So, I became a member of Citibike, the bike-share system launched in NYC in May, fairly early on. I wasn’t one of the people with a little blue key fob the first week, but I was there by the third. And I’m here to tell you why I don’t much like it.
Some of this is probably unfair, and I’m sure many of my complaints are shared by just about every big city bike-share system in the world. But still, I can’t say I’m not disappointed. When I first heard about Citibike, I got pretty excited since I have a long walk to a subway hub, and I thought bikes could become a part of my daily commute. Or I could just use it to help me run errands after work. Alas, it’s not as easy as it sounds.
The system works roughly like this: You have an annual membership (around $100) that allows you to use a key fob to unlock any bike in the city. You then have 45 minutes to ride it to your destination, and you must park it at another bike dock before time is up, or get charged some pretty outrageous fees. For those who buy only a day or week bike pass, the time limit is reduced to 30 minutes. In NYC, this is theoretically not a difficult hurdle since the bike racks are practically everywhere. Well, except for where you need to go.
Oddly, there are very few racks on the far East and West of Manhattan, where you would think the demand would be high because of the dedicated (and therefore more safe) bike lanes that run along the edges of the island and give you fantastic river views. But nope, all the racks are at least 5 blocks from the edge, forcing you to grab a bike and ride through NYC traffic to reach these oases.
And NYC traffic is terrifying. I’ve now ridden through it several times, and I immediately get panicky and sweaty, my heart pounding hard enough to cause ripples in my shirt. Many streets are one-way, and have no bike lane, and vehicles will not hesitate to honk and narrowly swerve around you. You are constantly scanning the cars parked to your right, hoping against hope that someone isn’t about to open a door and clothesline you to DEATH. Seeing brake lights is a good indication that a door is about to open, but not always. Pedestrians also couldn’t give less of a shit about you, and will cross directly in front of your path even if you have a green light. Nobody looks. Nobody pays attention.
I have never been so aware of traffic as when I’m on a Citibike.
The bikes themselves are also insanely heavy at about 45 lbs. apiece. For someone who is 5’0″, this makes for an ungainly wobbling ride through hot, crowded streets. To unlock the bike from a dock, you have to physically lift up the bike and remove it from the magnetic lock, which is a task I struggle with mightily. I have such problems docking and undocking the damn things that often a bystander will do it for me out of pity. The small baskets on the front of the bikes have bungee cords to hold your belongings, but I find they’re still too small for my purse (though to be fair, my purse is the size of my entire torso).
But my biggest gripe with Citibike is the docking situation. There is an app for the system that is supposed to tell you how many docks are free (and therefore able to be parked in) in a given location, but in practice, the numbers are wildly inaccurate. Every time I have tried to park near my apartment, the docks are all full, no matter that the app told me that there were five parking spots. I then ride another five minutes to another dock, now not very close at all to my apartment, which is ALSO full, though the app assured me that seven delicious parking spots were ready and waiting. Upon arriving at my THIRD dock, I find not only zero parking spaces (the app said there were nine), but also two other worried-looking Citibike riders circling around, fruitlessly seeking a place to leave their bikes. One rider, fed up with the system, just left their bike by the docks and threw up his hands in disgust. Doing this will automatically charge your credit card $1000, so finding a dock, and finding it QUICKLY (before your 45 minutes are up) is imperative.
On three separate occasions, I have had to go to four different docks before finally finding a parking space, and frantically shoving your bike into a dock is a race against time. Often, another bike is racing towards the same one empty parking spot, and it is survival of the fittest. I have had to ride aimlessly around Manhattan for 30 minutes searching for spots at 1 in the morning. I then have a long walk in the dark to actually get to my apartment. It would have been faster to simply ride the subway and walk in the first place. Also, a few times, docks have been “closed for rebooting” or simply closed indefinitely, the shiny bikes glittering in the sun, but ultimately useless.
Despite the fact that I have paid for a year’s worth of this system, I plan on walking from now on. It’s simply not worth the stress of both the streets and the docks. Of course, this could all be remedied if I just spent $200 or so on my own bike and parked it at my apartment, but then it would probably get stolen. NYC bike thieves seem to be second to none. Also, I am supremely lazy. So there.
