As college kids head back to school, it’s time to consider the joys and horrors of sharing your living space.
Roommates are the people who see us at our worst (our best, too, but that’s way more rare): our drunkest, groggiest, and sloppiest; our most stressed and psychotic. And usually, unfortunately, vice-versa.
In 2017, almost 32 percent of Americans lived in a shared household; most of them between the ages of 18 and 24. The college years are the prime roommate years, but, as Allie Volpe wrote in The Atlantic recently, since the Great Recession high housing prices and other factors seem to be keeping more younger people in group living arrangements during their 20s. And as the trend persists, people have started to look deeper into the “strange, unique intimacy of roommate relationships”—an arrangement “can be anywhere from harmonious to downright hostile.”
The piece struck a chord with us here at CityLab—particularly the part where an ex-roommate took to Twitter to complain publicly about their living arrangements. So we decided to do the same, and share a few roommate-related experiences with the world, from both the harmonious and the hostile end of the spectrum. Four such stories follow below; many other staffers shared not-for-publication contributions from their roommate years that were privately amazing but are unsharable here, for fear of burning bridges or being slapped with libel suits.
We also put out a call to you, the CityLab reader, for your best and worst roommate stories. So far, you’ve come through with a few shocking ones. One roommate peed in a sock drawer; another, exclusively in plastic bottles, all year. (“Then he went home and we had to pour them all out.”) One lived on a 36-hour daily cycle. One left a human placenta in an uncleaned food processor.
You live and you learn! And hopefully, you move out unscathed. As new collegians meet their freshman-year roommates this week, consider yourselves warned. And drop us a line at email@example.com and tell us what you love, hate, or just find astonishing about splitting the rent with other people.
Jackie Is a Punk
When our roommate Jackie (not her real name) demanded that we ask for her permission to turn on the ’90s-era TV in our living room, the other girls and I realized what we’d gotten ourselves into. The TV belongs to her old roommate, she said, and God forbid we jam the buttons with our grubby fingers. We were locked into a contract and for the sake of keeping peace, we humored her and her demands. We were, after all, three against one.
Jackie had one year of college left, but she would not be leaving our apartment without a fight. Her weapons of choice were passive aggressiveness and the fact that she worked for the campus housing department, which allowed her to throw sometimes non-existent rules in our faces. Electricity out in your room? Well, only she’s allowed to touch the fuse box, and too bad, she’s out with her friends right now. Entertaining friends? Oh look, she just got a noise complaint from our neighbors. And is that my toaster you’re using, she’d quip as we made breakfast.
She often invited her boyfriend over, which was fine until the overwhelming smell of garlic permeated the air at 2 a.m., waking us up to the drunken cries of Jersey Shore’s Snooki blasting from the TV—you know, the one we’re not allowed to touch. Jackie taunted us with the idea of staying in school for an extra year, making it impossible for one of our friends to take her spot in the apartment.
Relief eventually came in the form of summer vacation, but once the countdown to the new school year began, we braced ourselves. What we came back to was a shock. The kitchen cabinets were all empty, as were the living room and Jackie’s bedroom. Like a thief in the night, she’d packed up her things and left. For good. Without a final goodbye or a note.
She did leave one thing behind—that damn TV, free for us to turn on whenever our hearts desired.
When three people cram into a roughly-100-square-foot room, the results aren’t always great. The fruit fly infestation began within a week. Their small, zig-zagging swarms would erupt into the hallway whenever we opened the door, and sleeping became impossible. So one of my roommates and I embarked on a deep clean. Surely, the flies couldn’t survive without sufficient food sources.
We scrubbed and tossed away open food containers, but to no avail—the fruit flies remained. So we took a more investigative approach, and after searching through our other roommate’s private affairs, found the creatures’ food source. I opened our roommate’s sock drawer and a dense black cloud of fruit flies erupted. Inside the drawer: a row of half-consumed 7/11 Slurpees.
This turned out to be the beginning of a series of beverage-related problems. At first, we were excited when this same roommate learned to home-brew drip coffee. Things turned sour when he started to buy whole coffee beans and hand-grind them in the room. My life became a constant cacophony of churning gears and ground coffee beans. I’d awake at 6 a.m. to the crunching turns. I’d be kept up near midnight to the same sound. I’d wonder if he’d simply gone on grinding coffee all night. Wouldn’t his arm get tired? The heavy breathing and squirmish grunts that accompanied the grinding sign answered: yes.
It was a Catch-22: Say something, and the flow of delicious free coffee could end. Say nothing, and I might never sleep easily again. (Luckily the caffeine helped with the lack of sleep.)
Eventually, though, I moved out.
