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The Sublet

Who among us, besides the filthy rich inhabitants of the Hudson Tea Building, hasn't dealt with a sublet at some point in his or her Hoboken existence? Maybe you've had to find a room for yourself, maybe you've had to rent one out, or maybe you've helped a friend do one of those things; any way you slice it, subletting is as much a Hoboken institution as those really big brownies at Bagels on the Hudson. What follows should serve as a cautionary tale for anyone about to join the ranks of sub-leasers or sub-leasees.

September 16. It’s a night I’ll never forget. Wait... make that September 17. I think. Whichever one was a Friday.

It was on that fateful evening that one of my two roommates, a girl who insisted on being called Joyce but whom I always referred to as "the one with the big room", interrupted my viewing of a particularly titillating episode of Washington Week in Review with the blockbuster revelation that she was moving out--on October 1.

"October 1, 2005?" I asked her, unwilling, nay, unable to believe that the same girl who had once lovingly baked cookies for me (OK, they were for her friends at work and I stole them) was capable of leaving her two loyal roommates in the lurch.

"No," she replied coldly. "Two weeks from now." Then she returned to her room, presumably to torture kittens.

Maybe she was kidding, I thought to myself. You know, to get revenge for the cookies.

But she wasn’t. This was confirmed the next morning by my other roommate. Since I still have to live with him, I won’t use his real name--let’s just call him "Not Tom", or for short, "Tom."

Tom had been out drinking Friday, losing his pants somewhere near Rutgers before making his way home around 11 AM. After conversing, sans trousers, with Joyce in her lair, he approached me in the living room. His face, at least the part I could make out around the splotches of crusted food and vomit, was grim.

"Are the kittens OK?" I asked.

"Huh?"

"Never mind."

Then Tom took charge, putting that business management degree of his to use.

"Dude, we’ve got two weeks to find someone to move in. We’d better get started or we‘ll be screwed."

"Yep," I replied. "But more importantly, we’d better get burritos."

He knew I was right. So after helping Tom fashion a makeshift pair of pants from a Glad trash bag, we scurried off to Charritos, knowing that we’d have to roll up our sleeves when we returned.

The first task was the ad, which we would post on Hobokeni and a rival website whose name rhymes with "Braigslist."

As we sat in our soon-to-be furniture-less living room watching our money being flushed away on an ill-advised (read: Tom-advised) wager on the once-mighty Penn State Nittany Lions, I flipped open my laptop and passed it over to Tom.

"I have writer’s block," I whined, even though I’d written 14 pages of my to-be-published-in-or-about-2043 novel the night before. "You do it."

10 minutes and three Penn State turnovers later, my semi-literate, ex-high school football star of a roommate piped up: "OK, here’s what I got: ‘Room available October 1. Good price. Live with 2 chill guys. M/F both OK.’"

Jesus. I may be a product of public schools, but there are two things I do know: Smoking leads to cancer, and boring roommate-wanted ads lead to boring roommates.

"Punch it up!" I commanded, an utterance I’d dreamed of employing since my days as a screenwriting student.

He gave me a blank look. Then farted. Clearly, I’d have to handle this myself.

We needed an ad that would attract the exact type of roommate we wanted while simultaneously discouraging dead-beats, perverts and Big Brother fans from writing. Our task was actually pretty simple: We didn’t want to turn the place into a frat house, and we had to reassure prospective female roommates that we weren’t scheming to try out the latest How to Bed Your Hot Roommate (Without Drugs!) trick from Maxim magazine.

I banged away at the keyboard for a few minutes, looking up just as Joe Paterno had what may or may not have been a heart attack. "How about this?" I began. "Kick-ass share available 10/1. Big living room, big bathroom and million-dollar view of the east side of Park Avenue. Guys: We don’t mind watching football. Girls: We believed Anita Hill."

"Dude," Tom replied. "You’re going to scare everyone off."

"Look!" I shot back. "Penn State just fumbled again."

Then I sent the ad in. My ad.

Tom was wrong: The special e-mail address we set up was flooded by Sunday--and some of the messages weren’t for penis enlargement pills.

My favorite came from someone claiming to be a 26-year-old girl who wrote, "You guys are normal, right?"

I furiously fired off a response that combined an existentialist philosophy with a stream-of-conscious style, making sure to carbon-copy my moral and intellectual hero, Archbishop Desmond Tutu (assuming, of course, that his e-mail address is "AbpDTutu@aol.com").

"If you’re asking if we’re fond of kiddie porn or country music or are scarred with hideous facial gashes, the answer is, we aren’t," I wrote in my concluding paragraph. "But if you’re asking if we’re average--well, I should hope not. Isn’t normal boring?"

She never wrote back. A few other early responses caught our eyes. Like the girl who sent us a picture of herself. "Just so you don’t think I’m a freak," she wrote--even though no one else had taken this unusual step. Tom took one look at the .jpeg and pronounced his verdict: "Freak."

