Just Enough Is Living Well

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(Photo: The good life in five-hundred square feet. Credit: Marina City Online.)

My friend, Donn, the sole man, has been downsized out of a job. Now he’s talking about downsizing his apartment.  He’s got a huge two-bedroom packed to the rafters with shiny nice things in a seedy corner of East Rogers Park.  It’s never a bad idea to bring your lifestyle into agreement with your income.  But I think more than finances are at play, here.

“I can’t afford this apartment anymore.  I’ve been thinking about your place a lot.  I think to myself, ‘That guy knows how to live.'”

Funny, I always envied Donn.  An employment-law attorney with an ability to gig wherever he wants, a great eye for decorating, and a fabulously large group of friends, he always seemed to have it made.  But this isn’t the first time this year he’s lost a good gig.  And the economic meltdown that led to his layoff is also making his seedy neighborhood feel even seedier to him, since this country’s youth are experiencing the lowest teen employment rate in 60 years. It’s no wonder that a long-gone open-air drug market has reappeared on his corner.  He told me he no longer feels safe in his neighborhood after dark.

I get wanting to leave a neighborhood that you moved into because it reads as a yuppie paradise by day, but that changes utterly after dark, and not for the better.  My longest apartment stint in Chicago before I moved downtown to Marina City was a year and a half spent in Logan Square.  Not the yuppie Logan Boulevard end, mind you.  The gang-infested end by Milwaukee and Diversey, where the night I was beaten to the ground by a group of youths who stole my backpack, the cops told me I was foolish for living there.  I agreed and decamped to downtown.

Fear may have driven me to Marina City, but it isn’t what keeps me here.  The ability to live my life, run almost all of my errands, and enjoy world-class culture within a 20-minute walk of my home is what does it.  But even with the ghetto-fabulous state of my studio (and if you saw the sorry condition of my bathroom wall, you’d understand), this is downtown.  After five years, I still pay less rent than I ever paid in New York.  But downtown doesn’t come cheap.

Back in Brooklyn I also lived in a fabulously walkable and thoroughly expensive neighborhood.  Then, as now, I saw living in cramped quarters with modest possessions as the cost of living where I wanted.  I’m often told my apartment reminds people of grad-school living.  I admit it, I like to travel light.  Aside from new furniture, I probably have less miscellaneous stuff now than was packed into the back of the SUV in which a friend drove me to Chicago in 2003.

On the other hand, in both places, the life available to me mere steps outside my front door has meant I did need to make my home an island paradise unto itself.  Far-flung suburbanites in places like Palatine build McMansions because they have to.  With the Siskel Center just down the street, I don’t really need a home theater room.

So for the past 12 years, I’ve slept on a futon in the great room of a one-room apartment.  No dining room.  No bedroom.  No bed, for that matter.    That’s how I live within my means and manage to be in my neighborhood of choice.  It works very well for me.

I don’t know what Donn’s mileage would be.  He loves this neighborhood as much as I do, and if his yen to move reflects a real desire to live a more unencumbered life, he’ll probably do very well down here.  But there’s a trick to emulating my lifestyle.  You need to have a good sense of just enough.

In a small apartment, you only need to bring with you just enough of your possessions to live well. Downtown at your doorstep will take care of the rest. Too many things will end up in storage and weigh you down.  Bring too few possessions, and you’ll feel poverty-stricken.  But knowing when enough is enough and sticking to it can make you feel like royalty in a one-room abode.

It’s more or less a universal law.  To be happy, take only what you need and leave the rest for others. These weren’t words to live by for the gang that accosted me in Logan Square, or likely for the drug dealers on Donn’s block.  But I swear by them and they’ve never steered me wrong.  That’s my life advice of the day from an aging, 38th-floor, 500 square-foot apartment with few knickknacks but a killer view and a lot of promise, if only I’d paint the damned thing.

In the heart of it all.

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