My Stereotypically Midwestern Yet All-American, Comprehensive and Inappropriate Relationship with Ranch Dressing

When I told my best friend that I was doing a post on ranch, she laughed and then credited me with introducing her to the concept of ranch dressing. I like to think of it as a lifestyle choice. She’s just as Midwestern as I am, as we both hail from St. Louis, but she doesn’t have an affinity for it the way I do. She said it’s a pretty big seller at the pub she works at in DC, since they sell bar food like wings, fries, “salad,” and other fried shit you can dip in it. I’ve loved ranch as long as I can remember – way back in the 80s, when it wasn’t even cool to like ranch.

“I’ll never forget when we went to The Cheesecake Factory at St. Louis Galleria and you ordered the buffalo chicken strips with ranch dressing and you were horrified,” my best friend reminisced. The fact that she remembers this so distinctly 8-12 years later tells you how indelible the trauma was.

And I was traumatized. On the totem pole of ranch, Cheesecake Factory is the subterranean post holding the rest of the totem pole up, as it has the worst tasting slop called ranch I’ve ever had. I couldn’t even finish the meal, because both the strips and the dressing were the most horrid, bizarre interpretations of these foods I’ve ever had. So ranch lovers beware: Cheesecake Factory will not provide you with satisfying the crave for chicken fingers ‘n ranch. Stick with dessert. Now Denny’s? You’re good to go. Seriously. I don’t joke about my ranch rating system.

Ranch dressing is a classic, All-American flavorful sauce that makes tons of foods taste delicious. Its origin is literally from a ranch in California. If you love the taste of mayonnaise, buttermilk and various herbs/spices, you can’t not love it. Creamy and tangy, it turns anything boring or unpalatable into a richer, more delicious fare. Now for whatever reason, despite its popularity (number one dressing since 1992!), people who do not care for it (let’s call them “Outsiders”) will give you certain looks if you declare it your favorite dressing. Maybe this is like the whole White Castle issue where it becomes taboo or hoosier to enjoy it. But I distinctly remember telling someone that my favorite dressing was ranch, and I got the most baleful stare, as if I had just said I put mud on my salad. Apparently it’s much trendier to name something that has the word “vinaigrette” or “Dijon” in it.

Well, I am not that girl who prefers vinaigrette over ranch. Don’t get me wrong, I love olive oil and vinegar for a salad. I grew up with my mom’s awesome homemade oil and vinegar dressings for her Italian salads but the love of ranch has superseded over time, but only because it’s so delicious on more types of food than just salad. Just writing this makes me want to go out and get something that has a side of ranch. Fast food restaurants have clued in to the popularity and purposely make containers of ranch for dipping. You no longer get the fat pouch of ranch that’s meant for salads.

I used to have a video here of a girl eating an entire container of ranch (gross). I can’t say I’ve never licked the remnants of ranch dressing from a plastic ranch container. Because I have. But that’s because Jack in the Box’s Buttermilk Ranch Dressing makes Number One on Zoe’s Ranch Favorites. It’s a tough call to say why I frequented the Jack in the Box on Page Boulevard so often back in my late teens – for the jalapeno poppers or the ranch that came with it. I would get profoundly pissed off when I would get the poppers and the person at the drive-thru had forgotten the icy cold Buttermilk Ranch Dressing packets. It almost made the damn things not worth eating. I have not graduated to putting ranch on tacos or pizza (I just can’t get there), but I have put it on almost everything else. A few other places that top the list are: Sonic, Zebb’s in Rochester, NY and Chili’s. These places know the meaning behind creating a perfect blend of the buttermilk, mayo and spices and how consistency is everything. Steak ‘n Shake, McDonald’s, Ruby Tuesday and even Dairy Queen all have decent ranch. So it’s safe to go there. However, what I don’t understand is why there are places that exist who don’t even offer ranch as a dressing. Today for lunch, I went with my friend and colleague to Brooklyn Diner in Times Square, where we paid about 2.5 times the appropriate amount of money for what we ordered. When we ordered our $6 plate of fries to split, I politely asked for a side dish of ranch for dipping.

The waiter solemnly informed me, “Oh we don’t carry ranch.” I stared at him, trying to control my jaw from falling too hard onto the table. A DINER doesn’t carry RANCH? What kind of Communist establishment was this?

I gained my composure and asked, “Okay…do you have something similar? What’s the next best thing you could recommend?” He had the sheer audacity to offer me bleu cheese dressing! People: ranch is not in the same league as bleu cheese dressing and should never be confused as such! Sure, they’re both creamy and white. That’s where the similarities end! And people who are into bleu cheese dressing will tell you the exact same thing. Bleu fanatics, while possibly considering themselves in an upper echelon of taste preference in dressing, should know that despite the degree of taste difference, ranch and bleu are cousins since they both have mayo and other spices in them, but one has buttermilk and the other uses moldy cheese for the sharp flavor. I don’t know about you, but I don’t get hungry looking at white sauce with chunks in it. Reminds me too much of curdled milk. There, I said it.

