Seeking roommate for one-bedroom in Washington Heights. It’s a bit small for two but I have to catch up on some bills. Two friendly cats, but we keep clean because I’m a little allergic myself. A little more than half of the $950 rent gets you the privacy of the bedroom.
It was August 2003. I’d only recently found work, nearly a year after losing my job organizing school tours at an art museum, and my fiancée had just moved out of our apartment. It was a small, sunny place on the fourth floor of an old building, high enough on a hill that you could even see a little of New Jersey from the right angle.
We’d moved up there when she landed a medical residency at Columbia University Medical Center, but we’d split six months before the wedding. Without a job, I’d run up a ton of debt, and I urgently needed extra income to make rent, so I figured I’d lease out my bedroom and crash in the living room. I tried to pretend it was darkly funny, but really it just felt pathetic.
I got a flood of responses. A panicking female college student from the Midwest offered three months’ rent sight unseen, but she couldn’t meet me in person. An asshole with the e-mail handle of “elitist1” got impatient when I didn’t answer his questions fast enough. I fell for a blue-eyed, tongue-pierced vegan the moment I opened the door to her, but she wasn’t interested in the room, or me.
John “Don” Williams was enthusiastic about the apartment, at least. A middle-aged ghostwriter from California who’d lived all over, he turned up at my door in cargo pants and long sleeves despite the summer heat and talked with a slight southern drawl. He was punctual, which I liked. And he greeted my two cats warmly, which I also liked. “I’ve looked at a lot of apartments, and this is definitely the best arrangement I’ve seen,” he said. I was flattered, though he must have seen some real squalor. We played with the cats and chatted about pets. The two of us—a ghostwriter and an aspiring art critic—could compare notes on the writing life, we agreed. He moved in on August 21.
At first Don struck me as the perfect roommate. He was uncommonly neat and clean. To keep cat hair from coming into his room, he rolled up a towel and push-pinned it to the bottom of the door. He was often out, and when home, he stayed in his room without a peep for hours on end. Sometimes he would emerge from his room when I had imagined myself alone in the apartment and had been blasting music, talking on the phone, or listening to public radio while cooking dinner. He hardly ever had guests and was frequently gone for days at a time. I wasn’t thrilled with his unannounced comings and goings, but I let it go.
If anything, Don seemed boring, either putting his head down or making dull small talk as he passed through the living room. When he did speak, it was mainly to praise the beautiful women of New York. He had female guests a couple of times and alluded to several girlfriends. Despite a ring on his finger, he wasn’t married, and in fact, “the ring doesn’t seem to discourage women who are interested,” he said. I hadn’t dated in a while, I mentioned, but there were some situations I hoped might develop into something. “But it’s like film,” he advised. “It isn’t going to develop unless you bring it into the store to get developed.”
Four months into Don’s stay, with cash coming in on time each month, all was going smoothly enough, until the morning of December 13, when I got home after a long night out to find his room in total chaos. It had been ransacked. His clothes, toiletries, and magazines were strewn about the bed and floors. The closet door hung from one hinge off a busted frame. His locked red Swiss Army luggage lay slashed open on the floor, the cats sleeping happily among the jumbled contents. My stuff was untouched, but I was horrified.
I called 911, but the cops were useless. “Talk to your roommate about it when you see him,” they said.
Who knew when that might be? At this point, I hadn’t seen Don for well over a month. In mid-November, I’d e-mailed to ask whether he’d be back anytime soon. Had he taken the business trip to London that he’d mentioned? No, he replied. His younger sister had been in a car accident, and he was in Seattle visiting her. I hadn’t heard from him since. I e-mailed him repeatedly and got no answer.