When I first started looking for a place to rent in Boston, I quickly gave up on the idea of getting my own apartment, since every listing seemed to go something like this: Great deal!!! $2,200/month, studio, no windows, *HAUNTED.*
Since then, I’ve been trawling Craigslist for shared houses, and finding it to be an unexpected exercise in close reading. In addition to the familiar realtorese (cozy = tiny, open concept = toilet in kitchen), I’ve been developing a specialized private dictionary for the houses I’ve been looking at around Cambridge, Somerville, and Allston: Chill means stoned people with sticky floors. Eco-friendly means a mold problem and no parking. Freegan means this person might steal your leftovers, but, like, virtuously.
Some of these houses probably seem like manifestations of far-right pundits’ darkest visions of blue America. The intellectuals with the ban on watching television (“Books and music yes, TV no”). The household so COVID-cautious that no nonresident has been invited inside since March 2020. The passive-aggressive nudist (Don’t like your roommate au naturel? Your problem, not his). The practicing witch whose home is decorated with skulls.
I like disclaimers from nudists or skull collectors, in part because no potential roommate ever warns you about their more mundane quirks — that they are going to say “Whatcha eating?” three times a day for 12 months or that they pad around silently like a cat so that you scream every time they enter a room (for instance).
Each of those rooms is also significantly under market rate (about $1,000/month), a phenomenon I think of as the eccentricity discount.
“You’re going to move into a weird group house just so you can tell stories about it at parties,” my friend Emma says, eyeing me shrewdly.
This accusation is not wholly unfounded. There are few better places for good stories than communal housing, and as a previously itinerant freelance journalist, I’ve had my share of it. I once rented a room in London from a woman who had a cut glass BBC accent, had been involved in a high-profile political cover-up, and had surgically shaved the bones in her feet so she could wear designer shoes. She was convinced that at any given moment, people were hiding in our bushes “having intercourse” and so would turn on the sprinklers without warning, to rout the fornicators. She was perfect.
There was the D.C. housemate who pretended to get hit by a car to get out of a social engagement. The guy in London who didn’t know how to use an oven (“The recipe didn’t say to use a pan!” he protested after a small fire broke out). The three Disney prince impersonators (at cruises, theme parks, birthdays, etc.) who would have screaming fights and then make up in song. The cynical punk rocker who whispered tenderly to his vacuum robot. The Wagner enthusiast who spoke clipped 19th-century English and whom I once overheard murmuring, in a tone of hushed awe, during a particularly strident cry from Brunnhilde: “That is nobility in woman.”
God knows what stories they tell about me.
Critics (Emma) might claim that I crave drama like a heat-seeking missile or reality TV producer (there is a reason those shows always take place in shared housing). And it’s true that I’m endlessly delighted by new variations in the rich tapestry of humanity. (I personally, of course, have no oddities or quirks and am a joy to live with, persistent humming and tactical ineptitude re: unloading the dishwasher notwithstanding.)
But the more fundamental truth is that living in close proximity with other people reveals that no one is normal, not even a little bit. There’s an amazing intimacy you get from sharing space, one otherwise not readily available in adult life, where the boundaries of work and family and friends begin to harden. That’s why I love it. Living with strangers reminds me that under even the calmest surfaces there are powerful currents — the eccentricities and charms and passions only daily living can bring out. Some people are just more upfront about them than others.