The Vagabond Queen of Craigslist
Hopscotching through Brooklyn, BONNIE FRIEDMAN discovers the delight in nonattachment.
wept when my husband and I had to give up our apartment in Brooklyn so I
could go off and teach at the U. of North Texas. My landlady simply
would not let me sublet. “I’ll pay a year up front!” I pled. (So what if
it risked my savings?) “I’ll let you approve the subletter!” (Surely we
could find somebody on whom we both agreed.) It frightened me to have
no home in the city in which I’d grown up—as if I’d become a stranger to
myself. But the landlady was adamant: No, no, and no. She needed direct control of who lived in her building.
that final summer I walked around the neighborhood, morose. Goodbye,
fruit market on Atlantic Avenue, where sunset-orange mango chunks and
beds of ruby pomegranate seeds gleamed, raising my spirits on difficult
days. Two of my literary heroes had written about this roaring, ragtag
thoroughfare. Frank McCourt lived for a year right over Montero Bar
& Grill after his first marriage broke up. He’d both hated and loved
the place. His apartment pulsed with music and seemed a shameful spot
for a schoolteacher to live in, but the bar did have its charms: one
need never be alone. And here was Montero still, with its creaking blue
neon sign, its dusky interior.
And the nature writer Edward Abbey, on the very first page of Desert Solitaire,
talked about the docks at the end of Atlantic Avenue. The fact that two
of my favorite authors had referenced a street in my neighborhood made
me feel a covert affinity with them, a secret strength—if they could
find success despite real limitations, so could I. Oh, I did not want to
give up this place! I was a mess that August day when the movers hauled
my possessions down the stairs.
you can sublet places on Craigslist!” said my friend Sally, during our
goodbye supper. “Sample other parts of the city during winter and summer
break! It’ll be an adventure.”
I sighed. What a Pollyanna! Didn’t she understand it was change itself I most disliked?
Sally was right. For the past four years I’ve been the vagabond queen
of Craigslist.com, hopscotching Brooklyn. And the adventure has been
wonderful. While I live in each apartment, I study what it has to teach.
I read its books, eat the food on its shelves, and consider the
perspective from its windows.
that, I’ve been forced to undergo a spiritual education in acquiring
and letting go. It’s as if I were a hermit crab inhabiting one
distinctive shell after another, or a reincarnate who got to live
through many life cycles while being allowed to keep her memory of each.
something has shifted in me, thanks to this reiteration of loss and
gain. I’ve begun to internalize that this is just the way of things:
alteration, change. The tide washes in innumerable things—some
marvelous, some mere hard grit—then sweeps them forth. Again. And again.
appreciate with keener delight and observe more closely each fresh
place. And when it’s time to return the key, it’s with a more transitory
sense of regret, an almost bemused sense of the lightness of being. How
often I’ve emptied drawers of my possessions! Why act as if my
happiness is suffused in these walls, interfolded with these books,
dependent on the chirp of the particular bird who nests in this tree? Of
course some part of me still believes that my happiness is all these
things, totally synonymous with each place. But another part of me—brand
new, marveling, even kind—gazes on and says, Yes,
yes, of course. Get teary, if you must! But haven’t you learned by now,
you naïf, the gift of this experience? Ah, yes: you see it for a
moment, then lose track of it again!
nod to myself, blowing my nose, and do my best to fix my gaze out the
cab’s front window, instead of at the receding image of my latest
first winter break I found an apartment in Red Hook, near the Columbia
waterfront—a loft owned by a graphic artist with a truly lovely eye.
There was a Parisian kitchen with black-and-white floor tile and
dangling copper pots, and a living room with dozens of seriously
flourishing plants—a source of worry, since houseplants tend to wither
under my care. I took pages of notes on when to water and learned to
assess soil with my fingertips and notice the precise tinge of leaves.
My first morning in that sequestered apartment I woke up and lay in bed,
astonished. Opulent silence enfolded me, luscious as mink. Who knew the
city could be this serene?
always lived in apartments that were more centrally located and that
carried the city’s clang; one of them even jounced up and down like an
elevator with each passing truck. I’d no idea the city also had such
pockets of silence.
