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.