In 9th grade, all students at my school were required to take Language Arts. To my dismay, this turned out to be a public speaking class disguised as a writing class, which meant that my easy A was about to become a desperate C. Though friends have pointed out that I can be loud as fuck in public, especially while talking about embarrassing stories, I suddenly lose the ability to be coherent when placed in front of an audience.
I start talking about a mile a minute, sweating all the while as my face either turns as red as a drunkard’s, or as pale as someone about to pass out. My eyes will dart all around the room as if trying to identify who from the crowd is about to get up and shoot me. Whatever latent paranoia I have (which is a LOT) kicks into high gear, and I become convinced the audience is plotting my downfall at all times.
So yeah, public speaking and I don’t really get along.
But sadly, this class forced me to do it on a regular basis. It all culminated on one unfortunate day when we had to read a short story that we had written out loud to the class.
The assignment was to write a “funny” retelling of a classic fairy tale, and we all had to choose different ones. As a somewhat angry and depressed teenager, my idea of “funny” was a dark as shit Goldilocks and the Three Bears that took place in an apocalyptic future where weapons were as common as loose change. The body count in my story was startlingly high, and I was probably only saved from arrest by virtue of this being written before Columbine. My tale ended with both Goldilocks and the bears burning to death after Goldie’s flame thrower showers the house with fire. Goldie manically mutters that the temperature is now “juuuust right” as her hair bursts into flames.
I did not know in advance that we would have to read this out loud.
I heard about the change in the lesson plan during lunch, as students who had the class earlier in the day recounted their classmates’ “hilarious” stories. My only thought was, “I’M FUCKED.” I knew very well that my story was going to be seen as the ravings of a homicidal maniac, and I ran to the computer lab to shit out a different story in the ten minutes remaining before class.
I was unsuccessful.
And thus I found myself perched on a stool at the front of the class, having to read out loud some of the most disturbing shit I had ever written. As the bullets began to fly and blood ran from one end of the bears’ cabin to the other, I started to feel like I was watching a car wreck from afar. Try as I might, I couldn’t stop the brutal scene that was unfolding before me. Soon enough, my anxiety crested and I completely lost it. I began to laugh hysterically, describing the deadly fire between giggles as I gasped for air. I actually started crying as I plowed through the morbid tale, laughing so hard that my words about graphic murder came out as squeaks. I eventually slid off the stool to the floor in a desperate attempt to abort the insanity. The teacher insisted I continue reading from the cold linoleum. He did not much care for me.
In the end, I received a C- on the story (my teacher cited disliking “black humor”), and I gained a reputation for being batshit INSANE for the rest of my freshman year of high school. Fucking fantastic.
So yeah, everybody gets these. If you haven’t found one on your own body, you simply haven’t been looking hard enough, and it’s probably at least six inches long by now. SEARCH THYSELF.
I remember discovering mine for the first time, growing out of the right side of my abdomen like it fucking belonged there. It looked like it came off Gandalf’s head (the White, not the Grey), several inches long and as glossy as a unicorn’s mane. I plucked it with horror, only to have it grow back again and again, the thin strand as white as purely driven snow. Now I monitor the spot with grim vengeance, razing the area as soon as it pokes it’s tiny silky head out of my stomach.
I remember a girl in my class in college who had a massive two-inch black hair emerging from her chin, like Satan’s own pube. I couldn’t understand how she had never noticed it before, but it became more clear as I watched her glance in the mirror in the bathroom. She always angled her head in such a way that she never saw the offending hair curling in the breeze. My God, had nobody ever told her? I didn’t know how to approach that situation since we were merely acquaintances, and she soon ceased coming to class altogether. Had she been strangled by her rogue hair in the night? Perhaps she looked on it fondly, stroking it gently before drifting off to sleep each night. I will never know.
It has been a persistent fear of mine for many years now that a natural disaster will strike, and I will be naked for it.
Maybe not even a natural disaster. Maybe a terrorist attack or a fire eventually traced to arson. Whatever the situation, my recurring nightmare is that something unspeakably terrible will happen, and I will be naked while dealing with it.
I have no idea why this should terrify me so much. Perhaps it’s just adding insult to injury, that I’d crawl out of a burning building or swim out of a flood, then still have to deal with the indignity of being nude and vulnerable. Or that I’d drag myself out of a building ravaged by an earthquake, then spend my first dazed moments searching for a blanket or something. In these bizarre imaginings, I never just suck it up and deal with self-preservation first and foremost. I don’t spend my time saving others crushed by buildings, or seeking precious fresh water. No, for some reason in these scenarios I see myself simply wandering around, sadly looking for clothes to steal.
