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COMMITMENTS : What a Life of Solitude Does Not Afford: an Education

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SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

I’ve lived with men and women; neat-freaks and slobs; heavy drinkers and holier-than-thous.

I’m widely experienced in the world of roommating. After all, in the last 10 years I’ve lived with 26 people. And I’m still alive to tell the tale.

The large number is in part due to four years of college, where roommates came and went almost as frequently as a change in classes. My college roommates were a four-year whirlwind of women who were not quite finished adults. I spent my last semester of college in a room with seven other women. Whether the toxic clouds from our collective hair spraying caused brain damage has yet to be determined.

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But the togetherness was expected and even fun then, and considered by most to be a housing Purgatory before beginning the glamour of the “real world.”

Ironically, the reality has been that since college, I’ve never lived solo. The “real world” I’ve lived in has been more like the MTV show of the same name, where young people are brought together to have their lives as roommates videotaped.

Like the show, I’ve had my share of strange confrontations and confessions with 12 or so post-college roommates. Unlike the show, I’ve not been rewarded with money or television exposure to endure these experiences, which might have made it all more tolerable.

When I came to California from Kansas in 1988, I went straight from sorority row to bachelor party, sharing a Venice beach apartment with three men, all of us chosen for an editorial internship with a national publication. I was scared; my family was mortified.

But these men became the brothers I never had (and never really wanted). They each had grown up with sisters and treated me in the same vein. Whether on the street or out at clubs, they acted as my protection. One even took it upon himself to yell “No!” to any particularly creepy type who seemed to be orbiting in preparation to ask me to dance.

I learned a lot from spending 24 hours a day with men. I learned to defend myself in punching matches. I found out the men-are-slobs stereotype was not true. And even though at times I longed for a female to confide in, these men could be very supportive friends.

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That roommate situation was a success, I think, because we knew it would last only as long as our nine-month internship did. We knew our time together was short, so we tried to make it work.

Financial status has kept me sharing apartments, condos and houses with women and men ever since. The necessity of a roommate does not always breed friendship and can bring out the worst in people competing to share the territory.

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Cleanliness seems to be the top issue of debate between roommates. I must admit I’m the type of roommate who drives clean-obsessed people crazy. I’m a clutter bug and was nicknamed “pack rat” in college because I saved every paper clip and scrap of paper from my freshman to senior year. But I’ve had cohabitants from both ends of the tidiness spectrum.

One roommate wiped off the couch after I sat on it. She also had a strange phobia about the filthiness of birds’ feet.

Another extinguished her cigarettes in whatever she happened to be drinking and left glasses and cups, some containing curdled milk, sitting around the house with soggy butts floating in them.

A recent female roommate left me notes telling me to clean up the bathroom we shared, even though she spent hours at a time in there. A religious person, she often told me that she’d pray for me, and as I crossed my legs waiting for the bathroom, I said God’s name too. She was also a health-food nut and kept so many sprouts and greens in the refrigerator, I had to prune to find my Party Grahams.

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Yet sometimes the best comes out in people. One young co-worker, still my friend, offered her home--even her room--and her car as my taxicab after an auto accident ended my ability to commute. I am still grateful.

And there is the advantage of learning so much about people that a life of solitude does not afford. Forget studying textbooks on psychology. The science of human behavior comes from what you witness through cohabitation.

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One male roommate was a study in vanity. He had more styling products on his bathroom counter than a female roommate and I had put together and was the only person I’ve ever known who blow-dried his hair before he went to the pool. He had no qualms about entering the “Mr. Legs” contest at a local nightclub-bowling alley (yes, such businesses exist).

And one night, we heard his thunderous crashes in the living room of the condo we shared as he threw the ironing board about, frustrated that a girl had resisted his advances. After his tantrum, he played Bob Marley’s “Is This Love?” over and over again until dawn. Having trouble obtaining our REM time, we instead absorbed the tune and sang it repeatedly over the next several days.

After a breakup, one roommate seemed to revert to her teen years. In her early 30s, she wore her permed hair high in a pineapple sprout, sported shorts trimmed in ruffles and decorated the house with teddy bears, their glassy eyes following my every move.

Her idea of reading was Glamour magazine. She corresponded with a man in prison, who had our address and gave it out to fellow inmates, who began writing to her as well. I pictured them showing up for a visit one day after parole. It was at this point that I realized I should make my time there short before they were done doing their time.

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Years and roommates have gone by, and I feel I’ve served my sentence as well. Now, I’m hoping I can soon be home alone.

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