Gramercy Park, cozy 1 bedroom apartment in pre-war doorman building, affordable rent, incomparable view, will go fast! Call Anabelle at 877-462-5322
Picture this – New York, 2000. An innocent apartment-hunter moving from Washington, DC to do a year-long assignment in the City that Never Sleeps sees the above ad and thinks it would be the perfect choice for her. Of course, this is like the miskeen young teen coming to Addis Abeba for the first time and thanking God for the kindly middle-aged woman at the Merkato awtobus tera who offers to watch her precious bag for her while the weary traveler looks for some water to drink. Both, needless to say, are about to get royally fleeced.
So there I was, worldly (bené bet), aware and fully prepared for the many pitfalls I was about to face over the three days I had set aside to look for an apartment in the City. One look at me and any ol’ New York hand would have given me a quick "mTs" and pushed me into oncoming traffic. And there were times I wished they had done just that and put me out of my misery.
How in the world did I end up here, and where's the exit?!
The Bait: Like any smart 21st century professional, I surfed the net. Found hundreds of perfect listings in both the links from the New York Times On the Web and the Village Voice Classifieds. Was I clever or what? After spending $593.80 in phone charges and three hours calling all these wonderful sounding apartments, several things became clear. One: there was a strange animal called a broker whom I would have to pay to be allowed to see any of these places. Two: What I had thought were condo sale prices were actually monthly rents on the listed apartments. Something clearly had gone verrrry wrong somewhere. And three: none of the places I had seen were available; in fact, I later found out that rarely do these places even exist. They were just the bait they waved in your face to draw you in. And I bit.
The Mark: That’d be me, in Hustler lingo (no, not the magazine, the Paul Newman movie…ay, minew!)… a geriba with little or no real City survival skills but who, misguidedly, thinks she knows what’s what; a step short of being a full-fledged farra hooked in by false-advertising. Ayyyi, miskeen! It didn’t take more than a few hours in New York to reduce me to a blithering idiot: the professional suit and the 3-inch tako that had comfortably seen me through a day full of meetings became sources of extreme discomfort and blistered pain after I walked for 25 streets and 15 avenues (we did some of them twice). The healthy ego I’d arrived with bit the dust when the 85 year-old crone in the walker knocked me down to get to the 7th taxi I had hailed, and nothing, and I mean nothing, could have prepared me for the snotty, aristocratic, obnoxious, high-handed, pompous, condescending, ChemlaQa snob otherwise known as the New York City Doorman.
The Delala: Over the next few days, I would meet (and be dissed by) a number of Amanuel escapees calling themselves real estate brokers. They are generally uncouth, badly cloned, inept, incompetent, irritating high-school dropouts who are incapable of listening to what you say or addressing your requests. Actually, the first person you speak to is quite pleasant, almost human. S/He will pretend to listen to you on the phone, make keyboardy noises like s/he’s taking notes, and promise to call you back within the hour. But then comes that trick: the ol’ bait-and-switch. The return call is from someone "referred" by the human, someone or something whose entire existence is devoted to your continued unhappiness.
You’re probably wondering what the brokers are getting out of this, besides a doozy of a power trip. Well, in the current rental climate in Manhattan, where $2,500/month might get you a studio with pedigreed roaches ("residents who have lived here for generations"), and where apartments stay on the market two nanoseconds or less, you pay the broker a finder’s fee of 15-18% of a YEAR’s rent. For the $2,500 apartment, that comes out to (wait…lemme take my shoes off and count)…to $4,500 - $5,100. At that price, they should be serving imported Ambo in the limo they provide to whisk you from place to place. In reality, they make YOU pay for the taxis you take to see the most hideous holes-in-the-wall on earth, or else you have to walk the 25 streets and the 15 avenues that I mentioned earlier. Wiy! don’t get me started.