Friends and family laugh at my being an opinionated ranch dressing connoisseur of sorts. I’m sure someone would love to say to my face, “Yeah don’t be too proud of that.” My friend David has a “take or leave it” kind of attitude towards ranch. He was more of a ranch chip fan than anything else. “Ranch lost its general appeal for me around the early 1990s when the Dorrito corporation changed the name of their popular chip flavor ‘Cool Ranch’ to ‘Cooler Ranch.’ What does that even mean? Unfortunately, the whole ranch industry suffered a blow,” he told me. So needless to say, he won’t be the first to dip his fry in the bowl of ranch that I order when we’re out having burgers and fries. Obviously I place the ranch well within reach of me and I watch it closely. Unless we’re at Brooklyn Diner or some slophouse that can’t even make a decent ranch. How can you screw it up?

Actually, David’s real reaction when I told him that I was going to write about ranch was, “Are you going to talk about how you stop just shy of carrying it around in your purse?” I shockingly laughed but had to admit he wasn’t the first to pose this question or to joke about it with me. One of my college friends and I were watching a reality show in which a girl carried a bottle of Hidden Valley around in her purse (full size!) and whipped it out while she and her boyfriend were eating fast food. She was mocked mercilessly. I have not resorted to doing this, although having the portable Jack in the Box containers on my person wouldn’t be entirely objectionable, should I find myself at those rare establishments that don’t deign to serve the superb stuff. (Seriously, Brooklyn Diner? Really?)

Obviously if I ever get over my love for this blend of flavors and textures I’ll be the first one to write about it and retract any statements I have made which put it on a pedestal above all others. But in the meantime, I embrace my passion for it and proudly wear my love on my sleeve. Nevertheless, I don’t think I would stoop to having one of these. But don’t quote me on it.

The Psychology of Tuesday

Tuesday is Monday’s younger, bratty brother. It’s not quite as jarring since you know it’s coming. But it’s definitely just as tiring and a bit more defeating, since you can’t look forward to anything except it ALMOST being the middle of the week – but not quite.

When I wake up on a Tuesday morning, the hope that I’ll get cognizant and remember something good about the day to come, such as “It’s not gonna be too busy” or “Oh yeah we get free breakfast today” dies quickly and painfully. The realization that I have to get up and go through a whole entire day with nothing but three more days to greet me is staggering. Why does it get me each week? Just when I make it through Monday and feel the slight relief when Monday is finally put behind me, I recall that it won’t be any different the next day. Here’s the super bratty part, the real kick in the teeth. And I have yet to prove myself wrong about this, so clearly we can take what I’m about to say at face value:

Everyone and everything runs late on Tuesdays. Everything. You can go ahead and count on being at least five minutes behind because nothing will run on time and you will not be punctual, no matter how early you set your alarm, no matter how much you WANT to get somewhere on time (much less early – ha!).

Once upon a time when I lived on the Upper East Side of Manhattan and I had to take the God-awful 6 line, squeezing my way into spaces not fit for humans in order to ride downtown, this bit of knowledge or aha! moment hit me one Tuesday morning and I began noticing this hidden Matrix pattern. I started trying to find ways to get around it, but to no avail.

First and foremost, no matter how much I wanted to get in extra sleep on Monday night so I could feel slightly refreshed the next morning (is that even possible? I know NO ONE who feels refreshed on a Tuesday), I would fail miserably. Something inevitably comes up and I either end up staying up late and therefore oversleeping on Tuesday morning, OR I get up and am out the door on time feeling good about myself when I am slammed in the face with other people’s lateness making ME late. Case in point: if you want to arrive early to work for that 8am meeting you have and you usually would leave the house thirty minutes before to get there on time, give yourself a solid ten extra minutes to get there. Trust me on this. It doesn’t matter if you live in New York City, as I do, or if you face a typical suburban commute on the streets or highways. You will face thousands of others who are running late to work at that very moment and the extra traffic, the extra lateness, will affect you and you will just get swept up in the non-punctualness of the day.

The MTA worker who conducts the train either gets up late or runs into traffic himself to get to work, and the subway line that normally runs like clockwork suddenly becomes the train that is running a few minutes behind, thereby becoming that much fuller when everyone who is running late needs to crowd on that one train. Perhaps a girl who is on the go grabs breakfast and crams it down her throat on the subway platform. She gets on her train, gets queasy and throws up (I’ve seen it happen, people). Suddenly there is a medical issue on a train line and all the lines are backed up. Somehow, some way, you will be at least a solid five minutes late on any given Tuesday. If you do manage to survive your commute or are just an annoyingly perky person who arrives just on time, some event will take place that day that will cause you to stay late or be late or your delivery will be late or you will run into the one thing you need to be on time or run properly. And it. just. won’t.

My advice is to just give in and go with the flow. If you set your expectations to Very Low on Tuesday mornings as you get ready for the day, you will be pleasantly surprised at anything that goes your way. Oh, and one last thing: the psychology of Tuesday can also work to the effect of having something run perfectly on time even while you run late. I have actually run late, hoping against hope that the MTA worker overslept and that the train will be running late with me, only to get to the platform breathless and realize that I missed the damn thing by ten seconds. Being ten seconds off will now cost me seven extra minutes on the platform (hopefully only seven) and I will get to work at least five minutes late, as per uge.

Try to evade the dastardly cunning of Tuesday, I dare you. I think you will find it futile, as I have. You can only pray that Wednesday will be without vicissitudes.


