In my apartment, our landlord has seen fit to call the shared wifi signal “LovelyView.” She’s not wrong, I guess. The house looks out over one of the city’s most scenic parks, beautiful trees changing shades with the seasons, the sleek angles of downtown Toronto always blinking off in the distance. Given that my roommates and I live in the basement suite and have no front-facing windows, however, we accept that name with a grain of salt. Were the woman living on the main floor more receptive to the idea of the three of us camping out on her front porch, I’m sure we’d feel differently about it—but as it stands, we’ve grudgingly come to agree that the backyard, with its sturdy shed and vegetable patch, is okay on the eyes too.
The apartment certainly isn’t perfect: in my bedroom, for example, which stands next to the furnace room, the heat produced on colder days climbs to a point where I could brew tea in the water bottle I keep beside my bed. The ceilings are mostly high enough, but there are places where they dip just low enough for me to scrape the crown of my head, which I do with a frequency that threatens to start approximating a sort of male pattern baldness. Our upstairs neighbour, a noted Canadian singer-songwriter, has been rehearsing the same song on her piano so often over the past few months that I think I could probably hash out a pretty decent rendition by memory alone, and her constant vocal warm-up exercises sit somewhere between “chickadee call” and “fifth-grade recorder recital” on the scale of noises which might justifiably drive a person to commit acts of violence.
But then again, if those are the only complaints I have (and, frankly, it’s a damn-near comprehensive list), I’m not doing so bad. The rent’s more than reasonable, our landlord is great, and I’m a seven-minute walk from three different ice cream shops, which is enough variety to ensure that none of the proprietors get a sense of how bad my ice cream habit really is. Plus, I have to admit that the view of downtown Toronto’s peaks and lights that we do get before we have to squeeze past the compost bin and the garbage along the side of the house is pretty stunning.
The move back to Toronto from Fredericton, New Brunswick, where I spent the lion’s share of 2015, was a tough one. Not because it was hard for me to leave the maritimes, mind you—I left behind some great friends, but I’ve never been accused of being sentimental and I don’t have the patience required to find any sort of enjoyment in fishing, so there wasn’t much there for me. If Maine decided to annex the entire province tomorrow, goose-stepping their hip-waders right over the border, I’ll be honest: I wouldn’t be terribly upset.
Instead, what really tore me up about leaving was the fact that I would have to move out of what was easily the swankest apartment I’d ever had the pleasure of living in. It was a wonder: a third floor walk-up above a chiropractor’s office, close enough to the city centre that we could set our watches by the city hall’s hourly bells. Wide windows, a parking spot, laundry, and ceilings so high that even I, as a man who verges on inconveniently tall, couldn’t touch them in most places. It was spacious enough that I would often lose my then-girlfriend, unable to tell if she was home or not without first searching through all the different rooms like I was hunting for the minotaur.
Our only true neighbour, directly beneath us, was a professor of sociology at a local university who shared her space with an ancient housecat. (Her apartment was comically enormous, even compared to ours; it seemed to have been built with Andre the Giant in mind as the future resident. The ceilings were so high and the hallways so wide that she could have driven a Fiat from her bedroom to her kitchen.)
She was entirely lovely, and a wonderful cook besides—she would often leave packages of home-baked goodies outside our front door, wrapped in butcher paper and outfitted with little handmade tags to tell us what was inside. No noise, no arguments over parking or recycling or mail, just little baskets of fresh blueberry cobbler waiting to be opened and eaten every few weeks. Being lucky enough to have lived above her was the next-door neighbour equivalent of having been born a Kardashian.
And since this was New Brunswick, the rent was absurdly low. The apartment was meant to be a two-bedroom, split between two renters, but after seeing the price tag, my ex and I laughed a distinctly lower-Ontarian laugh and just rented the whole thing ourselves. We turned the extra bedroom into an office. It stands as the second-least I’ve ever paid for an apartment over the course of nearly a decade of rentals, after only the cramped, leaky basement in Toronto’s Danforth Village that I am sure was neither up to fire code, nor strictly legal. There, the bathroom was so small that you couldn’t actually sit straight ahead while on the toilet (you had to resort to a sort of claustrophobic, diagonal configuration), and if my partner and I wanted to have people over, we had to flip our bed on its side to get any sort of space in which people could sit. In its defence, I’m sure the place would have been perfectly charming and comfortable were you, say, a child or a hamster.
The first place I ever lived outside of my childhood home was a three-story campus townhouse, lodged deep into Toronto’s eastern suburbs, and just on the cusp of being able to be accurately described as “crumbling.” I was freshly nineteen, starting a degree at the University of Toronto at Scarborough. There were six of us living there, split up into two shared bedrooms and two individual bedrooms, with one shower and two bathrooms between us. Knowing what I know now, the thought of tossing six nineteen year-old men into a place with a single shower and no real adult supervision seems like a great way for someone to choke to death on their own vomit. Back then, it seemed like fun.
