My Brokers, My Friends

November of 2013, my real-estate broker, Mike, and I were standing on the stoop of a Harlem walk-up, ringing the bell. I realized that this was our third Saturday in a row together touring uptown apartments in the bitter cold. It hadn't become torturous. It was fun. 

"You're way better than the other broker I last had," I said.

"Some clients and brokers don't have good chemistry," he said. The use of "chemistry" struck me as laughable. I had done enough apartment searches in New York to know that brokers should be filed in the same compartment as used car salesmen: oily, untrustworthy, fast talkers who only dealt in absolutes: "there is no such thing as a studio in West Village under $3,000," "you're not going to find this anywhere," or "we have only the most exclusive listings in the city." Until that moment, I had considered my relationship with my brokers as business transactions, just like exchanging money for coffee with my barista. But the more I thought about it and considered Mike and all my those before him, I noticed how many of my brokers still liter my inbox, sprinkle LinkedIn endorsements, and befriend me on social media.

My 2013 apartment search involved four brokers including Mike. The first I call the "Broker from Hell." We first met in his Times Square office, a long, gigantic room filled with desks and prospective renters listening off their requirements. He was in his late 50s, gruff and wore sunglasses indoors. We went to Harlem on the train, but he wouldn't acknowledge that he knew me while we rode, not even alerting me of our stop. In a junior-one in Harlem, he excused himself to go to the bathroom and did so with the door wide open. "Seriously?" I whispered when I heard his tinkle and saw a little brown member peeking out. 

After him I had a tall, blonde tennis player in his late 50s, who always showed up in exercise clothes. 

"I like clients who can walk fast," he said as we skirted down the sidewalks.

"That's fine because I walk fast," I said. We split up to pass a slow, elderly couple in Inwood. 

"The Two-Person-Pass!" he said, assigning it a sports term. "Classic!"

He used code words for everything we saw. "This neighborhood is... aggressive," he said once. Then, at another location, he pointed to the block we approached, "Let's just say there's a lot of commerce on this corner." (Read: drug deals.)

The apartments I wanted were gone the next day, so we never had the occasion to meet again. That night we parted ways on Dykman, he was ducking into a restaurant for dinner. 

"Stay warm!" he said. "Oh and Ariel, you can walk with me anytime." 

I'd passed his walking test. 

For two weeks I had a chatty girl who showed me a unit I liked and applied for. She let me in her office after-hours to fill out the paperwork. Her other colleague was there, a former modern dancer in his 40s. I told him I grew up dancing for a local ballet company in the south. Upon hearing this, he sat down in front of me and hung his head. We started having the conversations people have after-hours when the boss is gone and the formalities unnecessary. A cleaning person had shut off all the lights.

"I'm losing my creativity," he said. "So I booked a ticket to go to Burning Man. I'm going alone. I just need this. I know I need it. Something in me is lost. I feel like I can find it there." 

All the brokers I met were either on their second career try, or students. The ones on their second careers were more apt to have deep conversations with me. I, in turn, was inherently curious about his struggle, but I would never find out if he made it to Burning Man. The apartment I wanted had a better candidate so I never saw them again.

My last broker, Mike, was a broker-in-training by his 21-year-old superior, a guy named Jasper. Mike did the majority of the dirty-work, hitting the streets to show me the units. It involved a lot of buzzing strangers to get into buildings and cold weather commutes. By our third go-round we were buying each other coffee, I was trying to help him get a new boyfriend and he was giving me recommendations for new facalists in Manhattan. When we saw a gorgeous apartment in Inwood, we joked about how nice it would be to throw parties there. "If I get it, I'll invite you!" I caught myself saying and recanting. "I mean, just kidding."

In the evenings I met he and Jasper at their offices to turn in applications. I liked seeing them work together. Jasper would come in wearing a brown fur coat with a large collar that spread over his entire chest, Mike would poke him, "With that 'Olivia Pope' coat on!". They had a pet beta fish. "But we think he's dead, we aren't sure." Mike got a gleam in his eye when he was negotiating, but the results were always dismal. I was the worst candidate: I was renting alone, my income was low, my credit was so-so. Mike and Jasper were not giving up.

