In Sunday books: This author’s got U-Haul on speed dial
Brooke Berman makes a left off Sunset Boulevard onto Larrabee and begins to recount, warmly, a home she once occupied in West Hollywood.
“This was one of the best apartments I’ve had in L.A.,” she says as we approach a place a few blocks from Book Soup, her tone suggesting a period of extended bliss. “I lived here for two months.” She pauses. “But it was a really awesome two months.”
That doesn’t sound like much time. But it constitutes a veritable long-term lease for Berman, a playwright, screenwriter and sort of urban Bedouin who has spent most of the last two decades hopscotching through neighborhoods in New York and Los Angeles. Berman, whose new book is “No Place Like Home: A Memoir in 39 Apartments,” has made it her goal to dwell in homes in two of the most expensive cities in North America but spend as little money on them as possible — and, often, as little time in each as well.
In a candid and conversational if at times overly procedural account of a life spent on the move, Berman (who has written a number of off-Broadway plays and adapted the Jane Hamilton novel “Disobedience” for a forthcoming movie) writes of breezing through spaces for reasons of both financial necessity and real-estate opportunity. These include numerous friends offering temporary space on their couches, an Austrian shut-in who rents her a room for a pittance and another friend who lets her live in a partially open alcove.
Since 1991, when she graduated from Barnard College, Berman had led a life of perpetual movement, whether she’s been housesitting, home-swapping or couch-surfing. She has had, in the diversity of her living circumstances, experiences both comic and terrifying: scamming roommates, Lilliputian spaces, charitable nurturers and, as she describes in one hard-hitting passage, a rape committed by a masked late-night intruder. (It happens at a place in Manhattan’s West Village; justly panicked, Berman runs out of the apartment and never lives there again.)
She moves to each new place with the eagerness of a newlywed buying her first home. In New York, Berman dwells in Brooklyn brownstones, SoHo lofts and Queens walk-ups. In the Southland, it’s a converted brewery downtown, a sprawling house in Bel-Air and a ground-floor, one-bedroom just off the Sunset Strip that contribute to the list of nearly 50 places she has called home over the last two decades. Most remarkably, she does much of it before the invention of Craigslist.
“I don’t know that I wanted to move around as much as I did,” says Berman. “But as an artist, I just had to be very flexible. When you don’t have very much money, you have to improvise.”
If pragmatism drove much of Berman’s transience, though, she also sees in her many moves a life-affirming, almost mystical appeal. Upon moving to a street she has long fancied, Berman, a practicing Buddhist (and perhaps nonpracticing flake of the good-natured kind) writes that she is moving to “a block I am now convinced holds some secret ability to begin anew.”
“No Place Like Home” is set in New York: Berman’s life in Los Angeles, where she has lived at various points and where she currently resides, is not chronicled for reasons, she says, of narrative focus. But the East Coast setting doesn’t stop the book from feeling distinctly Angeleno, what with this city’s unique culture of short-term housing. When people find a good apartment in New York, it takes a force of nature to move them out. In Los Angeles, it may take no more than the end of pilot season.
As Berman perfects the art of moving, the author’s life takes on an almost monastic quality, in which even material possessions are experienced abstractly. “As I unpack,” she writes after one period of particular transience, “I realize how little of my stuff I actually need or want. The idea of missing the stuff was greater than the stuff itself.” And though she doesn’t set out to find meaning, she frequently comes upon it anyway. “Why get stuck in long-term housing when we’re spiritual beings on a temporary guest pass?” she writes.
The author’s story may seem foreign to any of us who have ever owned a home — or, for that matter, rented an apartment with a proper lease. But one can relate to aspects of her lifestyle; in Berman’s itinerant existence one experiences, writ large, the wanderlust that drives many of us to upgrade apartments, try out a new neighborhood or even to travel. At some point all of us grow restless and feel motivated to make a change; Berman just seems to feel that way every few months.
“Brooke has that gypsy spirit,” says Lee Rose Emery, a close friend of the author’s who lived with her for a few months in 1996 in an apartment in New York’s South Street Seaport area that Emery and her sister were subletting from their dog groomer (of course). “There are times when a lot of people say, ‘I can’t do this vagabond life anymore,’ but she never did. It’s almost like she treated the whole thing as cultural anthropology.”
The product of a suburban life in Detroit, Berman didn’t have a very transient childhood. Instability came in the form of Marilyn, her single mother and a bohemian free spirit. The author’s ranging around for space and meaning, she theorizes, may be the product of that emotional rootlessness. “I remember Peter Hedges telling me that home is where my mom is,” Berman says citing the film director, a teacher of hers. “And I thought, ‘that doesn’t seem right.’ For a long time I felt comfortable where my mom wasn’t.”
When a reporter comes to interview her this summer, Berman is in the process of moving from a downtown loft at the Brewery Art Colony at the intersection of Moulton Avenue and North Main Street. She has been living in the space for more than a year, in the rickety upstairs space of an apartment occupied by a hairdresser friend, and then for several more months in that same space with her long-term boyfriend Gordon. But she and Gordon are moving to a shabby-chic two-bedroom in Echo Park, which required the couple to actually sign a lease.
“I didn’t have sovereignty over my living situation for so many years because the lease wasn’t mine and the financial power wasn’t mine,” she says. “It’s an amazing feeling that I finally do.”
Expecting their first child, Berman is entering a new phase, one in which she is trading adventure for stability. But given her past, she’s realistic about the extent of the swap.
“I think it’s going to be amazing. But I also know it’s not going to be our place forever,” she says. She stops. “I think it’s generational. My grandparents came from Eastern Europe, and they were immigrants, so they kept on the move. The next generation settled in the suburbs. I know that I’m probably going to keep moving.”
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