I must credit yesterday’s Wall Street Journal article, “A Program for Poor-aholics,” (who can join Underearners Anonymous) as inspiration for today’s blog post.
My name is Sherry Wolf and I am a rent-aholic. It all began when I left my parents’ rent-free house at 18 and headed for college. I’ve been unable to break the habit of paying rent—every month—ever since.
For 27 years I have suffered this affliction. My habit has gotten so bad that I no longer try to hide it from others and openly flaunt my monthly addiction, even when the cost has come at great sacrifice to myself and others and I have had to make life-altering changes to accommodate my rent-aholism.
I have lowered my standards. Once, long ago, I lived in a house that my parents owned with a backyard and bar-b-q. It had three bathrooms, two with showers, and there was not only a full-size laundry machine and dryer, but even what we used to call in the 1970s, a rec room, with a bar and sectional couch that could seat 27 comfortably. It had shag carpeting and two exquisite Paul Klee reproductions painted right onto the paneled walls—my mother was a visionary.
Today, I pay a small fortune to live in less than 400 square feet in Brooklyn. My kitchen dates back to the Ford administration. It has no drawer for silverware, so I am reduced to keeping my grandparents 1939 silver flatware out on a formica shelf, making it appear as though I am fallen aristocracy—though I come from peasant stock.
Unless I open the fridge just right, the door hits the couch. Fewer than one person can cook in the kitchen at any given time, and all is lost if the dog tries to enter. Needless to say, there is no laundry machine or dryer and my closet isn’t deep enough to hang shirts. My office is just wide enough for a desk, but not quite wide enough to pull out books from two cases opposite each other at the same time.
Perhaps my college dormroom served as a gateway drug to rent-aholism. Bunk beds were sweet at first, I could even treasure the mini-fridge, but a group bathroom down the hallway left me wanting more serious space. From there, it was a three-person share and then I progressed to renting with this or that partner of the moment.
By the time I moved into the East Village on my own in the late 1980s, I was pretty far gone. I’d signed a lease on a studio by Tompkins Square Park near the Russian and Turkish Baths, what grampa called the schvitz. I would rent anything clean and rat-free, so long as they’d let me live there in peace. I was sliding down a path of inflated rents for cramped spaces.
Now here I am in Brooklyn, unable to fight the monthly drive to pay the rent, month after month. I’m starting to justify my habit with silly excuses like a professed need for warmth in winter and a place to store my clothes, TV and the pooch. Even though I can actually stand smack in the center of my apartment—beneath my skylight—and see everything I own without craning my neck, I say it’s fine because it takes no time to clean.
Is there hope? Are there others out there like me? Is there a Rent-aholics Anonymous for people like us?
All jokes aside, I find yesterday’s WSJ piece to be crassly indifferent to the actual conditions that tens of millions now face. My hope is that the underemployed, the unemployed and the underpaid—which is to say, most people today—can come together to challenge the status quo. The fact that a serious newspaper would treat low-wage employment as if it were a choice is just another sign of the class divide in this nation and the delusional realm inhabited by a layer of obscenely wealthy and vacuous people.
As my dear friend Annie Zirin commented on that article, the only organization those underearners need is a union.