The Nightmare Share
New York magazine|February 1-14, 2021
She posted an ad for a roommate. What’s the worst that could happen?
By Bridge Tread

Heidi Russell in her bedroom. Her roommate has taken over the rest of the apartment.

As it goes in New York City, the apartment was small, it was expensive, but it was theirs. Heidi Russell and Valentina Bajada owned an 860-squarefoot second-floor walk-up, and they loved its single living-room window, cramped kitchen, and two little bedrooms. Their building was on a quiet, treelined block of Barrow Street close to the Hudson River. Neighbors kept libraries of free books and walked their dogs in leafy, open courtyards. It was as close to a village as the West Village gets.

Bajada, a Soviet immigrant who owned a catering company with her ex-husband, spent ten years on a waiting list before she was approved to become a tenant in 1998, back when the West Village Houses were still subsidized. They were the result of an affordable-housing triumph of the ’60s, when Jane Jacobs defeated Robert Moses’s plans to demolish the neighborhood and build a highway. Now they are market-rate co-ops in one of the most upscale neighborhoods in Manhattan.

Bajada and Russell, who met in 2005 at ladies’ night at a bar in the Village, bought their place in 2016 for just over $450,000, an insider rate offered exclusively to tenants. Like many of their neighbors, the couple could only really afford their apartment by renting a piece of it out. Bajada, 55, had a chronic pain condition and no longer worked; Russell, 56, was a fine-art photographer with a day job as an executive assistant. They put a listing on Airbnb: “Really historic place,” it read, with pictures of a tidy spare bedroom with a red curtain, a black-and-white print of snowcovered trees, and a chandelier.

In December 2018, a user named Katherine responded. “Hi! Your place looks & sounds lovely,” she wrote. “I’m wondering if you might be able to accept $65/night instead of the $95 listed, pretty please? :) It’s me and my very well-behaved 10-year-old daughter—we’re local & out of our apt—she goes to school at P.S. 3. We’d be very low-key and respectful, clean & quiet!”

That first, short stay was uneventful, even pleasant. Bajada was out of the country, so Russell received Katherine Gladstone, who went by Kate, and her daughter, Lily, alone. (Lily is a pseudonym.) A tall 42-year-old brunette who said she was a freelance film producer, Gladstone told Russell she and her daughter were originally from Pittsburgh and had recently lost their home in New York. Gladstone was chatty and charming. She even cleaned up after Russell’s white poodle, Abby, when she made a mess of the rug.

Gladstone texted Russell a few more times, asking to rent the room again, but things never worked out. In June, Russell told Gladstone that they needed someone to stay for longer than a few nights—possibly through August. The co-op had cracked down on Airbnbs, and money was getting tight; Russell and Bajada’s maintenance fees had gone up, and they had been unable to refinance the loan they’d taken out to buy the apartment. They were likely going to try to sell by year’s end. Russell and Gladstone agreed, by text this time, to $2,000 in rent, prorated for the first month. Russell was relieved—until she went down to let Gladstone into the building and was met with a surprise: a chestnut-colored spaniel named Happy, tucked under Gladstone’s arm.

“As soon as she started walking up the steps with the dog, I knew I shouldn’t let her in,” Russell says now, almost two years later. “But here was this woman with a dog and a kid. Where were they supposed to go?”

New York roommate stories often begin with a kind of claustrophobic, reluctant symbiosis: Two people, linked solely by necessity, now also have to share the same bathroom. Here, finding a place to live is so notoriously difficult, the hunt so mythologically cutthroat, that the parties tend also to be united in desperation. Agreements are forged hastily via text message, in the DMs of third-party apps, as last-minute promises. Owners, renters, subletters, subsubletters, Airbnb hosts, and Craigslist couch surfers alike learn to size one another up in relation to their own needs; how red the flags appear often depends on how broke you are.

It took six days for Gladstone to actually pay for her first month—she was waiting for some money to come through, then for a cash loan from a friend, which became a check FedExed from Miami. Russell was cordial but exasperated and told Gladstone the whole thing was starting to seem like a scam. But then the check arrived and cleared. Gladstone apologized profusely and promised that this was all out of the ordinary. “I start steady work again next week,” she texted, “so going forward, these couple days will be a distant memory.”

But conditions only deteriorated. First, things got crowded in the apartment: Russell’s mother came down from upstate for a series of doctors’ appointments, and a family friend, Tara, unexpectedly in town, asked if she could crash on the couch for a few weeks. Russell knew it might be rude to spring the guests on her new tenant, but she was feeling paranoid and wanted her people around. “They’re sweet—no prob,” Gladstone texted Russell, clearly annoyed. “But I think it’s important to communicate about visitors.” The officious tone reminded Russell that Gladstone had asked during her first stay if Russell could let her know when she was coming into the apartment, because “Lily sometimes gets nervous with surprise noises,” and that Russell was not to discuss anything financial in front of the kid either. It was all starting to feel possessive. One morning, Tara, sleeping on the couch, woke up to find an irritated Gladstone sitting on her legs.