We were all strangers when we arrived, and what started as a friendly dynamic devolved into animosity before long. There were the obvious annoyances—dirty dishes drawing flies in the sink, noisy houseguests the night before the rest of us had exams—and there were things that I’d never expected when I aged into adulthood: theft, the recreational use of horse tranquilizers, the all-permeating stink of microwaved french onion soups.
It was that first move that showed me the darker side of other people and their habits (no, “darker” isn’t quite the right word—“cruddier,” maybe). I had been under the impression that other people didn’t wear unmatched socks, or leave their coats hanging on the backs of chairs. Other people, past about the age where they learned to walk, kept their living spaces tidy the way expensive hotels are tidy: so meticulous, they almost seem like places in which a person might enjoy themselves. This, at least, was what I had inferred from years of Sunday chores.
As it turned out, a housing complex full of almost-adults was far more concerned with drinking alcohol and subsequently acquiring more alcohol than they were with ironing. Coats were kept on anything that would keep them off the floor (and in the absence of that, the floor). Socks were optional. If the residence maintenance lady wasn’t threatening to make you pay to replace the carpets, you could probably put off cleaning for another few days.
And it wasn’t just the blatant disregard for cleanliness—it quickly became obvious that many of us were perhaps not quite ready to live on our own, let alone with other people. I stopped a young woman next door to us from cleaning a plate with Windex, which she argued kept the dishes quite shiny. We started having strategy meetings on how to deal with another neighbour who loved to visit, but didn’t seem ever to have learned how to close doors behind herself—we had already seen her have to chase a racoon out of her living room after it had assumed that the gaping front door was a dinner invitation, and we weren’t keen on having to do that ourselves.
I remember coming home late one night, walking up the stairs to my room around one in the morning, and finding my housemate Jim’s door sitting open, the music from his computer blaring as he played a round of Starcraft. The music didn’t bother me, mind you—since I had lucked out in getting a single room, I wouldn’t have been able to hear it anyway—but his room was shared with another man, and Jim’s desk was only about eight feet away from David’s bed.
When I asked him if it wasn’t a bit late to be playing music with his roommate trying to sleep, he laughed.
“No,” he assured me, “David doesn’t mind.”
I poked my head into the room. It was dark, but I got the distinct impression that beneath David’s covers, he was pressing his pillow over his ears. Jim didn’t seem to understand why he elected to move out after only three months, but none of the rest of us were surprised.
After that too-long year, I vowed never again to live with strangers. And from there, my rental aptitude has only gotten more honed. I’ve picked up plenty of helpful tips over the course of my various apartments; made enough questionable choices with regard to living spaces that I’ve achieved a status as kind of an idiot savant/rental guru. If a bad decision can be made regarding rentals, I have probably at least considered making it.
I once rented a bedroom so tiny that it was literally smaller than a walk-in closet, barely able to lie down straight without touching walls on either end; I once lived in a converted dining room in order to save 50 dollars on my monthly rent—although given that “converted” just meant that the landlords had nailed plywood over the entrance to the living room, people routinely questioned my decision-making abilities. I found it tolerable if I pinned a poster over the boards.
When friends ask me for advice, I try to tell them things they won’t hear anywhere else. Anyone can give you tips on how best to clean your fridge, or how to avoid rooming with a sociopath. Instead, I give them hard-earned pearls of wisdom like:
“It doesn’t matter how cheap the rent is, make sure your bedroom actually has a door on it before you move in.”
“Sometimes, the thermostat is in the place you least expect it. This could be an issue once you hit about mid-January—your housemates may complain that they can’t stop shivering. Make sure you haven’t been using it to hang your bath towel on.”
“If your landlords start touring your house to prospective future tenants at random, you have the legal right to twenty-four hours’ notice. And if you’re not comfortable putting your foot down about that, at least lock your bedroom door. (If you have one.)”
Some days, when I’m feeling especially reflective, I try to imagine every person who’s moving that month. I imagine thousands of us across the entire planet playing musical chairs with our homes, packing and sweating and lugging recliners up stairways. How many paid in pizza, I wonder, how many paid in beer? How many people spent an entire afternoon trying to maneuver a hide-a-bed through a low doorway, and of those, how many just gave up and bought new, more compact furniture?
My parents, in their well-intentioned way, tried to talk to me about mortgages last week. Think about how much money you’re spending on rent in the long-term, they told me. It’s something to consider. And surely, the idea of being a perpetual urban nomad, cardboard boxes slung under tired arms every few years like clockwork, can’t possibly be appealing?
Valid points. And it would be nice to hang up my hat and keep it there, one day. But especially if I plan on staying in Toronto, the plan isn’t yet viable. I’ve hardly got enough money to buy a parking space in this city, let alone make the down payment on a house. And I kind of like the way that moving keeps my belongings pared down and simple—it doesn’t pay to collect clutter when you’re just going to have to box it up and lug it around all the time.
For now, I think I’ll just stick with my lovely view—or at least my LovelyView. There’s a bench in the park, and once it’s warm again I’m going to head out there and take a minute to appreciate it a little. I won’t be here forever, so I may as well enjoy it while I can.