Tourists, like neo-liberals, are all for doing more with less. It’s a natural human impulse to want to see the world, and to do it as cheaply as possible. Parsimonious traveler that I am, New York’s vertiginous hotel prices long kept me away — that is until I heard about a new travel craze that puts would-be visitors in touch with like-minded people and their spare beds (or, more precisely, couches).
‘What’s the worst that can happen?’ I wondered as I got online and found a couple in Brooklyn willing to house a struggling arts journalist and his girlfriend for a weekend. Random strangers, an air mattress in Williamsburg, no private space — in retrospect the danger signs should have been flashing bright amber, but I was too excited about CouchSurfing in New York to notice, or care.
Set up five years ago by Casey Fenton, a 27-year-old from Hawaii, CouchSurfing has a simple concept: instead of paying a packet for holiday lodgings, enjoy free hospitality from one of the 780,000 CouchSurfers registered in more than 180 countries.
Underpinning the system is a philosophy reaching well beyond free accommodation. ‘Surfers’ can bring their host gifts, cook dinner or offer to help around the house in return for a bed and expert local knowledge, but the most valuable reward most users seem to get from the site is the exchange of ideas and cultures, and the creation of international friendships.
Joining is straightforward. Sign up, create a profile, populate it with witty aphorisms and photographs of yourself looking friendly and you’re ready to begin contacting members in places you want to visit. (Although some hosts prefer that a friend who’s also a member vouches for you, so they know they’re not getting a psychopath.)
The basic house rules are easy, too. Be a respectful guest (a gift often goes down well but is not obligatory), clean up after yourself and, if other surfers are coming to your area, and it suits you, reciprocate.
It might all sound a bit too rough and ready, but if you don’t have a phobia about staying with strangers, then CouchSurfing can be a great way to travel – and to save money. In the past year I’ve slept on floors and couches and made friends in Germany, Spain and the UK.
I soon realize, however, that New York poses quite unique problems for would-be CouchSurfers. First off there are just so many couches to choose from. Iceland has less than 500 registered hosts, in New York there are well over 6,000 putatively willing to have a guest.
I say putatively as when I start searching for a suitable host for my girlfriend and I a different story emerges. As befits the city itself, New York hosts display plenty of quirks and peculiarities — not least typing ‘be clean’ in upper case and surrounded by exclamation marks. Others include strange requests about background and ethnic origin and levels of education in their profiles. I may be a graduate but I would never make a university education a sine qua non for sleeping on my couch — unlike some New York CouchSurfers.
Eventually I whittle 6,000 down to 30, firing off emails to potential hosts who look like good matches. Most ignore my requests outright. Some reply to say they are fully booked. One even suggests the use of their apartment while they are away on holiday, then emails ten minutes later to retract the offer. Just when I’m losing hope, I finally get a positive response. Kelly and Stephen, as we shall call them, are both graduate students in their early 20s. They live together in Williamsburg, have plenty of positive testimonials and are fine with sharing their apartment with a couple. What more could I ask for?
My girlfriend and I arrive in JFK clutching a Google map print off of Williamsburg and high hopes for our weekend CouchSurfing. We are going to take in some shows, see the city and hopefully make new CouchSurfing friends.
Unfortunately things rapidly go downhill. Kelly and Stephen’s neighbors are unaware that they host CouchSurfers so we have to quietly sneak into their ramshackle building. Once inside we quickly discover the ‘spare room’ promised is just a cordoned off corner of their studio apartment.
None of this would be too problematic — as a surfer I’ve shared rooms with pets and people before — if Kelly and Stephen got on with each other. But they don’t. Even at four in the morning.
“You said you’d take the trash out.”
“I’ll do it in the morning.” She nags in whiny, nasal tones; he mutters just enough to keep the argument going. Tired, jetlagged and wondering what is going on, my girlfriend and I lie three meters away, wriggling uncomfortably on a half-inflated air mattress
As Kelly and Stephen start to debate the merits of joining a local paper-recycling scheme I’m starting to wonder if CouchSurfing New York — and bringing along my girlfriend, a CouchSurfing virgin — was such a good idea.
Next morning Kelly kicks us out. Stephen has already left for his part-time job, and she is on the way out to hers. She forgot to mention it last night, but we have to leave the apartment while they are at work. “Sorry, but you guys had better be making tracks.” This is not typical host behavior. Generally, surfers are given keys and allowed to come and go as they please. Instead, with barely time for a wash, we are unceremoniously shunted on to a nondescript Brooklyn street on a wet, blustery morning.
It’s not all bad, though. One of the attractions of CouchSurfing is the opportunity it gives travelers to experience neighborhoods you otherwise might miss. I’ve been to New York plenty of times but never really explored Williamsburg, so this is an ideal opportunity.
