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Nicole's Impossibly Possible Ideas: Impossible Living Together

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After that first year of dorm living as students at Reed College, most of us moved into Reed Houses. Throughout southeast Portland, Reedies crammed themselves into houses with names like The Dustbin, The Cosmos, The Center of the Universe. We were lucky, I think, that the neighborhood surrounding Reed sported a number of run-down, four-to-five-bedroom houses. Due south of Reed was East Moreland where some faculty and some fancy people lived but in all other directions, you could find a Reed House sprinkled in among the 1950s middle-class suburbs. You could tell the Reed Houses by the lack of mown lawns and the number of couches on the front porches. The neighbors seemed, mostly, chill with the fact that sometimes up to 8 people lived in a four-bedroom house and that on some weekend nights, parties with kegs and bands went on until 4 a.m. Or maybe those neighbors did complain, but in the 90s, housing in Portland wasn’t the competitive sport it is now. Then, houses in those neighborhoods sold for $100,000 or so. Now, they’re half a million at least. I suspect the neighbors have a lot more to say about couches on porches and how often you must maintain your lawn.

I never lived in one of the named houses like The Dustbin, but I organized renting a house with a few other people. My first Reed House was pretty far east—almost to 82nd Street—about 40 (short) blocks from school. Rebecca, of recent Jeopardy success and who is now a sought-after psychologist in Baltimore, and her friend, Chris, an English major like me who is now a veterinarian in Massachusetts took me up on the offer I posted for rooms for $120/month. My best friend at Reed, Misty, who is now an immigration lawyer, moved in with her ferrets—Asa and Maxine. My then-boyfriend Andy, also now a lawyer, though divorce, not immigration, had his own room although he mainly slept in mine. $120 times five paid the $600 rent no problem. We made ramen like regular students but also feasts of roasted chicken and falafel and lasagna. Misty and I grew tomatoes in between the tall grasses of the backyard. Asa and Maxine escaped their cages and hid behind the stove.

My next Reed house was only a Reed house because most of us had—past tense—attended Reed. My parents helped me put a down payment on a house we called the Big Blue Barn for $93,500. The payments, with mortgage insurance, came to $615/month. I rented out three of the rooms—one to Rhett, a physics major who rode a unicycle and whose cat, Smile, only drank water from the ever-dripping bathtub faucet and to Jonathan, who became my boyfriend after he moved in, who was also a physics major who went on to get his PhD at U Dub and now works as an investment counselor for Black Rock (I think. He’s hard to find on Google). Dating by renting out rooms served as a form of Tinder before we even had Match.com.

Living in these housing situations wasn’t always easy. We sectioned up the refrigerator but those chilly borders didn’t always last. Dishes didn’t wash themselves, and she-who-wanted-a-clean kitchen ended up washing them herself (still true fact to this day.) She who mopped the floors. She who bought the paper towels. He who complained that if the she (me) bought more paper towels, the he (Rhett) would clean more. We only ever had one bathroom in any of these houses. Sometimes, the lights and music stayed on too late and too loud for the would-be sleepers. Sometimes, the vacuumer started vacuuming before other people wanted to be awakened. This lack of 100% agreement over cleanliness and noise frustrated, but, most of the time, the situation resolved itself. I bought paper towels. Rhett scrubbed the bathtub more often (mostly for Smile, but still). We drank Black Butte Porter and watched the X-Files, the Simpsons and Star Trek: Next Generation. It helped that all the roommates across time were both Reedies and Trekkies.

As the housing crisis continues to crunch people’s incomes into tiny crumbs, I’m thinking about how efficient it was, living in these houses with other people. Co-housing sounds like a drag—people love their privacy and everyone has different levels of comfort for cleanliness, but maybe the advantages outweigh the drags. Resource-wise you’re sharing timber and windows, heating and electricity, internet and refrigeration. You’re sharing the cost not only of the mortgage/rent but also utilities and repairs. You also have to practice patience and resolve frustrating habits, which, in some truly high-ideal kind of way, might be a path to bridging our country’s great divide.

It’s supposedly the American Dream to live in a house in a nuclear family. And, to some degree, living with your kids and spouse is the same as living with roommates. You will probably still end up washing all the dishes. You will probably annoy your housemates with your vacuuming. But if you have the space to share, why not open up a room to someone? Why not concentrate humans where humans live—close-in to town where even more sharing of space can occur? The desire to live alone is one of those dreams drilled into us by our forbearers like dream of drilling for oil. You think, when you reach black gold, that you’ve got it made—my own house, my American dream. But maybe it is possible to live together, turn my house into our house. And, maybe, if you’re single, you can use your new-found willingness to share like you would use OK Cupid, and your roommate and you can further partner up. Maybe it is possible to share paper towels, timber and warmth. In fact, maybe, by sharing, your house is a little warmer already—you don’t need so much heat or oil or even grass.

Nicole Walker is the author of seven books, most recently Processed Meats: Essays on Food, Flesh, and Navigating Disaster. She teaches at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff. The words here are her own and do not necessarily reflect those of her employer.

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