I've always looked for the places only the most ragged urban dwellers would know. The idea, which has proven itself again and again over the years, is to avoid long commutes. With a break as an infantry sergeant in the Second World War - landing in Normandy four days after D-Day and exiting with shrapnel wounds a couple weeks before the Battle of the Bulge - my father worked at the same Wall Street bank all of his life.
Every morning he would rise at 6am to commute by car and subway to Wall Street. There was no air conditioning in the New York City subway in those days, just creaky ceiling fans over sweltering passengers, whom I wouldn't say were packed like sardines, because sardines have more elbow room. My father wouldn't return home until seven at night, damp and exhausted. Even as a kid, I knew this was no way to live. I vowed never to become a commuter, and I never have.
In 1972, when I returned from a Peace Corps stint in Sierra Leone, I stumbled into a job as a Peace Corps recruiter in downtown Manhattan. Our office was in the Federal Building, designed in an architectural style known as Mussolini Modern. We were right next to the spanking new World Trade Center. Now where to live? I found a one-bedroom apartment that was 10 minutes away by bus. The cost was an astonishing US$90 a month (Dh330 then, about Dh1,700 in today's dirhams), four times lower than the usual Manhattan rents.
There was a reason for this. My new neighbourhood was a slum, a section of the Lower East Side known as Alphabet City, semi-affectionately dubbed the "DMZ"- a crowded warren of century-old tenements that once housed Jewish and Polish immigrants. My apartment decor featured a bathtub in the kitchen and a wooden pull-box toilet. For home improvement, I covered the two rear windows with shutters of plywood and two-by-fours, secured with a pair of padlocks.
But, hey, I was no commuter. I applied the same principle when I moved to Bangkok, where workers endured three- and four-hour commutes though traffic jams. The solution? Live next to work. My magazine's office was on the scenic Phra Arthit road on the Chao Phraya river. I moved into a cubicle in the decrepit Peachy Flophouse right down the street. Monthly rent was 1,200 baht (Dh133). The walk to work took two minutes.
Then came the hard part: Abu Dhabi. I arrived on November 10, 2008. My sources at The National - fellow refugees from our Bangkok newspaper - had warned me about the sky-high rents. I won't say that I was staggered by a case of sticker shock. It was more like dropping to the floor and clasping my heart. At first I ignored the problem. The company put me up in hotels for a couple of months. I had heard horror stories about people searching for weeks and months for an apartment. I simply waited for company housing that was under construction until, all of a sudden, it wasn't.
The global economic crisis was roaring full-bore and people in my office were landing new ocean-view apartments in Dubai that were both beautiful and cheap. But that would mean a three-hour commute every day. Which would mean I'd have to buy a car. Which would mean I'd have to drive it. Which would mean ... no way. I started to panic. Every day my debt to the company for my hotel room was growing steeper.
But the end was swift. A friend passed along the phone number of an estate agent and I took the second apartment he showed me. This was a villa four blocks east of Muroor Road and a six or seven minute taxi ride to my office. I had two windowless rooms that opened to a kitchen with a corner section of glass overlooking date palms and a blue-domed mosque. From a friend I bought a nice bachelor-style black leather couch. On a credenza I propped a flat-screen TV.
In the kitchen I installed a microwave and a mini-fridge. l furnished the bedroom with a mattress. The rent was an annual Dh78,000, and everybody said that was cheap. For that money I could live for 35 years in Bangkok. But only if I had my old job back, which I don't. Here I'm happily planted. Thirty years later, I returned to my old block in the Lower East Side, 7th Street between Avenues C and D. I was gobsmacked.
The slum had been transformed into Paris. Old tenement buildings had been sandblasted and painted in Mediterranean pastels. There were flower boxes and tall shade trees. Trees! Well, give it 30 years and a tree will grow. My only consolation is that the new yuppie tenants are probably paying double the rent that I'm paying in Abu Dhabi. firstname.lastname@example.org