I knock on the door. No one answers. Standing on the outside, I can see about 20 other 20-somethings milling about, poking at furniture. We have all come to this “Beautiful, Spacious”that’s what the classified saidMount Pleasant four-bedroom for an open house. I’ve seen Beautiful, Spacious earlier in the week and fallen in love. As a nearly homeless pretender ISO domestic bliss, I’m willing to surrender to the humiliation of a second audition. Because I’ve finally found it. The Place for Me. If only someone would let me in.
I wait a few more seconds. Fine. I unlatch the screen door and just saunter in all nonchalant, as if it’s always been my joint. My girlfriend is with me. She is normal, beautiful even. I am a dweeb. I’ve brought her along as a kind of subtle affirmation, a walking bona fides that somebody likes me. I want this house. I want to throw my keys on the coffee table and read their New Yorkers. I want to recycle their newspapers scattered on the kitchen table. I want to make my roommates dinner, even if I can’t cook. No one notices me for about 10 secondsan eternity in open-house time. The roommate I’ve met before walks by and ignores me. Maybe she’s just too busy, too busy giving these other schlubs the brush-off. No worry. Finally, a roommate saunters over and guides us up to the Room. It’s the lame-duck roommate, the one leaving for a one-bedroom in Dupont with
her boyfriend. No use sucking up.
Still, out of reflex, I laugh more than usual, maybe flirt a little, too. It can’t hurt. I want her rooma perfect cool, gray nest. “Did you guys know it opens up into a sun room?” she asks.
It’s just the place, I think, for writing that tough first novel. The lame-duck Michelle (or is it Christie?) says it’s where she does her yoga-by-videotape exercises. I nodbrow emphatic in facial italicsin agreement.
I like yoga. I like her roommate Todd, too. He has organized the open house and seems to play the boss. He conducts the interviews with the roomie wannabes. I have incredibly warm feelings for Todd, feelings I would like to be requited. He takes notes on Xeroxed evaluation forms with difficult categories such as “Hobbies” and “Personality.” There’s a blank space for his own unfiltered comments. Todd is in advertising. He tells me to wait five minutes for my turn. My girlfriend gives me a look. There are about a dozen others waiting their turn to be grilled by Todd.
When Todd isn’t looking, I spy my evaluation form. I notice that under Personality, it reads “talkative.” Another applicant’s reads “very talkative.” I think I deserve a “very.” I decide to full-on blab.
We sit down in the living room on a white over-stuffed couch. I tell him I love the decor, love the tidiness of the place. He appreciates that. (I intuitively know he has supplied the African-IKEA motif running throughout the house). He shows me the patioa messy patchwork of uneven bricks and sandhe is passionately constructing. I tell him that while I’m not much on design, I love digging in to beautify a place. He explains that he works for then-mayoral candidate Harold Brazil. I tell him I love Harold Brazil. He likes a neat home. Me, too.
I lie my ass off. Over and over and over. I am getting nervous on the roommate trail, and here’s this luscious domestic morsel, all mine for the asking if I can just get Todd to give me a key.
Todd has been living at Beautiful, Spacious for almost a decade. “It’s the only thing I’ve been able to commit to,” he jokes. I laugh, even get warm inside. I feel the same inanimate lust.
With the interview over, he says goodbye. I introduce my girlfriend. He ignores her outstretched hand and grabs her knee for a quick squeeze. Once outside, my girlfriend says Todd is a “screaming asshole.” I’m thinking about the sun room.
One week after Beautiful, Spacious and no callback. I am standing in my basement in just pale blue boxers and sweat socks. I am sweating nervous. Shit. I’m late. The next round of open houses starts in about an hour, and I don’t have a thing to wear.
It is Week 2 in my quest for a new house. I’m getting nowhere. The roommate class is stiff-arming in a way that suggests I may be part of the problem. And it is less than a month before I become homeless.
I toss my dirty clothes into the dryer and add a fabric softener sheet. I want to smell Downy-fresh. I wait five whole minutes and grab my pants. I iron them, making sure they have creases, although I don’t know enough about creases to know exactly where they belongI just know they are good. I’m having trouble executing, because I have never held an iron before in my life. I slick on my still-sweaty, intense, Downy-smelling clothes, comb my bedhead with tap water, and head out. I buy gum for my breath, but forget about the grease stain on my collar and the ripped pocket adorning my chest. I park my never-been-washed, bird-shit-rich Buick Regal a few blocks out of sight from the first house.
I don’t make good first impressions. (People generally grow to dislike me more after that, but that’s another, much longer, story.) No matter what I do, I make Pigpen look like a cover boy for GQmy fashion statement is usually composed of a criss-cross of missing buttons, untied shoelaces, holes under the pits, and a fly that is always at half-mast. It’s not very endearing stuff, not even for my mother. Once you get past the look, my presentation swings nicely between twitchy and lonelyall finger fidgets, elbow swings, and buggy eyes. I give off a no-friends vibe quick. I can go Garbo-silent (without the credentials) or bigfoot an entire room with pretentious prattle. Once I start talking, I will verbally hump your leg until you ask me to leave. Aside from my personality, I have an uncanny ability to piss off roommates, not pay bills on time, and make the kind of messes that generate unknowable smells.
But that’s all in the past. We are talking a whole new lifestyle epoch now. The new Jason that goes with the new house full of new, shiny roommates.
The house hunt is all about moving on up, what I call the Jeffersons Complex. I’ve decided to move from my Arlington digs, to graduate out of my college squalor. I want to get out of the slacker class, away from the sway of Skinemax and furniture made from to-go boxes. I want a sun room. I may not be part of D.C.’s poli-sci jet-set tribe, but I have aspirations.
