Memoir: over the years, my apartment has been made a home by many crazy roommates
I came to Toronto on my own and rented a drafty, rodent-infested three-bedroom. Over the years, the people I’ve shared it with has made it home sweet home
Eleven years ago, I moved to Toronto in search of a new life. A born and raised Montrealer, I was 23 when I decided it was time to vacate my parents’ basement. My aim was to work in television, and I followed the opportunities here—a city where I knew next to no one.
After settling into a job at Barna-Alper Productions, I noticed how lonely I was. My family raised me to expect a certain degree of hospitality—they always invited out-of-towners for Friday night dinner—but I wasn’t exactly stumbling across that kind of reception in Toronto. I joined a yoga studio, crashed a couple of U of T classes and scoured the weeklies for ways to fill my weekends. I started spending time with a friend who lived in a vegan New Age co-op in Dufferin Grove. They ate communal meals, chanted in Sanskrit and kept a disco ball in the kitchen for impromptu dance parties. They were my first Toronto family.
Soon an apartment two doors down from them came up for rent. It was three bedrooms on the second and third floors of a house. Broken down by room, it would be around $400 a month per person. It was a perfect first apartment; I just needed some roommates. A high school friend came on board and a third came via Craigslist. I fantasized that it would be like a sitcom; hanging out, hijinks, sharing everything. But I soon learned that one person’s clean glass (mine) is another person’s water-spotted nightmare (high school friend’s) and cause for vicious passive aggression. Six months after moving in, she announced she was leaving. I stayed. Ten years and countless roommates later, it feels like home.
Throughout my 20s, tenants came and went as I posted successive vacancies online. It felt like a rooming house, transient, no one bothering to form relationships or even interact at all. Each night I’d head straight to my room, where a warm laptop would be my companion for the evening. The kitchen and living room were deserted. The common areas’ neglect was obvious from the tattered couch and the sunroom that functioned as a grimy bike room. No one stayed more than a year. Except for me.
But then, in 2009, two roommates moved in and stayed for a while. Over three years, Jelena, a 30-year-old public servant, Chris, a 30-ish game developer, and I became a unit. Jelena loved to party; there were nights she’d have accordion players serenade us to sleep, then we’d wake up at dawn to find her barbecuing for the after-after-after party. Chris was a hard-core athlete who loved sports as much as I did. I’d tag along when his friends rented a curling rink or organized games of vampire capture the flag.
There were small frustrations, of course. Chris thought my orderly spice rack was absurd and would move one jar out of line each time he passed through the kitchen. Jelena had a habit of leaving her dirty juicer on the counter. Sick of cleaning up after her, I once left it for a week in the height of summer, only to watch it become a frothing, bubbling science experiment. But most of the time, it felt like we were living in an episode of Friends. Last year, Chris moved in with his girlfriend, and Jelena found a bigger place. That’s what happens when you’re renting: people move on. Except for me.
I have an irrational attachment to this apartment. It has the smallest hot water tank in the city with pressure like an old man peeing, drafty windows, mice and paper-thin walls that have kept my downstairs neighbours overly informed about my sex life. I don’t care. Knowing its idiosyncrasies makes the place feel like mine. And it has the best rent in town.
I have other options. My job pays well, and I own a house in Bloordale that I rent out. But for me, it’s an income generator, not a home. I love my crappy apartment, the hardwood floors, mismatched antique doorknobs and quiet neighbourhood. I’ll live here forever, raise a family or get a dog, maybe even keep a roommate around.
A couple of years ago, I started dating an interior designer, Xico. When Jelena and Chris left, he confided that he had “big plans” for the place (we’ll be living here together soon). The frat house–style sofa was out, and in came a sectional from G. H. Johnson’s. Fresh paint went up on the walls, and the sunroom shed the musky odour of sweat and bike grease to become a pantry. In came a dining room table and two new 30-something roommates.
Like me, they could live anywhere. They have jobs mortgage lenders go gaga for—plastic surgeon and computer engineer. But then they’d be coming home each night to an empty condo instead of us all piling onto the couch to watch HBO, eat churrasco chicken and drink wine. Maybe it’s arrested development, living like undergrads, making a home in a place that we’re not fully responsible for. But in an era when people are slow to marry and even slower to procreate, we’ve found a new version of the family unit. I’m the happiest I’ve ever been. Why choose a solitary space when you can have a people-filled place, with mouldings—and maybe some mould.
Heidi Burbela is a reality TV producer and aspiring real estate mogul.
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