Once More with Feeling: Finding an Apartment
I have been apartment shopping again.
Not for myself -- it’s been 38 years since I last needed a lease – but for the daughter who’s going to law school in the fall. I’m experienced. I’ve honed my skills in Cambridge, MA for the daughter in Divinity School; in Dallas, TX with the daughter who was teaching; in Austin, TX when said daughter returned to graduate school; and throughout Dallas when I thought my father might finally break down and move here. I’ve also visited a number of the places our progeny have leased on their own over the years and can list the full array of charms: the toilet upon which one must be seated sideways, as the knees will not fit between the seat and the tub; the “view” of feet walking by from a ground floor bedroom; the bathroom door which simply would not close; the resident mice; four flights of stairs; clod-hopping (I’m sure that’s what they were doing) upstairs neighbors; a certifiably crazy roommate; and layers and layers and layers of paint on always-grimy window sills. But then, too, there were the views and the sunlight, the bookcases and the vintage wooden floors, and, of course, location, location, location. (“Yeah, it’s a dump and it’s in the basement, but it’s two minutes from school, Mom. It’s perfect.”) Perfect. OK. Just don’t ask me to sit down or use the facilities, much less spend the night.
So as I often do when I repeat a right of passage with our fourth and youngest child, who is now 25, I thought perhaps I was too old for this – too old for the “excitement” of finding a place of your own in the context you’ve chosen to live for the next year or three, too old to be enthusiastic about pioneering in transitional neighborhoods, too old to be charmed by decrepit stairs and ubiquitous black and white tiles, too old to think “cute” had any staying power. And that was before I discovered all the new “lifestyle” apartments on the market. “Live here,” they proclaimed, “and you don’t even have to â€˜Get a Life;’ we’ve â€˜got’ it for you: we have the game room, the computer room, the movie and TV room, the party room, and the workout room, and if you sign within the next 24 hours, you’ve got a chance to win a brand new flat screen TV and a Wii!!!” Whee!!
“Who lives here?” I asked the on-site agent. I was curious; I really wanted to know. The granite counters, stainless steel appliances, “green” carpets, and garden tubs were seductive, to be sure, but still. . . . The agent demurred. It would be a fair housing violation, he told me, to tell me what kind of folks his complex was attracting. Graduate students? Young professionals? Married couples? Couples? DivorcÃ©es? Some kind of wannabes? People who shop at Old Navy and Staples? (They were next door.) People who work out or party or play Wii all day and all night long? Who knows?
Fortunately my daughter, who has spent a great deal of the last three years developing her own true identity, wasn’t even tempted to have it usurped by a building’s layout and cool. She just felt sort of bad, and I understood this, that she obviously would not fit in at a place like this, even if it were in her price range (and it was) and even if it was a short and easy five minute drive to school. It was easy to wonder what was wrong with her, or how I raised such a misfit. It was a discouraging day for both of us. Lots of granite and stainless steel, and plenty of amenities and cheerleaders for them. No gravitas. No law school veneer. No soul. No place to live.
The next day, the Austin real estate reps marketed Character. Cleaned up old places with roots, situated just outside the graduate school ghetto (close enough to have the right zip code, usually), and small enough to be considered more personal – 8 or 16 units, a common (often deal-breakingly common) laundry room, resembling home not so much as a turquoise-painted Motel 6 of once-questionable repute. But there were wood or cement floors, stainless appliances, decent closets, free internet and cable sometimes, and off-street parking. We began, my daughter and I, to consider the possibilities.
Then, on our own, intent on finding a place despite our exhaustion, we drove up and down the streets of the area that felt most “right” to her, the neighborhood she thought she’d like to live in. We called the phone numbers on For Rent signs – the most attractive places were rented already of course – and peered into back yards, looking for signs of lease-able life. There wasn’t much to see. But she had an address from a friend who was a friend of a friend who was leaving her garage apartment in August, and once we finally figured out the street grid, we took a look at that, figuring it couldn’t be worse than what we’d already seen. I made her double check the address. The main house was darling. Had they left the garage in disrepair, trusting a naÃ¯ve and undemanding student to help them pay the mortgage? I held my breath. Well, no, the garage looked highly habitable as well. Attractive, well-painted, new windows – oops, an air conditioning unit in one of them – but, hey, maybe it’s sufficient. And maybe, just maybe, the apartment was intelligently laid-out and well-kept inside, too. Could we hope? Should I start praying? Could she call that friend of a friend of a friend and maybe get inside? She did, we did, and it was perfect. She met the landlords and signed a lease the next morning. We were both extraordinarily relieved.
Finding an apartment, it turns out, is not simply an act of securing a safe physical space to live. No matter what your age – my father’s 87 or my daughter’s 25 – the space has to serve you, shelter you and give you room to work and grow, and at the same time, reflect you – mirror who you are in moments of self-doubt and project the appropriate image to others as you shape a new community. It needs to be a place you can come home to, literally, and a haven you can, with confidence, step out from. It has to fit. And this one does. Finding it required a good friend, delightful friends of friends and, in the end, just dumb luck.
I found the hunt an exhausting parental assignment. I was practicing keeping my opinions to myself. My daughter is, after all, 25, and I’m not paying the rent; she is. She’s been pretty much on her own the last three years and I wasn’t entirely sure what she was becoming. I didn’t know, for example, if the lifestyle apartments would appeal to her. I didn’t know how much gritty “charm” she could stand. I kept trying to take myself out of the equation -- if she’d be pretty much safe in any of the places, what did it matter to me, really, where or how she lived? And yet, oh yes, and yet, there it was – a feeling of deep, deep satisfaction that we agreed on the best, the most right place, that we agreed she could be happy there.
Next assignment: the furnishings. But I may not be invited on that trip.
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