The Delala experience is one that deserves a book of its own, and once I learn how to knock down old ladies for taxies, I’m going to write it. They are not unlike the serateNa-brokers back in Addis who seem to have an endless supply of young women to offer up to prospective employers. No one spins stories like these guys: ours would say, "Ye-ferenj migib bedenb tichilalech … past’al forno, a’rosto, hulunim tawQalech" – of course, one burned-down kitchen later, you learn she’s never even seen a gas stove before. Well, the New York variety are no different. As you step over the smelly wino permanently draped across the threshold of the "quaint brownstone walk-up with unique foyer ornament", your broker will open the door of what MUST be the hall closet and triumphantly declare it "the most spacious alcove studio on this block". You see large cracks in ceilings? Delalas list "skylights". You hit your head on the light-bulb? Delalas gloat about the "soaring 8-foot ceilings". You see roaches, bullet holes, prehistoric fungus, or Ebola? Delalas see nothing.
The Con: After awhile, they started to win. I had begun my search with glorious dreams of penthouse apartments, since my employer was going to pick up a hefty share of the housing cost. I’d naïvely thought that for $2,000 - $2,400 I would be living large somewhere facing Central Park. By the end of the third day, I was pleading with people to show me the $3,500 apartments in Harlem that I knew I would never be able to afford, even with the housing allowance. Helplessly, I watched the broker check off "Mess with renter’s ability to reason" from her union-provided checklist. After a few days, I began to visibly flinch anytime I saw a taxi, even when I wasn’t looking for one. "Scare renter at will" - Check. Soon, I couldn’t even imagine ever finding a place – I started to think of this as the Quest for the Holy Grail, and the delala as my Lancelot, leading me on endless, useless forays. "Be the renter’s last and only hope." – Check.
"Kill renter’s self-confidence." -- Min?! Min alachihu!! Erenesh’té!?! Not in this lifetime, babe. Suddenly, good old kostara y'abesha wené came to the rescue, and I snapped out of the trance they’d had me in. And I took charge. Enough of this NYC madness and Manhattan snob appeal – yeah, I’m sure you know someone who has a fabulous apartment on the island. But I bet they killed someone to get it. And I'm pretty sure I'm not willing to GO there. At least, not yet.
I decided to go for the (admittedly soulless) high-rise no-broker apartment across the river in Jersey, where "air-conditioning" really means "cool air coming out of an electrical device" instead of referring to windows that actually open, where I have a fantastic view of the water and the famous Manhattan skyline...my, my, my…don’t it look nice from a distance? Where I’ll be able to keep my car, and even park it in a garage for less than it cost to buy it. Where I will have two bedrooms, two full bathrooms, a balcony, a washer-dryer (rarer than Tanzanite), and a nice ferry ride to the City every day. And where I can actually keep my dog (remind me sometime to tell you about the Signed Dog Reference, no lie, that one delala asked me for). Give me time -- someday I'll be teaching City Life 101: Hailing A NYC Cab Without Harming Seniors or Being Harmed by Them.
I'm already getting better -- I've learned to read NooYawk Style and understand that first ad much better now:
Gramercy Parkmeans Alphabet City or worse
cozy 1 bedroom apartment means studio with fake wall separating the tiny foyer/living-room from a bedroom unencumbered by windows
pre-war doorman building means aging, rotting building with insufferable zebeNa
affordable rent means if you have to ask you can’t afford it
incomparable view means direct view into neighbor’s bedroom
will go fast! is actually the only true statement in the ad, clearly an oversight
Call Anabelle at 877-462-5322 should have been the best clue: that number spells 877-I’m A Leba
I even got my own back at a New York City doorman, no mean feat. Watching me push a door that, apparently, should be pulled, the doorman to a chic Central Park South building sneered, "No, that’s not at all the right way. Here, let me show you how it’s done."
As I sashayed my way out the door, I turned and smiled, wickedly, "Well, then, isn’t it fortunate that YOU have this job?"
Ready or not, New York, here I come.