VERBOTEN! Set Free on Day 3

I’m doin the coffee dance! You have no idea how happy I am that I finally got the divine release I was craving for 72 hours. After visiting my dentist this morning, I was given the A-OK to drink coffee even right after I got my teeth cleaned. Needless to say, as soon as I put my things down in my cube and booted up my computer, I grabbed my hefty Starbucks mug and headed to the kitchen to fill up all 20 ounces with my aromatic melange of French Roast coffee. As a special props to my office, we have the best-tasting, free office coffee I’ve ever had. That could probably be a post of its own – office coffee – but suffice it to say the coffee here serves all my flavor and caffeine needs. We even have an espresso machine, in case you want to brew strong shots to put in your coffee. (Or you can do like my boss does and drink black espresso. He’s not fuckin’ around.)

Anyway. Apparently I was using way too much of the bleaching gel, which is why I was doing unknown damage to my gums. When I told her that I was using an entire syringe full of the gel in each tray, she got a horrified look on her face and told me that that was WAY too much and that I could even use half a syringe for BOTH trays. She says, “You only filled them up halfway, right?” I told her I had followed the instructions by using a “unit” of the gel but since they don’t say what a unit is, I assumed it was one syringe for each tray.

“Oh no wonder!” she replied. In her extreme Long Island accent, it was more like “Ow now WUN-derr!” (Remember when I mentioned in a previous post that my dentist is chatty? Yeah. It took twenty minutes to even get me lowered in the chair so she could look at my teeth. Then she would start, ask me a question, pull the instrument out and wait for me to talk. The cleaning itself would probably take a half hour but with all the talking, I was there an hour. It’s pretty unreal.)

I haven’t decided if I’m going to subject my mouth to another torturous interlude of bleaching gel but maybe if I drastically reduce the amount of the gel and only do it for a couple of hours, I can withstand it. My dentist was highly encouraging of me to continue for a couple more sessions to get my teeth a bit whiter. But she approved of the level of whiteness thus far. So at least the pain was worth a professional nod towards the results.

What have I learned from the past 72 hours? I now know that I depend on coffee to keep me productive and that it plays a vital role in my morning routine at work. Not only that, but it keeps me full between meals when I’m on a strict budget and have small meals like a Hot Pocket and a small bag of chips for lunch (after a breakfast of yogurt and what else, coffee). Never again will I take it for granted. It was all I could do not to grin at my mug while I was stirring it this morning, at the same time thinking, “Mine! All mine!” Tasting the familiar bittersweet concoction on my tongue was pure bliss. I exaggerate not. I could literally feel the joy my veins were experiencing as the coffee flowed through them.

So relieved am I that I can have brown drinks again, that I might go full throttle and have some Coke Zero tonight. That’ll help me get through the ordeal of going to the laundromat. It’s gonna be a wild night.


     I’m not gonna lie. I’m hurtin’. It’s 11:44am and I haven’t had a drop of the good stuff since Sunday morning. Right now I would give anything to be brewing a pot of my cheap, Folger’s French Roast coffee. Only until now did I understand the truth behind, “The best part of waking up…” If you don’t know the end of that phrase, you’re either younger than 12 or lived in a cave in the 80s and 90s.

     I am not a happy camper and I really want coffee. Last night, I went to do the teeth bleaching again before bed and within three minutes of the gel hitting my gums, I had to run to the bathroom and scour my mouth out with water and my toothbrush. It was SO incredibly painful! I like how the brochure says, “A small percentage of patients will experience some sensitivity with their gums and should consult their dentist, who may recommend that you only use it every other night.” Uh huh. This was no slight sensitivity. This was like having hydrocholoric acid eat away at my gumline with a dollop of urethane on my tooth enamel. So I slept blissfully bleach free for the night and am experiencing only mild discomfort today in terms of tooth sensitivity. I will also not be doing anything tonight since I’m having my teeth cleaned tomorrow morning and I’d have to be under anesthesia to even attempt having dental instruments pick at my gums after a “gentle bleaching.”

     So this is the price of vanity. I remain resolute in not attempting these things frequently (if at all). I have no idea how people do painful chemical peels, Botox, lipo, face lifts, nose jobs, any kind of “plasty,” and all the rest of it. I guess I’d never make it in Hollywood or any other entertainment-based industry where your looks get you everywhere. I’ll just stay wholesome, a.k.a., Midwestern.

     This isn’t the end of the story, since I still have to wait for my teeth pores to close before having coffee. I’m dragging my ass behind me in a wheelbarrow, I can tell you that. I now realize how much I have come to depend on coffee allowing me to only get 6.5-7 hours of sleep each night; because who has time to get 8 and over? I certainly don’t.

     To sign off for now, I leave you with a delightful homemade video to Rockapella’s Folger’s commercial from the 90s:



     The things we do for vanity are pretty funny (and lots of the time, painful).  By nature I am not a very vain person. Sure, I wash my face and brush my teeth and get my nails done. I buy lots of makeup and perfume and I like to think I don’t wear too many unflattering clothes…most of the time.

     The one thing I have avoided doing for quite some time is teeth whitening. Maybe it’s because I never thought I’d need it or I didn’t want to be so vain as to become one of those people obsessed with how white her teeth are. Americans are known for their straight, bright and white smiles.  When you Google “American smile,” this is the first thing that comes up (complete with a woman with a lovely 80s hairdo). But after years of coffee drinking and chocolate eating, my teeth have done what comes naturally to them and have slightly yellowed. When I visited my new dentist in February of this year, one of the first things she did was to see if my insurance would cover the ZOOM! teeth whitening system she promotes.

