Save Money While Living in New York City

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Photo by Fotolia/D.aniel
Tom McNamara shares tips for living cheaply in the city.

Why even try to survive in the city? Everybody knows the green fields of nature is where it’s at. So why stick it out where the air is sooty, the noise is obnoxious and there’s a distinct possibility of getting robbed or worse?

Because it’s exciting, for one reason. Because you have friends not yet as free (even) as you. Because, if you know how, you can live very well for very little in the one of the biggest and best of the world’s cities. And because there’s nothing to keep you from having both a city and a country home.

Maybe you’ll think I’m lucky. I’ve got a small, quiet penthouse-like apartment on New York’s Lower Eastside (also erroneously referred to as “the East Village”).

My pad has a roof to sit on, a courtyard-kept breakfast plate-clean by our hardworking superintendent and all the necessities: stove, refrigerator, etc. Everything but utilities are covered by a monthly rent of only $50. The three good-sized rooms are in a small rear building — like a carriage house — so I don’t even hear most traffic except for the music of an occasional horn toot.

Before I moved in, I invested a few hundred in improvements: burlapped walls, acoustic-tiled ceilings, wood louver shades and interior doors, a paint job and pull-chain Japanese lights with big globes (a big mistake, they’re too fragile and expensive). Even put in a dimmer switch to rest these tired-of-typing eyes and hired some local guys to do the work.

My friends were amazed. “You mean you’re spending $1,200 to fix up your apartment?”

“Sure,” I said, “other people spend $40,000 on a house and work forever to pay for it. Why shouldn’t I spend $1,200 on a place I expect to live in at least two years?”

Well, I’ve spent almost five happy, creative, poetry-producing years here now and I couldn’t be happier.

But what about you … especially if you’re coming into town for the first time and you’re coming in broke?

OK. Arriving in the city without money is not a good idea and I don’t recommend it. But it is possible to arrive with very little and to survive, especially in the towns (San Francisco, Atlanta, Austin, etc.) that have somewhat organized hip communities.

The key to the help you can get on arrival is the underground paper in each city. Most services center around the hipper churches, some of which provide temporary food and shelter, referral services, temporary jobs, medical services, etc.

If you’ve got enough bread to carry you for a few days, your first order of business will be to, as they say in New York, “get located.”

New York is great. It’s got strong rent control laws (unlike other big cities) but rents in the East Village — still the best cheap place to live — are going up anyway. Presently, there is a general apartment shortage in town as landlords withhold empty places in an effort to force raises through the city council. (Can’t happen. Everyone knows there would be riots.)

It is common to have to deal through an agent (the fee is set by law at one month’s rent) or to have to pay “key money” to a tenant in order to get a good apartment. Particularly if the apartment is low-rent and most especially if the tenant has improved the place. Under the law, key money is illegal and it is important that you get a signed lease before paying it.

Ads that say “furniture available” mean the apartment will be sold to the highest bidder. Sums of hundreds of dollars are not unusual in these transactions. The best deal, particularly if you have little money, is to get the cheapest good place you can find and fix it up.

As soon as you move into your good, cheap place, spend a few dollars improving its security or you’re liable to find everything you own stolen the first time you’re out. If it’s any consolation, the rate of violent crime is lower on the Lower East Side than elsewhere in the city — but, oh, those second story men!

Once you have your lease, file an application with the City’s Department of Buildings to make sure the correct rent is charged. Don’t let the weird New York rent rates confuse you, either. Controlled rents almost always end in an odd number since increases are pegged at 15 percent every two years unless the tenant remains. Obviously, under this system, a tenant who stays put enjoys relatively less and less costly rentals as the years roll on.

Report all violations (substandard conditions in your apartment or building) to the Buildings Department unless the landlord not only promises to have them repaired, but does so immediately. The city, slow as it works, will require the landlord to comply with regulations.

By the way, living in the slums of the Lower East Side can be a real trip if you’ve ever dreamed of going to Spain or Puerto Rico. When I moved into my place, I used to be awakened every morning (about 11 a.m.) by the trilling of a canary one of my Spanish-speaking neighbors down the courtyard kept. As the years passed, it was the melancholy voices of housewives singing in a manner reminiscent of the Portuguese fado that woke me. For a short time it was the exceptional singing of a man (who turned out to be a professional performer in Spanish stage shows) serenading his children on the fire escape near my window.

The Puerto Rican people are very friendly and optimistic in spite of their poor lives and they are excellent neighbors. Anyone moving into the area should be prepared to learn a few words in Spanish to get to know them.

Once you’re located in an inexpensive apartment, you’ll find many other ways to live on little in New York City. The local supermarkets have special bins of damaged cans (be careful, don’t buy cans that are rusted, unsealed or have bulgy tops). Search out the day-old bread stores. They have excellent buys on broken, quality cookies and good pastries. If you smoke, roll your own cigarettes.

Walk as much as possible — transportation fares are up, the exercise is good for you and, anyway, where have you got to go once you’ve seen uptown a few times?

