Welcome to the Dollhouse

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Illustration by Ellen Weinstein

Apartment hunting, East Village-style. 

By Lee W. Bailey

The way people talk about it, you would think that finding an apartment in New York is like questing for the Holy Grail. Horror stories abound, especially tales of duplicitous and greedy brokers. In my recent move to Manhattan (I went to Penn; it was inevitable), I decided to circumvent these excess lipids of the real-estate market by seeking a sublet situation—a room in an already-inhabited apartment. The best sources of listings for such situations are Internet sites and the Village Voice. I visited about 10 apartments, mostly downtown. The places in Soho were lamentable, one a barely standing shoebox inhabited by a gruff man whose main concern was that sublettors might actually receive mail at the apartment. I looked some in the West Village, but didn’t take well to the existing roommates. And then I found the Dollhouse.
   The Dollhouse is an apartment in the East Village. It has four bedrooms. To reach it, one must walk through the ground floor of a walk-up, exit through the rear, and cross a catwalk. It essentially lies between two blocks, very much in the spirit of the demi-story in Being John Malkovich. When I first visited, I was greeted by a woman I’ll call Tina. Tina has a head shaved except for dyed-silver bangs. Tina has no eyebrows, and wears turquoise glasses that are encrusted with rhinestones. Tina, a fashion stylist, is the apotheosis of classic East Village style—the very look that in the 1980s informed my mother’s general opposition to the neighborhood.
   When I arrived for my appointment, Tina greeted me cordially, offered me a drink, and began showing me the place. The common areas are painted pink, and the aesthetic is equal parts A Clockwork Orange, Evel Knievel, and Barbie’s Malibu Dreamhouse. Mannequin parts are affixed randomly to the walls, as though a bomb has gone off in a Bloomingdale’s storage closet. There is an impressive projection television (quality home electronics are a major plus in sublet hunting).
   While Tina explained that she has lived in the apartment for three years, and that the roommates are pretty laid-back and friendly, we descended a spiral staircase, and Tina threw open the door to the “room” to be rented. The room is small and windowless. Think glorified walk-in closet. There are two other bedrooms (of the fenestrated variety) off the foot of the stairs, as well as a bathroom. Tina lives upstairs, off the living room, with her own bathroom. If you had told me that I would soon be living in a windowless box with a silver-banged fashion stylist, I wouldn’t have believed you. I would have been wrong, though.
   On a second visit I met the other roommates, whom I will call Tobias and Josh. Tobias, an architect from South Carolina, was watching That 70s Show, prone before the image projected on the wall, Budweiser in hand. He seemed to be the quiet couch-potato type—the kind of guy who likes his TV trashy and his brew cold. Anything else goes, including alien-like cohabitants. Roommates are just people to share the remote with. Downstairs, Staten Island-raised Josh was looking for a new job online. He is a Web designer fearing that he might be the next victim of a dotcom bomb. Nice guys, both. They seemed to get along well with Tina, despite their apparent differences in background, vocation, and hairstyles.
   It was on this second visit that Tina informed me of the apartment’s name. I am immediately drawn to people who name their residences—not in a faux-English estate, Davisthorpe-on-the-Heath sort of way, but in a self- deprecating, fun sense. In Boston, my friends and I called our little street “Trash Alley,” because it was, well, littered with trash. Such places assault the senses at first, but grow to occupy a special spot in our geographic hearts. I couldn’t believe it was happening, but the apartment known to its inhabitants as “The Dollhouse” was growing on me.
   Later that week, I visited a third time, check in hand. Tina and I signed an undoubtedly unenforceable and illegal sublet agreement, by the terms of which I would pay her rent each month, and give her a security deposit. “Why am I handing over thousands of dollars to a woman whose last name I just learned?” I asked myself. “Shut up and do it,” another part of me said. And I did. I moved in a couple of weeks later. Hello Dollhouse, goodbye classifieds.
   I have now resided in the Dollhouse for several months, and it’s been a great experience. The roommates are just as they seemed—friendly but independent. I love the neighborhood, and bringing friends home has never been more fun. Kitsch brings out the best in people. Soon, we’re throwing a party, which will unite our diverse groups of friends under one candy-colored roof.
   So finding a place in Manhattan really isn’t that hard, and I’ve found that windowless boxes can be pretty cozy once properly decorated.

Lee W. Bailey C’98 currently works at Talk magazine.

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