Are you relatively new to this bustling metropolis? Don't be shy about it, everyone was new to New York once upon a time, except, of course, those battle-hardened residents who've lived here their whole lives and Know It All. One of these lifers works among us at Gothamist—publisher Jake Dobkin grew up in Park Slope and still resides there. He is now fielding questions—ask him anything by sending an email here, but be advised that Dobkin is "not sure you guys will be able to handle my realness." We can keep you anonymous if you prefer; just let us know what neighborhood you live in.
This week's question comes from a local who doesn't know how to shake loose from an undesirable roommate.
Dear Native New Yorker,
I'm a 32-year-old guy currently living with a 34-year-old woman who I describe as a "bubble roommate." She moved here from Japan 4 years ago and has been living with me and my good old friend ever since.
At first she would hang out with us and we'd have communal dinners and watch movies, etc... but after a couple (universally agreed by others) DUMB misunderstandings that she blew way out of proportion, she cut herself off from us completely. It took almost a year for us to get back to even saying hello in passing.
I blamed our arguments on cultural differences and her inability to speak English very well. But after almost 3 years of living together I now think she's just an unfriendly, unforgiving, selfish person.
She refuses to clean things she hasn't used or help out in any household chore at all, and hides away all of her things in her room until she needs them. She makes no mess though, and cleans up after herself and never hangs out in any common space.
My question is: am I right in wanting to kick out this person who always pays rent on time, makes no mess and has almost zero house presence? Or should I just let it all slide and continue living with Casper the unfriendly ghost? I suppose it could be worse and we could have a full blown asshole living with us, but her passive aggressive presence in the house is really bumming me out.
Stuck in BK
A native New Yorker responds:
A roommate who is clean, quiet, always stays out of your way, and pays the rent on time? The horror! As you note, perhaps it's best to chalk this up as one of life's little inconveniences, rather than risk recruiting a new roommate who might turn out to be even worse—an actual poltergeist, for instance, or a serial killer, or one of those bearded Brooklyn types who is always leaving his mustache wax lying around and musing loudly about how inauthentic everything is.
A sad young Jake Dobkin (Courtesy Private Jake Dobkin Collection)
On the other hand, New York City remains part of America, and America is a theoretically free country: you have the right to live with whom you please. You could always sit her down, explain that you don't think it is working out, and discuss a solution. For instance, you could simply inform her that you guys would like her to find a new place, and if that doesn't work, you could tell her that you and the good roommate are willing to move out if she insists on staying.
Our complex city housing law puts a limit on your options beyond that. If she's on the lease, she has as much of a right to the place as you do, and if you're on the lease, you won't be able to get off without a negotiation with your landlord. Even if she's not on the lease, she'll have some tenancy rights, which could make for several long and unpleasant visits to housing court over many months. So try to keep things as calm as possible, deliver no ultimatums, and generally comport yourself as if you were a mature, compassionate adult.
Thinking over your situation, I was reminded of Melville's novella Bartleby, The Scrivener, which I read for the first time last year. In it, an old Manhattan lawyer hires a copyist, only to find that the copyist begins to sleep overnight in the office, and shortly thereafter refuses to do any work, famously saying "I would prefer not to." At first sympathetic, the lawyer quickly grows irritated:
My first emotions had been those of pure melancholy and sincerest pity; but just in proportion as the forlornness of Bartleby grew and grew to my imagination, did that same melancholy merge into fear, that pity into repulsion. So true it is, and so terrible too, that up to a certain point the thought or sight of misery enlists our best affections; but, in certain special cases, beyond that point it does not.
They err who would assert that invariably this is owing to the inherent selfishness of the human heart. It rather proceeds from a certain hopelessness of remedying excessive and organic ill. To a sensitive being, pity is not seldom pain. And when at last it is perceived that such pity cannot lead to effectual succor, common sense bids the soul rid of it.
In the end (spoiler alert!), the lawyer ends up moving his practice, abandoning the office to Bartleby, who still refuses to leave, and is thereafter evicted by the new tenant and thrown into jail, where he refuses to eat and eventually dies. It's a strange, sad story, and often given as one of the best descriptions of clinical depression in literature.
Critically, for you, after Bartleby is dead, the lawyer discovers he can't quite shake the feeling of guilt and sense of responsibility he feels for not having done more to help the poor soul: "Ah Bartleby! Ah humanity!" Even if you can rid yourself of your ghostly roommate, you might find yourself feeling the same way.
New York is a very disorienting place, even for those of us who have grown up here. Depression is a common reaction, especially for new arrivals without a strong support network of friends and family. From your description of your roommate's empty mood, loss of interest in hobbies, decreased energy, irritability, and withdrawal, it sounds like she could use some help. Before you evict her, why don't you see if you can get her some? A little therapy or medication might make all the difference. In any case, at least then you could say you did all you could, and would be free to seek a new habitation situation with no feelings of remorse.
N.B.: We are lucky to live in a city with an overabundance of mental health professionals, and the 2008 Mental Healthy Parity Act makes mental health coverage a lot better than it used to be. But even if you have no insurance, the city does provide some treatment options.
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UPDATE: the person who submitted this question has been reading your comments, and has asked for some space to address a few of your concerns:
I would like to first say that we have tried and tried having house meetings with her. She would temporarily agree to help out with the collective build up of house hold grime and then never follow through on that. We even went as far as having our friend in California who speaks Japanese on a conference call with us to translate.
If you live with other people, all communal space becomes a shared responsibility and therefore, even if your asshole is sealed up and you don't take shits anymore, you still might have to scrub a toilet sometimes.
I am NOT looking for a new friend or a girlfriend. I've been dating the same girl the entire time this roommate has lived with me and I have a large circle of friends. I'm not upset because my advances have been spurned or something, I just want a pleasant enough living environment where i'm not tip-toeing around trying to avoid each others silent dagger glances.
The "dumb" instances that angered her initially included me getting spaghetti sauce on a rag she put out on the oven rack and not instantly hand scrubbing it, then a friend who stayed overnight accidentally using her shampoo which she could smell afterwards, and finally me jokingly not offering her a plate of food for half a second after we had made a communal meal, to which I instantly said I was kidding and gave her the plate. She didn't eat any dinner that night and stayed in her room.
If she wants to be left alone, that's fine. However, she initially asked to go out with us, meet new people, help her with her English homework, find her clients at her salon, etc... And now there is a palpable enmity coming from her that is unwarranted after how kind and helpful we've tried to be.
I understand being a New Yorker means "toughening up" and I do that in every single aspect of daily life. When I come home however, a little peace of mind would be a nice change. We all constantly put up with maddening situations and are often forced to eat shit in this town. I don't want roommates, period, but hey that's what happens sometimes. I'm just trying to make the best of it.