One weeknight I raced up the stairs to meet Mike at a one-bed on St. Nicholas. The power in the place hadn't been cut on, so we turned on our iPhone flashlights to view it in the dark.

"It's the last one bedroom under $1200 in New York," said the super. I gave him the "yeah, and I was born yesterday" but was sold as we toured it. The floors, walls, molding and appliances were all new. My queen sized bed would have a lot of room to breathe in the bedroom. The windows in the living room were big and wide. The subway was only two blocks north.

"I'll take it," I said. I was approved, a lease signing was scheduled for Black Friday, but Jasper called on Thanksgiving day with bad news. The building had a fire the previous year, and the displaced tenant claimed the apartment was theirs. With my current lease up and the new tenant coming within the week, I was forced to camp out at a sublet in Chelsea -- this was officially an emergency.

We hit the pavement. Mike took me to see everything even in the late evenings after work. Jasper commiserated with me when I sobbed into the phone after my applications kept getting rejected.

A month passed and Jasper called excitedly. The original apartment was mine again, the dispute settled in my favor. I met Jasper at a lease signing in the Bronx in late January. It was snowing. He drove me back to my sublet in his car. We got stuck in traffic, which led to the kind of candid conversations I only have with brokers that I'll never see again.

"You'll let me know how those those things go with your career," he said. "text me."

Spring and summer passed, and in fall I threw a housewarming party. My original email invite included my Mike and Jasper, I missed the laughs and this triumph was theirs and mine. After a day of thinking it over, I decided against it. 

The Weeklies: January 6 - 12

Sunday afternoon I jumped on a Google hangout call with Suni and Philippa. These days, as I go through several life-changes, they feel like friends and  co-conspirators. I took their well wishes and support and carried it with me all week long. I had to hang up after a few hours but I could have talked all evening long. 

I headed to Brooklyn to have dinner with Alistair's family (the same group that I spent Thanksgiving with). It was lovely to end the weekend this way. On Monday, the holidays were officially over. School children returned to school and their parents returned to their early morning commutes. The trains were crowded again.

#

On Tuesday Alistair suggested we meet up for a drink after work. I took the 1 train to West Village and alighted on Christopher Street. The pace on the street was quick, the middle of rush hour. I stepped lively toward Sixth Avenue and looked up at a familiar face. A guy I used to date, a consistently well-dressed man who had a hazelnut Vizsla. I looked down at the sidewalk, and he looked straight ahead. I felt my heart racing nervously. 

I slipped into Goods for the Study. I love paper and pen stores. In Paris I spent almost an hour at Delphonics, my favorite Japanese paper store. I had decided earlier on Tuesday that a trip to the paper store would a treat. As a child I wrote voraciously and as an adult stacks of notebooks fill the living room. A paper store makes me connect to my core self in a nostalgic way. I circled the floor taking note of the paper stock; running my hand on the leather covers. I bought a spiral black notebook made in Japan. 

I walked from there to Corkbuzz, a little wine bar and restaurant Alistair took me to on New Years Day. It's so relaxed and quiet and the staff is nice. We ordered a flight of wine and whipped ricotta. I felt less stressed in an instant. 

#

Alistair and I decided we'd do something cultural on Friday night. I picked the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) and dinner at a place I'd never heard of before: Shalel Lounge. 

The MOMA will forever remind me of my first years in New York. (There was that one time I circulated the galleries alone for hours with a squished fly on my face. A guard came up to me, "Are you OK?" he asked. It wasn't till I looked in the mirror of a bathroom that I realized it was there.) Friday nights at the MOMA are free, so Alistair and I expected a crowd. The line for coat check reminded me of a JFK airport security line. The Charles White exhibit, which we actually didn't know was on, was worse. I felt like I was always fighting just to get a view of something, only to finally get my view blocked by someone else. 

We decided to take the B train uptown to dinner. We raced to catch the arriving train. I put my metro card in the wrong pocket, and when I reached into my pocket to get my phone the Metrocard flew onto the tracks. It was annual Metrocard, one that refilled without me doing a thing. I sighed and looked down at it from afar. 

"Should we call someone?" Alistair asked as the train barreled into the station. 

I could have called a station attendant to pick up the card. I could have waited for another train. I just shrugged and told him to forget it. We got on the train and headed uptown. The card was the least important thing on my mind. The camel's back was carrying a full load.

