As a 20-year-old final-year university student with a fledgling love life and penchant for partying my weekends away in dive bars with weird bands, I suddenly found myself unable to stay at my parents’ home an hour’s bus-ride away from the city.
So when my friend Sam posted a MySpace bulletin advertising a vacant room in The Big House, I quickly sent him a message expressing my interest, having no idea what I was getting myself into.
Now, I wonder how I lasted as long as I did. Endless streams of anonymous travelers setting up camp in any spot they could find, eating all our food and using all our internet in mammoth Skype sessions. There were always hoards of weeks-old dirty dishes stowed behind couches, plentiful parties, and reggae. So much reggae.
The Big House is New Zealand’s largest share-house. An imposing four-storey, 21-bedroom, century-old mansion, its more dignified former life was as Melmerley Girls’ Collegiate School, a place that pioneer pilot Jean Batten once called home.
It’s been functioning like its own little society ever since it became a share-house over 30 years ago.
It isn't unlike a commune. For three years I lived there with a rotating cast of 20 others including hippies, activists, doctors, the mentally unstable, and many more short-term guests. Interestingly, it's located in the richest part of town, around the corner from the Prime Minister’s pad (some of us used to catch mice in our kitchen and drop them over his fence).
But unlike the rodent residents, not just any person can get a room -– there’s a strict selection process. When I headed to the house for my meet-and-greet dinner, I unwittingly gave myself a leg-up by donning my most attention-seeking red pants, and bringing two cakes. I’ve since been told these things helped me win the housemates over.
I stammered nervously through my introductory speech during the post-dinner interview, my face slowly turning the colour of my jeans while everyone eyed me. After I left, the housemates made their decision, and I received a congratulatory text message. I grinned the whole way home.
A couple of weeks later, I moved into The Big House, or more specifically its old garden shed. A semi-attached room that looked like its own little house, it had two doors to the outside, a sloping floor that got steeper over time, no curtains, and many cracks in the walls for spiders and colossal cockroaches to creep through and occasionally run around on my bed.
It was a rude introduction to flatting but fortunate timing, as I’d just nabbed my first boyfriend, Nick. We’d hole up in my room for whole weekends at a time, surviving off cheese, chocolate and wine. He moved in a year later but had to have his own room -– such are the rules.
I loved living in The Big House, but over time it ate away at me like the weird force of nature that ate away at the foundations beneath my floor. Every morning I’d jump off my loft bed into a surfer pose and wait for my sleepy body to adjust to the crazy angled floorboards. The novelty began to wear off.
Living with that many people and sharing food with them meant I developed weird survival instincts. I had to, or else I wouldn’t get nice things like fruit. Many things were shared in The Big House –- food, chores, sometimes beds. Rent bought all the basic living requirements –- power, food, Internet, gas, water, toothpaste, you name it -– but it also meant you had to be wily when it came to getting your five-plus a day.
And dinner. We all took turns cooking once a week in teams of three, making strictly vegetarian food, and someone walked around the house banging a gong when it was serving time. But you basically had to sprint for it, or you risked missing out.
Though it was great only having to cook one night a week, it also meant the other six nights could be hits or misses. I’ll never forget the blue rice pudding, spaetzle (eggy German pasta, served in a haze of pot smoke) and many-times recycled leftovers.
Nick and I eventually bought our own bowls and kept them in our rooms, bringing them down to the kitchen for cereal each morning, because the few bowls that were around were always either encrusted with old food, cracked or collecting rainwater in the garden somewhere. I wouldn’t be surprised if the others mocked us behind our backs, but it was the same with toiletries –- you couldn’t leave your toothbrush anywhere if you wanted to see it again.
It was a super cheap place to live. Rent was $135 per week when I moved in, and that included everything. But it attracted some folk who put me off couchsurfing for life. People would also camp out in the driveway in converted vans complete with beds built out of wooden pallets. They’d come into the house to hang out, use our Internet and shower.
Probably the lowest point of my time living there was the scabies incident of 2010. I draw a blank on how this joyous time erupted, but I’m pretty sure it backpacked in on a blanket from a hostel.
We lived in fear from the moment one housemate showed another her rash. Soon enough, there was a checklist of all of our names on the communal blackboard in the kitchen that was usually reserved for everyday pleasantries like shopping lists, party announcements and angry notes such as “Where is my 500-thread-count sheet?” Actually, that last one was mine. Someone stole my best sheet off the washing line.
We all had to tick by our names when we’d used the scabies cream, and by used I mean apply to every inch of our persons. All crevices. That was a fun time. Especially when our efforts felt wasted after learning a particularly hardcore hippy faction of the house refused to use the medicine, claiming it was toxic and unnecessary.
“Cool,” we thought. “We’ll just wait for you to get the scabies -– if you haven’t already -– and then you can give it to us. And then we’ll give it back to you. Back and forth, forever.” ))<>((
I didn’t get scabies, but trying not to touch anyone in that crowded house was challenging.
But the infestations, lack of food and fights with confrontational housemates were largely made up for by all the good times. I met some incredible people who I don’t really keep in touch with any more, but who I cherish memories of.
The Chilean stoner who barely left the house due to endless South Park marathons. The raging, ageing punk chef who threw off his trainers and angrily paced the hallways with his blackened, toe-jammed feet at the end of each shift, yelling and shaking his fists for no apparent reason. The truly one-of-a-kind environmental activist who made incredible feijoa wine. The sweet Maldivian artist who drew me as a mermaid and sang along to Dido super loud. The pint-sized punk from Minneapolis who painted purple stripes on her bedroom walls. And the psychologist who volunteered as an on-call phone counsellor for suicidal teenagers.
Despite being filled with bitterness toward the end of my tenancy I’ll always cherish that place. I feel like my house-sharing life peaked early and I’m now content to hole away with my boyfriend in a one-bedroom apartment -– in a different city and country, even.
If I hadn’t lived in The Big House I wouldn’t have known what it’s like to have the riot police turn up to your 1,000-person-plus party and hide from them, quivering and wasted, in a darkened room. I wouldn’t know what it’s like to eat out of catering-size peanut butter jars or slice 20 onions at a time. It may have made me laugh, gain weight, cry, and eventually flee to a normal-sized house, but I’m glad I did it.
I’m also glad to now be able to hang out in my underwear in my living room, with no vagabonds or scabies in sight.