Red Hook artist’s space was so pretty that I was inspired to keep it
neat, and that, in turn, led me to host a dinner party. I invited
friends for New year’s and ordered trays of pasta and chicken from
Cucina Napoletana. My friends had never been inside any apartment with
my name on the lease; I’m usually so messy that no one’s allowed in. Yet
now I discovered the pleasure of trying to give a beautiful evening to
shelves in that first apartment held a book with photos of Stanley
Kunitz’s garden, accompanied by his poems. I read and reread the poems
and gazed at the cobalt-blue irises and sheaves of lavender. The flowers
rose out of soil that Kunitz had created himself from years of mulching
decades of reading only prose, the rediscovery of the concision of
poetry! And after a lifetime of asphalt, the revelation that soil itself
is something you can grow!
stood poised on a high shelf in the kitchen of this apartment. If I
couldn’t sleep, I stood on a chair and fetched the Beefeater’s, adding
tonic water from the icy fridge. Yum! And then: blotto—a velvet
sledgehammer delivered me into blank unconsciousness. I rarely drank
gin. But the entire time I was in that apartment I allowed myself, if I
woke up during the night, to sip. And to eat the crystallized ginger in
the Mason jar. I was Goldilocks. What fun to try out everything!
very last day I replaced what I’d taken, and a hollow sadness shook me.
I looked out the rear cab window, confused by loss all over again, as
the driver took me to LaGuardia. It didn’t matter that I’d known from
the outset my stay was temporary. And yet I was starting to see that the
city itself brimmed with hidden treasures, and that my clinging to what
I’d known had
prohibited me from finding something better. That summer I rented in
Fort Greene, again from a graphic designer. She was a slight person who
lived without one comfortable piece of furniture. The chairs were hard
plastic, the sofa an Ikea cushion on wood ribs. But I loved walking
around and around Fort Greene park for exercise as the gigantic old trees blossomed. My husband bought a handmade bowler at Malchijah hats.
the hatband, if you ever wanted to, came free. “You doing it! You doing
it!” exclaimed a man on the street—smiling at my husband’s hipster
style, but not nastily. The night before we departed that second
apartment, I sat on its brownstone steps. I was stricken again with
melancholy. Saying goodbye was both easier than before and just as hard.
It’s unfair, I protested with childish logic: I love this, therefore I should get to keep it.
And yet despite myself, the city was teaching me that those treasures I
most enjoyed were the ones I could least anticipate because they were
devised by people whose personalities had different strengths than mine.
was learning, too, that surprise was crucial in determining what I
might fall in love with. The world was often better than I expected. I
didn’t have to be so in control all the time, so on guard. Why, even
something tiny can cause great pleasure! I recalled the Fort Greene
neighbor who wore around her neck a bandana out of which one day poked a
brilliant yellow triangle that cried, “Peep! Peep!” “Is that a bird
around your neck?” I asked. It was. It had fallen out of its nest, and
this woman was nursing it to health. She’d worn it everywhere: on the
subway, on her dog-walking jaunts. She showed it to me, opening her
bandana further: the plump black glossy grackle body, the gleaming eye
above the urgent yellow beak. See,
I told myself. You never know what beautiful surprise might come! Stay
put, and you see less. That thought provided some balm as, the next
morning, I hauled my suitcase down the stairs.
third apartment we rented from a composer on Middagh, in Brooklyn
Heights. It was a famous tiny street. Carson McCullers had lived here
with both Auden and Gypsy Rose lee while Gypsy wrote The G-string Murders,
although their house itself had long ago been sacrificed to the BQE.
Around the corner from our new digs was an Egyptian cafe where for $4.50
you could get falafel with pita they cooked on the spot. You ordered,
and the man rolled out the dough with a rolling pin. Down the hill was
the new Brooklyn Bridge Park, where I found myself standing beside Mayor
Bloomberg at a food film festival. I’d had a glass of beer at the
festival, and now the mayor manifested himself. “We love you, Mayor
Bloomberg,” came the voice out of my pleasantly inebriated self. “You’re
doing a wonderful job!” he looked deeply tanned, as if he’d just
arrived from the Bahamas. “Wha’d I do?” he asked, with comic modesty. I
said nothing in response, for I had reached the end of my euphoric
ability to hobnob with the famous.
had I? Because, although he was instantly engulfed by the bleaching
lights of a news camera, his question kept rankling. “I wish I’d told
him which of his policies I liked,” I moaned. I could still see pieces
of him amid the throng that now surrounded him. “Get back in there!”
exclaimed my husband, propelling me Bloomberg-ward. And then, a miracle!
