WHILE CONGRESS is balancing the national budget on Capitol Hill, the occupants of my group house on Meridian Hill have a domestic budget to balance. Two of our seven housemates have lost their jobs and are leaving town, casualties in the battle for public funds. Andrew, who works for the soon-to-be-abolished Heritage Conservation and Recreation Service, is moving to California, and Dave, last-hired-first-fired at National Public Radio, will return to his native Philadelphia next month. We must find replacements for them swiftly, or our own budgets will need attention.
We know what to do. In the four-year-history of this house on 16th Street, there have been no fewer than 25 occupants. That makes 6 1/4 roommates a year -- rather high even in a city noted for its transient population, but not unusual for a group house. We have interviewed so many people that the process takes place like a reflex.
Someone posts a sign in Food For Thought, a laid-back Dupont Circle restaurant with a closely read bulletin board. Notices go up on boards at George Washington University and Antioch Law School as well. The sign reads: "Wanted: Housemates (2) for large, friendly group house in Mount Pleasant Call -------."
The sign in atypical. Most houses are looking for "nonsmoking, politically conscious, cat-loving vegetarians interested in making a real commitment to group living."
Group houses are formed for a variety of reasons. Some people, like the collection of left-over Yippies living in the building behind us, are drawn together for ideological purposes. Others seek friendship and stability in a large, indifferent city. We set up housekeeping together for economic considerations. The signs randomly pinned to bulletin boards around town advertise more than just a room available, they symbolize different lifestyles.
There are two categories of group house: those with work wheels organizing household responsibilities and those without. Work-wheel environments generally include shared evening meals, house outings and regular meetings.
We have no work wheel, which is to say chores are done, but done necessarily at regular intervals. Mostly the house is cleaned on a catch-as-catch-can basis, with whoever has the least tolerance for a particular mess clearing it up. The sign we post is designed to attract the non-work-wheel type. The question is, can we find two of them before next month's rent is due? Sunday
We get our first call late this morning and try to set up a time to show the house. Generally the procedure for finding a new housemate involves two interviews, one for the person to see the house, and one for the housemates to see the person. No one is chosen until everyone has met, and agreed on, a particular person.
For us the ideal housemate pays bills on time, is congenial, picks up after himself, can whip up a batch of spaghetti without too much trouble and has a toaster oven. Toaster ovens are highly prized items in group houses, as are all kitchen appliances. We have been known to choose a person with a toaster oven over someone who could make excellent spaghetti.
I go out for the afternoon and when I return a note on the refrigerator reads: "DISASTER!!! Our house is being sold. See Elaine for details." Sold. The inevitable has happened. We have joined the great Washington real estate shuffle. Soon we too will be checking the bulletin board in Food For Thought, vying for rooms in other group houses. Monday
I rush home from work to meet the first prospective housemate who arrives at 9, two hours late. While we are waiting, Elaine tells us about her chat with the real estate agent. The house, owned by a group of people, will be sold within the next few months. Someone will come by later in the week to inform us of our rights and appraise the value of the house. Looking for housemates while the house is being sold is demoralizing, to say the least.
The interview is tricky business. When all the rooms have been shown and all the treasures of the house revealed (we boast a rickety ping-pong table which doubles as a dining room table, a complete set of encyclopedias, a washing machine, a six-burner stove and a popcorn popper) we ask the first question: Do you have group living experience? Experience is important, although first-timers have been accepted in the past. We ask about cats, because we have two, and about cars, because we are minus one parking space.
Food and eating habits are also discussed. Food, a subject of intense, often fanatic opinions, has become a bone of contention in more than one group house. With a few exceptions we are undogmatic omnivores practicing economic vegetarianism. There is a small food-buying co-op, currently consisting of one member. The rest of us fend for ourselves, and it is not unlikely to see seven opened jars of mustard in the refrigerator. Those who feel so inclined eat together, but shared meals are neither a tradition nor a goal.
