Quietly tiptoeing back to your room at 4 a.m., drunker than you should be, with a near-total stranger trying to follow behind in the darkness. Sleeping in until the afternoon and eating cereal straight out of the box. Wearing hoodies — to job interviews, funerals, whatever. This isn't just college life anymore.
Since the Great Recession, more and more university graduates are falling back into their old dorm-room habits — but back at home. Faced with an uncertain employment future, a looming financial-aid crisis and limited life skills, Pew Research Center economist Richard Fry says, 45 percent of former students shift from college to squatting in their old bedroom back home, or worse: sleeping on the futon in the now-converted “sewing room.”
There's an upside, of course. The rent is cheap (or nonexistent), hot meals are plentiful, and the relative freedom allows you to make pretty tough decisions. Like whether you should still go to high school parties (no), if grad school is for you (maybe) or if starting a Cosby Show GIF Tumblr will really launch your career (absolutely).
But what if there's a better way?
What if you could find the same setup, but without your own nagging parents?
You'd still be fed, have basically no overhead and maybe have someone to watch Golden Girls reruns with. What if you lived with someone else's parents? Not only is this possible, it's happening in L.A. The trick, it seems, is to befriend a wonderful old woman.
“I actually found Mary through CSUN's off-campus housing website,” says Rob Cowell, a Cal State Northridge alum. The octogenarian owned a four-bedroom cottage deep in the Valley, where the occasional student or recent grad would live in one of the 8-by-8-foot rooms on her dimly lit second floor. No Internet, no friends over, but ridiculously cheap rent and all the old comforters you can handle.
“I think the deposit was $60. That's all she ever asked for — $60 up front and to see my CSUN ID,” Cowell says. With that, he began living the semi-retired life — in his 20s. “I didn't have chores or anything, and I had my own set of keys, but there were definitely house rules. You could use the kitchen, but you always had to keep the fan on when making anything that Mary thought might smell. And I was absolutely not allowed to have a girl over.”
He tried once. “I snuck her in, no problem. It was dark so she couldn't really tell that I lived in someone's grandmother's house. And we tried to get up early — like 6 a.m. — to see if we could get away with it, but Mary confronted me about it later that afternoon. I was given a very stern talking-to.”
Of course, like any family of two unlikely strangers living an untelevised sitcom, there was love, too. “Mary would clean my bathroom. I guess she just considered it part of my $400 rent. And she would bake cookies all the time, and just leave one on a plate under some plastic wrap, with a little name tag for me next to it. I started washing the dish and leaving the name tag, to encourage this sort of behavior.”
Today Cowell thinks of this time with childlike fondness, perhaps because Mary quietly died last year. “She was an incredible woman. Eighty years old. … She would ride her bike to the grocery store. I even bought her a ticket to a play I was doing once, and she actually came.”
For another living-in-elderly-sin Angeleno (we'll call him Pete), the theater was part of life with his own octogenarian parent stand-in, Arlene.
“I call her Sugar Momma, and it's kind of like that. She has a 1966 Cadillac, and she drives us everywhere,” he says.
Arlene, a retired theater professor, is a seasoned member of a half-dozen Southern California dramatic companies. “When I moved out here, I didn't know anyone, so she started inviting me to these plays,” Pete says. “The Ahmanson, the Kirk Douglas, A Noise Within. And she would always drive. I think it helped her feel like she was being a good host.”
For nearly five years, Pete was theater patron, pool man, handyman and pseudo-son, thanks to meeting Arlene's daughter in college. She “was my professor, and when she heard me talking about moving to Los Angeles, she asked if I wouldn't mind keeping an eye on her mother. All I knew was that there was a guesthouse out back, and I wouldn't have to pay some crazy rent.”
Of course, driving cross-country to live with a woman six decades your senior isn't instant smooth sailing. “At first, it was pretty awkward. She [had] that old, mean-teacher look.” And living essentially rent-free behind her shady, two-story home is a spare lifestyle: a bed, futon, television, small bathroom and a little bit of floor space. “I have a toaster oven, and I guess if I needed to cook a turkey or something, I could go into the house.”
Today, Pete says, “I'm basically part of the family. At least I hope so.”
The issue of money among family is fluid. “People always freak out when I tell them that I only pay $100 in rent,” he says. “But that's the line, and I don't always pay. If I do, it's $100.”
That certainly makes it easier to live with Mom and Dad again. Even if they're someone else's.
Reach the writer at firstname.lastname@example.org.