There is a scene in everyone's favorite nun movie, "Sister Act 2," when Whoopi Goldberg's character -- a lounge singer on the run -- is escorted to her new room at the convent where she will be hiding out. Her two (legit) nun counterparts have promised that the room holds a big surprise. "What did you put in it? A bidet?" Ah, the hope of the innocent. "Curtains!" shout her friends, and the camera pans around a small, stark and dreary room.
This is almost exactly the scene I imagine every time a friend of mine mentions her housing situation, at the Jeanne D’Arc residence on the West side of Manhattan. The reality is that instead of austere, convent-like surroundings, the rooms are chaste and frilly, decorated with what seems like an entire botanical garden of flowered things.
Thursday's New York Times story on women's residences highlights the old-world nature of these group homes: strict women-only policies and complicated admittance processes function to keep the areas -- if not the residents -- protected from the loose morals and dangers of … 2009? If the ideals seem old-fashioned, the fortunate thing for the ladies who live (and lunch) at these homes, is that the rent is, too. Ranging from an astounding $355 to $1,000 with two meals a day included, the women's residences are a steal straight out of the past, especially when rent at comparable locations can balloon to $3,000 per month and beyond.
The history of these residences is dotted with celebrity -- people from Sylvia Plath to Liza Minnelli passed through on their way to fame -- but it's laughable to imagine Jessica Simpson or Paris Hilton click-clacking through the lobby on their cell phones. Alas, no matter how many modelettes totter by in $500 heels, an address does not a hip sushi lounge make. But that is what the various women's residences offer: an address.
No matter how easy it is to recognize that a "beau parlor" -- a room designated for chaperoned male visitors -- is antiquated, women's residences are a solution to the problem of housing not only in New York, but countrywide. It's often difficult to strike a balance between safety and price. For some, leaving your room key at the front desk every time you leave your building is worth not having to check over your shoulder, and, for less than $1,000, just as cheap.
"You smoke?" one of the nuns asked my friend when she saw her outside lighting up. "Yep," my friend answered sheepishly. She was hoping that the nuns wouldn't kick her out, as smoking is strictly forbidden on the premises. "I'll pray for you," the nun said, and when my friend told me about it she just shrugged: "at least somebody is praying for me."