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Live from New York


It's funny living in someone else's life space.

Last December, I spent a frustrating 10 minutes combing the kitchen of my New York City sublet seeking a fork. The realization dawned slowly that the Chinese couple we'd rented from were much more adept with chopsticks than I ever expect to be, and had no need of such things.

This holiday season, I'm struggling to figure out our host's robotic vacuum. It's not going too well, I can tell by the dog hair swirling in the cold breeze from the window--which is open because the radiator is relentless.

There's lots of talk in the alternative newsweekly industry that Craig's List online classifieds will be the end of one of our revenue streams. But for me personally, it's launched a whole new way of vacationing.

For about the price of two nights in a Manhattan hotel, you can sublet a whole apartment for a week.

It's a win-win: The permanent dwellers get guests to cover their rent, collect mail and water plants while they travel. Visitors get a bed, a shower and a kitchen in a non-touristy neighborhood--along with domestic adventures that are quirky but usually painless.

Last year, in our first sublet foray, in addition to a lack of forks, there was no place to sit. We'd agreed beforehand not to touch, move or even look too hard at a 300-year-old daybed that had been in our host's family since it was new. (And yes, I did picture my 110-pound Lab's toenails going through the antique hand-woven cane seat; it kept me up some nights). There was exactly one chair in the apartment--a beautiful, carved affair that fit one person just fine. We threw a New Year's Eve party and the rest of us sat on the bed or fold-up camp chairs; it was fine. But who'd have thunk to ask, while corresponding by e-mail with a stranger, whether they owned a couch?

This year, our potential host asked where in North Carolina we lived. Turns out he did his Ph.D at Duke a few years ago. He worked on Michael Peterson's city council campaign; we know a lot of the same people.

We also bonded over dog love--he's got three. When I mentioned we wanted to bring our two, he refused my offer of a security deposit, saying: "You're from the Triangle? And you're dog people? That's good enough for me."

He's in India for three weeks; we are here feeding his fish (his dogs are at a cousin's) and rearranging his closet to squeeze in our winter coats.

This sublet thing has proved to me about New York lodging what I already knew about food, transportation and entertainment here--a little creativity goes a long way in one's wallet. Sure, Manhattan's expensive if you eat at Café Des Artistes and take taxis everywhere, but there are also 75-cent pork buns in Chinatown and a hole in the ground around the corner where, for $2, a train will take you anywhere in the city (at least until they go on strike).

Entertainment is easy to come by. There's free art all over the place. A couple of years ago, our son met Carlos Santana in a Harlem shop. Yesterday, we met a woman who wheels her elderly, infirm Pekinese around in an old-fashioned pram, bundled to the chin in baby blankets. And the people-watching at Café Des Artistes is well worth the price of one $12 cocktail. With adventures like that, who needs $200 seats on Broadway?

After subletting, I'm getting brave enough to move on to house swapping. I'm hoping our host wants to spend next Christmas in sunny Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

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