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Wishful Living

A generation that will never have the prosperity of the previous one settles for the next best thing—aspirational housesitting.


The apartment was very white. Every morning, I opened my eyes and thought for a moment that I had awakened into a Calvin Klein commercial. There was my black underwear against the white cotton sheets of the California King, a white shag rug on the industrial cement floor. The white walls were 13 feet high; the ancient metal radiators and exposed water pipes were painted white, and a white-and-chrome desk rested against the window near a white divan. The blue sky seemed to press in through the wall of windows. It was a room for models in editorials, people those editorials ask us to envy, and, for one summer, me.

After leaving grad school without a plan for the coming summer, I had accepted an offer to live in the home of a woman I’d never met before. It was a 2,000 square-foot duplex loft with three bedrooms, an open-plan kitchen, and a roof deck that looked out over the Hudson; I was going to live there alone. The lease on my apartment had ended, so the invitation was a secular miracle. I would live, however briefly, the charmed life as one of Manhattan’s most affluent. A friend of mine, another writer, had been offered an apartment-sit only five blocks away, and we marveled together: living in New York, but with space! With light! With beautiful views and comfortable beds and dishwashers! We were giddy and we joined, without hesitation, a particular, thriving subclass of New York inhabitants: young artists watching over the empty homes of the wealthy—the aspirational housesitters. While of various backgrounds, the aspirational housesitter seems to have certain common characteristics. They are educated “creatives,” charming if a bit myopic, and, by virtue of their career choices, strapped for cash and nervous in a way that inspires sympathy in the older and better off. They trade cultural capital for capital itself. At the time, I fit most of these descriptors, and would have acquired the rest for a chance at air conditioning.

The windows in the bedroom—itself the size of an apartment I could not afford—looked out over several old brick buildings that converge around a small, cobblestoned plaza where city planners inserted a scattering of cafe tables shaded by pert red umbrellas. The space is ringed by faded warehouses filled with expensive things: a hotel bar, several luxury boutiques styled with monochrome interiors (everything in black; everything in champagne; everything in chartreuse), and a few chic, pretty bistros serving fresh pasta and oysters and cava. The wear on these buildings, the rust on the aluminum awnings, the soot on the brick, and their contrast against the things inside them, remain part of this plaza’s luxury. On the other side of the apartment, just outside the kitchen window at eye level, there was an enormous billboard of Jessica Alba laying on her side in a field wearing a white eyelet cotton sundress, entreating us all to buy coconut water. 

The kitchen window also had a view of the High Line, a rail line that delivered supplies to the city from upstate before it was abandoned, decades ago. After a city-funded redesign, the High Line has become one of Manhattan’s most popular urban parks. Wild grasses grow tastefully between the old rail ties. ‘Pressed’ juice and ‘artisanal’ ice cream sandwiches are sold underneath the overpass. Poverty is an echo here: present enough to seem quaint, but faint enough that no one is immediately obliged to feel guilty.

From the sixth floor, I often found myself staring through the window across the street at a cafe that I’d eaten at several years ago, when I was still new enough to the city that I never knew where I was. I followed my then-boyfriend around as he navigated expertly from neighborhood to neighborhood, and the city appeared to me as a series of disconnected images: a stunning rooftop somewhere in midtown overlooking a neon red sign that said “New Yorker;” a cozy Italian restaurant with lace on the windows somewhere downtown; a church overshadowed by brownstones, a bookstore lost to me forever.

He and I used to play a game, Someday-Never, where we would inspect brownstones and lofts and choose the ones where we would someday-never live. This is a fairly normal pursuit for young New Yorkers, making make-believe purchases of real estate you’ll never have the money for. One day, strolling with him through the West Village, I chose a wide loft with windows on three sides and an open floor plan, visible from the Bowery, and he selected a brownstone triplex with a little courtyard garden you can peek into from Jane Street. We played the game all the way until we decided to stop to eat somewhere, in a cobblestoned plaza filled with pert red cafe tables. We ate a plate of pasta with clams, and while it didn’t cost too much I still worried about it. “Someday-never will I live here,” I remember thinking.

I passed that cafe on my way from my white room to the subway, as a new resident of my old daydreams. As I walked by the Standard Hotel, and then the Apple store, I knew that I would never, ever live there—not because I wouldn’t be able to afford it (I won’t) but because the view from this apartment, now that I’ve seen it, is no longer desirable. At night, fluorescents lit the billboard on top of the Apple Store from below, where it glowed into the white-walled bedroom eerily. In the morning, the billboard’s candy-colored fan of iPhones looked madly cheerful. The world is well-managed and full of bounty! they shouted. Everything can be just as you wish it! The phones and Jessica Alba stared at me while I slept, or while I could not sleep.

