In Praise Of Cheap Rent

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Online Clock Presents - In Praise Of Cheap Rent

Here at, I’m proud that I am a one man Internet start-up, and I’ve begun to offer tips to other people seeking to be the same.

Keeping with this subject, this particular blog article now offers everyone a lifestyle tip, designed for fellow Internet hobbyists and people everywhere who are dreaming of creating their own Internet start-ups. This is a tip that you probably won’t find anywhere else. It’s about the importance of finding somewhere to live with cheap rent.

Back when I was a young person, I was heavily involved in the punk rock subculture. In addition to being a weird kind of fashion statement (or perhaps, better said, an anti-fashion statement?), there was a real kind of do-it-yourself philosophy at the core of this subculture. The people truly involved in the punk movement reveled not in how expensive their things were…instead, they celebrated how cheap they were.

The Philosophy of Living Inexpensively

Part of the punk rock lifestyle was the practice of scouring every Salvation Army and Goodwill store in the area for the most obnoxious clothing you could find, and attempting to pick up entire outfits for under a dollar. But, as an American punk rocker, this cheap-o philosophy didn’t just stop at clothing…it permeated every aspect of your daily life. The most extreme punk rockers even got a thrill out of buying their food from food stamps. And, for just about everyone that I knew in the punk rock scene in the 1980s, the most important thing in the world was finding someplace to live FOR CHEAP.

Now, don’t get me wrong…I haven’t always lived according this philosophy. One of the biggest mistakes I made in my life was, after graduating from college, moving back home to live with my Mom, “just until I found a job”. The problem was, she was then living in a luxury apartment building on Chicago’s Lake Shore Drive (right across from Oak Street Beach, actually).

It’s kind of hard to find motivation to go on out there and take the world by storm when you’re already living in a luxury apartment. The best thing I ever did in my life, back then, was finding a place to stay temporarily in Manhattan, and buying a train ticket to escape to New York

Manhattan in the 1980s was my first real adventure in Cheap Rent Land.

I had been trying to get my first break in the Advertising business in Chicago…but all I could manage was getting a few freelance assignments as a copywriter. People who looked at my portfolio of sample work told me that there were smaller “boutique agencies” in New York City who did the kind of work that I had on display in my portfolio…so it made sense for me to go to NYC to check out the advertising agency scene there.

The person I stayed with in Manhattan was the son of one of my Mom’s best friends. He lived in a cramped, dingy one-bedroom apartment in Hell’s Kitchen, back when Hell’s Kitchen was still a little nasty. I know that I was kind of shocked to see some kind of a jerry-rigged shower setup right there in the middle of his kitchen, with a garden hose running from his kitchen faucet to some kind of self-made shower stall that he then placed on the floor of his kitchen whenever he wanted to shower. There were iron bars over ALL of his windows. And he told me they were necessary: one time he’d come home from work to find some junky running off with stereo, escaping over the rooftops…

So, as soon as I arrived in New York, I started looking for a job. I had no intention of taking a train back to Chicago and living with my Mom again…after about a week, I managed to get my first job in New York as a bus boy at this restaurant in the theater district. I was kind of a weird, introspective kid…heavily into punk rock. I couldn’t seem to be nice and friendly enough to be an actual waiter (or “server”), so instead I just lugged around dirty dishes and poured water for all the guests, who I didn’t have to actually speak to. It was all OK, as long as it paid for my cheap rent, and as long as I didn’t have to pretend to be happy and friendly while I was in fact struggling to make a living.

Meme: Paying Rent & Bills

How I feel…after paying my rent and bills.

After having obtained my first job in NYC (as a busboy, yahoo!), I then sought out the cheapest rent I could find. The only prerequisite was that it had to be in Manhattan. I really wanted to live in the East Village but, unfortunately, the East Village was already trendy and on the way to becoming completely gentrified back in the 1980s and, at least without any kind of contacts living there who could tip me off about unrenovated apartments, I just couldn’t find any cheap rental opportunities there. Most young people in NYC tend to find roommates and then share apartments. But this is also something that I didn’t want to do: it didn’t sound that great, sharing an apartment with some stranger!