A very tanned hand came through the crowd. The mayor saw me approaching
and hauled me in. “You asked me what policies of yours I liked,” I
said. “And I wanted to tell you.” And I did (gun control, calories being
posted, the trans fats work; Occupy Wall Street hadn’t happened yet or I
would have tempered my endorsement).
moral of which is, I informed myself, that once you head off in the
direction you want, unexpected allies often conspire to help you on your
way. So why not head off with more lightheartedness? Why pine, I asked
as I zipped up my suitcase.
And I was almost convinced.
by now the rhythm of going away and coming back had come to seem so
dazzlingly quick that when I returned to the city, I was no longer
disoriented. I picked up right where I’d left off, with just a slight
amnesiac stutter in between, as if I were successfully living in more
than one place at once, both Texas and New York, both the past and the
present and almost the future, as if I were a Piaget child who’d learned
the persistence of the beloved even when the beloved is out of sight.
And yet—would loss always evoke a tormenting pang? Would that never
next-to-last sublet was at the top of a brownstone in Clinton hill. The
owner of the apartment was a cinematographer, and everyone looked
glamorous in his rooms. The light was diffuse, silky—no bulb, I soon
discovered, was more than 40 watts. My first day I screwed in 100-watt
bulbs so I could read, and the lamps remained beautiful but refused to
part with their light: their shades were opaque chocolate-brown,
although their brass bases glowed like Aladdin lamps. One shone up at a
little book tucked on a shelf: Letters to a Young Artist,
modeled on the famous Rilke book but with missives from contemporary
painters and sculptors. I read it on a chair the cinematographer had set
beside the window.
you want to be a person who can survive on your art, you must clarify
what can be exchanged with society before society will repay you,” said
the installation artist Xu Bing. “I was fearful and panicked... but I
did it anyway,” said Jessica Stockholder, a conceptual artist, talking
about taking an important risk. These were new thoughts for me. I’d
always assumed being panicked meant that you were doing the wrong
thing, and that you ought to wait until you were calm before even
contemplating making a change. So I’d actually relinquished the gift of
my unhappiness; I’d squandered it, disowned it, telling myself, “Get
calm. Don’t even think about change until you’re no longer upset. After
all, you can’t think clearly when you’re so stirred up!”—and so I’d cast
my life in emotional cement year after year.
I’d remained in
relationships too long and worked on projects too long, I saw now,
gazing out the window at bustling Washington Avenue. Fear had always
meant, to me, Don’t do it!
wasn’t fear also an aspect of my clinging? After all, what did that
pang mean when I left a place? It was mere attachment, in both the
psychological and the spiritual sense. And it was the illusion that I
would never have the good thing again. It was the illusion that
something was wrong because I was sad, rather than that nothing was wrong although I
was sad. Of course the inevitability of loss is one of the big lessons
of the Buddha. It is one of the essential truths, and as long as I tried
to shield myself from it, I merely narrowed my life.
writing this from a shockingly quiet apartment in Clinton Hill. owned
by an international journalist, its walls are covered with maps and its
bookshelves must hold a hundred guidebooks. I think of it as the
Invisible Apartment. It’s perched on the roof of a brownstone, an
apartment so tiny it can’t be seen from the street, and it has no
neighbors on any side except beneath its floorboards. When it’s time to
leave again I know I’ll feel that pang, but I no longer feel a need to
fight it. It’s even a kind of friend.
is all a sublet anyway, of course. We don’t fully own even the bodies
we live in; we can’t stop them from changing. We cede them from year to
year. And this knowledge of loss, I’ve discovered, is the salt that
brings up the savor of all the rest—understanding that none of it is
mine to keep. It’s loss that provides the edge that makes the world
sharply beautiful. Without it, life would pall; it would be far less
intense. The pang is the small price we pay.
don’t think I’ll ever get to the level of real detachment—nor do I even
seek it. Yet I’ve had these glimpses, as if I’ve taken a step back from
my own life and can see the glittering pattern, all those scissor
moments slicing us away from the past, letting us join the future, and
I’m thankful for a perspective that makes the inevitability of change
easier to accept.
Bonnie Friedman grew up as the youngest child of four in the Bronx, New York. She is the author of The Thief of Happiness and Writing Past Dark: Envy, Fear, Distraction and Other Dilemmas in the Writer’s Life, which has been anthologized in six writing textbooks. Her essays have appeared in The Best American Movie Writing, and The Best Spiritual Writing Series.