Craigslist Taught Me to Reach Across the Flex Wall

Women’s March NYC 2017. Photo credit: Julia Rudansky
Editor’s note: Ariella Hoffman-Peterson is a North Shore Chicago native and a ’16 graduate of Northwestern University. She recently moved to New York City to conduct psycho-oncology clinical research at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.

I looked at my mom, her hair tied back like only when she is really, really hot. We entered the little common space of the apartment, stuffy with stale summer air in a city that carves itself up into so many tiny, cramped boxes. My mom’s eyes said, “No, you’re not going to walk up five floors every day for this.” But look! It has such a cute little kitchen decorated so nicely, AND the room’s furniture will stay for an extra $100.

But $1400 for that? My mom was right, so I gave up competing for a spot in one of the five-star reviewed, $1100 rooms on Craigslist and found the New Yorker in me. I discovered a no-fee broker at a terrifically new place with central air conditioning and a washer/dryer in unit and decided I would find my own roommates. In two days.

So I got the broker to send me pictures and I wrote my own Craigslist ad. I even tried to get some of my I-can-laugh-at-myself personality in there, describing the time I fell off the bottom of the spiral staircase and ninja-rolled into the backyard.

I selected the three most normal girls from the dozens who answered my ad, and we became “thefourflamingos”- our WiFi name. Actually, it wasn’t that easy. It also required professional cat-herding to get all of their paperwork in order and to convince their parents to be guarantors. I enlisted my parents to babysit their parents and reassure them that they were faithful guarantor partners.

So there we were, one quirky native New Yorker (whose mom did not need babysitting, I must add), one bright-eyed, smiling Ohio girl, one cool Texas grandma, and one honorary, cat-herding new New Yorker (that’s me). Let me tell you a bit more about this motley crew.

Heather, “The Character.” This girl sleeps on a Japanese bed roll with a Disney princess sleeping bag on it (UPDATE, she just got a real bed!) and her room is covered in “characters.” She has an amazing combination of interests, ranging from art (she has a double masters in library science and art history) and working at the Met, to Disney-made houseware and Mott’s apple juice. Even the word juice makes me chuckle. In her Facebook profile picture she’s wearing a Hawaiian shirt on which Princess Leia sits among the flowers, and hugging Carrie Fisher, while her dog Gary stares at the camera.

She’s also a vocal defender of women’s rights and freedoms, a denouncer of dumb boys, and has a deep love for George Washington. She’s going to visit his house in DC for her birthday in a few days and she spent a recent day off from work visiting the Alexander Hamilton Federalist papers. Sorry, Mr. Connolly, but I don’t remember anything from AP US History. Heather does, though.

Kristin, “The Ohio Girl Next Door.” My favorite ritual with Kristin is observing how many days she can replace her morning coffee with bright green, seaweed-smelling matcha. She insists she really likes the taste of matcha, but judging by her coffee relapses, I don’t really think she likes it that much. I tease her about it, and she laughs, self-deprecatingly.

Her biggest strength is the ease with which she can get people into conversation. If something good or bad happens, I know Kristin will be there with an empathetic smile or words of shared frustration. She’s the kind of person you can count on for a reaction.

One morning Kristin’s best friend and husband exited her tiny room around 8 a.m.

“Where did you all sleep!?” I exclaimed.

“All in one bed,” they answered.

“Kristin! You could have slept with me! You also have an air mattress!” I said.

“I’m happy to have one of you sleep on the air mattress, but if you all want to sleep packed in like sardines, be my guest,” Kristin replied to Melissa, who pointed out she didn’t know about the air mattress.

That night, we all played a game called, “What do you meme?”

“That card wasn’t even good, but I guess I figured out your strategy,” Melissa teased Kristin a few rounds into the game.

Kristin had picked a sensible, relatable card no one else really laughed at. Kristin simply isn’t crass or into pop-culture. Oh and she’s from Ohio — I guess I could have just left it at that.

Elyssa, “The Texas Republican.” More on that tagline to come…Elyssa is the most unlikely friend to come out of the Craigslist Roommate phase of life that we’re all in together.

When she first wrote to me, she described herself as a “cool Texas grandma.” It’s true — she makes amazing banana bread, does NYT crossword puzzles, brings me a heating pad and Gatorade when I’m sick, and writes a lot of handwritten cards.

She’s the kind of person who remembers to ask about the thing you were worried or excited about the day before and brought me sunflowers for Galantine’s day — isn’t that cute? We share a space and a transition into the real world, and it’s easier because we agreed we were both looking for “friend roommates.”

We also have entirely opposing political beliefs.

During one of our first extended conversations in the apartment, Elyssa referred to her boyfriend as the “leader” of their relationship and told me about their volunteer work back home for Save the Storks, an organization that places sonogram vans in front of abortion clinics. I think my jaw dropped. My eighth grade yearbook predicted that in 25 years my career would be “fighting for a feminist cause” and the original “Miserable Failure” meme of George W. Bush is pasted on the door of my childhood bedroom. Elyssa’s sentiments were simply offensive.

But Elyssa is a warm, sweet, caring roommate who gives great advice and is exceptionally empathetic. She’s also the the only conservative millennial I really know…so what do I make of this?

During the first presidential debate, Elyssa sat silently, while Kristin, Heather and I cheered on our girl Hillary and swore at Trump.

The day after the election, I openly sobbed in the middle of work as I watched the concession speech. On the subways and streets of New York, the looks on people’s faces revealed that everyone seemed to be on the same team. Elyssa didn’t celebrate Trump’s win, but she certainly would not have been celebrating if Hillary had won, as I was prepared to do that night at the Javits Center.

Right before the election, my ex-hometown Chicago Cubs won the World Series, and my Facebook feed was in a tizzy. I felt a glimmer of unrecognizable sporty comradery with my fellow Chicagoans. “The election is my sports,” I beamed to fellow canvassers in Pennsylvania as we waited for Chelsea Clinton to come out at a small campaign event on the Sunday before the election. So, yes, I was thinking about this historical moment as a team sport. Before I met Elyssa, though, I’m not sure I attributed real feelings and emotions and valid opinions to the other “team.” Getting to know Elyssa pushed me to consider how difficult it must be for her team to live in a place like New York, especially those members who are just setting out into the real world. It was an introduction into “good sport” compassion.

After the debates and the election, Elyssa and I processed all of it out loud together. Elyssa continues to embrace her conservatism, but being a conservative is not synonymous with being Republican for her. She doesn’t totally recognize this iteration of the Republican party. That’s a nuance I hadn’t considered, one that has prompted me to cultivate empathy for those with whom I disagree. News flash: there are many different reasons to dislike this shitty political environment!

Elyssa and I acknowledged early on how significant it was to get to know someone with such differing beliefs, and doing so revealed important commonalities. We both turn to our respective religions for community, guidance, and values. We love tea, Anthropologie candles, and zumba podcasts.

As someone who values empathy, my collection of Craigslist roommates has challenged the boundaries of mine. Living together has taught me the day-to-day stuff: not freaking out when someone loads the dishwasher wrong, takes too long in the bathroom, or buys a coffee table that is just too big for our diorama-sized apartment (sorry, guys, I will get used to it).

It’s also taught me that personalities can mesh without politics matching. If there was ever a time to reach across the aisle/flex wall, it is now.