Lauryn Hamel met James Monahan when both were students in the theater department at Hofstra University.
She didn’t much like him.
“James was very annoying at school,” recalled Ms. Hamel, 30, an actor and personal assistant. “He was always so personable and so happy. He seemed smug. There was a part of me that was just: ‘Get that smile off your face.’ ”
Since graduation, Ms. Hamel has had considerable exposure to that smile and ample time to rethink her feelings about it. She and Mr. Monahan, 30, a support and content strategist at Google, have been devoted roommates for nearly a decade.
“My opinion has totally changed,” said Ms. Hamel, who initially teamed up with Mr. Monahan after she and the friend she’d planned to live with turned out to have very different ideas about neighborhoods and price points. The timing was perfect: Mr. Monahan’s sublet with Ms. Hamel’s then-boyfriend was just wrapping up.
“James has become my best friend and brother,” Ms. Hamel said. “I’m there for him. He’s there for me. We travel together,” she continued. “We do almost everything together. We’re like a package deal. And my parents have pretty much adopted him.”
Long-running roomies. It’s a concept that seems more the stuff of plays (“Oh, Hello”) and sitcoms (“Will and Grace,” “Golden Girls,” “Three’s Company,” “Laverne and Shirley”) than of real life. Nonetheless, it is real life for some New Yorkers. (No laugh track included. No laugh track required.) And it’s about a lot more than splitting expenses and refrigerator space. “In that ‘young professional’ time of life, you and your roommate mature. You watch each other grow up,” said Amy Le Blanc, 32, a sales agent at Bohemia Realty Group who lived with Caitlin Johnson, a college friend, for 10 years.
Having a roommate makes economic and emotional sense when you’re fresh out of school and new to the city. A high rent becomes manageable when divided by two (or three), and there’s a live-in bulwark against loneliness, a bad day at work, a romance gone sour.
But after getting acclimated and getting a raise, many people are ready — eager, even — to live alone, to live with a significant other or perhaps to ditch the college buddy roommate, who, frankly, is getting to be a bore, and to sign a one or two-year lease on a nicer place alone or with someone more compatible.
“I think three or four years is generally the range with roommates,” said Gary Malin, the chief operating officer of the real estate firm Corcoran. “People coming out of college are accustomed to having roommates, but sooner or later they want to branch out.”
But those who have yet to find a durable romantic relationship or financial security, or those who are just flat out crazy about their roommate, see a different way forward.
Branch out? Francis Kelly thinks not.
Mr. Kelly, an actor, has lived in a three-bedroom Hamilton Heights rental with the same two people — Dani Marcus, an actress, and Topher Mykolyk, a teacher — for more than a dozen years. “When people hear about how long it’s been, they’re surprised,” he said. “They think of a roommate as someone they hide from or just someone who shares the rent. I tell them that my roommates are people I travel with through life.”
Mr. Kelly met Ms. Marcus in an acting class. He was looking for a roommate; she was looking for a room. “I couldn’t get over how kind and unjaded she was,” Mr. Kelly said. “The day she moved in, we talked into the night and we’ve been confidantes and cheerleaders for each other ever since.”
Mr. Mykolyk, meanwhile, was a Craigslist find. What was supposed to be his roommate interview became a gabfest. “We were all in the living room chatting away, the conversation going in all directions,” Mr. Kelly remembered. “We found so many things we had in common.”
Success over the long haul requires a certain meeting of the roommate minds and a willingness to be educated, though perhaps “trained” is a better word.
“When we get back from holidays, I’ve taught James to go into cleaning mode, to unpack, vacuum and clean the cat box,” said Ms. Hamel. “He knows I don’t want to do the cat box, so he does it.”
Mr. Kelly, who describes himself as “the dad” of the apartment says his roommates share his conviction that the common areas must be kept tidy (as for the bedrooms, well, isn’t that why doors were invented).
They have vetted each other’s significant others, nursed each other through breakups, become friends with each other’s friends. When Mr. Kelly’s father died, Ms. Marcus and Mr. Mykolyk were at the wake and the funeral. When Mr. Mykolyk’s mother visits from out of town and stays at the apartment, she takes everybody out to dinner.
The studio apartment that Sydney Masters rented on 23rd Street in the mid-1980s had a loft space, so when her friend L. Gabrielle Penabaz, a writer and performer, lost her apartment on 14th Street, Ms. Masters, now in her early 50s and the co-owner of a public relations firm, put out the welcome mat.
At some point, the building went co-op. Disinclined to buy, Ms. Masters suggested to Ms. Penabaz that they join forces in a rental. They landed first in a decidedly funky one-bedroom walk-up in the West Village, then in a two-bedroom rental in the East Village.
Over the decade that the women lived together — a partnership that ended in the mid-1990s when Ms. Penabaz moved in with her boyfriend, there was heart break, job loss, money worries, intractable landlords. “Gabrielle was solid and calm. I was definitely more high-strung,” Ms. Masters said. “She would calm me down. We would give each other advice. It was like ‘us against the world.’ It just worked.”