The first visitor is John, a carpenter of Turkish descent in his late twenties, wearing overalls and an Indian print scarf. He has a van. We show him around and chat for a while. Yes, he saw the sign in Food For Thought. No, we do not want another cat. Would we object if his girlfriend moves in as soon as she graduates from high school, he asks. We object, vehemently. We take his number and send him on his way. Tuesday
I rush home from work to have dinner with Charito, the Philippine woman who lives in the English basement apartment downstairs. She has been preparing dinner since early this morning, the exotic smells wafting through the house and settling in my room on the third floor. It seems a shame to spoil the meal with the news that the house is being sold. We discuss the possibility that her apartment will remain available, although, of course, the change of ownership means the rent will increase. I scarcely have time for dessert, a specialty made of coconut milk, before the next visitor arrives.
Emil is a slender man in his thirties who makes lentil and sprout sandwiches on whole wheat bread for a living. He walks through the rooms, touching the walls and doors, and pronounces finally that he likes the "vibrations" in the house. Fortunately, he does not believe in cars. Before leaving he asks us our signs so he can determine our astrological compatibility. He eats a macrobiotic diet and is not pleased about sharing a kitchen with meat eaters.
The second interview that evening is Jenny, a quiet young woman who cooks for a wealthy Capitol Hill couple. It is impossible to get to know her because she does not offer any information about herself. She likes music, judging from the day-glo green violin case she carries. All in all, she seems a bit young and introverted for our house, although her offer to provide us with half-price bread from the Women's Community Bakery is definitely a mark in her favor. Wednesday
Filling a group house is more than a process: It is a hobby, something to occupy one's spare time, a way to meet people, a focus for conversation. Everywhere I go I mention the rooms open in our house. In this city's increasingly tighter housing market the informal channels are often the most effective.
Three more prospective housemates come by today. The first is Jack, an enthusiastic fellow with wild red hair and freckles. He finished Georgetown University in December, he tells us, a history major, and is looking for a job in a congressional office on Capitol Hill. Jack likes the house very much, but he is concerned about the food situation. Although he is Irish Catholic, he keeps kosher, and he wonders if we would be willing to set aside a few cabinets for his special dishes and pans.
Next is Bill, a small fellow with dark hair and intense eyes. His only interest in life is Go, a Japanese game of strategy with a following which rivals chess. He came to Washington last week because he heard there was a large Go-playing community here. His goal is to study with a Go master in Japan. To reach that end he plans to live an ascetic existence on the small salary from his newly found job as a pinball machine jockey and save as much money as possible. His food habits? Strictly sukiyaki.
Later that evening Susan comes by. She looks familiar. "Don't I know you?" we ask each other. And then I remember she lives in the group house of a friend of mine a few blocks away. She is looking for a new room, it turns out, because her house is being sold, too. Thursday
We finally meet the real estate agent. She looks like her business cards, stylish but understated. Around her neck is an immense chain of keys, all part of the city's housing shuffle. From her briefcase she takes a tape measure and examines each room, jotting notes on a pad. She checks the furnace, the hot water heater, the fixtures, and pronounces the house worth $150,000.
Lighting cigarettes at discreet intervals, she explains our situation. We have 90 days to negotiate buying the house, as individuals or a group. We have another 90 days after the house is sold to relocate. She wants to make a deal: If we leave by the end of May we can forgo the rent on the two empty rooms. Then she offers us a smaller house in a less desirable neighborhood for more money. It is scant consolation. Friday
By the time I arrive home the real estate agent is already showing the house to prospective buyers. Our party room has suddenly become the dining room. Our kitchen is now the "breakfast nook." A third-floor bedroom is turned into a "walk-in closet."
While the agent is extolling the virtues of this town house, someone appears at the door. He has seen our ad in Food For Thought and wants to take a look at the room. Come in, come in, we say. We show him the "breakfast nook" first. Saturday
When I leave the house this morning I see that a large FOR SALE sign has sprouted in the front yard. Beneath it I add a smaller, handwritten sigh which reads: "Wanted: Housemates (2) for large, friendly, soon-to-be group house. Apply within."