Fix up your apartment and cook and entertain at home. Forget about the expensive commercial entertainment spots and “first run” movies. This may sound hard to believe, but I save a lot of money because, after years of seeing all the great films, I don’t need to go much anymore. By “great” I mean the movie classics that are always so available in a city like New York. That’s the main reason for living here, of course: The great diversity of things to see and do and the exposure to the smorgasbord of our culture.

This exposure doesn’t take much money. The museums are free. The libraries are free. There are plenty of places to meet fellow artists-to-be that are free or inexpensive. New York probably has more museums than any other city and many of them are free. The Metropolitan alone is so big you’ll need a year to see it all. And there’s the Museum of Natural History where Murph the Surf and friends picked up a.diamond bigger than the Ritz. Or how about the Morgan library of famous manuscripts? There’s uncounted other collections of exciting things around town.

The Main Library on 42nd Street has plenty of good branches within easy walking distance of the East Village. They’re all free. If the branch you’re visiting doesn’t have the book you want, the librarian can use the central locator to find it for you. You can then pick it up or have it delivered to your branch on the next truck.

There are still good coffeehouses where a night of talk, chess, sharing dreams and creative arguing can cost you a dollar or less.

Cooper Union, a college on the gateway to the East Side, has lectures, dance programs, concerts and other activities three nights a week during the winter. All free.

The now-famous avant-garde La Mama, just one of the newer off-off-broadway showcases for talent, puts on a new play every week. The Judson Memorial Church in Greenwich Village and St. Marks on the East Side also present such offerings. All for contributions, but reservations may be necessary. Poetry readings are held somewhere every night of the week, usually for whatever you can contribute.

If you need any more ideas, the Village Voice lists a whole page every week and hardly anything — concerts, recitals, lectures, poetry readings, dance groups, discussions — costs more than a few dollars. If all else fails, the Staten Island Ferry is free and so is people watching on 5th Avenue or St. Marks!

Now that your basic living and entertainment expenses are pared down, you may not care to work full-time. Is it possible to find part-time employment in New York? Easiest thing in the world! Even if you have “no skills” at all.

New York is swarming with temporary help agencies that always need typists and file clerks. If you can’t type, tell ’em you have experience filing. After all, any idiot — even me — can file stuff. Experience!??

Friends of mine pick up bigger chunks of money in less time by working on non-union piers unloading ships. For these jobs, though, you’ve got to be strong and know your way around. You can also make good money with little effort and time as a nude model if you’re well-endowed physically. The underground papers are full of ads for both guys and gals in this category. Seems amazing there should be so many painters and photographers these days … but who am I to ask questions?

If you absolutely can’t find a job anywhere, it is still possible to get on the welfare rolls in New York and other cities, although the latest reports from the West Coast indicate a general clamp-down and pruning of welfare out that way. Actually, you should feel no guilt about accepting welfare, especially if you’re a creative person using the money to survive as you learn your art in order to make a greater contribution to society later. I tell young people that welfare is their own Guggenheim Grant (since the real Guggenheims go only to the well known and connected … people who don’t need them anyway).

It’s really a shame that more creative people don’t take advantage of welfare funds and free food rather than get ground to gristle in the corporate monsters. We think nothing of allowing our government to grant billions of dollars to a corporation in subsidies and grants for the development of another overkill war machine … yet consider it almost a crime for the same government to guarantee a minimum existence to a single citizen while he develops his human potential — an infinitely more valuable commodity.

Getting on welfare is easy if you’ve ever been in a mental hospital … or you can simply say that your parents won’t help you and you desperately need funds. Talk to the Welfare Rights people or people of your age who are receiving checks and they’ll help you. Many workers in the Welfare Department are quite sympathetic to young artists (even so-called “hippies”). A friend of mine who is a welfare investigator once said to me, “I am beginning to realize the only thing that separates me from my clients is my title.” Unfortunately.

Just a few years ago I really hit bottom. I was broke and starving. I was too disgusted with “the system” and too depressed to get a job. I could have gotten welfare easily but I didn’t know that.

I survived that bleak period — and survived fairly well — by cutting my expenses to the bone, rolling my own cigarettes and scrambling for corn the markets threw away. And never did corn taste more succulent! There is great strength to be gained by overcoming such adversity and not “copping out.”

Those lean days are now past for me. On about $150 a month, I live very well in high Bohemian (a Bohemian is somebody who gives up the “necessities” — on occasion — to afford the “luxuries” … like life, liberty and the pursuit and conquest of happiness) fashion.

What I am saying is that it is possible to live freely and very comfortably in the city. City living has many advantages over the country: The great diversity of things to do, intellectual stimulation counterbalanced by opportunity for solitude, the freedom that city life’s anonymity offers, the sense of privacy and toleration of differences that — while far from Utopia — is considerably more advanced than you’ll find in the American small town of my acquaintance.

I’m now planning — with some friends — to establish a country retreat. But I don’t think I’ll ever quit the city entirely. Not unless things get much worse than they are now. For me, survival in the city is definitely worth the effort!