The landlord opens the door to a tiny room. It radiates the possibility that I have been wrong about everything.
Every decision in my life has led me to this point, and I can't believe what it looks like: The space is 10 feet by 9 feet 3 inches. This living room/dining room/office/bedroom/closet is 175 square feet total, according to my calculations.
A standard window lets in light, but it has a view of a wall, just waves of corrugated steel. A doorway leads to a small galley kitchen, where there's a full-size fridge, a four-burner gas stove, and a sink with a mirrored medicine cabinet above it. I catch my own face in the mirror. I have a hard time looking at myself, here, in an apartment this teensy, at age 34. If I take this place, that mirror is going to have to come down.
What I'm most worried about are the shared toilet and shower. Three other tenants have access to them. The shower turns out to have hexagonal tiles and a curtain pinking with mold, much like any other old house. The toilet, with a separate entrance off the hallway, sits in a closet the size of an outhouse, so small that you can rest your head on the door from a seated position—or at least that's what I surmise from the paint layers worn away there. A painting of flowers above the toilet only draws your eye to the ceiling, or what used to be the ceiling. Maybe it rotted away. The wallpaper flaps open under dark beams dripping with cobwebs, giving this closet with a toilet a murdery ambience.
It's not the best. But it's not the worst. The living room/dining room/office/bedroom/closet isn't bad. The bathroom could certainly use improvements. I wonder what my friends would think.
It will cost me $795 per month to rent this human diorama, utilities included.
When I ask if I can think about it overnight, the landlord tells me about the girl seeing it later today. "She really wants this place," he says.
When I first moved to Seattle seven years ago, I had just come back from serving in the Peace Corps. Seattle rents were low in 2011, and I landed a two-bedroom apartment with a dining room and living room, for me and someone else to live in, for $1,275 a month.
That apartment was 1,100 square feet. We had a 10-by-10-foot sectional couch, a door on two crates that we used as a coffee table, a piano we got from a neighbor on which I tried to play "La Bamba," and a deer head in a blond wig staring out the huge front window. We also had a fog machine, a porch with a fire pit, and plenty of room for friends to pass out if they got too wasted to go home. That place felt palatial, but it was too good to be true. One day, then another day a year later, then another the next year, the landlord slipped letter-sized pieces of paper on the floor, upside down, to tells us the rent was increasing. Our rent nearly doubled over those five years, to $2,000 in 2016.
An uncle who'd died of cancer left me a gift that was enough to buy some plane tickets to South America, so I decided not to sign a new lease when I left the two-bedroom, and instead to do some traveling. I'd always wanted to live a life of writing and seeing the world, and here was my chance. I did my work on the road. I interviewed sources in New York from a backyard in Colombia, muting my phone when the donkey's braying echoed in the hills. I finished a draft of a book. I hiked four days on the Inca Trail. I cranked out paid blog posts in hostels. I cracked up taxi drivers in Spanish. I wrote every day.
Afterward, I returned to Seattle, even though so many people who'd taught me how to live in the city had moved somewhere else: an artist and musician to Tacoma, a poet to California. After changing towns so often in my 20s, I wanted to sink roots into the place I felt I could most be myself. I didn't consider that the soil might erode away, leaving my newly planted roots wind-exposed and searching again for something solid to fit into.
I kept remembering how, several years ago, I was bragging at a party that I could be fine living in a tiny place because I'd lived in 250 square feet in the Peace Corps. As someone who's pinned 300 "cabin porn" pics to a Pinterest board called "Tiny House Obsession," and spent two rental weekends proving I could live in one, it felt like the universe was calling my bluff.
Before seeing the tiny apartment, I had been looking at regular-sized studio apartments on Capitol Hill, which seemed to average $1,700 a month. I searched Craigslist for better deals, somewhere I could live on a writer's budget, but Craigslist told me there were no results for that search. I wanted to live on Capitol Hill because I wanted to be close to Hugo House, the writing center around which my career and social life are built. I created an ad in the Rooms Wanted section, selling myself as a potential roommate. In response, a couple invited me to be their live-in girlfriend at a lake house, "rent-free." A grandpa wrote to me about the wonderful trails and views I would have if I joined a poly family at his place. One e-mail read only: "I want to date you = $$$$$."