In order to find an apartment, I went out to a newsstand in the middle of the night whenever the Village Voice came out, in order to buy a copy as early as possible. I then scoured all of the cheapest rental listings in the back of this newspaper, calling them up the next day. I was amazed then to find one listing for $270 a month (yes, this was VERY cheap, even way back then!)…at a place that turned out to be a Single Room Occupancy Hotel. It was literally the size of a large walk-in closet. To this day, when I’m riding an elevator with friends, I like to tell them that, “this elevator is larger than my first apartment in New York”, and it’s actually not too far from the truth. 😀

Single Room Occupancy Hotel - Dark Hallway

Dark, creepy hallways – just one characteristic of Single Room Occupancy “Welfare Hotels”.

When I look back at the various cheap living spaces I’ve had in my life, they’ve had several common characteristics, especially when it comes to cheap home furnishings:

  • Shelves made out of plastic milk crates
  • A bed constructed of either a mattress on the floor or a futon on the floor
  • “Found furniture”, meaning furniture you’ve found discarded on the street (get it before some dog urinates on it)
  • Hand-me-downs for everything: always take the old stuff that your friends and relatives want to throw out: housewares, dishes, appliances, furniture…whatever
  • Stuff from thrift stores
  • Old sheets thumb-tacked to the windows for curtains (the worst!) or those cheap bamboo blinds (these were better, but people could then see into your apartment at night)

Every other week I need a new address
Landlord, landlord, landlord cleaning up the mess !
– X (the band), “We’re Desperate”

Now, back in the 1980s, there were quite a few Single Room Occupancy Hotels located in Manhattan. These were living situations where you rented one room, usually in a section of a floor which shared a common kitchen and bathroom with perhaps five or six other rooms. The “SRO” Hotel I lived in was actually located on the Upper West Side in a nice neighborhood (West 95th Street between West End Avenue and Riverside Drive, to be exact). But don’t let that fool you: the hotel’s residents were mostly comprised of poor people who were unfortunately very much down-and-out in life. My heart goes out to the people who never made it out of that welfare hotel.

But the suburban scumbags, they don’t care.
They just get fat and dye their hair.
…I love living in the city!
– Fear (the band), “I Love Living In The City”

While living in this cheap rent situation in New York, I managed to get a full-time job as a copywriter, first working for this guy Donny Deutsch, who, since then, has apparently become a huge celebrity in the New York advertising scene. To sum up my cheap rent years in New York City, I was then lured to jumping ship to a different advertising agency by another well-known advertising guy running his own agency…who then ended up firing me (thanks, Gary…this was actually the best thing that ever happened to me!). Since I had been earning practically nothing the whole time, just scraping by with a meager existence, I then decided that a career in advertising just wasn’t worth it (there was indeed a lot of stress and pressure associated with the job). As a result, I ended up kind of bailing out on New York City altogether and I then moved to San Francisco.

In San Francisco I moved into a new phase of my Cheap Rent existence, finding a room in a large flat where three other roommates lived. Yes, I broke down and tried the roommate thing…

My next Cheap Rent Experience was in San Francisco’s Mission District.

This was on Woodward Street in San Francisco. I recently revisited San Francisco and was surprised to find Woodward Street looking pretty nice. Back when I lived there, in the early 90s, it was quite nasty! The entire Mission District was sketchy back then and it was filled with crime, and there seemed to be a lot of illegal activity going on, right on our street. Whenever you left the apartment, you kept your head down, not wanting to make contact with anyone on the street. At home, we seriously tried to stay out of the way of the windows, because you would frequently hear gunshots fired at night (true story!). One time there was a nasty shooting on the street, and unfortunately at least one person died, I believe.

Typical Kitchen of a Cheap Rent Apartment

Our kitchen on Woodward Street in San Francisco looked very much like this. It was cleaned only after everyone in the flat could no longer take living with all the filth!