     She made sure to tell me how much better my teeth would look when they were whitened; to the point where it made me wonder if I had been frightening people with my au naturel look. I also have a real chatterbox, female dentist from Long Island, complete with stereotypical exaggerated Long Island accent. I enjoy how gregarious she is but sometimes my appointments run long because she’s gabbing at me and not concentrating on the actual dental work part. She means well, though. I know that if I were around that accent 24/7, I would definitely pick it up and start saying “Oh my GAWD.” Perhaps that’s what she said internally when she saw my teeth. Who’s to say?

     My insurance covered the whitening system and soon I was fitted with trays and sent off with my little syringes of teeth bleach. I had several warnings to heed before I could embark on the journey to achieving my American smile, however. Even more than the side effect of raging sensitivity to hot and cold that comes with using this system (and I can attest that if teeth could scream, mine would sound like they were on a torture rack) are the words that have stuck with me for six months: “You can’t have dark things while you’re bleaching your teeth since the pores are opened up. So no coffee, chocolate, ketchup – you know, things like that.” Of course, I immediately latched onto the fact that I can’t have coffee and chocolate. In the olden days, before I had a real dependency on coffee (B.C., I guess), I would not have had a problem with this. But with my very early, corporate schedule, I have come to depend on the rich, onyx liquid to keep me sane and provide a delicious distraction in the mornings.

     Six months later, I still hadn’t done anything with the teeth whitening system. I have an appointment on Wednesday to get my teeth cleaned and I can only imagine what she’d say if I go in and they’re not whitened yet. Between that and a wedding I’m going to at the end of the month, I decided on Sunday night to just get it over with and try it out. Part of it’s vanity (I do have some pride in my appearance), but mostly it’s to avoid having to explain to my dentist why I never did it. Six months is a long time to avoid doing something. But the fear of having my teeth be extremely sensitive to hot and cold the rest of my life coupled with not being able to imbibe on the Black Magic and okay, throw in some laziness (I mean, three extra minutes in the bathroom dealing with this in the morning? God…) and it was enough to keep me from doing it. And you know what, I just don’t need to hear how yellow my teeth are come Wednesday morning. So I’m gritting my teeth (excuse the poor pun) and bearing it.

     It is now Monday at 3:30pm. Without my morning brew of one cup decaf mixed with one cup regular French Roast in my giant Starbucks mug (complete with half ‘n half and Splenda), I was starving by lunchtime, since my little bowl of granola cereal only lasted so long without the accompanying fullness of the coffee. I’m longingly staring at people brewing their cup o’ joe and trying to avoid the kitchen. I don’t need the wake-up aspect of coffee as much as I want the flavor. I can already tell I’ll be worser off as the week goes on. Luckily I’m doing my teeth bleaching in two stages: two nights in a row, then teeth cleaning at the dentist come Wednesday and assess from there. Let’s hope I get the Long Island Dentist’s approval so I can stop this self-induced torture and get back to having bean juice flow through my veins.

     I hope I make it to Friday.  More to come.

  <~~me at my desk without coffee

Sick Pen Obsession

You know how people who make it really big in their careers always credit their success to the fact that they always knew since they were an itty bitty kid that they wanted to do what they do? Mariah Carey is reported to have begun singing since she was 2 years old. Same thing with Christina Aguilera. I just read something the other day about an 8 year-old blues guitar prodigy. Or maybe he’s not a prodigy but since he was 3, he knew he wanted to play guitar and has obsessively played for five hours a day ever since. Now he’s jamming and headlining at dive bars. While I am passionate about many things (and mind you, I began playing the piano at the tender age of 6 but I am not a career pianist by any means), I don’t really know what it says about me that since I was a little kid I have had a love for the physical act of putting pen to paper, writing in cursive (and writing WELL in cursive), sending and receiving letters, signing up for a pen pal through Teen Magazine…you get the point. That has transcended into a full-blown obsession with pens. Especially colored pens. The photo I found online of all those colored pens in a stationery store epitomizes for me the entire pen shopping, pen loving experience.

I love looking at all the colors and styles, gel vs. ballpoint, fine tip to medium tip, etc. I can’t tell you how thrilled I was when Sharpie expanded their permanent marker line to include tons of colors, as well as putting them in their fine point line. Even though I may not use all of my pens, and in fact a lot of them dry out before I can maximize their writing potential, I love having the array to look at. It’s bizarre how aesthetic it is for me. Gelly Roll pens are great because they have glorious, beautiful smooth ink (gel pen but also on a fine ballpoint tip) that come in dozens of colors – including silver and gold! I use those exclusively at Christmastime. My favorite though, is Pilot’s G-2 07. I’m even putting a photo of it on here, just to illustrate its simplistic pen beauty.

It’s a gel ink writing instrument with a fine, pointy tip, rubber grip and has the fun clicker so you don’t have to worry about the cap. It’s fun, efficient, smooth, pretty and practical. Wow it’s like looking in a mirror if I were a pen. I began using these in college and when they came out with the expanded color line, I bought several sets and have never looked back.