#


In the west 70s Alistair and I descended a nondescript set of stairs into Shalel Lounge, a Moroccan restaurant. I pointed to the rose petals on the stairs and told Alistair that it was considered "extremely romantic" restaurants in the city. We had Negroni's at the lounge and then our waitress pointed to our table down a narrow hall.

"It's that table all the way back there," she said. Alistair and I exchanged a glance. The table was the only one at the end of a brick hall. It was like having our own little restaurant. 

"This is truly candlelit dinner," exclaimed Alistair. 

There was a table around the corner, and though we were far we could hear their conversation. Four women in their 50s, swingers, discussing their escapades. Alistair and I exchanged wide-eyed glances while we dug into our tagines. 

Alistair and I spoke wistfully about our wish to go to Morocco. Even if our talks were about far-away possibilities, it just felt nice to imagine myself anywhere with Alistair.

The Weeklies: December 30 - January 5

New Years Eve, Greenpoint, 2016: I found myself in a dark party room, trying to cross into another room. The venue was a three-story maze with karaoke and mini golf in the basement, several ballrooms with gold balloons, DJs and lights on the ground floor, and live bands on the top floor. There was a drunk girl also stuck waiting for the crowds to pass. She was barely conscious, falling all over me, stepping on my feet in high heels and drooling. I held her up and got her to sit in a chair. It was then that I realized that the party was no longer fun and it was time to go home. We didn’t even make it to midnight.

One of Alistair's roommates, visiting from Europe, had also been there. We saw him a few days later. 

"Did you have fun New Years Eve?" we asked.

"No, it was terrible," he said. "I thought it was going to be...everything." He looked up to the sky hopefully, and then he shrugged. Oh, the naivety! I remember very clearly thinking that my first New Years Eve was going to be like a movie. After a few years you learn that you will never meet a masked stranger, you'll never kiss said masked stranger. You'll spend one hour in line trying to get in, two hours trying to order a drink, an a half hour or more trying to get a cab home. One year I stood on 14th Street in a cocktail dress waiting forever. Around 3 o'clock in the morning I took the bus with other people in cocktail attire. I stood up the whole ride.

For this reason I've stopped making plans on New Years Eve. Alistair and I spent the holiday together, at his home, watching movies and episodes of "Fraiser." We had pesto and bucatini and opened a bottle of prosecco. I wasn't feeling in the mood for New Years Eve. My mood didn't improve the next, day, or the next day after that. I was happy though, to get up early, eat breakfast, get on the train and go to the office. I'd been living in a very lonely world for the holiday break. I was anxious to see people and to feel motivated.

#

On my Thursday night commute home my train rolled in to the 28th Street Station. A woman exited the train and left her cell phone on the seat. Another woman jumped up and chased after her with it. She tried to get back on the train but the doors closed in her face. Everyone on the platform and the train gasped sadly that she had to miss her train and more importantly, her seat on that nearly empty train. The good samaritan shrugged. 

"It's OK," she said. 

Would I ever do that? I asked myself on my walk home. When I was younger I was sure I was a good person. Now I feel like a facade. Someone who makes mistakes with enough grace that no one notices.  

#

After a short work week I spent Friday and Saturday cleaning my apartment. I turned on trash TV and started sifting through the bags of unopened mail and travel trinkets. I ran across my map from my trip to London it was still creased the way it was in my pocket on that trip. The hotel concierge who gave it to me (a very charming man with a dangly earring in his left ear) drew circles around the Westminster stop and the London Eye and Hyde Park. He convinced me to take the tube, "It's quite simple, ma'am." 

I write about that trip a lot. The map made me cry happy tears. I tucked it with the papers to keep and smiled. 

I also ran across my notebook from my 2012 trip to Paris. I kept all my writing in a white notebook with black polka dots. The front cover has a chocolate stain from Pierre Hermé macarons (my favorites). It's another trip I write about a lot and think about constantly. I flipped through it and found my entry from my day at Versailles. 

My mood improved.

A 2018 Recap

In Bellagio, Lake Como, Italy.

In Bellagio, Lake Como, Italy.

