Saturday, March 23, 2013

My Friend Jill – Zen Master of the Upper East Side

(Jill’s apartment on 78th and 3rd.  Not the living room. Not some of the apartment. All of it)

My friend Jill has the smallest apartment I have ever seen.  She bought it ten years ago.  It’s in an upscale part of Manhattan – 78th and 3rd on the Upper East Side – in a nice building with a doorman.  Not that I haven’t seen plenty of tiny New York apartments.  I have lots of friends and family who live in New York and I understand that amenities that are standard in the rest of the normal universe – like windows in a bedroom or a sink in a bathroom – are not things you take for granted in New York.  I also read the New York Times – a paper whose mission is 50% to provide Pulitzer prize-winning national and international news reporting and 50% to discuss how hard it is to find an apartment in New York.  And I understand New York pricing considerations.  Unless you work in finance, are independently wealthy or have stolen your dead grandmother’s identity and are squatting in her rent-controlled apartment, your New York apartment will not be more than 750 square feet.  I have just enough etiquette training that I didn’t come right out and ask Jill how much she paid for her place (although not enough etiquette to stop me from doing my research for this penetrating exposé by showing up uninvited to girls’ night at Jill’s place, drinking all her white wine and taking off without helping to clean anything up).  But my guess is that if she were willing to move to some middle America exburb, she could trade in her place for a 6,000 square foot mcmansion with a four car garage and a hockey rink in the basement. 

You can see Jill’s apartment in the pictures above.  Those aren’t pictures of Jill’s living room or a part of her apartment.  That’s the whole thing.  The hallway that leads to the bathroom has a galley kitchen with a mini-‘fridge.  And there are two closets.  When the couch is folded out, the room becomes the bedroom.  When there is food on the coffee table, it’s a dining room.  When friends are crashed out all over the floor in sleeping bags, it’s the guest suite. 

But what’s most shocking about Jill’s apartment is not its size, but the complete and utter lack of stuff.  Jill has what she calls a “total lack of crap” policy in her life “with anyone, anything, and everything.”  The entirety of her possessions are as follows: 1 couch with a fold-out bed; 1 glass coffee table; 1 end table; 1 bureau; 1 TV bolted to the wall; 1 nice Oriental rug; 3 pictures; 1 desk; 1 office chair; and 1 laptop computer.  She has clothes, 30 pairs of shoes and some cleaning supplies in the closet.  That’s it. 

In her own way, Jill lives the life of a Buddhist monk.  And not in the sort of backed-in philosophical justification kind of way that some people adopt when they find themselves with no stuff and nowhere nice to live (i.e., Am I a sort of down-on-my-luck slacker?  Au contraire.  I’m a monk!  Buddhism, man, that’s the ticket!).  Jill’s also not your average pot-smoking, Himalaya-climbing Western Zen convert.  She’s a highly educated, world traveling successful professional.  She works for the London School of Economics.  She’s as rational as they come. Her choice of lifestyle is thoroughly thought-out and purposeful.  Jill does not see a need to hang onto a single possession that is not mission critical for her life.  And she’s ruthless about getting rid of any object that doesn’t fit the bill.  I grilled Jill the entire time I was at her place about the specifics.  D: “What about magazines?” J: “I have several subscriptions and I keep the current issue of each.  When a new one arrives, the old one gets tossed.”  D: “Christmas cards?” J: “I read each one, appreciate the nice thought, and put it in the recycling bin.”  D: “How about toilet paper.  Any back-up?” J: “Yes, plenty.  I buy the big bulk packs.  They’re in the closet.”  D: “What about a power charger for a BlackBerry that died five years ago, you know, just in case?” J: “I think that’s your own pathology, Dan.”   

Here is the clincher, proof positive that Jill has taken minimalist living to a level that virtually no other mere mortal could ever hope to achieve: Jill has in her apartment exactly one pen.  Which makes perfect sense if you think about it.  As Jill will tell you, if you live alone, you can only write one thing at a time.  Why would you ever need two pens, much less the 500 or 1,000 that you find in a typical house? 

Whatever the origin of Jill’s philosophy, being free of possessions is very much in keeping with the Buddhist concept of living in the moment.  The past is gone and the future will never arrive.  And most possessions are reminders of the past or tools we think we’ll need later. 

Jill focuses relentlessly on the physical items she needs and purges all others.  Whatever question you can throw her way about how she lives, she can respond with a clear and confident answer.  With one exception.  There’s one thing I nailed her on.  Ice.  Jill’s half size mini fridge doesn’t have a freezer, so she can’t produce ice in-house.  Crafting a nice cocktail means going down the street to a deli to buy a bag of ice.  When I pointed out to Jill that she lives in one of the nicest neighborhoods in maybe the single most “premium” city in the country and doesn’t have ice, and that even people living in the most decrepit trailers in the poorest backwaters of Appalachia can usually make their own ice, Jill said, reluctantly, “yeah, that’s a problem.” 

Anyway, despite the ice issue, Jill’s got a good thing going on and, in her unique way, is very inspiring.  I don’t think I’ll ever be able to achieve quite her level of material discipline, but I’m making an effort.  The week after I visited Jill, when getting ready to check out of a hotel room, I did my usual survey – making sure I had packed everything and tossing the pen from the hotel room in my bag.  I don’t remember ever being explicitly taught this, but I always thought that people had an almost Biblical obligation to steal pens from hotel rooms.  But no longer.  From that moment forward, I channeled my inner-Jill and vowed not to bring any more pens into my home.  I can’t bring myself to toss out the 995 pens I already have (what if I can’t find a pen?  What if they’re all out of ink?), but it’s a start.   

Zen masters sometimes show up in mysterious places.  People travel the world to seek their advice.  But if you’re looking for inspiration, before shipping off to India or Tibet, swing by Jill’s place on 3rd Ave. in Manhattan and take a look. 


Susannah said...

Any books?

Anonymous said...

30 pairs of shoes?

Anonymous said...

Tu as vécu avec moins au Mali, non, Dan?

Anonymous said...

I have known Jill for several years, and I think you are right on! She is very Zen in her own right. Love her mindfulness and lifestyle!