THE ESSAYS ISSUE, VOL. 2
The week of April 5, 2015
shut-in

The perks of being a high-functioning shut in

By Dylan Love

I pay a four-digit sum each month to live in a dilapidated New York City apartment building, so by God, I’m going to get my money’s worth. I will lounge on my IKEA couch, defrost a frozen meal from Trader Joe’s, set more cockroach traps around the kitchen sink, and generally live like the self-sufficient boy-king of Brooklyn I fancy myself to be. I spend a lot of time at home, and I love it.

It’s time to out myself: I am a high-functioning shut-in. I go to work and attend enough social functions that no one suspects anything, but my honest preference is to don some sweatpants and climb aboard that IKEA couch, maybe read a book or turn on the Apple TV and type in my ex-girlfriend’s Netflix password. I’m Henry David Thoreau with Wi-Fi.

I only ever want to be where I feel I can exert at least a mild degree of control. Chalk it up to social anxieties, overbearing tendencies, or whatever you want, but this means I wrote off most of New York City long ago. You’ll get a sense of what I mean after dealing with your first service change on the subway; the city does whatever it wants, putting out an everlasting subtext of “you are a visitor here.” But I am never a visitor at my home. I find endless joy in opening my door each evening, entering my apartment, and locking the door behind me.

This is a relatively new approach to daily life for me. When I first showed up here in 2009, I was a socializing go-getter eager to do comedy, go places, and see things. But the comedy dream died in 2013 after just enough climbing of the nauseating garbage mountain of show business to know that I wanted off the ride. I put it on permanent backburner; I’d rather be a funny guy around friends and family than be a funny guy babysitting comedy club drunks from the stage. With that candied, cinematic “I’m gonna make it” gloss exorcised, I got to see New York for what it is: Gotham City without a Batman. It’s a fine place to go on a long weekend, but it’s an uncomfortable, expensive, difficult place to live.

I’m Henry David Thoreau with Wi-Fi.

This is a harsh appraisal of our country’s most populous urban jewel, but I come from rural Virginia and tend to weigh everything against the easy comfort I knew growing up on acres instead of square feet. Our geography was unusual: Despite my memories of riding horses and gardening with Mom, I have just as many memories of time spent 45 minutes away in Washington, D.C., our nation’s gritty capital where fortunes and egos are ruined daily. With proximity like that, D.C. was my family’s perpetual destination for all events of cultural consequence. I carry a caricature of both lifestyles with me to this day, with one foot on a gum-stuck sidewalk and the other in a manure pile.

City leanings would have me out socializing more nights than not, going to all order of museums, concerts, and events of interest. My countryside DNA tells me that those activities are best saved for the weekend, maybe once in the middle of the week to mix things up. I accept both approaches as valid and am torn between them, but it seems I’ve found a sense of balance by erring on the side of holing up at home.

My apartment’s charms are strong, and technology makes them stronger. On-demand Netflix-style entertainment has a certain universal appeal, sure, but a number of tech startups have stepped up to expand the everything-on-demand-at-home dream into delightful reality. Whatever you need, brought to your door. It starts with Amazon.

Any high-functioning shut-in worth his salt spends big bucks on home-delivered Amazon items that he’d otherwise be buying from the store: toothpaste, toilet paper, some groceries, cat litter, and whatever else the heart desires. Amazon repeatedly enables my low-grade agoraphobia by eliminating what would otherwise be necessary trips out of the apartment.

There’s no such thing as a front porch in New York City, or at least nothing that passes muster with me—the type of porch where a UPS guy might hide a delivery, for example. And my experience is that most New Yorkers don’t really know, like, or trust their neighbors enough to ask them to receive a delivery on their behalf. Weigh this against my (idealized) memories of Virginia neighbors being glad to do you a favor expecting nothing in return, and my city grumpiness peaks.

Unless you’re paying doorman-caliber rent (in which case: who even are you?), that package will never reach its destination. In its place: a glorified Post-It note stuck to your door, an invitation to not only travel to a post office or FedEx location, but to then wait in line until someone can find your box. My previous post office visits of this nature have taken anywhere from five minutes to an hour, but they all had one thing in common: I had to go to the post office. As I only ever want to be at home, this presents itself as an unacceptable problem. A startup called Parcel solves it elegantly.