I considered living in a bell tower in Snohomish. Bet I could get some work done there. I considered a place with 11 roommates near Volunteer Park. Other rooms within my price range came with offers to help me get sober today. I'm soberish, thank you very much. When I didn't find anything right in Rooms/Shared, or even in Sublets/Temporary, I searched again in Apts/Housing, and one day the tiny place popped up.
It just so happened that the landlord was friends with a mutual friend, so I had an in. And when I looked at the place and asked if I could think about it overnight, he let me. I was not renting the apartment itself, I kept thinking. I was renting access to everything around it: the five-minute walk to Elliott Bay Book Company, the two-block walk to Broadway, the one-block walk to Cal Anderson Park.
I gave over my deposit, signed a nine-month lease, and got a blue key with a hibiscus on it. Shortly after I moved in, early summer, during Pride Weekend, I found myself within earshot of a drag rendition of The Little Mermaid's "Part of Your World" on Broadway and Harrison. That was my first clue that I had made the right decision.
I didn't really have time to think about whether I was going to be okay in a place this small. I had to move in. I measured the space and drew out a map in Adobe InDesign, finagling the details of a living room with no wall space uninterrupted for more than seven feet. I declined a free piano. Maybe I could learn "La Bamba" on the ukulele.
At Goodwill, I scored a table with two drop leaves for $14. I helped fund Amazon's takeover of the world by ordering a felt-covered yoga ball that could also serve as a chair and ottoman, a standup cabinet to squeeze next to the fridge, and a square pillow with a velvet slipcover that could be a couch pillow by day and a bed pillow by night.
When I asked the internet how to sleep in my living room with dignity, it told me it found a loft bed that my (nonexistent) child would just love. While looking around, I also found the same bunk bed I had when I was 10 and the same futon I used in high school. Something about what I slept on felt like it was going to be the deciding factor in whether or not I'd become that crazy aunt that even the children can tell is not okay.
IKEA has a modular couch with a trundle that slides straight out. They call it the Vallentuna. I borrowed a friend's SUV and headed into the belly of the blue beast at 10 a.m. on a Tuesday. I found a single section of the Vallentuna and stared down at it. Next to me, on another couch, a couple sat holding their baby, bouncing lightly, speaking a language I didn't understand.
I slid out the slats. I flopped over the cushion. There was nothing left to do but lie down in IKEA and think about what I'd done. Two facts fought for supremacy in my head:
1. Billions of people don't even have beds.
2. All my friends have beds.
The couple next to me spoke in low tones. "Oh, that's so sad," they probably said about me, holding their baby a little tighter. "I hope she's getting sober."
Rolling to one side, I thought: It's actually not so bad. It's about as thick as the mattress I slept on for two years in the Peace Corps, and, if I bought two sections, I could make it as wide. It wasn't the best, but it wasn't the worst.
When I got home, the rug I bought unfurled in all its 8-by-10-foot wonder, or at least it almost did, stopping at foot nine, where the corner lapped at the radiator with a tongue that had nowhere to go.
I decorated the apartment, such as it was, with the tokens of my travels, including a watercolor of Machu Picchu, to remind future guests that even though you can't fit a Mini Cooper in my apartment, at least I've seen a llama.
That first Saturday in the new place, I ran around to garage sales. At one, wisteria fell like confetti over a driveway and porch flanked by columns. Lake Washington glistened through the craftsman house's windows. I imagined a woman I could have been—an alternate version of myself, a person who took the corporate path—walking out of the house wearing a suit and heels. She beeped open her Mercedes and drove away.
I asked the dad how much for the folding chairs. I bought two for $10.
"These will be great," I said. "I moved into a place that's 175 square feet."
"Whoa," he said. "Is it one of those pods?"
"Oh god, no," I say.
Even though most people assume I live in an Apodment, my building predates that housing trend. It used to be a duplex, but all the old rooms and walls have since been remodeled to make tiny apartments with shared bathrooms.