I carry at least one black and maybe one color with me in my purse at all times, so I am absolutely one of those people who always has a pen on her person (versus the person who never has one and assumes that someone else will always have one, which is not always the case. Sidebar: lighters are a different matter. I WANT to be one of those people who has a lighter on me, strictly for emergency purposes, but I never do.) My pen-carrying habit has served me well in New York City, where despite the number of delivery services who now take credit cards, they do not always send delivery people out with pens for orders put on a credit card. Enter Zoe – Mistress of the Pens. But this also means I guard my pen(s) carefully. If you ask to borrow my pen, I will take all the mental notes down: who, when, which pen, how long you keep it and if you chew on it (ummmm, rude and gross).

It amazes me that there are pens that cost hundreds (and even thousands) of dollars in the world. The only company I know of that has some prestige is Mont Blanc but I know there are plenty of others. My mother knows how to write beautifully in calligraphy. Alas, it was a crushing blow to realize that as patient as I am, I do not possess the necessary deftness of hand (or fingertips, perhaps?) to write well in calligraphy. Plus, it’s very messy. Ink everywhere if you don’t know what you’re doing. Once, as a wedding gift, my mother wrote out all the wedding invitations for her best friend’s daughter in her stunning calligraphy. Like, she has to dip the pen in the ink jar and blot it and everything. No wonder people didn’t learn how to write as much back in the day. It took two hours to write four sentences. I would have stayed ignorant, too. Okay maybe not but still, I see the challenges they had to overcome, including how much feather quills, ink and parchment paper had to cost.

My problem is that when I go into an office supply store or God forbid a stationery store, where they have all the best kinds of pens in supply (don’t even get me started on stationery), it doesn’t matter how many pens I currently have at home already, I always become tempted to buy more. I love discovering all the new ones I haven’t yet seen and of course I always question if I need a third or fourth gold ink pen – just in case the other ones crap out on me. A girl in a bind is one without a gold Gelly Roll pen. Those Christmas cards aren’t going to have a matching ink-colored theme on their own.

At work, I feel so out of control that I cannot amass the type of pen collection I really want to have, at the company’s expense of course. I’m toying with the idea of asking to see the company’s catalogue from which we order office supplies, just so I can scan the pens and markers section to see what I could get away with. I can’t tell you how many times a day I glance over at my simple black pen cup, sitting full with its boring collection of black and blue roller ball pens, the occasional (shudder) blue or black Papermate stick pen sitting there (always unused). My eyes glaze over in sadness at the lack of cheerful colors that are not there to greet me. The pen snob in me cannot get down onto the Bic/Papermate level and just go ahead and use one of these so-called “writing instruments.” When I ask others if I can borrow a pen and I am handed one, I inwardly sigh and resign myself to attempting to scrawl with such an inferior item. Exhibit A: my pen cup at work:

Am I a huge dork? Yes. Yes, I am. Can you come to my apartment and discover that my pen (and stationery….and boxes of cards…) obsession knows no bounds? You can. Will I be one of those old women who, upon her death, her children (or the authorities…) will go through her belongings and find a variety of beautiful pens in all different shapes, styles and colors? Most likely. But if you were to randomly approach me, a desperate gleam in your eye and say, “Do you have a pen I could borrow?” I can proudly say, “I sure do.” But I will watch you like a hawk until it is returned safely to me.

Apartment hunting with Craigslist in NYC or, Five Weeks of Rejection from Strangers

*Thanks to David for his lovely photos of Astoria while he was in town.*

Recently, I had the pleasure (read: horror) of apartment hunting. Again. Throw in the facts that I’m in New York City, I have to look for a roommate situation since I’m broke AND it’s summertime and well, you just triple your fun. Let me start at the beginning, because why I was looking in the first place deserves its own story.

I moved out of my boyfriend’s apartment in February of this year, deciding I wanted to try Astoria, Queens. It’s convenient to Manhattan, less expensive and still has most of the conveniences New Yorkers come to depend on. Roasted peanuts guy? Check. Street meat guy? Check. Drugstore on every corner? Check. Bodegas that sell lotto tickets, beer and questionable deli meat? Yup. Unlike some other parts of the outer boroughs, you can even catch NYC taxi cabs since both the Queensboro and Triborough Bridges run to Astoria. And when those fail you, there are plenty of gypsy cabs to be hailed (or who will honk at you while you’re walking down the street or standing at the curb, regardless if you look like you need a cab or not). For those who are unfamiliar, a gypsy cab is a random sedan that doesn’t look like any sort of cab but maybe a car you would ride in from the airport with a shady car service. There are no meters and if you do not explicitly ask how much the driver will charge you before you get in the car, prepare to be ripped off. Moving on.

