When Michelle Burford first relocated to New York City, she had no relatives close by—so she moved in with a stranger she found on Craigslist. One year and too many solo dinners later, she created a different kind of family: a gaggle of eight housemates, three floors, several kitchens and lots of eating, laughing and “borrowed” shampoo. They came together to change one block in Harlem—but they ended up altering far more than that.
BY MICHELLE BURFORD | O, THE OPRAH MAGAZINE | DEC 2002
You could snoop through every one of my lists of life goals and never find these words: Crash with eight housemates in Harlem. And yet four years ago, I loaded all six of my possessions into a trunk, fled my place in Brooklyn, and headed uptown to form a new kind of family—nine friends, three floors of an eight-room townhouse, one intention to serve a block.
I’d love to tell you that I’m Hannah the Humane, with a passion to reenact a scene from Stand and Deliver. The truth is I agreed to this experiment because I was desperate. Six months before, I’d rolled into Manhattan with little more than a PDA and a prayer that I could build a career. The first apartment I dredged up was with a woman who owned two stray cats that looked like swollen hamsters. So, on the afternoon when my friend Jo offered me a role on the first episode of “Nine Is Enough,” I did what I’ve done during every supersize switch: canceled drink dates with all naysayers and just jumped.
Allow me to introduce our family: We aren’t Waco-like wackos, Amish wannabes, communal hippies, or bleeding-heart mavericks riding in to save the poor black children from themselves. We’re just nine friends–five women, four men, one couple on the garden level, seven singles with their own rooms, someone in every decade from the 20s to the 40s, and all professionals–who, in the capital of anonymity, craved connection enough to create it.
The do-unto-others part grew from a belief that we could best extend ourselves to our streetmates if we lived a doorbell away. If we initiated friendships. If we offered our living rooms and libraries to kids who dropped by after school. Four years, a few mismatched couches, and many acts of passive aggression later, we’ve discovered that we, not our neighbors, were most in need of a chin tuck.
All warm hugs and “We Are the World”? Hardly. The same teensy resentments that tally up to threaten even the strongest marriage have often nearly choked our community, like housemates who use recycling bags for trash or disown dirty dishes.
The hinge that holds our family on its door frame: Sunday dinner. Once a week, at 7 P.M., a brave housemate takes a turn at presenting a meal cooked in one of our three kitchens. Among us are dynamites (we’ve hailed Melissa as “the Soup Queen” for her mighty chicken brew) and neophytes (a certain someone once substituted ketchup for barbecue sauce on baked chicken). And yet bothering to haul out the oak table leaves, reel in a few buddies, and seat 16, toenail-to-toenail, has seldom been about the menu. Face time is our holistic answer to Prozac, our dining room the post-trauma recovery ward. Whatever distresses have shaken us during the week, Sunday is our chance to drop all pretensions and just be. Be cantankerous. Be silly. Be vulnerable. Be anything but plastic.
All warm hugs and “We Are the World”? Hardly. We’ve endured more “I’m sick of you!” moments in four years than Hillary and Bill did in eight. We’ve been snippy after job switches, snotty during migraines, and stupefied when our new shampoo was gone in a week. We’ve disagreed on race and politics and continuously held our spiritual beliefs up to the light. The same teensy resentments that tally up to threaten even the strongest marriage have sometimes nearly choked our community—like housemates who use recycling bags for trash or disown their dirty dishes.
We’ve never teetered on the brink of group divorce, but we’ve had some major brawls. Over the years, as we’ve filled spots in the house—Brad married, Sam left to work in Somalia, Gloria slid off to San Fran—we’ve fought a few rounds before agreeing on replacements. To lower the odds for violence on my floor, four of us pitched in for a housekeeper. And on that September 11th morning when our city was knocked to its knees, I had not just one moment of panic, but eight: Andrea, Marshall, Sonja, David, Melissa, Peter, Jo, and Chris.
The true transformation has come inside our home, not outside—like in those moments when we’ve had to admit “I was wrong” or on days when we’ve had to ask for a second (or seventh) chance.
Before we set up our Harlem homestead, I’d spent a decade examining why I felt so disconnected in a country abounding in ways to beep in touch. Why people who live within shouting distance of each other go online instead of next door. Why so many of us rush off to build lives there’ll be no time to enjoy. In my frenzy to cash in on all the chances my grandmother didn’t have, I’d forgotten what she knew as someone too broke to be too busy: When you miss your people, you miss the point. That’s why babies who aren’t hugged and old people who aren’t needed break to emotional bits long before they cease breathing.
I’ve depended on my eight people for both the stress CPR they offer and the friendship I can extend. We’ve stood together in jubilation (we watched our pals Jo and Chris marry in their living room), and we’ve coached one another through monthlong depressions, career upheavals, and public humiliations. Yes, we’ve offered time and care to our neighbors and left our block changed, whether by playing Boggle with elementary school boys or giving one girl and her brothers a Macintosh. But the true transformation has come inside our home, not outside—like in moments when we’ve had to admit “I was wrong” or on days when we’ve had to ask for a second (or seventh) chance. And in the four years since we came together, I’ve gone from hiding my Ben & Jerry’s Triple Caramel Chunk in the back of the freezer to noticing my left pinkie quivering at the mention of our eventual parting.
The family we’ve built is surely more sane than a real one—all of the support, less of the drama, no parent asking “Have you met anyone?” each time you sit, inhale, or scratch your forehead. These are the eight people I can be certain will show up for me: to assemble a bookshelf, to water my plants while I’m on vacation, to offer a shoulder when a problem is too pitiful even to pick apart. If our group ever disbands, I’ll do whatever I must to duplicate what we have—even if that means jumping across town or jetting over an ocean.
For now I’m not saying I won’t contemplate unsavory uses for our kitchen knives when I find my year-old mail wedged beneath the fridge. But I’ll know someone’s face will brighten when I walk in a room. There’ll be more great novels, more liters of seltzer, and more Colgate than I could ever borrow. I can skip the ATM because someone’ll surely owe me 60 bucks. I’ll have sisters who tell me the hard truth about my hair, brothers who spill secrets on why men don’t talk—and friends who sort out the best of who I am before handing me back to myself.