New York Diary Part III

You can read The New York Diary part I here and part II here

Being the experiences and adventures of a young, single, appallingly poor, surprisingly clean, twenty-something magazine proprietor and philosopher in Gotham.

By Daniel Tippens

 July 2014

After graduating from NYU, I began working in a cancer research lab. Those in the know will understand that this means essentially living in poverty, despite putting in long hours of work. So, even though my apartment was essentially a walk-in closet, the monthly rent would make me cringe every time I wrote the check.

“Hi Kevin, will yoo be staying here when yoor lease ends?”

The speaker, Frank, was the superintendent in my building, who had been living and working there for some 20 years. He had immigrated from Poland and still spoke with a thick accent. His bald, shiny head was lined with long thin hair on the sides, which tended to drip sweat, leaving a dark stain around his collar, and he gave off a rather creepy vibe. The bathrooms in my building were shared by the floor, and frequently I would venture to the shower in nothing but my towel. Somehow, Frank would always manage to appear just when I was leaving, stopping me to talk, his eyes seeming to count every drop of water on me that hadn’t yet dried.

One time I locked myself out of my apartment, and called Frank to let me in. As was often the case, he didn’t answer, and I left a voicemail asking for help, hoping I wouldn’t be left standing in the hall in a towel for too long. After an agonizing ten minutes of waiting with no response, I decided to improvise. I had learned in real estate how to break into apartments with a Metro-Card, and so I asked a neighbor to lend me one. I ran the card along the crack between the door and the wall and found the lock. After applying pressure on it with the card, I gave the door a hard pull while pushing the card forward. The lock gave way and I was in. Safe at last!

Of course, in my relief, I forgot to lock the door, and not a moment after I took off my towel, I found myself stark naked, facing a very pleased looking Frank, who immediately struck up a conversation, asking me how my day was. Indignantly, I wrapped the towel back around myself and demanded he get out. “Are yoo shoor?” he asked. An optimist, Frank believed that one shouldn’t let a good opportunity go to waste.

This time we were in front of the building, and I had all my clothes on.

“No, Frank, I’m not staying here. I can’t afford the rent anymore. I’ll be moving out at the end of next month.”

“I can heyalp yoo find a place to stay, if yoo want?” Frank replied, smiling.

“Nah, I’m okay Frank, you have enough on your plate. Thanks though.”

Given my poor income, when I searched for apartments, my cursor always found the filter on craigslist that said “search by lowest price.” A building in Chelsea stood out. It had the same layout as my current building — shared bathrooms and closet-rooms — but was conveniently located on 29th street, which was in walking distance from the lab. The agent who showed me the apartment assured me that the superintendent cleaned the bathrooms and hallway daily, and that all utilities were included for a manageable price. (I considered asking him whether the Super was from Eastern Europe or had a penchant for leering at young guys in towels, but I thought it might give the wrong impression. ) The room itself was clearly built for efficiency, with a twin-sized loft bed area close to the ceiling and a small ladder extending down the side. Beneath it was a 6×8 “living area,” where I could fit a kid-sized futon and a small desk or coffee table.

“Any problems with mice or roaches?” I asked, noting the grime on the apartment’s hardwood floors.

“No of course not, we have an exterminator come in regularly. The building is well-maintained despite the superficial mess you’re seeing.”

“Alright, let’s do it.”

The agent brought me to his broker’s “office,” which was what looked like a rent-controlled apartment occupied by a 60 year old, porcine woman who wore thick glasses. Smoking a cigarette, she greeted me with her free hand, and asked me if I had a girlfriend.

“Yeah, she lives in Maryland right now.” I replied, noting that this geriatric broker had a remarkably tight grip.

“Too bad, I can never find a meal like you that’s free.” Her eyes squinted slightly and she lightly licked her lips. I wondered if Frank and this woman were friends.

Shortly after moving from my old closet to this one, I found that the apartment had some pretty unpleasant … features. Since the loft was near the ceiling, with the air conditioner sitting beneath it, the sleeping area was like an oven. I would toss and turn trying to sleep, sweat dripping off my body, and when I touched my drenched hair I wondered whether it was living in a place like this for twenty years that had made Frank the man he was. The agent who showed me the apartment had also clearly lied, for in the middle of the night I would wake to the sound of mice shopping for dinner in my trash, and when I peered over the edge of the loft little shadows would dart across the room, exiting stage left through tiny cracks in the wall.

In my efforts to solve the heat problem, I ended up killing two birds or in this case, mice with one stone. I placed a large fan at the base of the ladder, which would blow the conditioned air up to my bed. The mice, it turned out, liked to access the trash by climbing on the fan. Unfortunately for them, their tails would fall through the spaces in the blade-guard and get caught in the vortex, and every few weeks, I would wake up to find several fricasseed mice in the fan.