I had apartment hunted on Craigslist once before, when I first moved to New York in 2005. So I did what any person who can’t afford a broker fee does – I looked for a room/share situation. So I repeated the process and successfully found an apartment on the second story of a house in the Heart of Astoria (around 30th Avenue). It was almost too easy, between the seemingly instant roommate chemistry and it being the first place I looked at. Turns out, it was too easy. While the rent was reasonable and the landlord even paid for all the utilities (including electricity!), things quickly unraveled. Come to find out, I was living with a woman in her early 30s who did not live as though she had two other roommates, unless it was convenient for her. If she needed someone to check on her loud, screeching bird while she was away on weekends or needed a body to let a delivery guy in, she would casually ask you about your weekend before asking you for a favor. The other time she appreciated you was for paying for anything she didn’t want to buy on her own, so she would buy stuff “for the apartment” and then ask you for the money, claiming it as a shared expense. I believe I paid for a new shower rod, painting supplies, various cleaning supplies and a hamper that acted as a recycling bin, which was already purchased and in use when I moved in. She also needed quarters to wash the kitchen tablecloth one afternoon, another “shared” expense. Otherwise, she lived in the house as if she was the only one there, with visitors in and out at random or planned ahead but up to a week at a time, exercising late at night, vacuuming at times when most people are asleep, taking 30 minute showers in the mornings AND at midnight (sometimes with the bird, sometimes without) – the list goes on. Throw into the mix that she turned out to be an anal control freak about cleaning (the smell of bleach permeated our house every weekend – it was like living with my Italian mother all over again) AND she was a passive aggressive, Olympic Gold Medalist in the sport of pathological lying, and I threw in my hat and decided I needed to vacate immediately. This is only half the problem, as the other half turned out to be the crazy landlady who clearly received her real estate license at a drive-thru, as adhering to any kind of tenant law was beyond her scope of capability (or caring). We scalded ourselves on the metal shower knobs, had to light matches to turn the gas burners on, froze in the winter with our poor radiators and thermostat set at 68 degrees and suffocated in the summer from their having kindly painted our living room windows shut when she conceded to repaint. The only time she sent her soon-to-be-ex husband/super to come even replace a lightbulb was if we threatened a lawsuit.

Armed with what I knew I didn’t want in a roommate (e.g., liars, OCD, had noisy pets, drug addicts, complete slobs and aggressive passive-aggressivity), I quietly began searching for a new place to live with two weeks left in June. That gave me six whole weeks to look if I gave notice on June 30. Inwardly, I scoffed at how much time I had on my hands, eagerly anticipating that I could probably land something by July 1st or 15th. Clearly my optimistm had toked on some very good crack-cocaine or crystal meth. I had no idea what I was about to embark upon.

Combing through the Room/Shares listings became my second job. I already work nine to ten hours a day at a desk job, but whenever I could get away with it, I read and replied to ads, frantically checking my email to see if anyone had written back. If I wasn’t responding to ads, I was filling my evenings with as many apartment appointments as possible (which weren’t that many), thinking that since it’s all a numbers game, something would pop within two weeks. I didn’t really believe I could land something on the first or second place I saw, since that clearly didn’t work out for me. But I naively did not understand how many new kids move to this city in the summertime, thereby exponentially increasing my competition for the finite number of (crappy) room/shares available. If you ever saw the episode of Friends where Ross bribes the current renter of the apartment he wants by sending him a basket of mini muffins and hanging out with the guy naked (it was Ugly Naked Guy’s apartment, remember?), it really does have that much of a feeling of desperation stickily shellacking the entire experience. And not for nothing, but when it’s balls hot outside and you are visiting other people’s apartments that probably don’t have air conditioning, it intensifies the desperation.

But having lived in New York for three years and this being my third time doing a Craigslist roommate situation, I felt I had a superior edge over those who were moving here and would just throw their stuff and money down to the first people who opened their door to them. I assumed that since I am a normal, down-to-earth person who has a pretty decent sense of humor and knows how to write and spell correctly (and let’s face it, a serial killer could write and spell correctly but we generally take people more seriously who know how to put sentences together with correct grammar and punctuation), that I would get snatched up quickly. Writing your introduction email to the people who are posting ads for an available room is exactly like writing a cover letter for a job. Once you have the right one down, you simply change the facts that will be appropriate for the place at which you’re applying. I had quickly thrown together a 2-3 paragraph introduction about myself, including all the basic need-to-know stuff, a few extras to display some semblance of personality and occasionally inserted something slightly witty but not overly quirky – you don’t wanna scare any potential roommates off.

But there is a delicate balance to this process. You can’t write too much nor too little. Any typo or spelling error will convey that you are either careless or a moron, or a careless moron. If you do not address each of the specific roommate qualities or answer the questions that the roommate seeker puts forth in the ad, you could and would certainly be disqualified. Then there is the je ne sais quoi aspect of the entire thing, which is to say that there is an intangible factor that no one can ever predict why someone does or does not respond. And it’s a two-way street: if I do not hear back from a person within a couple of days, I write that one off. I got at least two emails weeks after my original reply, asking me if I was still looking for a place. Even if I had been, it is obvious I could not count on that person to be reliable or even really interested in me – s/he was just scraping from the bottom of the barrel. No thanks. I did not want to simply be just one-third or one-half of the rent to the landlord. I was really looking for a home, and you have a small window of a few minutes to take in everything you can about someon else’s apartment, where you have to ask yourself, “Could I live here? Could I deal with that grout in the bathroom? What’s that smell? Could I get rid of that? Is there room for my DVD collection?”