We are at the Greenpoint end. Just around the corner we find an old-school Polish café. Two cold, hungry, sleep-deprived surfers could not ask for more: generous portions of pierogi and bottomless cups of coffee.
Refreshed and with thoughts of the air mattress behind us, we set off to investigate Bedford Avenue, and its infamous hipsters. For a Belfast native whose only prior knowledge of Williamsburg is a couple of Jeffrey Lewis records, Bedford on a Thursday morning is a real eye-opener: skinny jeans as far as the eye can see... though at least there’s a decent arty bookstore to keep me interested.
As night draws in it looks as if we are stranded in Williamsburg. Our hosts aren’t picking up the phone, and we have no idea when they’ll be back. Nothing for it, then, but to kick back and enjoy the area’s nightlife. Luckily, the first bar we stumble across is a gem [Ed. Rosemary's Greenpoint Tavern]. An old-school dive bar near the Bedford L stop where the jukebox plays country standards workmen drink Budweiser from enormous foam cups and discuss baseball, Barack Obama and the weather.
I try Kelly’s number again but still she’s not answering — looks like we‘ll be out on the town a while longer. Thumbing through one of the multifarious local free sheets — a noticeable difference between the US and European cities — I spot an ad for the free weekly alternative-comedy show at Sound Fix.
The venue’s record store/bar combination is a little confusing at first but after a bit of sleuth work we find the cozy back room lounge. I’ve come to New York for some decent shows and tonight I’m not disappointed. We are treated to a series of excellent up-and-coming comedians whose classic observational patter goes down as easily as the rum-and-hot-cider cocktails.
The laughter stops when we get back to Kelly and Stephen’s. It’s past midnight, but they are still up — and still bickering. This time the bone of contention is the salad for the next day’s lunch. “You should have used onions,” Stephen monotones. “But we didn’t have any,” Kelly shrills back. My girlfriend and I exchange resigned glances. I’m starting to realize that CouchSurfing isn’t the best way to a woman’s heart.
The following morning we wake before our hosts and, mindful of the previous night’s contretemps, leave without stirring them. A short subway ride and we’re in SoHo, enjoying a Cuban breakfast of muffins, fried eggs and salsa at Café Habana — and rejoicing at escaping our hosts’ cramped and increasingly oppressive apartment.
The rest of the day is spent wandering from SoHo and Greenwich Village to the East Village: Basically anything to avoid returning to Williamsburg and our hosts.
Killing time on holiday sucks. You should be savoring every minute instead of wishing hours away but at least we find plenty to occupy ourselves with. Happy Hour has long been outlawed in Ireland but, as we discover, it’s alive and well in New York — especially in First Avenue’s many dive bars.
After a hefty dose of postprandial beverages we head across to Housing Works on Crosby Street to see Michael Gira of the Swans deliver a more than passable acoustic set. Unfortunately night inevitably draws in and we have to return to the couch from hell.
The following evening is the last of our brief sojourn, and neither of us wants to spend it with our hosts. So it’s back to the East Village for a proper farewell Irish-style.
But we can’t put Stephen and Kelly out of our minds just yet: our hosts are planning a Sunday-morning excursion, and we pledged to be back before the witching hour. So having bar-hopped our final hours away, and mindful of our curfew, we reluctantly hail a cab back to Williamsburg.
The transition from teeming, vibrant East Village to our hosts could not be harsher. Their street is totally silent, and when we ring the buzzer it is not Kelly or Stephen but an elderly Polish woman from the ground-floor apartment who lets us in, offering a big smile as we pass by.
Unfortunately, the reception upstairs is chillier. The television is blaring, and though Kelly asks a few questions about our day and our plans for the morning, Stephen says nothing, just staring blankly at the set.
An odd, forced silence descends on the apartment, broken only by the television and the occasional awkward sound of squishing air-mattress plastic as we struggle to get comfortable. Not how I had envisaged our final night in the city that never sleeps. CouchSurfing is all about the people. When they’re good it’s great. When, like Stephen and Kelly, they are quarrelsome, unfriendly and uninterested, it’s pretty awful. Waking on our final morning, my only thought is to make our exit as quick as possible. Stephen is fast asleep, but Kelly is awake and reading in the far corner of the room.
After showering and packing in record time, I thank her for the hospitality and make a gift of a bottle of whiskey. I don’t mention that they should visit me in the home of Jameson. Next time I take my girlfriend to New York I’ll stump up for a proper hotel.
Peter Geoghegan is a writer and arts journalist based in Belfast.
Illustrations by Mike Force.