But these open houses are more humiliating than job interviews and more brutal than getting arrested. It’s like applying to The Real World without the cool pad, stipend, free trips, and Stussy gear. Displaying yourself at these open houses is sheer performance art. It’s all actingyou have to pretend for that half-hour that you are one of them, one of the uberclass of people on the move. You know, deep in your heart, that you deserve the sun room. So you lie, you pepper chitchat with nods and banal homilies. You insinuate yourself into every conversation, faking your way through stock talk even though you have know idea what NASDAQ really means. This being D.C., flirting is usually a negative.
It is Week 2, I keep telling myself. Five group homes have rejected meeither on sight or by phone. I call my answering machine every half-hour. Maybe someone will call me back. I call the houses back to see if they’ve left some message on their answering machine like: “Sorry, the room has been rented. We have picked Jason Cherkis, who bowled us over with his knowledge of Nabokov.” But it’s always, “Sorry, the room has been rented.” Todd hasn’t even bothered to call.
By the weekend, I’ve moved on to private balconies. I really like private balconies. After a few crummy houses and no callbacks, I head over to the corner of 18th and Monroe NW. I know I will like this house. I even get my hair cut just before the 3:30 p.m. starting time. I look fresh.
I’m the last person to leave. I take this advantage seriously. Surrounded by my prospective roomies, I put heart to sleeve and render an astounding monologue. “This is the best house I’ve been in,” I start (no lie). Then I ramble on and on about how I work well with others, and think they all are swell, i.e., they’ve made a good impression, too. It’s a perfect mix of ass-kiss and belongingness. They just stare at me. When I finish, they show me the door. “We’ll call you,” one says. They don’t.
By the middle of the week (the rejection count up to 10 houses), on a tip from a friend, I find another “room with private balcony.” Unfortunately, when I open the door to the house, located on Emerson Street NW, I am met with such an intense dog smell, that even I am offended.
The shoebox of a room is too small for my double bed. I sit through the interview anyway, out of desperation. The room does have a private balcony. I am flanked by three or so giggling roomies and three slobbering dogs barking in my face. A roomie snidely asks how I would feel about picking up dog shit off the floor. They all laugh at the question and the fact that I’m being assaulted by large dog tongues on either side. One bulldog-like creature growls up my leg, and I jump a bit when another dog releases a slobbery tennis ball on my crotch.
I leave the house reeking of dog. I forget about the dogs’ slobber stains on my pants and think about the private balcony. Todd the ad man hasn’t called yet.
“We had to take down a griz,” explains one really dull, goateed roommate prospect. He’s talking about his stintas a bear wrangler, apparentlyin a national park. My girlfriend and I are standing in the kitchen of a group house at 18th and Park Road NW. We are having an informal get-to-know-me session with the roomies and
the wannabes. It’s the national park guy’s turn
“What does ‘take down’ mean?” asks the unemployed mandolin player (and really
“Shoot. Kill. The griz,” smirks Goatee Boy. I check out the potential housemates and can see that they ain’t buying into his Noble Hunter schtick. Good.
Roommates Barry and Charlotte, who look like they’ve just waked up, explain that the house is all-veg. They make it sound like subjecting the kitchen to meat would really bum them out. I decide to drop the words “tofu” and “peanut sauce” into my repartee. Barry likes animals. He keeps a little bird perched on his shoulder the entire time. He has even trained it to poop in the toilet. Barry and Charlotte say they have been known to crack the whip on human cleanliness, too. “We get anal about cleaning the kitchen,” Charlotte says, as if it were a political statement. A bottle of oil sits on a shelf with a half-inch-thick dust coat.
At this point, I’ve beaten Goatee Boy, and the unemployed mandolin player was never in the game. The guy next to me, a computer geek from Rockville dressed in nut-revealing jogging shorts, hasn’t said a peep. The redheaded hippie chick looks lost. I’m ruling. Barry and Charlotte seem to turn to me for help. I gab about my job. They seem interested.
My new pals Barry and Charlotte begin talking about holding tango parties. The redheaded hippie chick perks up. She’s a flamenco dancer, she tells the crowd in a perfect soft-focus NPR voice. We are all floored. “You can make a living off that?” Barry asks all surprised. “Why yes, you silly,” she seems to say.
Everyone is impressed. I don’t dance. I don’t own hippie skirts. I don’t talk like I’ve got Chapstick greasing my throat. Shit, and the place has a sun room.
By the end of that weekend, I have visited or called nearly 30 places and no luck. I wanted to live in Mount Pleasant, the supposed crème de la crème of striving urban hipster habitat. I have run the gamutall-veggie houses with mandatory food sharing, shackfuls of urbane professional assholes who talk like the magazines on their coffee tables, and true dumps full of slobs like me. I’ve met guys wearing foundation. I’ve even started bumping into the same house hunters I’ve met weeks before. We drink each other in with a sad gaze of recognition.
I hit rock bottom when the Barry-and-Charlotte house calls back and rejects me. I tap pure depression when Todd calls to say they’ve found someone else for the sun room. But he would be sure to invite me to any future parties they had. Perhaps he means as a food server. I can’t believe he didn’t buy my pack of lies. Maybe it was my untucked shirt or unshaven face? I dunno. Barry says I made the top three, but what was that good for? Maybe if I killed the other two contenders.
It turns out that a few days after I’m rejected by Barry and Charlotte, and Allison and Todd, a beautiful house on 13th Street calls back. I will now be renting a room with a fireplace. I can walk out the windows and sit on the roof if I want to. But they’re real prickly about cleaning. Posted above the sink, a sign threatens eviction for failure to put dirty dishes in the proper place.
Maybe I just won’t cook.CP