My friends agree that when apartment hunting in New York, one must ALWAYS ask him or herself the following question: “What’s the catch?” I defy anyone to move to this city and not have at least one glaring flaw or big catch to the living situation he or she chooses. Usually, it’s the cost of the rent. But after rent comes the question of landlord, size, location/neighborhood, proximity to the subway, and let’s not forget – the current roommates with whom you’ll be living. I had presumed that since Astoria was such a popular place to live (albeit old), that it would not be difficult to find a decent apartment. I could not have been more wrong. I probably interviewed at two dozen places, most of which were tiny shoeboxes, with rent ranging from $750 to $950 for my share. Putting the common area of the apartment aside, the issues with the rooms ran the gamut of whether it was too small to even fit a double bed and a dresser (aka “cozy” or “nice size”), didn’t have any windows, didn’t come with a closet, hadn’t seen a coat of paint or spackling in two decades, had questionable flooring, couldn’t accommodate an air-conditioner, had accoutrements on the wall(s) that couldn’t be removed, were a horrid color, came partially furnished, didn’t have a real door and you had to enter through either the bathroom or the roommate’s room (really), shared a wall with the one roommate you were interviewing with that you just knew would do something noisy or gross to disturb you, faced a “courtyard” or a brick wall or the trash bins, and the list goes on and on.

My needs were simple, at least to me: I wanted a room more than 10×10 since I had 5 pieces of bedroom furniture to cram into it, at least one functioning window that could accommodate an air conditioner, preferably uncarpeted, with its own door (yes, my own door!) and if there was no decent closet, space to put my wardrobe that I had purchased for my current apartment (where I also had no closet – but instead, six large windows facing west that baked me in the summer like I was in my own terrarium). I also required there to be enough living room space to accommodate a bookshelf, two DVD stands and possibly a small purple bucket chair. I also have some kitchen things. I knew I was pushing the boundaries of the room/share situation since I have enough stuff to help furnish an apartment, but I had never had any trouble fitting these things into any other apartment I had lived in – and this was my fifth move! Five. In three years. Yeah.

I got a LOT of “You sound like a great/ideal roommate” responses. And let’s face it, I’m awesome. But as I learned, I had to be wary because there are freaks out there who post for a roommate but have something else in mind altogether or conveniently forget to tell you that the 2-bedroom apartment they advertised was really a 1-bedroom but s/he was going to live in the living room. I wanted a real place to live. Not a dorm. I visited an absolutely gorgeous, newly constructed 3-bedroom apartment that clearly was meant for recent college graduates. The living room (or “common area,” as college kids call it) was probably 5×7, adjacent to the same open area as the kitchen. The absolutely gigantic side-by-side, stainless steel refrigerator sat where a table might go, as it was too large to sit next to the counter and stove across from it. All three bedroom doors faced the living room, two in the back and one in the front. All three bedrooms were way too small for what you were paying. I quickly interviewed with the nice kids who lived there and said I would be in touch. As with job interviews, there is a definite code for if you will hear back from someone and whether they will hear from you. What I didn’t understand was, these people are interviewing strangers to come into their home to potentially live there. Why not come up with some questions to ask? Is it really that hard? Surely they must have some semblance of an idea of the type of roommate I want. But I lost count of how many apartments I showed up at where I had to carry the conversation all on my own. I loathe talking about the weather, but it was a frequent topic of discussion. I had to compliment furniture or floor plans I thought were hideous, ask about hobbies and backgrounds, anything and everything to come across as a laid back person who can carry a conversation. Meanwhile, that person is sizing you up in ways you can’t even imagine. I got turned down via email immediately after an hour-long interview, saying they were going with someone else. I got the hint. I wasn’t the right fit. I wasn’t overly broken-hearted.

Then you have the scam artists. One girl was advertising for an apartment at which she hadn’t even signed the lease. She and I hit it off in our emails but then when I learned that she didn’t even have the place yet, I began to get suspicious. She eventually did sign the lease, but because she was also paying a broker’s fee, she was only advertising what she wanted the roommate’s share of the rent to be but wouldn’t part with the information on how much the apartment actually cost per month. I caught on to that one pretty quickly, thank God. I saw her ad go up every other day until she finally found someone about four weeks in. Another guy wanted to meet at a coffee shop to see if we had the right vibe before he even showed me the apartment. I agreed, but only because his ad was very well written and he came across as a nice guy with a dog that he liked to take to the park. Towards the end of our emailing, he threw me his MySpace link and told me to check it out. I was at work but a friend of mine agreed to look at it for me, just so I could get some background info before our little tete-a-tete. I got a sour feeling in my stomach when the link turned out to be his name followed by “datesyourmom.” His favorite book was American Psycho, favorite movie was A Clockwork Orange, one of his “interests” was beautiful women and he had all kinds of girls writing on his page things like, “Hey lol why is your phone off? I keep trying to call you lol.” I quickly wrote him that after checking out his profile I didn’t think we were a match. He was fine with it so that was the end of that.

