Monday, August 27, 2012

Co-op Baby

I've lived in co-op housing for eight years, and for the first time since I left my parent's home, I'm going to be living somewhere else this fall.

I first moved in to Campus Co-op Residences Inc., downtown Toronto, 169 Lowther Avenue, room 201, in the fall of 2004. I was 21, back in school after a year-long hiatus that was the result of a disastrous freshman year. I had regrouped, saved some money, developed a wee fondness for booze, and was ready to strike out on my own. Liz, who I had met in first year, lived in 169, and she suggested that I apply.

I remember filling out the application. It's been a while, so I don't know if the questions are the same, but back in 2004, CCRI wanted to know a bit about you. Did I have any special skills? (I could snake a toilet, I offered.) How was I with conflict? (I tried to be easy-going, I said.) What was my budget? (500 a month? Was that enough? I could pay more!) I sent in my forms, along with a $25 application fee, and I waited.

What I didn't know was that, for almost as long as I lived there, the co-op struggled with chronic vacancy, so I was in like Flint no matter what. My rent was $536, due by the 4th of each month or in two lump sums at the beginning of each term. That included heat, hydro, the room, and food: four meals a week in a dining hall and house food for the rest of our meals. It was an unbelievably good deal. My room was teeny, but my mom and sisters and I painted it pink and yellow ("Cheery" and "Cheerful"). I stacked books on the radiator and assembled a loft bed. It was perfect: cozy, sweet, and all mine. 

I've always loved the co-op's houses: they're huge, often housing a dozen or so students and graduates in a mish-mash of vintage furniture, curb-scored cookery and absolutely hideous kitchens. The floors are usually hardwood, and even though the rooms are drafty, they have character. My current room, two houses after my little pink-and-yellow room, has huge east-facing windows and a massive built-in bookshelf. I have a row of plants on the windowsill and a walk-in closet. My last place was the entire third floor of a house, including a 400-square foot deck. There are also much smaller spaces, like the bedrooms stuffed under eaves or beside lonely boiler rooms. The co-op likes to put kitchens in odd places, like basement or second floors, and the bathrooms are always slightly damp. A real-estate agent might euphemistically say that the houses have character, while we can just call it like it is: these houses are crazy

That might explain why I've lived with so many crazy people over the years. Narcissistic acting students and economics majors have bunked with couples who had midnight fighting fits. I've lived with people who thought nothing of lifting a few DVDs off the living room table or a bottle of wine from the fridge. I've lived with alcoholics who drank cooking wine. I've risen from a movie in the living room to find the entire first floor, from the front porch to the kitchen, covered in the foulest-smelling vomit, the alcoholic housemate responsible passed out in his own urine at the end of it. I've lived with people who had loud sex, and people who referred to women as "you people." I've lived with girls who refused to eat, girls who walked around in nothing panties and a bra, girls who brought dozens of strange men home. I've lived with men who have used their size, their rage, or their maleness to cow their housemates. I've lived with folks who have literally brought vagrants home. I've had housemates who thought nothing of lashing out if I left dishes. I watched from the window one night as a housemate was loaded, screaming gibberish, into an ambulance in restraints.

Over past eight years, I've had probably about 100 different housemates. Some stayed for years and become close friends. Others, not so much. "The guy who wore those shirts with the huge neon $100 bills printed on them" will come up in conversation, and co-op friends will nod in recognition. We talk about the night we drank all the booze in the house (we replaced it the next day), and played Spin the Bottle on the fire escape. There are rules when you live with so many folks: don't sleep with your housemates (also known as "don't shit where you eat). Also, this aggression will not stand, man.

There have been transformative moments: the joys of free clothes (I seriously haven't done much retail shopping since moving in; my housemates are always moulting clothes and I pick them up), the challenges of four years on the co-op's board of directors. I bought my first vibrator with a gaggle of housemates. I drank much too much, and went into treatment. I lost weight, I gained weight. I had my first real boyfriend, and my first real heartbreak. I had sleepovers, ill-advised sex, make-out buddies, awkward movie dates, and I fell in love a second time.

It's impossible for me to sum up the whole co-op thing, because it's shaped me in so many ways: politically, sexually, personally, professionally. I've grown and regressed, made mistakes, made friends and enemies, and learned so much about my world that it staggers me that it's been eight years. Eight years. Man.

So next up, my boyfriend and I are going to live together. It's one of those amazing moments in a couple's story, one that could lead to an excellent future. It'll be a test of what we're made of: while we spend a lot of time together, we still have our own places to retreat to if we need to lick our wounds or breathe. On the other hand, I think this new intimacy will be good, since we function well as a team. We've got a shot at something really good, which makes leaving the co-op I've called home for almost a decade that much easier.