Russell knew the rule, as landlords do: If Gladstone stayed longer than 30 days, she would be protected by New York’s tenancy laws. She would rather scramble to look for someone else than risk Gladstone being late on payment again, she decided. On June 24, she sent Gladstone a text saying she could no longer stay for July and August. Her mother had gotten a spot in a surgery program at NYU to correct a bulging disc in her spine and needed the room, plus Russell and Bajada needed to ready the apartment for sale. Those things were technically true, though not as imminent as Russell suggested, and the news was abrupt. She was giving Gladstone and her daughter only six days to leave. From the bedroom next door, Gladstone didn’t reply.

The next day, Russell decided to bring it up in person, in her narrow hallway, with her mother and a friend present. Gladstone claimed she never saw the text; when Russell redelivered the news, she ushered Lily into the bedroom. “I could lose custody,” Gladstone said, her voice rising. She was in a heated divorce and custody battle with her ex-husband. “You will literally ruin lives.” She said the only way they would leave was if Russell refunded the $1,650 they had paid for their stay.

At this point, Russell was consumed by a desire to do everything exactly by the book. She consulted a lawyer who had assisted her and Bajada with a previous tenant dispute, and he helped her draft a two-day notice telling Gladstone she had to go by June 30. It’s delivery was an awkward act of legal theater: The process server, an unassuming young guy, sat on the couch as if he were Russell’s guest. When Gladstone arrived, he went to the kitchen, ostensibly to make a sandwich, then served her when she walked by. Gladstone texted that she would pass “all communications” to her lawyer. “We cannot go thru more ourselves at [the] moment,” she wrote. The 30th came and went, but Gladstone and her daughter did not. That afternoon, Russell called the police, but the officers, standing in the hallway, said they needed permission from a judge to remove a child.

Now it was July, and Russell settled on a strategy of stubborn, sunny denial. “Good morning girls, Happy Friday!” she texted on the 5th, as if she hadn’t just told them to leave. “Another beautiful day. Please let me know when you can get me the July payment.” Gladstone ignored her. On the 15th, Russell called a peace summit on the couch, saying that she had a “compassionate solution”—to offer July and August free if Gladstone signed an agreement to leave by August 31. Clearly, Gladstone didn’t have the money, Russell reasoned with herself, and she and Bajada could handle being out $4,000 if it meant avoiding any more confrontation. (Or more fees—the lawyer she consulted told her an eviction would cost thousands of dollars and could take up to a year.) Russell shared her own woes, including her mother and Bajada’s health issues, and Gladstone described how her ex-husband had filed for emergency custody, embroiling her and Lily in an expensive court case that made her miss work. “It feels like this crazy novel,” Gladstone lamented. “Is this a great person who messes up here and there,” she said of her former husband, “or is this a bad person? It’s really hard to tell.”

But Gladstone did not sign. Instead, the conversation seemed to embolden her in her campaign to occupy the 14-by21-foot living room. She started planting Lily, out of school for the summer, in front of the TV for hours. When Russell asked to watch The Late Show With Stephen Colbert, Gladstone said the movies were educational, mandated by Lily’s custody lawyer. (One was the Dustin Hoffman–Meryl Streep divorce drama Kramer vs. Kramer.) Their dynamic became excruciatingly petty. At one point, Russell retaliated by hiding the remote in her purse. And once, when Russell managed to stretch out on the couch, Gladstone came into the room and perched silently behind her on the windowsill. The bathroom became another zone of contention; Russell began brushing her teeth in the building’s laundry room because Gladstone would run into the bathroom as soon as she heard her get up. On August 1, after a month of nonpayment, Gladstone began urgently asking for a second set of keys, sending Russell a text so long it arrived as an attachment.

In Gladstone’s version of these events, it was Russell who was waging the campaign of terror. She wrote in the text: “You intentionally intimidated us and used what you know is our biggest vulnerability: our home and safety […] We didn’t owe anything we weren’t dirty we’re so clean and organized we’re respectful beyond reason.” Gladstone said Lily was “profoundly afraid” of Russell but that she was “trying to make it livable and peaceful so I remain (beyond) civil but am I showing her that people can treat you like that and you just smile and fake it?”

Though Gladstone and Lily had arrived with virtually no belongings (other than Happy), Russell realized by the end of the summer that they had taken over the living room. Where there had been just a couch, a few chairs, a desk, and the TV, now there were dozens of shopping bags, schoolbooks, paperwork, cleaning supplies, candles, and empty Amazon boxes filling the room. When Russell moved her TV into her bedroom, Gladstone fashioned its stand into an arts-and-crafts table.

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