Living Alone, Surrounded by New York

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A lot of people dream of living in New York City. But fewer—at least at first—dream of living here alone. That’s not what drives people here, and it is likely assumed that doing so is unaffordable. Elsewhere in the country, a median income of $28,000 affords you a place of your own, but here things are different. A depressing schematic last week told us that no fewer than 39,960 dollars annually were required to even think about it.

I live alone not because I roll in cash, nor even because I decided to spend more than I should to make it happen. I live alone because one of those mythical New York Deals fell straight into my lap. A close friend moved in with her boyfriend, leaving behind a studio in Fort Greene, in a building that happened to be owned by the father of her old friend—which is to say, a sympathetic figure. And not just any sympathetic figure, but one interested in practicing what he described as a “calculated generosity,” as I sat across from him on a summer day in 2014 and signed my lease. He was interested in letting his tenants work at what they liked and have a nice home. The audacity! This happened. It will happen again. And maybe even to you.

But what if it doesn’t? Well, you might still live alone. Two friends of mine recently chose to spend a few hundred dollars more each month than they originally said they could afford, in order to shed themselves of roommates. In their mid and late 30s, living alone here was the only way they said they would continue to be New Yorkers.

But on the eve of moving into my own place, I found myself thinking: Maybe somewhere along the way I had made some major miscalculations. While the rest of my family was back in the midwest, building families and careers, owning homes with large yards, surrounded by friendly neighbors, I was a free unit in her 30s, spending inordinate amounts of time by myself, with a 140-square-foot holding cell on the third story of a brownstone in Brooklyn. Still, it was a holding cell and a singleness I chose—as did my friends, and many others would do the same, if given the option. So, is it worth it?

The first decision I made when I moved into my room compared not ungenerously to a shoe-box was to not buy a twin bed, even though it was the only standard size that would would fit in it comfortably. I googled: “custom-sized mattresses.” A week later, a company based in Connecticut delivered a 44-inch mattress in a box to my doorstep. It was six symbolically-important inches wider than a twin bed, and fit precisely into a little notch that freed up the rest of the space for other home-making items, like a couch. Well, a love seat.

Daily, these are some of the things that changed. I started listening to a lot more audio. Spotify and WNYC. I don’t have a pet, so the voices in a wireless speaker stood in for someone else’s presence. I started cooking less. Even when I had roommates, I was infamous for this shortcoming, but my aloneness exacerbated it. It’s not that I don’t like cooking; but for me it’s a particularly social activity. If I’m not sharing food, I’d rather spend the time put into making it doing something else, like reading, or running. I’ve become a prolific eater of deli tuna sandwiches—just five bucks a pop. In the morning, I make coffee or boil an egg; when it comes to eating, my primary concern is to not be hungry.

Here’s something I became wonderful at: going out alone. Even though, technically, that’s not true because when I do it I sit at bars, never a two-top. At the bar, I have company on my right and left, even if we’re not talking to each other (but I usually do), and from the bartender. I do this a lot, so very rapidly I’ve made many new friends. I have become an actual neighbor to people in my neighborhood—with a roommate, this wouldn’t have happened as quickly, or as extensively.

I’ve never been a huge cleaner (really sorry, past roommates!), but with a place of my own, my cleanliness has actually improved. It’s the whole, “if you own it, you care more and try harder,” phenomenon. I now clean my bathroom more, make my bed more, take out the garbage more. But there are also those weeks where I feel like crap and let it all go to hell. In those moments, the slovenliness is ok. And, full truth: there is still nothing like a guest to incite a deep clean. Other peoples’ judgements are still really effective.

One thing I’ve learned is how important it is to create structure when nobody else dictates it for you. Especially when I lived alone and freelanced, this was imperative, and I did it mostly with exercise. Without structure, there’s a huge chunk of day in front of me, with no outside factor demanding I start anything. A gym trip or run outside, first thing, would do that instead. It was the fork in the road that led to the rest of my day, and everything else I needed to do followed it.

But none of this touches on the biggest part of living alone, which is, in a profound sense, living with oneself.

Since I was basically zero, I’ve been social. I have two brothers and hung out with them a lot. I’ve always had close girlfriends. I have a big extended family, and they, for better or worse, were always around. All my life, being alone was a lot harder, and more boring, than being with other people. I was conditioned to be with others, so I preferred it. As a result, I never had to deal with myself, or make doing that a priority.

I was really bad at getting to know myself at first. I made plans every night. If they fell through, I’d go out alone. I started drinking more. I felt the absence of others, not the calm of aloneness. I’m better at it now, but I still love seeing friends; it is more important than before to make set plans with them, or to pick up the phone and have an actual conversation, rather than sending out a lot of half-hearted texts. But now, going home is no longer a disappointment; it feels like hanging out with myself, and recharging.

Which, unexpectedly, is so far from where I began, that I now fear ever returning to life with others. Inevitably, I will. I do want a family. And if that’s something I say I value, I’ll have to do things to achieve it. Maybe that will mean leaving New York, or, maybe it won’t. But the moment it feels like it’s the right time, I’ll go for it. (Even though, side topic: I do feel like the single New Yorker getting too comfortable with singleness, because there are so many seeming substitutes for a real relationship is all too common. I feel it myself, and meet a lot of other people who guard their freedoms as stringently as others guard real relationships, or family. But, I digress.)

In the end, this period of living alone, even though I didn’t see it coming, will have been worthwhile. It’s too bad most people here will not have the same dumb luck I had, or make enough money to throw down and do it. Living alone has given me a clean slate—myself—from which to understand what it is I need to feel happy—apart from work or a social life—not what I need to do to please others. It’s a gift, and one I hope to retain when I next have roommates. I’ll make efforts to check in with my thoughts, or go for a run, or read, or make my bed, even if I don’t want to. Doing those things for myself, will make life with others better.

Follow Natalie Rinn on twitter @natalierinn

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