My 2018 felt like one long Whit Stillman film: a lot of conversations over dinner tables. I had one delightful vacation (the summer trip to Switzerland) beyond that, I accomplished nothing and spent the year wishing I were someone else. 

I managed to learn a few things in 2018. By coincidence, I saw two quotes that really helped me. The first was graffitied on a wall in the park: "Neutrality favors the oppressor," from Elie Wiesel's 1986 Nobel Prize Speech. It motivated me to voice my opinions and to support activist organizations and to quit being so damn passive. Everyday is a fight against myself and what I worry people think of me. The other quote: "People don't care about you, they are thinking about themselves and their constipation," (I don’t know who said it, but I saw it in a meme) reminded me that really, no one cares.

In 2018 I started my Weeklies, a practice that gives me grief and joy. I love writing them, I love that so many people read them, but I also just worry that they aren't helping me grow as a writer. I look at other writers and bloggers with a lot of jealousy. I secretly want to be popular, but I'm not. So even when I'm looking happily at everything I've done in 2018, I'm also angry. I could have done more. 

When my idol, Anthony Bourdain, died earlier this year the mission of this blog became very clear. I want to explore every human emotion. I want to insert some reality among the smiling faces and beautiful breakfast bowls of Instagram and the Brag-book (Facebook). I'm not a happy-go-lucky, positive person and I want to take away the shame surrounding unhappiness. I know that's a really big, nearly unachievable goal, but in 2018 I decided to try. 

I wish I could say I have an exciting 2019 lined up, but I've got time to make some...Happy New Year to you and yours.

The Weeklies: December 23 - 29

On Sunday morning, Alistair's fever broke.

"Let's go get a Christmas tree!" he said. 

"Not so fast, you have to get 100% better," I said. "Why don't we just order a tree?"  

"No, we have to pick it out ourselves, it's part of the fun," he said.  

I grew up with fake Christmas trees. Each year, on Black Friday my father would get the tree out of the storage shed. We would store it in pieces, but we knew how to put it together by heart: first we'd put a green pole in a fake tree stand, then the branches would slide into color-coded holes. It took an hour to untangle the multicolored lights and walk them around the tree, then we'd add the ornaments. My mother had an African-American angel tree-topper she bought in the early 2000s, but when I was younger we topped the tree with a lucite star. This whole "picking a tree thing" was obviously new to me. 

There was a French Canadian tree seller who wrapped up a 6-foot-tall tree for us. Alistair took the back and I hugged the front, and then we slowly walked our way back to his apartment. Its a funny thing to carry a Christmas tree. Everyone stops to snicker, there's nothing more New York City than not having a car to take it home in. Halfway there we had to stop for a break. We were sweating.

"I'm having nightmares of carrying ski equipment as a child in Verbier," sighed Alistair. Then finally, we were back at his apartment. I hung white lights on the tree and we put it in the front window. 

#

Monday was Christmas Eve. I had two objectives: drinks with Philippa and a dinner party at Alistair's. At one o'clock I found myself in a Christmas-themed reindeer lounge. Every wall on the bar covered in lights, wrapping paper or a fake fire. I ordered a hot toddy. When Philippa arrived I felt like I was bursting -- we had so many secrets and news to share among us. Some of it life-changing. She asked me how I felt after last weekend. I wrote about it in my Weekly: I'd been feeling lonely, rejected, embarrassed, among other things. I'm dealing with a stressful family situation, a stressful apartment situation. I wanted to say that I was feeling much better but I'm always vacillating between apathy and rage. 

At four I left Greenpoint and headed to the grocery store. I bought a prime rib roast but the store was out of fresh rosemary. I stopped by two other stores and they were also sold out. Alistair was also grocery shopping and managed to find the last rosemary left: in dirt in the plant department. 

The dinner prep was pure chaos. We host a dinner party nearly once a month but this time we were both stressed. Alistair kept saying he wanted a "grand feast" and I wanted to make a "simple supper." He planned to make a bûche de Noël from scratch. I snapped at him constantly, then in a huff said: "There are too many cooks in this kitchen and I don't want to turn into my parents!" Every holiday dinner one of them yells at the other to "get out of my kitchen." After the buche prep I tossed a dry rub on the prime rib and stuck it in the oven with butternut squash and a bit of red wine. We made a quick salad and broccoli rabe, put out salmon, lemon, and toasted bread. My prime rib was so-so, but the buche was the real treat. Alistair dusted it with confectioners sugar and placed cranberries on the plate to make it look like a snowy log in the woods. My sister and her boyfriend were our only guests and they were hilarious. We exchanged gifts and chatted till midnight. 

