Nightmare on Orchard Street


Last year, a man named Steve Lay posed as a real estate agent on Craigslist and stole a total of more than $15,000 from 11 people by showing—and collecting down payments on—his own Upper East Side apartment. Fredrick Forino worked out a similar deal for himself this past September. He led potential renters through vacant rooms on Cornelia, Jones, and Christopher streets, pocketing $6,800 in deposits and application fees.

Rita obviously wanted some cash, but I assume she also didn't mind the comedy of 33 people congregating in her friend's kitchen with movers and moms and exploding Bed Bath & Beyond bags. Almost all of us were in our twenties. iPod cords dangled from our backpacks. Cell phones buzzed incessantly. "Evil!" shrieked one girl in designer cowboy boots.

Another had just arrived from Texas with her suitcases and two cats. She was moving to New York for the first time.

Housing irks: The sublet that wasn't
photo: Cary Conover
Housing irks: The sublet that wasn't

I had tested the faucets, fingered the dishes, and tried out the toilet. Others crawled around the room with tape measures. Rasika Sridhar, a student at Ohio Wesleyan, made arrangements from out of state, then discovered—eight days before moving in—that a friend was planning on living in the same apartment. "My friend messaged me to tell me he'd found a place, and I told him I had too, and then he said it was on the Lower East Side, and I said, 'Me too!' and then he said Orchard Street, and I said, 'Yes,' and eventually we realized we had both signed a lease with Rita. But then we thought, Maybe it was just the same building? That there could have been some mistake?"

Priced a good $200 under market value, the apartment was obviously "too good to be true" (I keep repeating this phrase), yet most of us arrived on June 1 confident that there was a reason to lug our lives—in several boxes—across the city and up a flight of stairs. We made arrangements for U-Hauls and movers, hooked up cable and phone lines, and bought curtains. A 27-year-old trading assistant at J.P. Morgan, "Jeremy," came a day early and spent $300 to change the locks. He left a note with his name and number on the door, and when Mary came home and couldn't get inside, she called him, crying. Eventually they pieced together what happened. "Karma. It's bad karma," he said.

Jeremy told me he feels bad for Rita and attributes the situation to her "family issues" and "poor upbringing." On June 2, he sent her a note (which he forwarded to me), wishing her the best of luck. "Hi, i just wanted to express my sentiments towards what seems to be a reaccurring [sic] pattern in your life . . . 130+hrs of my hard earned time are now in your hands, but i forgive u." He signed his name, with a little quote in the tagline: " 'My only policy is to profess evil and do good.' —George Bernard Shaw (playwright)."

On June 3, Rita e-mailed Jeremy back: "what is going on? reaccurring [sic] pattern?" Safe in Germany, she has little reason to concern herself with remorse ("u must be your own judge," Jeremy wrote in the letter). When the police showed me Rita's mug shot from a previous arrest, her capacity for bad behavior seemed much greater than I had expected. She looked slapped around, banged up. Did someone hit her? I don't mind imagining it. If it's true she hated New York, she staged a wonderful final joke. "So many people applied! I feel popular!" she giggled as I filled out the paperwork. "It's a one-of-a-kind deal."

Rachel Aviv's policy is to profess evil and do good.

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