Then there was the guy who identified himself, in the opening line of his e-mail, as "a 25-year-old straight male." I nixed him immediately.

"Why?" Tom demanded.

"Because he felt the need to point that out. Way too insecure."

Tom didn’t fight me, probably because we had so many other responses, and they just kept coming. We decided to let them pile up for a few days before moving to phase two.

On Wednesday afternoon, I dialed Tom at work. His tone seemed frazzled and harried. Obviously he was trying to impress me by sounding busy.

"Hey, you gotta hear this one," I said, reading an e-mail sent the day before by another 26-year-old girl. "It says, ‘Hey guys, I LOVED your ad! Soooo funny. You guys seem cool. Is the place still available?"

Ha! Take that, Tommy Boy! The public wasn’t scared--they were smitten…with me! Tom was silent for a few seconds, then replied in a voice devoid of the validating enthusiasm I had been hoping for.

"Dude, that’s like the ninth time you’ve read that to me. What the hell is wrong with you?"

I asked how we should handle the several dozen replies we’d gotten.

"Block out a night, between like 6 and 10 o’clock," the Stephen Covey-wannabe retorted. "Just write back to them and schedule one for every 15 minutes."

God, that sounded like a lot of work.

"Man, I’m pretty busy here. Maybe you could do it," I said, my mind racing to come up with a suitable excuse. I went with the first thing that came to me: "I have to go to the, uh…airport to get, uh, my, uh... roommate."

"I am your roommate!" he thundered. "And I have real work to do. Just make up the f***ing schedule, moron."

I ended up telling everyone it was an open house--that they should just come when they wanted. And it turned out Tom had to work late that day, so he dispatched his girlfriend, Kate, as a stand-in.

My preparations were going well until fifteen minutes before showtime, when I inexplicably heard my mother’s voice in my head. Stephen, if you’re going to have an open house, you’d better cater it! Food for the guests... I hadn’t thought of that. But why listen to Mom? She always suggested catering things, even when the event was totally inappropriate for it. Like Dad’s arraignment. But I just couldn’t take the chance that she was right this time.

A scan of the fridge yielded an expired can of tuna, an empty carton of Tom’s soy chocolate milk, a dish containing the cream that Joyce globbed over her face every night, and a copy of Time magazine from 1987 (the Man of the Year issue-- Gorbachev on the cover). I wasn’t sure how that last thing got in there, but evidently the cool air had preserved it like Lenin’s corpse. I made a mental note to forge the former Soviet premier’s signature and put it up on e-Bay, then dashed off to the A&P.

At the store I grabbed the first thing I could find…which ended up being tooth paste. So I put that back and plucked a bag of Tostitos from the shelf. Standing in the check-out line, my mind turned to all of the potentially awkward conversations with strangers that I was about to face. Social-phobia overwhelmed me. To cope, I helped myself to a few chips. Delicious, crunchy chips--with a scandalously satisfying hint of salt. The bag was empty before I got home. I stuffed it in one of our neighbor’s mailboxes and trudged up the stairs to our second-floor dwelling. Kate was seated on the largest of the three couches in the living room.

"Didn’t you get any food?"

"They were closed," I replied, brushing chip-bits off my navy blue sweatshirt.

"Closed?"

"Yeah... There was a wolverine loose in the cereal aisle or something."

The VCR clock read 6:00--the witching hour was upon us. The doorbell would ring any second. The anxiety was brutal. I cursed myself for not buying more Tostitos.

"So what should we do?" Kate asked.

I suggested what seemed like the only reasonable course of action: "Close the shades, turn off all the lights, and remain perfectly still."

Kate ignored me. The onslaught commenced.

They all seemed pretty similar, both the guys and the girls. None were particularly objectionable, nor were any especially memorable. Most worked--or said they worked--in New York in financial-type jobs. In my mind, they were all bank tellers.

Then, about an hour in, Angela showed up. I met her in the foyer downstairs, and for the first few minutes, things didn’t seem to go that well. She complained about the stairs (they were crooked), the texture of the kitchen floor (several panels were missing), and the hairstyle Kate had chosen. She also informed us on at three separate occasions that her father was an attorney. When we were in the living room, Angela took an interest in one of the pictures Joyce had hung on the wall--an artsy sketch of a nude woman’s body. Actually, most of the visitors had noticed it.

"Stop staring at my grandmother!" I playfully instructed her. She didn’t laugh, but in fairness, no one else had either. I changed the subject.

"So, where do you work?"

Looking at neither Kate nor me, Angela spoke.

"My nail appointment is supposed to be for 9:30!"

I was confused. Kate nudged me and gestured towards Angela’s ear: She had one of those wireless cell-phone earpieces. She was on the phone. So me and Kate waited politely (although Kate did whisper the words ‘She’s so self-centered’ to me a few times) for 10 minutes while Angela chatted. When she was done, I repeated my original question.

"I work at ABC," she replied. "Selling advertising."

