If you’ve moved here from anywhere else, living in New York requires a lot of lifestyle concessions — more trips to the grocery since you can only take what you can carry on the subway, $15 G&T’s, schlepping laundry upwards of four blocks and up and down five stories in a quest to be clean — but mostly it requires you to fit a life that’s used to sprawling into a very small space.
This is part simplification and part condensation. When I moved here, my mom told me to pack what I wanted to pack and then cut it in half (I probably only cut it by like a quarter, but, hey, the sentiment’s the same). If you’re like me, simplifying and cutting out your stuff can be a difficult, even traumatic, experience. As humans, we imbue objects with sentimentality and nostalgia. I’ve amassed more t-shirts and tote bags in my young life than anyone could ever need, but I hold on to them because they remind me of a place, a time, a person. We hang onto movies that we now have in digital form because there’s just something different about having the things you love physically manifested in front of you on a well-curated shelf [Zelda’s note: To date, one of the best compliments I’ve ever received is “You have the sexiest bookshelves I’ve ever seen.”]. We make piles of ticket stubs, programs, and playbills — crumpled relics of our past adventures. We keep our homecoming dress from high school tucked in the back of our closet because maybe, one day, we can wear it again, the style and our waistlines both having circled back around. In general, as people we are attached to things, and getting rid of those things is harder for some of us than others. In my case, while I made some progress, there was still a mountain of bits and bobs that I couldn’t bear to banish to the trash. And so instead, I opted for condensing, joining the legions of New Yorkers before me in pursuit of a sacred and subtle art: making the same amount of stuff take up less space.
In my apartment, we’re about to fit five people in a space that, in any other city I’ve lived in, would be meant for two, maybe three people at the most. Five grown-ass humans have a lot of stuff, but rents and space being what they are, we are forced to adapt. Now not all of us can afford amazing convertible apartments where desks turn into beds, and the only thing I think about when I look at pictures from Apartment Therapy’s Small Cool awards is “Where the hell is all their shit?” The design elements are on point, but where the heck is all the useful stuff? The roomies’ and my coping mechanisms are a bit more jury-rigged.
The bed I got when I moved here is a twin storage bed, where my mattress sits atop six drawers of storage. Those first months in the city, I was sharing a 7X9 room with another girl, and the only way to make it work was for all my stuff to fit in one rectangle of space. I still say it’s probably the best decision I made when I moved here, even if then moving it up the ladder-like staircase of my Brooklyn apartment was an inhuman feat (a group effort in which we had to remove window panes). But in principle, this is rule number one of New York apartment Jenga: Always look for things that do double duty: “This is a bed and a dresser, perfect!” We look for things that are stackable, collapsible, convertible…or, because furniture is expensive, and it doesn’t make economic sense to buy more stuff even if what you have doesn’t work perfectly for your space, we make do with what we have or what our friends want to give us.
Guided by these principles of multifunctionality and Macgyver-like innovation, my roommates and I have Tim Gunn-ed our way into a tiny, but cute space. Our motto in all things apartment, in Project Runway spirit? “Make it work, people!”
In our two years in this pad, we’ve played more games of musical furniture than I can recount. Our living room bookshelf/entertainment unit used to house my probably-too-large-for-the-city book collection. One of my shoe racks had a stint as our coffee table until we were gifted the real deal by a couple of friends (who, in a cliche New York Moment, found their new coffee table on a corner in their neighborhood), and now it’s back to being a shoe rack in our subletter’s room. Claire’s old desk and my old desk chair now reside in Stephanie’s room. A breakfast bar that we’d purchased in an attempt to have an eating area is now my desk organizer. And we all got something out of our original fourth roommate’s departure: a bookshelf each for me and Steph, (which was great for me since mine now lives in the living room), and Claire claimed the loft bed in an attempt to create more space for herself.
That bed has a history in my friend group as well. It belonged to Katie, who gifted it to Mary when she left her first apartment, and now Claire has made it her own. Claire has more stuff than should be legal (there are almost definitely fire codes being violated somehow), so she recently Ikea-hacked said loft bed into a pretty bitchin’ storage bed. It’s amazing what a carpentry background and a trip to the Swedish furniture mecca can do. She’s now got more shelves and drawers than I had in my bedroom back in Kentucky, but we have yet to see if it will hold her massive sprawl of possessions. When it comes to her stuff, Claire’s defense is that she didn’t go home between leaving college and moving to New York, so all the stuff she had accumulated in her four years of undergrad came with her to the city and suddenly had to fit into half the space (more like a fourth — pretty sure my single senior year was twice the size of Claire’s current bedroom, and it was pretty small for a dorm).
The point is that instead of getting rid of stuff (we try, we really really try), we go to extraordinary lengths to condense our lives instead. We buy Swedish bookshelves and try to organize everything into neat little squares until we’re bursting at the seams. And in many ways, we do the same things with our mental lives as we try to make it in this city we’ve decided to call home for a spell. We try to fit more hours in the day, more shifts in the week. We attempt to make the hours of our commute more worthwhile with books and podcasts and carefully curated playlists. We try to tuck away things that bother us until it’s more convenient to feel them, until we have some time to breathe. We’re so inundated with things to do, things we feel we need to take advantage of because we live in New York City for god’s sakes, and in the moment it seems easier to just shove it away, find a nook and cranny and file it under “to deal with at a later date.” We don’t take the time to simplify, to free ourselves from the train schedules and the constructions noises and the neverending list of to-dos running through our minds. And one day, that’s going to catch up with us.
And that’s what life in New York is. It’s ten million people shoved into square mileage that shouldn’t hold them, but somehow does. It’s those same ten million people hustling, running, moving, shoving everything in and pushing it around until we “make it work!” Somehow, most days, we make it all fit. And eventually we’ve cultivated something cute, maybe homey, definitely functional. But a drawer can’t make its contents disappear, and all that stuff we’ve shoved in is still bursting at the seams to get out.