Garage sale dad accompanied me to my car, carrying his old wine glasses and a microwave. In the street, my 1996 Nissan looked bird shit splattered and dusty. "I just got back from a three-month trip to South America," I said, to make myself feel better.
Back home, I bumped into a van while parking. A man got out and asked me to be careful if I ever park behind him again. "Sorry," I said.
"It's no problem," he said. He got back in the van but didn't go anywhere. It occurred to me he might be in an even worse housing situation than I was. I suddenly felt grateful I had any bathroom at all.
In my new apartment, if I fold the bed up and the table out, it's not a bedroom anymore, it's a dining room. If I fold the bed down and lie on the couch, it's not a bedroom anymore, it's my living room. It's like RoboHouse.
In any case, I'm not home a lot. I'm out weaving myself into the city. Or I'm going to Beacon Hill to visit friends who have no reason to pay the prices on Capitol Hill. Or I'm going to Tacoma to visit that friend who got priced out of Seattle entirely.
"Eight hundred dollars and you don't even get your own bathroom?" my Tacoma friend says, as we enjoy the couch on her porch. "That's crazy."
She could be right. When someone says something like this, the panic rises up inside, a warning that unless I do something different soon, I'll never have a place with a backyard and a wide-open dining room. I'll never have a garage with a car made in this decade. I will probably never have the money for a normal house, not in the city where I want to live, and definitely not in the neighborhood where I want to be.
It's so hard to tell what is worth what. Seattle's changes are turning it from an and kind of place to an or kind of place. You can be an artist or you can have your own bathroom.
I chat about it with my neighbors. One of them, Bill, sits with me while I borrow his vacuum. He used to live in my apartment. It was the first place he had after he was homeless in New York, and, yes, getting sober. It took him a month to find a place, and he's doing great now, working as a stagehand and practicing Buddhism.
"To encounter something where I could afford it and be on my own—I just felt like I was getting blessed, so to speak," he says. "I just feel for the people who can't find anything."
Chris, across the hall, an observer scientist on fishing vessels, is gone for months at a time and simply needs a crash pad. His place is mostly taken up by a bed and band posters. He tells me on the stoop about being on a plane recently watching the free shows, one of which was Tiny House Hunters. As a couple moved into a tiny house, he thought: I don't know if I could do that.
"Then I thought, Wait. I live in a tiny ass place," he says.
Like me, he used to live in a nice two-bedroom, with a view, but the rent just kept going up and up. He ended up here because he wanted a place that was a quick walk to his buddies' places and near a park.
"After I got everything settled in and figured out, I was actually pretty stoked with the spot. I don't have to worry about clearing rent," he says. "Over the last two years, I've realized that being comfortable financially makes me a lot more relaxed."
The luxuries of this place, I have come to realize, are invisible. I saved $800 last month and paid my health insurance a month ahead. True, if my sink fills up with dirty dishes, I don't have anywhere to spit my toothpaste. But I can snack in the fridge while I blow-dry my hair. And if I want to pretty up the bathroom, no one's stopping me. I hung curtains to cover that weird ceiling above the toilet, and the murdery ambience went away almost entirely.
When I remeasured for my next rug, I realized I'm actually living in 157 square feet. Yes, it's tiny. No one can see, though, the wide-open schedule I can now afford. I have time for my writing work in a way I never had before. I also have time to take care of my health—time to cook, time to exercise—along with space in my budget for adventures.
Sometimes I think about hospice stories I've heard of dying people confessing over and over that they regret working too much, letting their friendships slip away, and living for other people, worrying too much about what others think—not living for themselves. I remember seeing all my dad's things in our house the hour after he died. I was 17 years old, and suddenly none of his stuff meant anything. It was just stuff.
People might walk into my place and say, "Is this all there is?" But I don't ask that about my life.
The first writer I invited over made fun of the hallway smell and the bathroom, and then said, "But seriously, I could be very happy here."
I find that every day, when I wake up to no alarm and report to no boss, and in some way, every day, make art around people I like, I can be very happy here, too.