The House Wins
I got lucky: the smallest bedroom on a stately three-story Victorian rowhouse that, despite suffering neglect under several generations of student renters, had maintained much of its original grandeur. Six of us—four seniors and two sophomores in that first year—enjoyed a lovely oak staircase, a kitchen with an ornate pressed-tin ceiling, and leaded-glass French doors leading to a tidy parlor that we filled with a decorative wall of Piels beer cans.
I liked that house so much I stayed in it for three years, with three different sets of housemates. Conditions varied; there were periods of extreme squalor punctuated by home-improvement binges. We repainted rooms in weird colors and, most ambitiously, hauled off hundreds of pounds of rubble so we could turn the basement into a basement bar we called the Blue Grotto. Not infrequently, intra-housemate relations were exquisitely tense, fueled by romantic entanglements, youthful idiocies, and intoxicants. (Memorably, the pair of then-pals who shared the third floor had an enormous fight on the first week of classes, and then somehow went the whole rest of the year without speaking to each other.) But I definitely picked up more educational experiences from this assortment of characters than I was getting from my more formal academic instruction.
It’s also possible that, when these ex-roomies recall their own co-habitation horror stories, they’ll remember me as the bad roommate. I was certainly among the dumbest, at least initially. Decades later, it’s painful to wrap one’s middle-aged mind around just how surpassingly stupid one can be at 19 or 20. I recall one older housemate patiently demonstrating to me how to wash a fucking dish. Like, you have to put the soap on the sponge first. (In the suburbs, we had dishwashers, and moms.) I’d also never paid a gas bill, fixed a finicky toilet or a broken boiler, installed a washing machine, or explained to a flustered neighbor why people were watching Batman and drinking tequila in a makeshift tent on the front lawn in middle of the night. By the time I graduated, I could do all these things, and many more.
Even when they hit weird nadirs—like when we insisted on subdividing the fridge into eight exactly equal territories (note: refrigerators do not work like this) or when a Halloween party stunt gone wrong rendered every surface sticky for the next 6 months, the interpersonal dynamics involved in running a household of semi-adults never failed to fascinate. Best of all, it was a life-shaping introduction into being an urbanite: We students shared a lively city neighborhood that was populated in part by real people, with jobs and kids. In their tolerance for our tomfoolery, I received a useful early lesson in the principles of community building.
Not long ago, when I’d moved back to the city of my college years and was looking for a house to buy, the old place came up for sale. I had to check it out. The place looked largely the same as it did when I plopped my mattress on the back-room floor in 1987; briefly, I contemplated buying it, and installing my own children in the bedrooms where, a lifetime ago, teenage Dad indulged in some questionable behavior. Nope. Way too weird.
But I hope whoever’s in there now is enjoying the experience as much as I did.
Tree House of Horror
It’s been more than 45 days, and I still haven’t gotten my security deposit back from the house I used to live in. While this is a large financial trauma, it is, remarkably, only the latest in a series of owns this house has served me: First there was the life-sized, pixelated, immovable cow portrait that loomed over the living room couch, and then the landlord with a movie-villain name who’d been described in online reviews (found only after signing a 12-month lease) as “verbally abusive,” lurking in the basement. The house itself was gorgeous and conveniently located. But because of said perks, I willingly signed up for the most bizarre caveat of all: instead of paying for one of the five real rooms, I agreed to share a sort of lofted chamber with a friend from college.
Our first month there, we deconstructed a bunk-bed (Yes bunk beds. We are both in our 20s and are not sisters.) into two twins, set up a couple of wooden, slatted dividers (with only one rung conspicuously missing) between them, and mounted a mobile hanging rack covered in a white tarp that we called our “Safari Tent.” We had no closet, and we certainly did not have even one wall, but we did have a ton of natural light. And each other. Constantly.
I’m not sure what we expected. I guess “lofted bedroom” sounded fun and airy—like living in a tree house! With your adult friend! Here’s what it actually meant: the smell of midnight meat snacks cooking downstairs wafting up; the sounds of cries of sorrow or … joy carrying over from neighboring rooms; once-lazy Sunday mornings punctured by the blending of an extremely dense smoothie. Knowing how late for work the other is going to be, accidentally sharing identical socks kicked under the dresser, sad-napping with a (caring, captive) audience on the other side of the slats. For 10 months!
Here is one thing that also happens: if you don’t kill or seriously damage each other, you become as close as adult friends can be.
We both recently moved into a three-bedroom apartment down the street. Now that we both have our own rooms, and eight walls between us, I find I emerge from behind them less. That’s okay. A dream come true, even, to have real personal space! But still, sometimes I missed the special sort of forced proximity.
A few weeks ago, we received a final message from our landlord—not a direct deposit, unfortunately, but a WhatsApp of doom.
“FYI,” she wrote, “the two twin beds had bed bugs.”