Living outside “The Box”

Generally, the minimum recommended size of a 1-car garage is 22′ long by 12′ deep. But Zaarath and Christopher Prokop live in the smallest apartment in New York City (as of 2009 anyway) at 14.9′ long and 10′ wide. They have a queen-size bed that takes up 1/3 of their floor space. They store their clothes in the kitchen cabinets because their only kitchen appliance is a cappuccino maker. The only other furniture in the room is a flat-screen TV attached to the wall, a storage bench for linens that doubles as a sofa, and a bookcase that holds a radio, a cable box, and some bottles and glasses. (Coffee isn’t everything.)

And I can only assume that they have laptops or iPads.

But this young couple feels neither cramped nor deprived. They live and work in Manhattan! They eat EVERY MEAL in a restaurant! They are connected to Fifth Avenue, Broadway, Times Square, and all the rest of New York City by a subway that stops at their doorstep.

This is urban camping – instead of taking walks along nature trails in the woods, they can walk through F.A.O. Schwartz and look at the toys. Instead of sitting by a campfire, they can sit in Grand Central Station and people-watch. Instead of getting up early to see the sunrise, they can watch the curtain go up on a Broadway play.

They don’t spend their week-ends mowing grass or painting shutters or shoveling snow. They don’t spend countless hours dusting or mopping or reorganizing cupboards. In fact, when they leave for work every day, they turn on the Roomba to sweep up the hair from their 2 cats while they’re gone.

Once again, quality trumps quantity.

The reason I’ve been thinking about this is that almost every media piece on cutting expenses tells us the first things that have to go are those $5 lattes. And if you’re lurching through the drive-through at Starbucks so you can stuff that cardboard-cradled quick-fix into a cup holder to be gulped in traffic, maybe the critics of $5 coffee are right.

But for those who go for the entire European café experience, $5 seems like a very fair price to me. For most Americans, this is the best theater and the most culture they will experience all day. The choreography of the baristas set to the rhythm of the hiss of the steam wand, accompanied by the hypnotic symphony of animated conversation with the counterpoint of a Coffeehouse playlist has the soothing – but also, somehow, stimulating – effect of a mind-massage. If you’re missing real conversation in your life, this is where you can coax it into being. If you want solitude without loneliness, you can watch from the edge of the landscape of shifting boundaries. If you need a respite from the hustle and jerk of the molded-plastic-chair scene, you can collect yourself in an upholstered chair by the window. Plug in, tune out, and get your caffeine fix. Five bucks buys it all.

All the intimate aesthetics
Of the dimly-lit cafe
Were a comfort to my buddy
In some strange, mysterious way.

She felt pampered and protected
In her cozy corner booth;
It reminded her of childhood
If you want to know the truth.

Like the snug, secure appeal of
Being held on someone’s lap –
Or the tenderness of being
Gently tucked in for a nap…

There was something in this setting
With the power to console;
It was more than pie and coffee –
It was food for Lila’s soul.
(from Lilabean: a Storybook about Simplicity for Grown-Up Girls)

The point is, it’s important to examine your priorities and decide exactly what it is that you want your money to obtain for you.

The older I get, the more often I find myself choosing quality over quantity. Less having, more doing. Like Zaarath and Christopher Prokop, I would gladly forego most of the “stuff” – and the space needed to store it – in exchange for a little more life.