Homeless Tour of the Couches

Mark Wallace describes the joys and miseries of joining the growing number of dispossessed professionals forced to live in friends’ property
Financial Times, weekend section, October 9/10, 1999

These days, I can be reached at three phone numbers and four mailing addresses. I frequent two post offices and any number of overnight delivery stations, and I spent all but five days of one recent month traveling to four countries on business.

And yet, when in New York, I live out of a suitcase, I work standing up, my laptop computer propped on someone else’s chest of drawers, I sleep between borrowed sheets and have barely a roof over my head. I have become a member of that growing cohort of Manhattanites, the Homeless Young Professionals—hyppies, for want of a better word.

I am not particularly proud to be a hyppie. As with most of us, it was a choice thrust upon me, not an option I sought out.

Hyppiedom, after all, seriously cramps one’s style. But exigencies of real estate, relationships and, in some cases, simple restlessness, have led an increasing number of New Yorkers into peripatetic lives of sleeping in offices or on friends’ couches, and stashing possessions in cars or storage lockers.

Few of us prefer this to more traditional lifestyles, but at this point we have little choice. Once you have stepped off into the yawning chasm of urban homelessness, climbing back up to the pleasantly rolling plains of tenanthood can be exceedingly diffiult.

If I had time to find an apartment—or enough money to make finding one an easy task in a stranglingly tight real estate market—I would. Until then, I have settled into a routine which, while less than ideal, at least allows me to pursue my work.

This was not achieved without some difficulty, however. In the break-up that led to my own plight, I kept what had been a connubial phone number. This rang for a couple of months at a small apartment I had borrowed from a friend, then it was not ringing at all. Calls to it now are forwarded to another friend’s apartment, where I have been staying in an empty bedroom.

This is hardly an expansive environment, though, and my work, which I do from “home,” it no longer the well-oiled routine I wrestled so hard to make it. During the day, the bed is covered with the folders, papers and books that relate to whatever I am writing, and at night I frequently scatter the piles of those same books and papers, which I have stacked on the floor to have enough room to lie down. Needless to say, this has caused other aspects of my life to run less smo0thly as well.

Dating, for instance, while still possible, requires more contortions than if I were living alone, and entertaining at home has become a fond but distant memory.

Of course, not all of hyppiedom is so annoying. Fear of being out of touch has finally persuaded me to acquire a mobile phone, something I long resisted. Now I feel more connected than ever, despite the paradox of simultaneously being more rootless than ever before.

My several temporary lodgings have also acquainted me with more of Manhattan’s neighborhoods. I can now walk into bars, grocery stores, and bookshops all over Chelsea, Greenwich Village, and TriBeCa and be recognized for the “regular” I once was, however briefly.

Homelessness has also lightened my load considerably, with various belongings of mine scattered through three or more Manhattan apartments. At first I was put out by the unavailability of my dog-eared books, record albums, cuff links, and the complete complement of my neckties; by the countless little things—a cigarette lighter from California, a tiny statuette from Africa—that had been woven into the fabric of my everyday life but now are accessible only when visitation rights can be arranged.

But I have since come to find this liberating. I still miss my 32-volume encyclopedia and my cowboy boots, but I know I shall see them again one day. Until then, I figure, perhaps this ascetic experiment will do me some good.

Some things have been made more pleasant by my condition. Business travel, for instance, once a mildly amusing diversion at best, is now a great relief. A hotel room is a vast amount of space, compared to my recent digs, and I sleep content, knowing no one will be busying themselves with the morning’s ablutions while I stand uncomfortably outside the bathroom door.

Just thinking about how business travel used to make me scowl now bring a smile to my face.

In fact, homelessness—at least, the casual homelessness of the hyppie—often provokes nostalgia. On my daily circuit of mail collection, while I retrace the path my life has taken over the past few months, I pine for the days when, after hours at my desk (another distant memory), I might pop down to the mailbox and return with a magazine, a letter, or even a stack of bills, and peruse them idly over a cup of coffee, surrounded by quiet, empty space.

No longer do I have a place to hang paintings and photographs, or shelves on which to arrange my books—and to rearrange them, when the urge to avoid working becomes too strong.

Rearranging my hosts’ bookshelves, while charmingly idiosyncratic, is perhaps not the proper way to show my gratitude. Nor can I expect to have my way with the television remote control (or to leave the wretched thing off altogether), nor with the stereo, the phone, the guests, the food, the infernal cats.

My hosts, needless to say, have all been more than kind during my tour of lower Manhattan’s couches, but it has been some time since I have lived with a flatmate who was not also a lover, and readjusting to such conditions has proved traumatic.

Then, of course, there is the Galloping Anxiety, so-called because it begins as a distant rumble each morning and grows louder through the day until, as the afternoon passes into evening, it becomes a riot of hooves, driving one out of the house to avoid the contemplation of one’s impending fate. The underlying fear is that a reasonably attractive and reasonably priced Manhattan apartment may never present itself, forcing a move to Brooklyn, Queens, or, far worse, New Jersey.

How did things get this way? Why do thirtysomethings, gainfully employed, suddenly find themselves out on the street after a single unwise decision regarding real estate? It is simply the economics of space, we are told.

Vacancy rates are at record lows, Wall Street is generating record profits for investors, Manhattan is an island, and the landlords will charge what the market will bear. Who even has time to look for an apartment when you have to work 12-hour days to afford one?

Of course, we hyppies can take a kind of solace in all this. We have become, in a way, the apotheosis of Manhattan’s premier status symbol: action, scramble, busyness. We are busier than anyone else, demonstrably so, since we are so busy we do not even have time to live anywhere.

So, to the hyppies of Manhattan, I say: take heart. Wear your homelessness as a badge of honor. Rely on the kindness of strangers and drown your anxiety in the rich city nights. And if you hear of a West Village studio apartment for rent for under $1,500 a month, let me know.