This was not the only cheap rent situation I experienced in San Francisco. I lived at several other locations in the Mission District, and also stayed at one apartment in The Tenderloin. I’m continually surprised to discover lots of people who claim that San Francisco is the most beautiful city in the world…because I have it in my memory as a dingy, ugly city. 😉

So, where is this catalog of my experiences with cheap rent leading to?

It’s leading to Berlin, Germany.

That’s right. As everything in San Francisco was getting more and more expensive, and as I underwent a bit of a crisis there involving not knowing what I wanted to do with my life, I ended up moving to Berlin, Germany. At the time, I didn’t know if it would be permanent or not. But that was over 15 years ago, so it’s proven to be one of the most permanent moves I’ve ever made.

My cheap rent experiences continued right along in Berlin, where I’m lucky enough to be living presently in a small, one-bedroom apartment that is VERY affordable and is also located in one of THE coolest neighborhoods in the entire city (Kreuzberg…I love this place!).

Now, before you up and move to Berlin, Germany after reading this article…please note that cheap rent situations here are now almost impossible to find. Berlin has been “discovered” by young people around the world who are interested in finding a fun, cool place to live, and the real estate market has changed dramatically here over the last 10 years. Back when I’d moved to Berlin, there were far more empty apartments than renters…but since then, this situation has fully reversed. I currently know lots of young people desperately searching for an inexpensive place to live here, and they are all finding it very difficult.

What’s the point of all this? Why Cheap Rent?

The point of all this is that…if I had never had the ability to live cheaply all these years, I probably never would have been half as creative as I’ve been. I have lived years and years, just trying to do something creative. After leaving the advertising business, I sought to try to become a WRITER, writing short stories and poetry and even a couple of very bad novels. Without cheap rent, I would’ve been forced to just put on a suit and a tie and I probably would have been assimilated into the normal, boring 9-to-5 work force that I’ve always hated and which I’ve always tried to avoid.

(I will never forget my first job after college. My mother bought me 3 expensive suits. It was a big insurance company in downtown Chicago. The other young people in my training sessions just talked about their health club memberships and taking out loans to buy their first car or their first apartment. I was interested in going to all the punk rock clubs at night. After two weeks, I just stopped going in to work at that job. I didn’t want to be that lame. And I didn’t want to have anything to do with people like that, who just seemed to be waiting to have kids and move out to the suburbs.)

If you want to create your own Internet start-up, or if you want to do something creative…or if you just want to stay out of the 9-to-5 rat race, then do yourself a favor and seek out CHEAP RENT.

I personally could be happy living in a cheap rent situation until the day I die. It gives me the security of knowing that I won’t be held hostage, working for The Man, just because I need to pay my bills.

Break out…**** the system.
You. Are not alone.
Break out, because we’re all behind you.
Break out!
– UXB (the band), “Breakout”

Good Advice

Unfortunately I don’t know his name, but one of the more senior copywriters in New York (at the first agency I worked at) gave me this advice, “Tom, don’t ever let your expenses get out of control. If you do, you’ll be forced to do the kind of work you really don’t want to do, just to pay your bills.” And then he looked kind of sad, because he had to write several crummy ads for products that he didn’t at all believe in or like…just to pay for his new boat.

I’m not going to lie to you all and say that it’s always been fun, living a cheap rent existence all these years.

A cheap rent lifestyle can be ugly, and you will likely be confronted with a lot of poverty and despair in your environment. But that’s part of the real world, unfortunately…and you will become more connected to the real world than people who’ve never experienced something like this. You’ll have to regard the whole experience as an adventure, which it is. You’ll have to be tough, in order to travel this path. But it definitely has its advantages; and it just might be the price you’ll have to pay in order to simply DO WHATEVER YOU WANT WITH YOUR LIFE.

And, if it enables you to do that, isn’t it worth it?

You were caught up in the Rat Race and you know it’s too bad, too bad for you.
You were running in the Rat Race…and you lose!
– Agression (the band), “Rat Race”

What’s YOUR favorite cheap rent story? Share it with me here, in the comments form below.

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