John described his Spadina Avenue apartment as a two-bedroom with lots of light and very high ceilings. He neglected to mention it was a subterranean hovel with tiled floors, one stripped-wire cot and a tiny barred window evocative of Alcatraz. He also failed to note that his place was an open studio, which he and his three-legged cat hoped to share, sans wall or curtain, with a handpicked stranger. When I asked John where he slept, he curled back his upper lip, cackled with glee and said, “Sleep?”
That was July 2001, when my hunt for a Toronto apartment was in its nascency. Know this: when it comes to finding an apartment in Hogtown, nothing (and no one) can be trusted—not rumours, not Craigslist, not your fellow man. My three-year apartment-hunting nightmare can attest to that.
And let’s be clear: I am not picky. Prior to Toronto, I lived in Manhattan, sleeping on a lawn chair in a closet. For us$800 a month, I shared a one-bedroom “convert” with a metrosexual exhibitionist and a 250-pound woman from the Bronx who attended registered orgies with sick regularity. At some point during that New York year of “personal development,” the tawdriness of my D-list modelling career became unbearable, and the Chat ’n’ Chew fired me for being too Canadian. Life was not going according to plan; it was time to make a move. If nothing else, Toronto would improve the status of my personal habitat—certainly, there was nowhere to go but up.
Apartment postings, I now know, are expressions of the creative soul. Beware the euphemisms:
comfortable = miniscule
cozy = dark
charming = mice
vegan = vegan.
Dirk carried delusions of Libeskind-calibre grandeur. Dirk’s online photograph showed a pristine white living room with minimalist design and über-chic black lacquered furniture. In 14-point caps, he promised “hip roommates, big rooms, cool vibe.”
It is one of life’s grave injustices that those truly in possession of “hip roommates” or, God help me, “cool vibes” never advertise. When Dirk opened the door, I was surprised but not shocked to come face to face with a tall, forty-three-year-old man swathed in heavy silver insect jewellery. Tattooed, with thinning, dyed-black hair turned white at the roots, Dirk was channelling Marilyn Manson on the Axl Rose decline.
He was after a roommate who could gel harmoniously with his chosen ménagerie: Cher (an unapologetically bland treasure), Cher’s mute boyfriend (arm in plaster, trial pending), a twentynothing goth (unpronounceable name), Dirk’s life-sized plush gorilla and a wily, ill-tempered iguana.
For $500 a month (utilities includ-ed), Dirk offered cramped quarters, crumbling walls and a cavernous hole in the kitchen—the result, he said, of a “minor toilet incident.” It is fitting to mention that Dirk worked in Toronto as a motivational speaker.
Why not buy? For a high-risk client skirting the poverty line with aplomb, buying initially looks like a winning strategy. TD Canada Trust offers a “no-down-payment mortgage,” which requires “evidence…of 1.5 percent of the purchase price from non-borrowed sources.” That’s $3,000 to secure a $200,000 College Street loft. Totally doable.
When I clicked on TD’s online mortgage calculator and tried to deduce my monthly payments, amortized over twenty-five years, the computer insisted I’d made an error regarding my income. After two more attempts, the computer froze—in horror, I’m sure—and I phoned TD directly to see if they were having trouble with their site. Dennis was most understanding. He cut to the chase: “Put it this way, the higher the salary, the better.” Seems the no-down-payment option is a good one, assuming one’s in a position to keep the repo man at bay and the mortgage in the black. Dennis assured me this is not my position at present.
Lee was a wise man. He’d mentioned his fiancée in his posting, which made him sound harmless, smitten and very desirable. Lee lived aboveground, in his own room, and his apartment straddled the best independent video store in Toronto. All this for $475 a month (utilities extra). Lee was sounding good until I stood three storeys below his postage-stamp-sized window, waiting for a workman’s sock to be dropped from above. Lee’s key.
I couldn’t find the front door, and the stairs up to the third level had compacted themselves, giving way to a sort of precarious slide. There was no doorbell, no living room, no furniture. My new room was locked and empty, save for a yellowed futon mattress, a discarded pine frame and a winter jacket. Lee’s current roommate, Rambo, a welfare deserter who could no longer make the rent, had not yet been informed that he was leaving. Lee’s fiancée was catatonic. She was also, I suspect, a man. Their cat was black, the air was green and the kitchen was a poetic ensemble of mould, shards of plaster, cat hair and roaches (both crawling and smouldering). Lee was baking pies. Lee had the munchies.
My years of fieldwork further revealed this: the difference in quality, comfort and privacy between a $550-a-month Toronto apartment and an $800-a-month one is astronomical—not unlike the difference between the Bates Motel and the Ritz. Post-Lee, I shunned Craigslist; I shunned the Internet altogether. Maybe these frightening people were just cyber-geeks bent on driving me out of town. I needed a fresh approach. I turned off my computer and opened the newspaper. And this is how I met Eve. Eve lived in a Kensington Market duplex. When she came to the door wearing horns and a dog collar, desertion didn’t enter my mind. Desperation makes fools of us all. Eve was offering a room for $425 in a house with three roommates. I spotted her ad in Now, a popular, free weekly that carries a diverse selection of apartments to suit an alternative, relatively boho readership. At the time, it cost $44.68 to purchase a headline and two lines of text. Eve’s ad read:
comfortable room, minutes from streetcar,
large house, laid-back roommates.
The house was indeed large—though my room was small, had exposed sockets, an industrial sink and no door. The centrepiece was actually the backyard’s communal compost mound, next to the outdoor fireplace and a diseased orange tree. There were rules, Eve assured me. No partners at the house for more than 40 percent of the week. No spilling over onto other people’s refrigerator shelves. No talking shit about the music. Ah yes, the other two roommates were rockers. In abject defiance of the house rules, one of the musicians was Eve’s live-in boyfriend. The rules didn’t apply to her because she was afraid to sleep alone.
I explained that I was a writer. Would it be a problem for me to write during the day, while Eve worked at a guitar shop and the guys tried to get their band off the ground? Eve didn’t know if things could get loud, because she’d never been around during the day. “Steve! STEVE! Wake the fuck up!” It was 3 pm. Steve emerged, droopy-eyed, with hair that looked like a fright wig. “This chick’s our new roommate, if we want her. She’s a writer.” I interjected, “I’m just wondering if it would be a problem for me to write during the day.” Steve thought. Hard. “Well, I don’t have a problem if you write during the day.”
By May of 2004, in the gloom of despondence, I settled for a mid-sized dining room in an apartment with Margaret. She was thirtysomething, on the heels of a terrible breakup and reminded me vaguely of an anorexic Medea.
“Hey, Margaret,” I’d say, as she merrily chopped up another photograph, cracked into his e-mail account or stared longingly at a 2003 calendar that was, apparently, his favourite. “Where do you keep the green bin?”
“Oh, we … [eyes welling, voice shaking, body crumpling] I mean I … [choking, rocking] I keep the green bin on the porch.”
Margaret was the last straw. After three years, what I needed more than an apartment was perspective. And respite. I fled to Mexico. A World Values Survey published in 2003 declared Mexico the second happiest country in the world, just behind Nigeria. Obviously this happiness springs from the fact that Mexicans aren’t obsessed with hip apartments.
I hoped Mexico could show me something more. I took a freelance job as a news reporter for the local paper and prepared to do interviews in fledgling Spanish for the duration of my five-week break.
As papers do, mine had classifieds. In sunny San Miguel de Allende, for less than us$300 a month, it’s possible to rent a one-bedroom apartment with a private rooftop patio, a full kitchen, a shower and bath, a weekly maid service and a borrowed wireless signal (utilities included).