I got to see New York for what it is: Gotham City without a Batman.

I do not ship my Internet orders to my own address but instead to a glorified P.O. box owned by Parcel. It texts me every time a delivery arrives, and I can coordinate a same-day delivery within a one-hour window of my choosing. I know when I’ll be home, and so does Parcel. It arrives with my deliveries ($5 per visit, no matter how many boxes), and a common problem that billion-dollar logistics companies can’t seem to fix on their own is solved overnight.

My favorite feature is the lack of human communication involved. Parcel’s software lets me schedule deliveries entirely via text message. (Parcel’s delivery guys have lately taken to calling me by my first name when they show up, which is a nice way to establish the brand as personal, friendly, and human. I’ll be writing a letter of complaint imminently.)

Once I had confidence that I would I never miss a single package or envelope again, my attitude toward my apartment began changing. I hesitate to call it a sense of ownership (no one actually owns anything in New York; you are merely keeping your space tidy for the next renter), but it was an undeniable confidence akin to a dog marking his territory. “Apartment” is far too reductive a term for the only 400 square feet of New York that I can rightly exert any control over. “Apartment” is actually a bulletproof vest, a sane asylum. It’s a one-bedroom nation state with snacks. Let’s see how far we can take it.

I have baggage attached to getting my hair cut. I’m too pragmatic to have any strong feelings about how I want to look (“Just make it shorter and clean”), but more immediately than that, I deal with an autoimmune disorder called psoriasis. It affects a lot of people a number of different ways. Mine has turned my scalp into rusty, irritated skin that resembles the cratered surface of the moon. It flakes off and itches all the time, and it’s embarrassing to talk about.

Let me cue for you my practiced, anxious mini-speech to barbers: “I have psoriasis. Kinda everywhere. It’s fine, please just ignore it.” The barber then takes a closer look at my head and works in silence for the next 20 minutes, both of us wishing we were somewhere else.

I have tried cutting my own hair in the past, only to learn I should not do so again. At least a company called Priv lets me play this game on home turf; with the push of a smartphone button, I summoned a non-judgmental hair care professional to my house for the first time.

Amazon repeatedly enables my low-grade agoraphobia by eliminating what would otherwise be necessary trips out of the apartment.

Swollen with confidence in what I continue to cement as my living space, I laid down my anxious burden and had a no-holds-barred conversation with the guy about my scalp. To my delight, he shrugged it off entirely, telling me he’s “seen it all.” I suspect he had quite accurately pegged me as a guy who had never taken the time to figure out what he likes when it comes to style and appearance. I gave him full autonomy and encouraged him to make as many decisions on my behalf as possible. He got in there with scissors and buzzer in a way that no barber ever has before.

Every barbershop visit prior to this was a utilitarian gesture, shearing the sheep on my head. But this, leaving locks of hair and a white mist of psoriatic skin cells on the living room floor—this was a haircut. On a certain level, I’m sure it was therapy as well. (I wonder if I can get an actual therapist to swing by my place sometime.)

I will continue to tame the great indoors to my advantage. I’m eager to ship my eBay items to buyers with help from a startup called Shyp. If I’m out of food and can’t be bothered go grocery shopping, Seamless connects me with area restaurants to order delivery. For pretty much everything else I can imagine, Google will send someone to a physical store in my area to buy things I want and bring them to my house via a service called Google Express.

These companies are so convenient it borders on the ridiculous: I live walking distance from a Walgreens, but it’s entirely possible for me to send a Google employee there to buy my candy for me. Perhaps I’m a trendsetter, and the natural evolution of all this is a future in which everything is delivered to our homes at a reasonable price within a certain window of time.

Even though that’s a future I look forward to, I doubt I’ll get too carried away with these agoraphobe-enabling services. Small lifestyle recalibrations like this—preferring and sometimes insisting on post-workday plans of no plans at all—have made a marked beneficial change in how I move about New York. The only trick, lest people think I’m antisocial and crazy, is to remember to keep showing up places.

Wanna come over sometime?

Photos via Jon Gilbert Leavitt/Flickr (CC BY 2.0) and Nick Keppol/Flickr (CC BY 2.0) | Remix by Jason Reed