“Rupa: we think you’re really awesome and would love for you to sublease the room,” read the first line of the email two Novembers ago, as I rode the Caltrain to San Francisco. Fingers perched on my Blackberry, I refreshed and reread the email three times just to confirm I didn’t imagine it. In my head flashed images of the independent life I craved: my own room, reasonable rent, and an apartment close to my job. I would live with two young women who, from the looks of their Facebook profiles and a few email exchanges, seemed to share similar interests with me.
Such an ideal situation is almost pure fantasy in a city where prospective renters elbow and knee each other to the ground in order to dangle deposit checks in front of landlords.
One month later, I dragged cardboard boxes and a laundry basket into the tiny corner room that was to become my sanctuary. I had visited the apartment twice before, but both visits occurred after work on evenings when the darkness and chill had blocked my sight. It felt like I was seeing the apartment for the first time that January morning I moved in. Walking with tentative steps, I peered at the miscellaneous collection of belongings. In the bathroom, a row of organic shampoos and facial products were lined up along the tub and contrasted with the oversized Pantene Pro-V bottle resting on my bedroom floor. In the family room, sheets of rolling paper were scattered in tiny bowls; I wondered how often they were used. And next to the garbage can sat a small green box with a creaky lid that I later learned was used to collect compost.
The earthy vibrancy of my new Mission District home didn’t surprise me, but I’d be lying if I said my surroundings were familiar. While I had previously lived in four apartments with different sets of roommates, back then our apartment décor and the lifestyles we lived were guided by the money we didn’t have, the exams we needed to cram for, and the household cleaning we frequently neglected. “Living” felt more like surviving, and terms like “organic” contradicted our reality of penny-pitching.
As a child of immigrants, I was taught to buy the generic equivalent to the Bonne Bell Lipsmackers or Fruit Roll Ups that I wanted. Today, more than thirty years after my parents first came to this country, they’ve worked hard and done well, but as a family we still pride ourselves on stretching our pennies whenever we can. That is the mentality of most immigrant families: save always, spend when needed, and indulge in moderation.
My fondness for my new roommates quickly grew. One was a graduate student in anthropology, whose unwavering compassion touched anyone who walked through our apartment door. The other, who I still live with today, radiated effervescence as she nurtured her taste for activism and positive energy.
What my roommates decided to purchase was often rooted in preference, wellness, and consumer responsibility. One was willing to pay a little extra for studio yoga classes, the other for a weekly home-delivered box of organic produce. In no way were my roommates extravagant; they were just not as fixated on stubborn cost analysis. By contrast, I thrived on collecting dirt-cheap produce at the local tienda, two-for-one Groupon deals, and taking free exercise classes at the cheap gym I was a member of.
At first it was challenging to navigate the space between my roommates’ choices and mine. When window cleaner and toilet paper were needed, I fretted over whether to spend more and purchase green products like my roommates would, or whether to save a few bucks with a trusty bottle of Windex instead. To be environmentally conscious or to be a thrifty saver? What choice holds more value to me?
After working a number of unpaid internships and a part-time job in college that paid seven dollars an hour, the decision of five dollars versus one on a household cleaner felt significant. As young professionals, we transition into adulthood with newfound salary checks churning into our bank accounts. Suddenly we have the purchasing power to spend money in a way we couldn’t afford in college. What is fifty dollars? A new blazer? A round of drinks? A sack of organic produce? We are given no rulebook for how to adjust to salaried lifestyles; these are lessons we must learn ourselves.
I let go of some of my anxiety over money when we decided to convert our small backroom into a makeshift extra bedroom early last year. With a new bedroom came a new roommate and proportionally lower rent for all of us, and ever since, a string of warm-hearted new roommates have rotated through our apartment like musical chairs.
The first new roommate was a sweet, charismatic Latina who found her way to the Bay Area in refuge from the conservative South. Sharing tales of a turbulent yet triumphant journey before landing at our doorstep, she sprinkled conversations with drops of street-smart wisdom that couldn’t be learned in books. Our dimple-faced roommate nourished her hair with coconut oil (a home remedy my mom urged me to practice for years, but one I resisted until last year) and fired up delectable soups and salsa with a mere handful of chilis, onions, tomatoes, and cilantro. Watching her lifestyle, I realized I could easily forgo the contemplation of what to spend my to spend my money on by exploring home remedies and homemade cooking. Instead of eating out or purchasing pricey cosmetics, I started making facial masks with avocado and yogurt and gourmet spreads like pesto and hummus with a food processor.
Next, a petite young woman with a knack for beautiful oratory moved in last fall and we became close friends by chatting through the paper-thin wall that separated our rooms. Her openness nudged me to become more comfortable expressing my feelings aloud. She was an artist and a yoga instructor, and I got to see how deeply committed she was to her students. Living with a teacher guided me to swap my tendency to seek free instruction and services for more meaningful learning experiences, like paying up for writing workshops and dance classes.
Over the months, three more roommates fluttered in and out of our apartment like maple leaves on a windy day: a handsome blond graduate student, a charming young man from Berkeley, and a tattooed chatty artist.
And then there’s the potpourri of roommates’ friends who have crashed on our floor: some hailing from privileged upbringings, others healing from drug and crime-ridden adolescences.
Whenever a roommate moved out of the apartment, lingering behind was the subtle aroma of whatever choices and mantras he or she stood for during the months spent living in our apartment. One roommate might spend a hundred dollars towards preparing a festive meal for friends, while another might spend that money on a pair of designer sunglasses. Living with so many roommates over the past two years has allowed me to understand there is value in both choices—neither one is universally “better.” I’m less judgmental, more tolerant, and I appreciate living in a space where different perspectives intersect.
These days I don’t go to bed feeling guilty for spending more today than when I first entered this apartment door. While I save every month and keep track of where my dollars go, I’m willing to spend a little extra on things like vitamins, bhangra classes, and green laundry detergent; there is more value in prioritizing wellness over the buzz of purchasing whatever is on sale.
When I wake up in the mornings, every once in a while I stumble upon a small cluster of my roommates’ friends sprawled out on our worn-in family room floor. Sleeping peacefully with tattered blankets bunched at their feet, they are dreamers and doers, and they are beautifully unique individuals who, along with myriad of my past and present roommates, have helped me see life in shades other than the green of the dollar bill. n
Rupa Dev works for New America Media and lives in San Francisco. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org