#

On Christmas morning I stood by the tree, jumping up and down. "Open your gift! I'm dying for you to open your gift!" I'd bought Alistair a record player, so he could finally play the records he inherited from his father.  We immediately put on a gypsy jazz album. We spent the rest of the day indoors. 

Wednesday through Friday were a bust. I binged watched "Clique" and "Made in Chelsea" (I have the tv habits of a preteen English person). I felt unwell on Friday and wrote in my bed under the covers. I had to cancel my dinner plans. 

On Saturday I loaded up on mandarin oranges, medicine etc. I was well enough to shower, fix up my hair and have Korean barbecue with Alistair downtown. We haven't yet made New Years Eve plans, but we might do what we always do: nothing at all. 

The Weeklies: December 16 - 22

Sunday began well but ended tragically. A light rain fell over New York. Alistair and I had some errands to run so we rented a car. In the late afternoon I took a spot on his sofa and wrote for a few hours. We tossed together a pasta dish for dinner, one of his favorites: tomato sauce, garlic, onion, tuna over bucatini. 

My evening was interrupted by a social media discovery: all my friends were at a party and I had not been invited. This happens to me a lot, actually six or seven times in the past few years. I told Alistair. Then I cried and said: "I knew it was coming." Its easy to see paths diverge from far away, especially when it's my own fault. Friendships, they say, need to be tended like gardens but I'm too insular, too fearful, I don't trust that I am interesting enough to maintain a conversation or come up with something fun to do. And then the years pass and that trepidation turns into avoidance. 

That night I sighed and watched everyone's Insta stories and photos from the party feeling empty and even embarrassed.  

Monday was my office holiday party. Which meant a half-day in the office and the other half mingling over canapés and a soda. After failing miserably at the dinner party on Friday (if you missed it in the last Weekly: I laughed at French jokes that I did not understand, etc.) and feeling kind of rejected on Sunday night, I just wanted to hide. Luckily, I was seated next to kind, patient coworkers. When the party ended I got on the train and speed walked from my station to my front door and felt as though I'd spent days running from my faults.

I had an easy work-week. Knowing that I'd be off for ten whole days (Christmas to New Years) relaxed me. I got off work early on Friday and met Alistair at his place. He was under the weather, so I put a hand to his forehead: he had a fever. We went out for ramen and I tucked him in bed early after a bath. 

On Saturday I woke up, checked in on Alistair, then headed to Stumptown coffee in West Village. Felix was in town from Paris, we had time for an lively chat before his flight out. He asked how my writing was going, and I immediately rolled my eyes. It wasn't going at all, "I'm blocked," I said. I wanted to spend another hour in there just writing, but I needed to use my time alone wisely and buy Alistair's gift. It was a real coup-- I had to go to two stores to find what I wanted in stock. Then I rushed to a gift-wrapping store, and finally, while sweating, lugged everything to the subway and back to Brooklyn to nurse Alistair. 

I put his gift by the window seat with the other gifts from his lovely relatives. We hung string lights till the tree arrives. It'll be my first Christmas with Alistair and my first Christmas buying a real tree. I can't believe I'm writing this, but I'm actually looking forward to it. 

The Weeklies: December 9 - 15


In the window of a restaurant, over biscuits and fresh-fruit mimosas, I slumped over the table sheepishly and divulged a secret to Philippa. I watched her mimic my posture (I always crouch when I'm guarding myself) and she whispered, a devilish look in her eyes. I love secrets. Especially my own secrets, which make me feel powerful and, that in a chaotic world, I have some sense of control. My secret is nearly absurd, but it was enough to keep us laughing over brunch. We went next door to share a pitcher of Sangria and I realized -- oh how I miss talking one-on-one with other women! I had been very lonely the past few weeks.