The other dude apartments I actually got to visit weren’t much better. I tried to keep an open mind that the apartments didn’t necessarily have to be gross if they were advertising that they were clean and were open to having a female roommate. But each time, I would enter and my hopes would be dashed virtually instantaneously. Clear signs that the place was not meant for a girly girl: dartboard or foosball table in the living room, shitty, ragged or makeshift furniture, weird smell and/or just downright filthy. One dude apartment was right next to the elevated subway tracks and you could barely hear yourself think every 2-5 minutes as a train squealed overhead. The guy was nice enough but he thought his apartment was just the absolute shit and actually said to me after a few minutes of me trying to keep my eyes from bugging out of my head in disbelief, “So ya diggin it? You like it more than your current place?” I had no words. How could I possibly tell him that I was living in an apartment three times the size of his on a beautiful, tree-lined street where things were kept clean and the subway is blissfully far enough away? Moreover, the amazing bedroom he had for rent was an oversized closet that boasted its own (teensy) balcony that overlooked a crappy backyard onto the backs of other crappy buildings. I told him I would let him know my decision in a few days time and he did the laid back cool guy thing by saying, “By all means, go check out some other places and then let me know.” I think he really convinced himself I’d come back and say “Hey roomie when can I give you a check?!” I saw a revised ad for that same place a few days later where they stipulated that a girly girl probably would not be a good fit and they wanted someone who could fit into their beer swizzling lives. That would have been nice to know upfront. The other dude apartment I saw was bigger and less offensive but the room for rent had no window except for a skylight in the ceiling and thus you’d have to get creative about staying cool. I’m really sensitive to heat so this just wasn’t going to fly. As it was, I was roasting in the apartment just standing in there and had already made up my mind (dartboard in the living room! Ding.). Plus, I was doing the tour with this other desperate guy who was trying to vacate his place in Spanish Harlem and he was basically telling the guys he’d take the place on the spot. I dutifully filled out the “interested parties” sheet where we put our names and phone numbers but I emailed the guys a short while later to politely decline. As an aside, I hate having simultaneous interviews because you’re expected to be friendly to this person who is competing with you for the same place. You can’t be yourself, and if you’re less yourself, you have even less of a chance of impressing the person or people considering you as a roommate. When I showed up and there was already someone in the apartment or someone showed up shortly after me, I took off major points for the people interviewing, because it was so disingenuous.*  And as it turns out, I moved in with someone with whom I had a one-on-one with no interruptions. So there you have it.

In apartment hunting, you can’t take anything personally, but that’s harder to practice than it sounds. I had zero problems with writing to someone whom I had just told “Yeah I’ll be in touch, I’m totally interested” that in fact, I had given it “serious consideration” but had decided to go with another place. Similarly, I got turned down just like that – sometimes sooner, sometimes later. The worst was getting turned down for the apartment(s) I really, really wanted and from the people I really clicked with. At one point, I had received so many “Thanks but we’ve gone with someone else” emails that I began speculating that I was getting turned down because I’m not skinny. I just couldn’t possibly fathom why the decision process was taking so goddamn long. I’d meet someone, we’d have an awesome interview (and the good ones lasted anywhere from 40 minutes to an hour) and then I’d express my total interest and s/he’d say “Well we’re making our decision in about a week and a half.” And I was just shocked. I was getting turned down practically on a daily basis in favor of others had been decided upon immediately, but I always got the people who had to really think on the decision. I wanted to scream. I’m totally normal! Courteous! Respectful! I pay bills on time! Clean! I just have more furniture than the average person who can’t afford her own apartment and has to ask permission to move in to someone else’s.

After looking for one solid month, having two interviews with these two fantastic people who lived not very far away and really believing I had it in the bag, I received a call about their final decision on Friday, July 18, the same day I had one of my best friends in town. (Thank God he wasn’t around when I got the call, seeing as I promptly burst into tears upon hearing I didn’t get it.) It was a very kind turn-down, and the guy even expressed how disappointed he was that he couldn’t take both me and the Other Perfect Roommate, but they “went with a hunch” and were turning me down. I was taken aback, appalled, a little hurt and so fucking tired of apartment hunting at that point. It was all I could do to get off the phone without my voice wavering and sounding like a 5th grader who just got picked last for kickball. I had my defeated crying jag complete with sniveling and feeling very sorry for myself, but what other choice did I have but to pick myself up and continue apartment hunting? I saw two more places that same weekend and incidentally was picked as a roommate (versus the other place at which I interviewed twice – again! – but I think the fact that I wanted to get cable and they were anti-TV was the deciding factor), but it was with an apartment that I never really believed I’d get. Maybe in the end that’s why I got it, since my expectations were so low and I was just like “Yeah, whatever” about it.

Since I was keeping an open mind, let’s remember, I responded to the posting for this 2-bedroom place because it was right down the street from me and I thought, eh what can it hurt? I could tell by the way it was written that a guy had written it. That’s no disrespect to guys, but they write very differently than a female. The ad was strictly about the apartment with bare bones details. The saving grace was that there were some photos attached, so at least you could see that it was a cute place. Keeping my expectations in the gutter, I went and met with my soon-to-be-roommate but I barely glanced at the bathroom and kitchen and just focused on having a nice conversation. I was shocked when he flat out offered to have me apply for it (with a legitimate landlord!). Incidentally, between my credit score and the fact that I’m awesome (I have to believe that), I was chosen to move in and it was the best move I’ve had in three years. I moved 500 feet down the street and didn’t even have to rent a truck. The relief that came when I signed my name over the old tenant’s on the lease and got new keys was immense. I didn’t really know what to do with myself when I got to work and I didn’t have to go onto Craigslist anymore. I had grown to loathe Craig and his list. I had started to become bitter about New Yorkers and living in this godforsaken town. But Craigslist came through for me once again and so far, I’m happily residing psycho-free. I made it over the cuckoo’s nest.

*I changed the word “ingenuine” to “disingenuous” because the Grammar Police alerted me to my incorrect word. Apparently my blog is “aflood” with errors. Not like I care too much, but I don’t like using erroneous or fake words.*