Hello! She’d said the magic words. In that one instant, I could suddenly see my dreams coming true: Angela would move in, she’d be dazzled by my creativity and energy and would reward me with the development deal with ABC I’d always known I was destined for.

I didn’t pay attention to anyone else the rest of the night.

Me, Tom and Kate sat towards the back of Panera the next night. We were there to make a decision. Kate had taken copious notes and was going through each name one at a time. My game was simple: Bash all of them except Angela. I had already vetoed Kate’s first half-dozen or so offerings when she got to a guy named Mark. Or was it Mike?

"Nope," I said instantly.

I dug my heels in.

"Sorry, but I’m allergic."

"To what?"

"Boring roommates."

Tom, who’d mostly been quiet, raised his voice.

"Dude, just say yes to one of these so I can get out of here."

Kate moved on.

"Alright, well how about Rich? He seemed pretty cool."

Rich, I remembered, had been wearing a Yale sweatshirt. I feel threatened by anyone who went to a better college than I did. (Of course, as a Boston University graduate, this is somewhat problematic.)

Kate branded my rationale "retarded." So I played my trump card, telling Kate that Rich had whispered a lewd comment about her ankle to me when she wasn’t looking.

"My ankle?" Teeth gritted and eyes unblinking, she stared at me for a few seconds, then spoke, sounding out each syllable as if she were talking to Dubya.

"OK, since you’re being so difficult, maybe you should just tell us which ones you actually liked."

I looked to Tom for cover, but he was fiddling with his iPod.

"Can we get this over with?" he asked. "I want to go to the gym."

I was on my own. And I knew my roommate choice would be a tough sell.

"I really liked Angela," I said, my eyes frantically scouring the room for something--anything--to keep from looking back at Kate.

"Angela!?!?" she practically shrieked. "She HATED the place! And she hated me! And you!"

I took a breath and calmly explained the crucial role Angela would play in my long-term career plans. Sensing Kate wasn’t buying it, I tried to sweeten the pot.

"Plus," I added, "She told me she thinks you might have a future as a daytime talk-show host."

But Kate had closed her mind.

"Even if you guys asked her, she’d never take the place," she said. "And by the way, even if she wanted to, she couldn’t help you get a show on ABC. She’s in advertising, not on the creative side."

What did Kate know? She was a sociology major. I shrugged her opinion off.

"I’m going to be a star!"

Exasperated, Kate suggested that me and Tom simply write down which of the prospective roommates we’d be willing to live with. We’d offer to room to the first match.

"I don’t care," Tom said, passing the scrap paper and pen to Kate. "You do it for me. As long as we get someone."

Kate happily accepted and wrote down every name except Angela’s. Which I knew she would do. So as a protest, I simply wrote: Rachel, Ross, Joey, Chandler, Phoebe and Monica. Kate shook her head and showed my list to Tom, who crumpled it up and hurled it at me.

"You’re an idiot," he said. Then he left for the gym.

Like a typical soccer game, we had stalemated. Days passed, and neither me nor Tom would bring up the roommate situation with the other. I did, however, on several occasions bring up the disastrous Penn State bet that had been his brainchild.

His reply was always the same: "Dude, why do you keep pretending that was my idea?"

Upon learning, on September 29, that we’d yet to find a replacement for her, Joyce informed me and Tom that we, and not her, would be on the hook for October’s rent if the room went unoccupied.

Tom flipped out, blaming me for the dead end our search had reached. I told him we had nothing to worry about--rent would be no problem if he’d just start listening to my football picks. That only enraged him. Shouting and flailing his arms madly, he pointed out that it was so late in the month that anyone we offered the room to would probably have made other arrangements. Then, he sat down on the edge of the big couch and buried his head in his hands.

"We’re so screwed," he moaned.

I did the only thing I could think of doing: Left the apartment and went to Benny Tudino’s. The big cheese slice was good, but the mood was ruined by a strange sensation. I think it was guilt, though I still haven’t ruled out food poisoning. I headed home and found Tom back on his feet, beaming from ear to ear.

"Yo," he said. "I just called Kate and had her read me the first guy who was on the list. I called him up and he was still looking for a place. So I offered it to him and he took it. Dude, do you know how lucky we are?"

"Lucky?" I shot back. "You invite a human vortex of dispassion to live with us and then call us lucky? Do you realize what you’ve done?"

But I knew it was too late. My protest was purely for posterity. Tom knew it too.

"Dude, you’ve got problems," he said, still grinning.

"Maybe I do," I replied. "But at least I didn’t pick Penn State to win that game."

And so it was that on October 1, some 13--or was it 14?--days after Joyce upended our lives, she quietly left us, clearing the way for a 25-year-old guy of average height, weight and taste in television shows to move in. It’s been a few weeks now, and I guess I can grudgingly admit that it hasn’t been the unmitigated catastrophe I’d imagined. He’s clean and courteous and even laughs at my material--sometimes. I haven’t gotten any acting gigs out of the deal, but he actually doesn’t seem too bad. Who knows--maybe one of these days I’ll even learn his name.