I walked west to the train and my Sunday scaries followed closely behind me. On Monday anxiety about the week deepened: I would have to budget wisely till pay day, so I went to the grocery, bought the necessities. Back at the apartment I tried to write but my ideas were terrible. I feel like my creative momentum was shot, and I woke up Tuesday severely cross. So severely, that I wondered if it was a side effect from medicine or what? That night I tried to sleep but was awake from three o'clock to six o'clock in the morning.

On Wednesday, Alistair planned date night: karaoke for an hour (just us two), then a talk at NYU with dinner after. He'd been away all weekend so it was great to catch up in the middle of the week. Karaoke cheered me up, the talk made me laugh. We had pho for dinner and it was, no joke, the best pho I've ever had. 

On Friday we had a holiday dinner party to attend. "Fancy dress" read the invitation. I put on a floral cocktail dress and Alistair wore a tuxedo jacket. That evening I went into a wine store on the Upper West Side and and opened the refrigerator. 

"What can I help you with?" a woman asked. I told her I wanted a dry champagne, or the like, and she handed me an ornate bottle of Segura Viudas cava. "You'll be coming back for this, I assure you," she said confidently. 

"I trust you," I said and brought the bottle to the register. Coincidentally, the radio was playing a song that also appears on the soundtrack of my favorite film, "You've Got Mail."  As a teen all I did was watch "You've Got Mail" over and over on cable TV. The entire film takes place on the Upper West Side, and the wine store happened to be a block from one of the filming locations, Cafe Lalo. I smiled to myself as I walked slowly down the street. It was really nothing at all, just a something that reminded me of something that reminded me of something else -- and the sum of those things, made me feel good on my walk in the rain. 

Essentially, the cava was a hit at the party. We were served curried lentils and rice, with baked cod and for dessert chocolate gateau with berries and ice cream. All the guests spoke French fluently except me, I struggled to keep up and awkwardly laughed when everyone else laughed but was unsure what the jokes were about. 

On Saturday afternoon I went to Times Square to meet Alistair and go shopping. That evening it began to rain again so we stayed in and watched one of the "Mission Impossible" films, and in the evening had dinner at an Italian restaurant in his neighborhood. We got cozy at the bar, chatted with the other patrons. We were served Aperol spritzes with rosemary sprigs, which made us both fondly remember Varenna. One more week left of work before I’m off for the holidays.

The Weeklies: December 1 - 9

I woke up last Sunday morning at 5 am, pulled off my eye mask, and looked around my hotel room in Louisville: a big wide corner room, a dining chair up against the door (put there by me), the light on (I never sleep without a light on). I hopped out of bed. I cut on the shower -- the tub was pink -- and very quickly washed. I suddenly realized that I didn't pack a toothbrush. While shrugging, I put paste on my finger

I had a quick breakfast in the hotel, ran back to the room to grab my things and then to my rental car. It was 7 am, the sun wasn't up yet. I started driving south on the highway and the light started to spread out over the land. I minded my speed and darted my eyes left and right for my exit. "What a moment!" I thought. "How did I get here?" Sometimes life feels like a combination of impossibilities. I can trace my past very clearly to now, but it seems like one missed connection in the machine and it never would have happened.

I worked half the day and spent the other half exploring Louisville. I had lunch at a spicy fried chicken joint, and then went to the Speed Art Museum. I had a business dinner that night at a rooftop restaurant. 

I flew back at 5 am on Monday. I got to see the sunrise over New York city from my plane window. As the sun reached from the east to the west and pushed between the buildings, I thought about my secret nickname for New York: The Grid. I repeated my mantra, a nonsense sentence I started saying in my teens and never let go: "Never stop loving the Grid."

On my train ride to Manhattan I had a horrible experience with two women commuting to work. I was so angry it soured my whole outlook for the day. I went home, ate a sandwich and crawled into bed for a four hour nap. I woke up groggy but pulled out my computer. I tried to write unsuccessfully.

The rest of the week was very pedestrian until Friday. I had the day off early and met up with Alistair. We were hosting a dinner party at his place, this time with one of my friends and his girlfriend. We put a chicken in the oven and Alistair made vegan chocolate pudding. For a few hours I laughed, I ignored my to-dos, I ignored my writers block, I stopped note-taking in my head. I woke up hungover.