I’d like to think I wouldn’t act so stupid in an actual life-or-death situation. But there was the one time it almost came true.
I was living in Japan in the Fall of 2004, staying with my host family in Kyoto on a semester long study abroad program. I was busy showering in my host family’s expansive bathroom, and was cold, covered in soap suds, and most assuredly naked. At that moment, an earthquake struck that was stronger than any I had felt so far. The rumblings were strong enough to knock me to the floor in my sudsy state, and there I lay, terrified and thinking only, “My fear has finally come to pass.” I imagined myself having to wander the streets of Japan nude, my pale foreign skin still wet from my shower as fires burned around me from ruptured gas lines.
Of course, the earthquake was considered mild by Japan standards, and the only thing damaged in our building was the elevator. I finished my shower and dressed quickly, still prepared for a sudden evacuation that never came. But I still remember my terror.
I don’t know what is with me and nudity, but I seriously need to get a grip.
So, apartment hunting in New York City is objectively awful. I’m not going to sugar-coat it. Even attempting the process is enough to make many people want to forgo a move at all. I’ve moved four times within the city in the past five years, so I figured I should share some advice.
First, figure out where you want to live. Sounds simple, right? But NYC is HUGE, and if you have never lived here before, you will know nothing about the different neighborhoods. So start off simple, and think about the boroughs. NYC has five of them (Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, Bronx, and Staten Island). Most people come here wanting to live in Manhattan since they’ve seen way too many Sex and the City episodes and think they’re going to be the next Carrie Bradshaw. Let me make it easy for you – you won’t be. So fucking stop it and look at your budget. Do you value space? Is the thought of being able to reach your fridge from your bed upsetting to you? Then unless you have a lot of cash to blow, you might want to look outside Manhattan. Though hell, I make well below $50K and live downtown, and was living on $22K my first year living in Manhattan, so you can do it if you don’t mind never going out to bars or eating in restaurants.
For people new to the city, Brooklyn is probably the first place to look, followed by Queens, the Bronx, and finally Staten Island. Staten Island is just rough since there isn’t much subway presence there, and you have to take ferries a lot. Then you have to think about the neighborhoods within each borough, of which there are dozens. I had no idea where to live when I first came here since I arrived on the spur of the moment with two suitcases and no job. I don’t recommend doing this, since you’ll then be living on $22K and ramen if you’re lucky, which I was.
Anyway, since I’ve been living in Manhattan for the past five years, I’m going to focus my discussion on that borough.
Basically, unless you’re making at least $60K, I’d stay away from studios or 1-bedrooms, since you won’t be able to afford them anyway. If you are the type of person who doesn’t live well with roommates, then don’t fucking move here. There are enough crazies here without adding you to the mix. My entire time in NYC, I’ve been living with two roommates in 3-bedroom (or converted 3-bedroom) apartments. This is the minimum number of roommates I need to afford to live here, so if you are a starving artist, you might need to shack up with up to five others. Leave your neuroses at home, or you’ll go insane in that kind of environment.
So now you need to focus on your budget. Sure, living in the West Village would be nice and trendy, but do you want to pay in excess of $2000/month in rent? If not, don’t bother looking there, unless you can score a crazy rent-stabilized deal (Note: This will not happen to you. It’s like trying to chase a unicorn.). If your budget is under $1000/month, then look uptown, most likely above 96th Street. I lived in Harlem for three years, and my rent never exceeded $800/month, and I had a real bedroom, a real kitchen, a living room, an elevator, and laundry in my building. I mean, yeah, my apartment was also infested with rats, but that rent is still a pretty good deal for Manhattan. You can find much better apartments for that price in Harlem or Inwood/Washington Heights, so check it out if you’re poor (by New York standards).