As if to complete the experiment in West Village luxury, my apartment-sitting friend negotiated a temporary membership to the Equinox gym on Hudson Street, and she brought me there occasionally to swim on the rooftop. From there, you can look at New Jersey or Manhattan. If you look northwest toward Manhattan, you can see the West Village, with its irregular low roofs and secret gardens. We knew we were meant to feel glamorous and graceful, but instead we felt frightened and mystified and angry. There were circles under our eyes.

One night, I took the dogs I was caring for downstairs at midnight for a walk. As we passed the bistro tables—chained together to prevent theft—we passed a man muttering angrily to himself in a crowd of clubbers that had streamed into the street looking for cabs. He was black and bald and wearing a starchy white polo with navy stripes. “I’m fucking hungry,” he was saying to himself viciously. “I’m fucking hungry and nobody will fucking feed me because I’m fucking black.”

Every once in a while, something passed underneath the apartment building, and the entire complex would shake vigorously from its foundation. The first time I felt it I leapt to my feet, prepared to grab the dogs and bolt down the stairs and out into the street. It stopped after a few seconds. Ten minutes later it happened again. After the third time, I stopped getting up.

A while ago, an acquaintance told me about a party she went to, thrown at some townhouse on the Upper East Side by some young musician who’d been invited to look after it while its owners were on extended vacation. The musician had his friends over to drink cheap wine in the air conditioning, and everyone spent a little while romping around the house in delight—admiring the marble bathrooms and polished banisters, marveling at the size of the kitchen island, looking around the carefully-appointed living room, and saying things like “Fuck, this is amazing.” 

After a while though, she said, the amazement soured. For reasons they didn’t quite understand, everyone began to get angry at the house, which now seemed obscene. They left hating it, and returned to their own cramped apartments, which they also hated.

It has been widely written that the generation to which I belong will never reach the prosperity achieved by our parents. It also has been widely written that in New York, as in many American cities, young, educated people are no longer able to live in the neighborhoods that once belonged to youthful, artistic aspiration. Displaced by those with the wealth that it’s now impractical and a little gauche even to desire, we go where we can, displacing others in turn. The summer I lived in the loft, The New York Times proclaimed that Crown Heights, a Brooklyn neighborhood notoriously divided over gentrification and cultural ownership, was “having a moment”—young professionals had arrived, bringing with them new condo developments, boutiques, and other hallmarks of the “new Brooklyn retail experience.” The tone of the piece was generally congratulatory, though the Times noted also that the “moment” was driving up real estate prices so quickly that longtime residents were forced to leave. 

It’s unclear where one can live comfortably, affordably, and ethically in New York. Aspirational house-sitting offers the privilege of ignoring the dilemma altogether in the same way that buying vintage allows some people to feel better about indulging in fur—you’re just making sure someone else’s objectionable consumption doesn’t go to waste, which makes you basically a humanitarian hero.  Some people turn this into a habit, and then into a kind of lifestyle. “You’ve got to talk to K,” one friend told me, referring to another writer. “She’s always bouncing from one empty rich person’s apartment to the next. I don’t think she’s ever had her own.” 

It’s parasitic and vaguely creepy to inhabit someone else’s life because it seems preferable to your own; to drink the Chablis gathering dust in their wine cellar and place your small toiletry bag next to their stock of maxi pads. It’s invasive to sleep among other people’s underwear and old receipts and spend your evenings avoiding eye contact with the portraits of their children. It is also, I think, the most literal experience of New York: stepping into someplace grand that doesn’t belong to you and never will, maintained largely at your expense and at the greater expense of those far worse off than you. Here, you find yourself displaced in the home of someone who displaced someone who displaced the person before that and so on, and you pretend that this stint on the lucky end of the spectrum—like your stints on the unlucky end—isn’t just a story you’ll tell someday but an essential piece of knowledge that will help you understand the big picture, if you ever see it. New York attracts the ones who never got over make-believe. It keeps the ones who can stand it when they find out the lie.

When August came, my friend and I vacated our borrowed apartments. We were both relieved to go, though I was moving to a windowless room above a 99-cent store in Brooklyn and she was leaving the city altogether. On my last morning, I took the dogs for a walk past the Standard Hotel, where a handful of people sat outside reading the paper behind tinted glasses, and then I climbed down into the subway to go home, my next rental. This apartment, where I still live, resembles the loft not at all. It’s over a subway tunnel, though, and many times a day it shakes and shakes and shakes.