It made things easier that they were both neat, both were cat owners, both vegetarians (credit the influence of Ms. Penabaz), had complementary schedules (one was often coming home as the other was heading out), and similar interests. Ms. Penabaz was an aspiring rock singer and Ms. Masters was handling publicity for the Limelight, a now defunct nightclub in Chelsea. “Gabrielle helped me get a job with a music manager early in my career,” Ms. Masters said. “And when she did a record, I got someone to help produce it.”
And when Ms. Masters took it in her head to adopt a West Highland terrier, Ms. Penabaz promptly went out and bought the dog a squeaky pink pig. Recently, the former roommates met for a catch-up lunch and Ms. Penabaz brought a Christmas present for Ms. Masters: a pair of socks decorated with the image of a Westie.
“There are great psychological benefits to sharing a life narrative with someone,” said Gail Saltz, a clinical associate professor of psychiatry at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital. “Usually, I’m talking about it in a partner sense but really, it’s true of any long-term relationship. There’s someone to turn to when life gets difficult and someone to be happy for you when things are good. You share a lot, and it’s enjoyable to reflect back on that.”
And, Dr. Saltz added, “you develop a sense of trust and comfort and stability that is going to be more intense at the 10-year mark than after one year. Length of time builds all that.”
Geremy Alexander, 30, a model turned bartender, has lived in a four-bedroom Bedford-Stuyvesant rental with Tarrice Love for more than 10 years, and speaks affectionately of their shared history.
“I’ve worked with him,” Mr. Alexander said of Mr. Love, 43, a fashion photographer. “We’ve had parties together and we sometimes look back and say: ‘Do you remember when this happened or that happened? Do you remember how the apartment used to look? Do you remember that world’s worst roommate we had?’ ” continued Mr. Alexander, who met Mr. Love through friends in Memphis, their shared hometown.
“We don’t harvest any bad energy. We can be authentic with each other. We had similar upbringings which helps. It’s like living with my cousin,” he added.
Ms. Le Blanc, of Bohemia Realty Group, identifies fully with that level of comfort. Thanks to her tolerant roommate Ms. Johnson, a dresser on Broadway, she could be as much a Harry Potter nerd as she pleased. “Caitlin never thought I was weird,” she said. Further, Ms. Le Blanc, a self-described picky eater, could put together a curious mix from the refrigerator for lunch, and “Caitlin was like ‘cool.’”
Last year when Ms. Johnson decided to live with her boyfriend and Ms. Le Blanc invited her fiancé to move in, “emotionally, it was awful, like a divorce,” Ms. Le Blanc said. “This was a person I had seen every day for 10 years and we had become super close.”
Such closeness can sometimes make things a bit awkward, Ms. Le Blanc said. “You sometimes forget that roommate issues like the fact that dishes are piling up in the sink, are separate from friendship issues, and feelings get hurt. We had to learn how to navigate.”
Then again, such closeness can sometimes make things really, really, really awkward. After two years of cohabiting as friends, Mr. Monahan and Ms. Hamel became romantically involved for a year, then broke up. But they didn’t split up. “It was really challenging to figure out what to do and we went through some times that weren’t the best, but we worked it out,” Ms. Hamel recalled. “Our friendship was strong enough that we were able to continue living together.”
“We’re closer friends because of the romantic relationship,” Mr. Monahan said.
That these roommate groupings have managed to stay together for so long is a source of endless amusement (never mind bafflement) to friends. “People would be like ‘you’re still living with that roommate?” Ms. Le Blanc said. And we would respond ‘we’re common law roommates.’ ”
“How can you NOT make a joke about our relationship, the evolution and devolution of our relationship. Friends? Boyfriend and girlfriend?” asked Mr. Monahan who, frankly, seems to find the whole thing kind of funny himself.
Mr. Kelly and others in a similar living situation insist that they do not stay together out of passivity, inertia or, necessarily, economic imperative, though in some instances codependency cannot be ruled out. “James and I are VERY codependent,” Ms. Hamel said.
“We all lead our own lives and sometimes we come together,” Mr. Kelly said by way of describing life with his roommates. “When I was out of town recently with a show, I had a whole apartment to myself and there were aspects I found appealing. But for me and my personality, I like the companionship of the arrangement I have at home.”
For some, there is just a certain aspect of “can’t quit you, roomie.”
Although Mr. Mykolyk got married recently and set up housekeeping elsewhere with his wife, he still pays his share of the rent at the old place and has been known to bunk there when his wife is out of town.
A while back, Mr. Monahan, deciding it was high time to start building some equity, bought an apartment. He’ll be moving out in a few months, and Ms. Hamel’s boyfriend will be moving in.
For the record, Mr. Monahan will be a mere five subway stops away. “We’re already planning that I’ll be over for dinner a lot,” he said. “I’m a terrible cook.”