Nightmare on Orchard Street


I spent most of May searching Craigslist for roommates who were not “self-expressed,” “cat lovers!!” or “kool chicks like u.” I wanted to spend $700 or “just a little more,” I told one broker, and by the end of the month I had a $900 studio on the Lower East Side. The floor was unfinished, with lumpy eruptions around the edges, but there was room for my bed and at least a small desk. I subletted the room from “Rita”—a German woman with a spectacularly lopsided face. She worked in fashion and was “totally sick of New York,” and when I asked her age, she said, “I’m older than you.” She stopped returning my calls a week before I was supposed to move in, but I showed up anyway with multiple boxes. I imagined that she’d lost her cell phone or died, but I thought about each scenario in a vague, underwater kind of way. The better parts of my brain were consumed with figuring out how and when to transport my furniture, and then regretting whatever decision I came to.

On June 1, my mom drove me to the apartment in her overstuffed Volvo and we found a parking place directly in front of the building. I’m secretly going through a phase where I believe in things like karma and “letting go,” so this random piece of luck seemed important. I was concerned about using my new set of keys—Rita totally breezed through the explanation—but I didn’t have to worry. A woman I’ll call Mary opened the door and told me she lived there. The floor had recently been finished and the room now looked bright, spacious, and wonderfully out of my price range. Mary said I was the 17th person to arrive. Shortly after, a man banged up the stairs, carrying a laundry basket of shoes. He was the 18th. We had identical subleases, which clearly stated how much we had given ($2,850) to Rita—who had never lived in this apartment.

Twenty people showed up that day and 13 more throughout the course of the week. We had all responded to the same uninformative Craigslist posting: “STUDIO APT TO RENT LOWER EAST SIDE MANHATTAN—BELOW HOUSTON.” Mary was not particularly helpful or hostile, but explained the situation—”There’s been a fraud,” she said—then sent us to the police station. She had been friends with Rita and lent her a spare set of keys months before. While Mary was at work, oblivious, Rita let herself into the apartment and gave us all tours. She flitted about the room, opening cabinets and bragging about closet space.

The first time I visited the studio, two other people were there, and Rita lounged on the bed with some offensively pointy boots while we drilled her with questions. I asked if the mattress was smushy, and she said it was “normal.” The shower was normal too. I added my name to an endless list of applicants and put a little bonus note by my entry, “I am quiet, work a lot/no party.” Rita called me twice to say she had chosen me (“because you seemed so nice”), and I was thrilled each time. “What a great New York find,” my friends said, bored, when I kept telling them the good news.

We met at a bar to sign the lease, and because I couldn’t find my checkbook, I gave Rita the first $490 in cash. I was no financial wimp; it was important she know this. She downed her drink with alarming speed, complaining about New York: “It’s mostly the people.” When conversation became too awkward, I asked her questions about her German heritage. There was too much silence. I was worried she’d dump me. It never occurred to me that I was supposed to be sizing her up as well.

On June 28, after throwing a going-away party for all her friends (Mary included), Rita flew to Germany with more than $60,000 in rent and security deposits. The next day, she called me and left a message: “If I’m not there when you arrive, please feel free to start unpacking!”

I rarely erase my voice mail, and at this point I’ve listened to most of her old messages several times. She sounds nothing like the woman I’m having dreams about. (In one, Rita heads toward me with a gun, shouting embarrassingly obvious things like “Give me my money!” I scream and jump out a window.) On the phone, she was courteous and emotionally stable. She just wants to arrange a time to “make the payments and all that stuff.” Her sentences awkwardly trail off like most people’s do when they’re asking for money.

I’d like to think of her as some life-endangering, world-class criminal, but few law officials I spoke to seemed surprised by the incident. Sherry Hunter, a spokesperson at the New York district attorney’s office, said that apartment frauds like this are fairly frequent, although they seldom involve so many victims. “This market is so limited, you start writing a check without even seeing the place,” she said. “People are amazing. It’s like, ‘Yes! Please! I’ll take an apartment!’ ”

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.

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.