Love Among the Roommates

Lets build a hovercraft! Start an alt-country band! Trek the Himalayas! A young San Franciscan explains why todays urban 30-somethings love to do everything together -- except tie the knot.

"Ok, it's settled then: We'll transfer the home brew to bottles in the morning, then we'll pick up the vacuum cleaner motors for the hovercraft after we drop Rae off at therapy."

My roommate Larry said this a few years ago. Those were his exact words. I know because I began to repeat them like a mantra, having had the immediate sense that they revealed something true about my life.

I remember the scene clearly. It was a sunny midweek morning in the living room of our house in San Franciscos Mission District. Rae, another of our roommates (there were four of us altogether, not counting girlfriend/boyfriend sleepovers), was lying on the foldout couch, where she'd been sleeping since she'd badly broken her ankle during a mini-triathlon and found she couldn't easily get upstairs to her bedroom. Our friend Thia was there, too. She didn't live with us but, being between boyfriends and jobs, she could often be found at our house, sometimes in the hot tub, sometimes cooking in the kitchen.

Larry had recently moved back to the city after a few years living as a Zen monk on top of a mountain in Southern California, and he was in the midst of reintegrating into the non-meditative world. A month earlier, he had come across an ad in Boys' Life magazine that had captivated him 25 years before, back when he was a skinny 10-year-old Catholic kid living with his large family in upstate New York. The ad was for instructions on how to construct a one-man hovercraft. Larry sent away for the plans, and he took to building the thing in our basement.

An urban tribe

We were all in our 30s, unmarried and childless -- facts we spent a good deal of time pondering. Turns out we were part of a curious new breed of adult city dwellers who now routinely spend 10 or 20 years between Mom and Dad and a marriage of our own. The US Census Bureau even has a category for people like us: "never-marrieds."

The 2000 census found that 45 percent of San Franciscans fit this category. And we're not alone. In the last 30 years, the number of Americans who have never married has doubled; people like me and my roommates are delaying matrimony longer, on average, than any generation in American history.

But to say that we "delayed" marriage is not quite right. We hadn't purposely steered a course toward long-term singleness. Rather, it felt as if we had drifted there, carried by deep currents that we had difficulty perceiving. Put simply, we were a mystery to ourselves.

But something in what Larry said that morning contained a clue to why we were the way we were. In one sentence he had sized up the embarrassing amount of freedom we had to simply make life up as we went along.

In no aspect of our lives were there signposts directing us how to behave. For instance, we had license to pursue romantic relationships however we wanted. Of course we were all hunting for our "soul mate," whatever that was, but in the meantime there were all sorts of socially acceptable ways to have sex, from sleeping around to serial monogamy to a long-term relationship.

Our parents had given up trying to give us advice. Nobody made a fuss if we moved in with a girlfriend or boyfriend, bought a motorcycle, or quit a job to pursue a deep certainty that we needed to become a Zen monk or a dot-com entrepreneur. Without the responsibility of living within a family, we had plenty of time to follow our obsessions -- to invest 80 hours in building that hovercraft that had floated in our childhood imagination a quarter-century before.

One quixotic project after another

Larry's project was not in the least unusual. Our lives were composed of one quixotic project after the next. My friends and I joyfully trucked art projects to the desert for the Burning Man festival and destroyed them in a ritual fire. We started ironic country bands. One friend transformed his apartment into a museum of 1950s airline memorabilia. We wrote short stories about each other's love lives. We spent our money lavishly on ourselves.

And why not? We had no authority figures, and we were loath to talk sense into our friends. So much better to encourage their passions and dreams. When a friend dropped by and said, "I think I'm going to build a recording studio in my spare room and become a music producer," you were counted on to respond, "Great idea. Can I help?"

And so on: "Of course you should quit your job at the bank and be a horse masseuse."

"Yes, you should definitely come with us to trek the Himalayas. You've been complaining about your job for months."

"You're going to be a white-water guide for a year? Let's organize a group trip."

Probably not what the same friends would have heard from a wife or a husband who was worried about the mortgage and getting the kids to school on time. Which was fine, for a while. But when I hit 35 I started to wonder if all this friendly encouragement could be a problem. Maybe we were just holding each other back from real adulthood. Maybe we were sabotaging each other's forward momentum because none of us wanted to be left behind.

The one trait that all of us never-marrieds seemed to share was a particular strain of uncertainty. Because we were following so many different paths, we had no shared story to go by, no plotline that told us what should come next. Previous generation knew: if A, then B; if 30, then spouse, kids, picket fence. And when our parents asked us (as kindly as they could) what we were doing with our lives, we had no ready answer.

Self-absorbed or selfless?

"We tell ourselves stories in order to live," Joan Didion wrote a generation ago. "We live entirely by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images, the shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience." She was speaking of a time in her own life when she lost the ability to order events in a meaningful sequence. It's a type of incipient madness, not being able to arrange your perceptions into a story. You end up marooned in the present, a familiar sensation to the never-marrieds. Forget about the big questions, like how to chart a career or start a family. We were like the characters on Seinfeld: We couldn't figure out how to go to the movies.

Without a narrative of our own, we were susceptible to all the others floating around in the pop conscious. Some of us came to believe we were as self-absorbed as the characters in Less than Zero, Ally McBeal, and all the others dismal portrayals that have followed the never-married demographic through the years. In a recent survey, 77 percent of respondents in their mid-20s to mid-30s said people in their generation were "out for ourselves."

Looking at the activities my friends and I engaged in, you could easily conclude likewise. We had good fortune and freedom, and what were we doing with it? Building hovercrafts in the basement.

It was only when I began to vilify my friendships that I started to look at what a pervasive influence they were in my life. Not everything we did was silly or selfish. Some of what we did revealed a remarkable generosity that had escaped my notice.

We tackled group projects like painting each other's apartments or caring for someone who was sick or sunk in depression. We moved each other's furniture and talked each other through breakups and went to the funerals of each other's parents. Those who had money loaned it to those who didn't. When someone was out of a job, we got on the phone and networked. The lawyers went to bat for us when we got into legal scrapes. The writers helped friends compose grad-school admission essays. Everything we owned, from books to tools to furniture to cars, we loaned or gave away on an ongoing basis.

We also ate together every Tuesday night at the Rite spot and in a constant series of impromptu dinners and barbecues. We kept track of each other in a stream of emails and phones calls. There was no obvious deep meaning in any of these communications or activities, but the subtext was a message of solidarity: "We're on your side."

Homage to a remarkable time

I see now that this is what was going on that morning in my living room. The home brew and the hovercraft were not the point. The point was the community we made out of friendships. Far from sabotaging my forward progress, my friends were the source of the only momentum I had in my life.

The trouble -- the source of everyone's anxiety -- was that we had no story about why our community of friends mattered. People with families know they can look to the sum of small deeds to make sense of their lives. Everyone understands that cooking dinner and sharing time with your kids are acts of a worthy life. The act of cooking dinner with your friends just doesn't carry the same moral weight.

I got married last fall. My roommates have all moved on. Larry and Rae went to live with their significant others. The hovercraft is in mothballs. My friendships with them and the rest of my urban tribe are, for the most part, strong -- we still make time to see each other -- but there's a difference. The "us" in my life no longer refers to me and them.

Now that I've started to figure out that my friendships were the story of those years, I've become obsessed with telling it. Maybe it will help all the people around here who are still in that remarkable time of life feel less anxious than I was. Or maybe not. Maybe friendships are so interstitial that their significance always escapes your understanding. If you had witnessed the goings-on that morning in our living room, it wouldn't have seemed important. Maybe you only really come to understand phases in your life when they come to an end.

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