Another problem was that despite the just-above-homeless-shelter level of my accommodations, the rent was still too high, and I was barely making ends meet. So I began to consider my alternatives. Part time job? Impossible, due to the hours I have to put in at lab. Playing the stock market? If only I had taken some classes on the subject. Prostitution? I mean, at least I’d have Frank and the porcine, chain-smoking broker to start with.

After searching the internet, I came across some advertisements from NYU’s psychology department. LOOKING FOR PARTICIPANTS FOR A MILD SHOCK-STUDY INVESTIGATING LEARNING WITH PUNISHMENT. COMPENSATION $50 AN HOUR, EXPERIMENT WILL REQUIRE APPROXIMATELY 3 HOURS, AND WILL INVOLVE FMRI EXAMINATION.

Bingo.

I emailed the post-doc in charge and after filling out a quick questionnaire that ensured I wasn’t pregnant, set up an appointment. I approached the familiar NYU psychology building, which is located directly across the street from the philosophy department on Washington Place. The post-doc, Sarah, greeted me at the door. Her blonde bangs covered her forehead, a hair-style that resembles a bowl-cut in the front, and when she spoke her bangs would swish back and forth, like some anime character.

“Hi Kevin, Thanks for coming in! Just fill out this consent form and we will get started.”

I filled out the form slowly, hoping to tack a few extra dollars onto my pay at the end, and when I finished Sarah led me to a small room with an fMRI scanner at the center. Extending out of the scanner was a retractable table on which I would lie. Sarah gestured for me to hop onto the table, and placed a plastic cage around my head, which would prevent me from fidgeting while she observed the interior of my skull. I watched as she found some small suction cups which were connected to wires that led to a table in the front of the room, and stuck them to my left forearm. In the meantime, she explained the study.

“You will be looking at a series of images of different faces. Some of the images will be accompanied by a mild shock, which we will calibrate with you shortly. After a few trials where you simply view the faces and experience the shocks, you will be asked to categorize the faces as negative or positive while experiencing a shock with the faces that previously had no shock. Understood?”

“Yep, let’s calibrate this electrocution.” I said with some excitement.

Sarah smiled and skipped over the a table which connected to the suction cups. “So, I’m going to start with the lowest shock setting, they range from 1-5. Tell me if its too mild to really disturb you, and tell me to stop when it is too much.”

The machismo in me flared, and I smirked, confident I would be able to handle the highest setting.

“Ready?” Sarah asked, cautiously.

“Hit me.”

The first shock was indeed quite mild. It felt like a small pinch that a grandmother might place on your cheeks. When we hit setting 4, though, the shock no longer felt localized to the area under the suction cup, but spread out a good 5 inches in all directions. It felt like my skin was physically jumping up, as though something beneath it were pushing to get out.

“There, we can stop at 4. I think it’s unpleasant enough.”

Unfortunately, I overlooked one simple fact — the pain from electric shocks is much less severe when you know that the shock is coming than when you don’t. After I was slid into the fMRI scanner and began the study, the unexpected electrocutions began. The shocks caused the muscles in my arm to contract and contort, and my skin felt as though it were about to burst. I began to wonder if I really had met the conditions for giving informed consent to being shocked like this, and if the pay I had been offered, given my situation, qualified as exploitation. Can’t some offers be considered “too good to refuse,” and effectively force someone in a bad situation to do something against his will? As the random jolts continued, my mind wandered to the case of Armin Meiwes, the German cannibal who had found someone to volunteer to be killed and eaten. Just as I was wondering whether it would have been any better had he offered money, my thoughts were interrupted as my arm jerked up from another wave of electricity. I realized I had been comparing Meiwes to Sarah … and that my earlier rush of machismo had waned.

The money I earned from that study wasn’t going to carry me far, and wasn’t something I could regularly count on, though I would continue to volunteer for studies as often as I could. As it happens, a friend of mine, Devin, was looking for an inexpensive apartment, and a room had just opened up in my building.

Devin reminded me of a young version of Seinfeld’s Kramer. A well-kept beard lining his face, and a short almost military haircut residing over his thick eyebrows, Devin was constantly looking for ways to hustle for money on the side. An autodidact by nature, Devin had brewed his own beer in his basement when he was in high school, worked in real estate with me (and surpassed my bullshitting abilities, as indicated by his paychecks), and found odd-jobs ranging from signing up to test apps on phones to partaking in shock studies with me. He would cut his own hair to trim down on expenses and probably even found a way to write off the clippers from his taxes.

