Saturday, June 9, 2012

On Roommates

I've lived with many people over the years.  I think about 30.  There were a few housefuls of friends in the mix, and many more pairings.  I think everyone should spend a year or two in a crowded house with people you loved at the start of it all.  It's a valuable learning experience to discover your own needs and desires.  I also think everyone should live completely alone for a year or two.  Then you can find out what messes likely were yours after all.

One of my favourite houses was a place I lived in the summer of '84.  I had been living in a cockroach-infested apartment with a friend, and we got evicted for having a party.  We wouldn't have been, but the landlord lived in the basement apartment, and one of our guests made the foolish decision to pee on his window.  And it was open.  They gave me a day to get out - which is illegal - but I left for a friend's couch anyway.  Then, later in the month, five of my buddies and I found a sublet to rent for the summer.  There were holes in the walls, but that was fine by us.  One of the guys wanted the place clean, but we soon convinced him to let loose for maybe the last time.  I turned 19 there.

But I wish I had made some more careful choices.  What I've discovered over the years is that getting along in a cramped living space is about having six specific things in common.

Two things are most important:  tolerance for noise and mess.  This is basic and primary.  The Oscars and Felixes in the world don't just bicker; they full-on fight and someone gets kicked out on the street.  Make sure you know yourself well enough to honestly know your tolerance levels, and then find someone who is similar.  Do you mind death metal at 6:00 a.m. every Sunday?  Is it okay to leave dirty sweat socks on the kitchen table?  Figure out your boundaries before signing on and hope your friends are honest about themselves.  And recognize that people change and shift before your very eyes.  In '84, someone had set up a drum set in the upstairs landing right outside our bedrooms.  People played all night long.  Somehow that wasn't a problem for me back then.  It might have something to do with the level of tequila consumption.

If that's all good, then even better is if you have the same preferences around temperature and food.  Avoiding battles with the thermostat is a nice feature.  But even better is being able to share meals.  It saves money and hassles.  Most people have dominant tastes for types of food.  One friend liked everything to taste like onions and green peppers.  Another couldn't get food spicy enough.  And another hated anything spicy.  I prefer tomatoes, black olives and cilantro on everything.  My kids are all about chicken fingers and hamburgers. I'm still waiting to find someone with a similar taste in food to eat with easily.

Back in the day, my friends and I had dinners together most nights.  We had varying tastes, but we all ate everything.  It's only polite.  In an hour I'm leaving for a cottage for the night.  (I should probably start packing.)  It was suggested I bring lunch, so I offered to grab some cold cuts and kaiser buns and make a Greek salad.  The response from one of the ladies, "I won't eat any of that.  But that's okay.  Don't worry about me."  She later called and told me she got all the lunch stuff.  I'm to just show up.  I can bring some cold cuts if I want.  Having discriminating taste has become an acceptable out for sharing food in our culture.  Curious.

Finally, if all that works out, then a similar morality and level of interaction is useful.  Do you mind if your buddy has a different person sleeping over every weekend?  Every night?  If they make you dinner, will you want to return the favour?  Or would you rather mainly ignore one another?  I had a very good friend that I went out for beers with every other Friday night or so.  He left his wife for another woman (not me), and he needed a place to stay.  I welcomed him happily.  But he expected that we'd have those Friday night conversations all the time.  He had lots he needed to discuss with a friend.  I was a first year teacher and had lots of work to do.  He was put off whenever I shut myself in my room, and he left.  And we never had another Friday night of conversation again.

But then again, sometimes it all doesn't matter.  Sometimes you just tolerate the crap because nothing can override the inconveniences of cohabitation like having people to laugh with at midnight when you've found your best buddies in a sea of people or when the kids finally get in and yammer about the details of their evening - over chicken fingers.

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