I often wonder if we would have ever left Manhattan, had a strange man not been living in the basement of our apartment.
Living in the city is a surreal experience for most post-grads – high rise buildings full to the brim with clouds of marijuana, organic produce, and receipts from the local dry cleaner – and if our little corner of the Lower East Side was not one of the last safe places for stowaways, vagabonds, and migrant workers, perhaps we would have continued on with life the way it was; my girlfriend, Danielle, pushing papers for a small corporate law office, and me, pitching diversity inclusive initiatives to one of the last generations of old white men in corporate advertising.
Perhaps if that winter hadn’t been so brutally cold, if the wind chill hadn’t pushed even the toughest New Yorkers into hiding, perhaps this stranger would have sought solace with others all the way up the city in Central Park, or would have wandered through the tunnels of Grand Central, searching, searching, or perhaps he would have ventured out west, to Arizona or New Mexico, and spent the winter months sweltering instead of freezing.
Had the temperature not been so low, had the unfriendly scowls of the city not furrowed their brows even deeper, months would have gone by before we realized that a stranger opened the trap door to our basement when he thought we were not home, and crept down each of the creaky, wooden stairs, and slept on a cot and listened to the radio. But the winter months bring out the child in all of us, and we hibernated, and so did he.
It was our first apartment together and we were willing to overlook a lot of less than thrilling details in order to live together as a couple in the city – we loved our friends, but neither of us wanted to save money by living with them. So, to Craigslist we went, and to brokers we spoke. Some were rude, some outpriced us, and some were homophobic (but you’re two women, you’ll need two separate bedrooms!) but we eventually found a broker willing to meet with us at a building which fit our basic requirements: a quick commute to midtown, relatively LGBT friendly, and a pet-friendly policy so we could keep our cat, Fitzgerald.
We dreamed of the East Village, but were okay with our reality of the Lower East Side. Our friends warned us to stay away from apartments located on the ground floor and told us not to look at any space in the front of a building; break-ins happen, they reminded us, as we sat around their Brooklyn living rooms. Living rooms that would be slightly larger than our apartment, as we came to realize, but mostly joked about.
But we were young, and the city is expensive – we stretched our budgets and counted our pennies, and agreed on the $1,500-a-month rent for a space which was slightly smaller than the bedroom I grew up in. With all of the lights on, it was nearly stark white – somehow, the fluorescent lights were forgiving towards the dull egg-white of the walls and ceiling. The broker pointed out that our unit had brand new appliances – a full refrigerator and oven, which is a rarity in some parts of the city. Initially, we were excited by the opportunity to cook meals together, but after a few weeks we realized the real thrill existed in our new found ability to reach the fridge while still in bed.
While not ideal, these idiosyncrasies did not make the situation unlivable. It was our windows, facing out into the dingy courtyard, only feet above the trapdoor to the basement, only separating us with bars outside of the thin glass, that heightened our fears. We experienced the unique and haunting feeling of being monitored, of always being waited out.
We became cognizant of the squatter’s presence within a few weeks of moving in, and as we paid more attention to the details, the picture became clearer – and scarier. We recognized his voice at the same times, early in the mornings and late at night, when no one was entering or leaving the building. The low rumble of his coughing fits woke us some nights; at first, we blamed our neighbors – until we realized they were rarely home, and that when we put our ears to the floor, we could make out the coughing louder, caressed by the soft hum of a radio.
We knew that we wanted to avoid him as much as he wanted to avoid us – except on nights that he was drunk, or angry, and those were the moments we feared most. Soon after seeing us for the first time, he began lingering by our door, drunk but focused, and progressed to cat-calling to us as we scampered from our apartment to work in the mornings.
When we got home in the evenings, we made sure to always arrive together, and to move quickly and quietly: the thought of running into him alone frightened us enough to merit stalling time in Starbucks while the other stayed late at the office. His stare, both hollow and alert, chilled us – when we made eye contact, he looked back at us like we were dolls, not people. We were terrified.
Perhaps if the times we called the police, they had told us something different – that they could arrest him, that it was within their jurisdiction to do anything at all but remove him and give him a stern talking to – we would have been less afraid, and we would have kept our lease and stayed there, brushing it all off and laughing about it together over mulled wine. But the police, bound by obscure New York City laws which protect squatters, shrugged their shoulders and did their best to scare him away.
When the police asked him for identification information, he claimed he didn’t live in the apartment building at all, but merely worked there, although the management company never confirmed his employment. Squatter’s rights are a civil, not a criminal, issue, they explained to us, again and again, and advised us to complain to our landlord and the building’s owner.
How could trespassing be a civil issue, we asked? Though the police were apologetic when saying no, this technically did not fall under the umbrella of trespassing, their ambiguity did nothing to assuage our fears. We took to researching the issue online, horrified to discover that he was a pseudo-tenant in the eyes of the police and the law; this threatening individual had acquired tenant’s rights without the rent check. The owner of the building would have to undertake eviction proceedings to remove the squatter from the premises.
Ah, the owner – a person we never met and probably never will. The management company, located well into Long Island, brushed off our calls, emails, requests, and complaints, even after we told them what the police advised us. “We’ve never had these sort of issues at our establishment,” they told us over the phone. “We’ve never had issues with security.”
When we inquired about the security system, they told us that installing cameras over our apartment door would be favoritism and unfair to the other tenants. When we pointed out that having a squatter live in the basement was a safety and security risk for all of the tenants, they repeated that they’d never had security issues, and the circle continued. They responded to us sporadically, and almost never in writing. We lived there barely four months before we reached our breaking point: no short commute or marginally lower rent was worth the stress and fear of living above the squatter.
Eventually, we reached a mutual agreement with management to terminate our lease – and in a burst of panic and relief we started again with New York’s tamer and sweeter sister, Boston. We joke, sometimes, that the stranger is still there, and has since moved up into our old studio and claimed it as his own, and that the new tenants see him as a normal neighbor – at worst, a bit of a drunkard with sparse furniture. But whenever we find ourselves brunching in the Lower East Side, we decide it is better not to revisit the building and find out for ourselves.