“Kevin, I have a proposition for you. We both need money, and I think I’ve found a way to bring us some steady revenue. We live in a desirable area, and our rooms are small but perfect for tourists. I’ve found that I can rent out my apartment on Air BnB for about $100 or so per day. Since my daily rent is $30, I can make a profit of $70 for each day I rent the place out, probably more if I can rent it out for extended periods of time. If you want in on this, then you can make a share of the profits by letting my crash with you whenever I rent the place out. Financial and spatial symbiosis.” Whenever Devin was explaining or attempting to rope you into his plans, his eyes would grow wide with excitement.

“Dude, how the hell are we going to fit in my apartment? What are we going to do, sleep on each other?” I asked, assuming that he already had an answer.

“I’ve got a hammock. I’ve already eye-balled the measurements of your room, and I can totally hang it from the ladder attached to your loft and the pipe that runs through the corner of the room. I’ll swing beneath you while you sleep, and can fold up the hammock after I wake up. It’s perfect, man! Devin was clearly was proud of his plan.

I envisioned how the room would look: Two people essentially sleeping on top of one another, one in a hammock, in an 6×8 room, with no kitchen. Well, at least I’d know what is like to live in overpopulated areas in the world. In my lab, mice pile on top of one another when they sleep. I wondered whether I could declare this little scheme “work-related” and write off whatever expenses I incurred on my taxes. Devin was rubbing off on me.

For three months, Devin and I crammed into my room, smoking hookah and drinking beer as tourists filled up his apartment. We shared everything, and our schedules were intertwined. If he was away, I would let guests into his apartment, and tidy it up, and he would do the same when I was at a lecture or a shock study – or my actual job. Our lives were so entangled that I wondered what would happen if I held a black light up to the room would I find that Devin had brought his girlfriend over for a quickie while I was at work? Financial brothers, spatial brothers, and blood brothers or at least, sort of.

Eventually I was given a raise at work. Not because I was such a stellar employee, but because NYU Medical Center discovered that they had been grossly underpaying me since I started, when they looked at the average salary for research technicians in NYC. Since then, I’ve been able to coast comfortably. But the experiences I had during that time living in poverty gave me a sort of comfort; a personal confirmation that if I had to, I could survive with very little. I could always manage to acquire my daily bread (or Ramen), even if that meant living in conditions not too different from the mice I studied in the lab. An ironic fact, I think, that the more industrialized and technologically advanced a society becomes, the more driven to primitive forms of living some people become. There may be shock studies and skyscrapers, but there will also be people sleeping on top of one another in closets.

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9 Comments »

  1. Lovely story. They just get better and better. I’m not sure how you can top this story but I hope you do.

    that time living in poverty gave me a sort of comfort; a personal confirmation that if I had to, I could survive with very little.

    You have just qualified to comment on Massimo’s blog, How To Be A Stoic.

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  2. With your lively imagination, keen powers of observation and well developed story telling powers I advise you have children, several if possible and as soon as possible. Not because they are interested in your stories. Who is interested in Dad’s stories anyway? That is so uncool. But they will have children and they will discover in the same way that their children are not interested In Dad/Mum’s stories. So uncool. But Granddad’s stories are different. They are invested with magical powers. Soon your children will be wanting to know all your stories so that they can tell them to their children!

    So pack away your condoms and invest in children, your stories deserve it!

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  3. Before you have any children, remember – they’re all going to college in New York City – Yikes!

    This series is not yet a good promotion for the City That Never Sleeps (air-conditioning problems, apparently?) – what happened to “If I can make it there, I can make it anywhere!” – well, now we know why.

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  4. Someone who lived in Paris quoted the reverse of the Galbraith aphorism, that life there is characterised by public affluence and private squalor (housing etc). My experience of hotels there, at least, is congruent. I suppose street and university life in NY might just match the City of Light.

    Slightly off topic, when I was looking for the provenance of the phrase, I found an interview with Galbraith:
    http://progressive.org/magazine/john-kenneth-galbraith-interview/

    “I end with the highest of Galbraith’s principles: Nothing so denies a person liberty as the total absence of money.”

    “The oldest Galbraith rule is that when you hear that a new era has dawned, you should take cover. ”

    “Q. What is the state of economics today? It is what it has always been. It combines those who pursue the truth with those who pursue the rewards of orthodoxy and those who pursue what is comfortable to the rich.

    “Q: How about Ralph Nader? Do you have any interest in third party politics? Ralph is an old friend of mine, and he does a useful job in displaying a position, but he’s not relevant to the election process, not even as a third candidate.
    Q: You don’t see any hope at all for third party politics? No, I do the best with what exists. Third party politics, at least since La Follette, has always had an element of romance. For the sake of The Progressive, I will say that La Follette was relevant, but he was the last.”

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  5. My earlier comment got eaten. Just that someone I know who lived in Paris commented on “private squalor, public affluence” in the apartment market there too. Just as long as you don’t have to go home…

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