If you can go above $1000/month, you can start looking further downtown. You will still need roommates until you reach the $1500+/month threshold, which is about the minimum for a studio apartment. Also, beware of shady shit. You’ll go to see a room in an apartment where your “bedroom” is a part of the living room that has been blocked off with a curtain. Or you’ll find a guy who will give you a great deal on rent if you just spend all your time in the apartment buck naked. Or the “cozy kitchen” described in the ad is, in fact, a dorm fridge and a hotplate sitting on a card table. Or the “quaint” room in a brownstone is actually in the basement, has no windows, is entirely coated with black mold, and you are still competing with 15 others for the spot. Yes, these things exist.
So, okay, what to do then? If you can afford it, just make your life easy and get a damn broker. He or she will scope out apartments for you and, if they’re good, will only call you to see a place if it’s really worth your time. Though, if they’re shitty, they’ll show you a dank 5th-floor walk-up studio with stained carpet that currently inhabits six illegal immigrants. Yup, that one came from personal experience. The downside of a broker is that they are expensive. Many will require that you pay them 15% of the yearly rent, which would mean paying $1800 for a $1000/month rental. But often the rate is negotiable, and can be whittled down to 10-12%.
If you’re willing to use a broker, you can check out the New York Times Real Estate section. There’s an online search that can narrow down your choices based on neighborhood, cost, number of rooms, etc. But almost every posting on there requires a broker’s fee, so don’t bother if you’re looking for a place on the cheap.
There are several websites out there that cater to no-fee rentals in NYC. I recommend these:
You can make custom searches, then set up email alerts so you get the most recent listings each day in your inbox.
These sites contain a mixture of fee and no-fee rentals, and are worth a look:
However, my biggest recommendation will be for Stephanie Diamond’s Listings Project. It’s an email that goes out weekly to the people on her mailing list, and it contains listings for art studios, rooms for rent, full apartments for rent, and more. The listings are all done by individuals rather than brokers, and there’s typically much less competition for these apartments given the exclusivity of the list. Anyone can join, but it’s sure as hell a smaller audience than Craigslist.
Though, speaking of Craigslist, it’s still the place to go if you are looking for roommates, or want a room in someone else’s apartment. However, it’s next to useless for regular housing, since most every post on there is a scam. But for sublets or room shares, it’s still a good tool.
Also, a note about the scarcity of apartments. The vacancy rate here tends to hover around 1%, which means that decent apartments often go off the market the same day they are announced. This means that it’s nearly impossible to conduct a NYC apartment search from afar, since you must be present in person to grab an apartment. To secure a space, you need to come prepared, and must be ready to put down a deposit on the spot. To even rent an apartment, you must usually prove that you make at least 40 times the monthly rent. So for a $1000/month rental, you need to make AT LEAST $40K/year to even qualify. For a larger apartment that you would share with roommates, rents might range from $2500-4500 for three people (uptown vs. downtown), which means you’d need a combined income of $100-180K before you could all sign a lease. So if you were thinking about getting a large apartment and finding roommates later, you’ll be shit out of luck, unless you’re rolling in dough.
So what about a guarantor? Yes, you can use one if you don’t meet the income requirements, but remember that they’ll be on the hook if you stop paying your rent. Also, your guarantor must usually make 80 times the rent instead of 40. So that $1000/month apartment now requires a guarantor who makes at least $80K/year, or that 3-bedroom needs someone who makes $200-360K/year. You see the dilemma now? You need to make money, or know someone who makes money, to spend cash on rent in this town.
Also normally required when you go look at apartments: an employment letter on work stationary with your yearly salary, 2+ months of bank statements, 2+ pay stubs, 2+ years of tax returns, recommendations from former landlords, guarantor bank statements and tax returns, and enough cash to cover a potential deposit or application fee (which can be hundreds of dollars if you use a broker). You also need to have at least three months of rent money in your bank account to pay first and last month’s rent, as well as your security deposit. Some leases will only require two month’s rent up front, but that’s still a decent chunk of cash. You can apartment hunt without all these documents, but if you see a place you absolutely must have, you will probably miss out unless you can present all this information on the spot.
So yeah, there’s the shitty nitty-gritty. Makes you not want to move to NYC, right? If you can jump through all the hoops, it can be worth it, but it always helps to be an informed consumer. Do your research on your management company or landlord before you sign any lease, and always try to talk to current tenants if possible. That way you can discover any “unpleasant surprises” before you’ve locked yourself in for a year in a shithole.
Oh, also, if it looks too good to be true, IT IS. Just take my word for it.