Location Roosevelt Island
Rent $2700 (market)
Square feet 950
Occupants James Mwangi (consultant, United Nations Development Program), Sharmi Surianarain (development associate, the Learning Project), roommate
Roosevelt Island is more complex than I thought. I was thinking about this while I was dangling 250 feet in the air over the East River and God knows how many bodies are down there but anyway I was on the tram, which makes living on Roosevelt Island like being in a cartoon or an amusement park. You get to go on the Wondo Ride every day and oh, that dip when it takes off from the platform. I got a little sick riding in the front. Drawings of the future always have flying cars, and there’s that ’30s movie where they’re at the cocktail party and then they’re in the flying car. I read that the residential community on this two-mile-long, 600-foot-wide island was this 1970s Big Idea—utopian master plan by Philip Johnson and John Burgess, traffic-free, 20,000 people. Now, though, there are cars and trucks and the population’s still only about 8500, but more development’s on the way: 2000 units for Manhattan hospital employees. There’s a sort of sporty feel here, like a big health club—tennis courts, swimming pools, big brick apartment buildings. On the other hand, it’s very noir. So deathly quiet. But then, the whole place used to be all asylums and smallpox hospitals. It was called Blackwell’s Island, then Welfare Island in 1921, before the first apartment dwellers came in 1975. You still see people being rolled around in wheelchairs on the green grass outside the hospitals, and then there’s something that used to be called the Strecker Institute, which I’m sure was a wonderful place but it sounds like it’s in some 1950s movie where they brainwashed people or made them think they were insane. I read that some 30 to 40 percent in your 1107-unit 1989 apartment complex are UN employees. [James] I looked here before I worked at the UN, in 2000. I was with a friend from Harvard. He’s Palestinian. The big selling point was that there was a big international community here. I have another roommate now who’s from India. I grew up in Nairobi, in a fairly standard city row house, the predominant middle-class housing. I went to boarding school up-country. Why did I go to Harvard? Well, I was run out of town. Friends of mine, we wrote a political satire of things going on in Kenya. It was a what-if play. Unfortunately a few weeks after it was written, it happened. The government saw it as a quickly put-together criticism. The police got involved. The students had a bit of a riot. [Sharmi] I’m from India—Madras, suburban area. For six years we lived in Nigeria. My dad’s a businessman. Nigeria was really hot for business in the early 1980s. James and I sort of knew each other at Harvard. He did African gumboot dancing. [James] Not in Africa. I picked it up in college. We met again in New York. [Sharmi] It was late last September. I’d just moved to New Jersey September 10. The next day, I was going to the second day of my new job. I was walking up Broadway and Canal and . . . now I’ve moved here with James. I used to have a cat. [James] Pets aren’t allowed on Roosevelt Island. [Sharmi] My cat wasn’t too happy with James. [James] The cat was pretty ill-tempered. [Sharmi] It isn’t as though James made me give her up. When I first met James, all he used to talk about was the tram and how fun it was. [James] But then the tram was down for a few months for maintenance. You meet people. I met a guy who was originally from Côte d’Ivoire, no, wait, he was from Cameroon, a soldier who’d come to join UN ops, and he had just come from Kosovo, where he was one of their security honchos. There’s a group, they’re in our building, Botswanan guys who work at Goldman Sachs. I see Harrison Ford on the tram. [Sharmi] One morning James called to tell me, “Sharmi, I saw Harrison Ford on the tram.” He was so excited. [James] He was right there with a big diamond earring. It’s really disconcerting. You see people you normally see and then there’s Indiana Jones.