, humming. Then she went on her way.
And just like that I was snapped out of my momentary slump. I took my plate and cup up to the counter and gathered my things. Suddenly I realized that no matter how dire my situation may be in my apartment search, I was indeed lucky, much luckier than most. Even if I have forgotten how to pronounce "coffee", this is still my town and I have a lot of work to do here.