Couch surfin' in the USA
Visions of crazed lunatics and painful nights haunted Ben Haugh when he decided to spend a week sleeping on strangers' sofas in New York, but a burlesque-show producer, a single mum and a celeb photographer helped him forget his nightmares
It's a freezing cold evening in Manhattan and I'm about to knock on a total stranger's door before spending the night on their couch. The only thing I know about this mystery New Yorker is that he's known as Joe 'the Shark' and has a photo of a terrifying Great White on his online profile.
This is day one of my mission to sleep on seven New York strangers' couches during a chilly week in February and I'm nervous.
The terrible fear gradually takes holds as I question whether this is a good idea, imagining he's some sort of shark pervert who will force me to act out his creepy underwater fantasies.
Pulling myself together, I knock on the door and a voice immediately fires from the intercom. "Who is it?"
"Hi, it's Ben...is that Joe 'the Shark'?"
My fin-loving friend and all the other hosts were sourced using CouchSurfing – an online community that pairs weary travellers with generous locals willing to offer their couches free of charge.
The website was launched a decade ago and now boasts more than four million members, from Cabinteely to Cuba.
The thought of sleeping on unknown couches halfway around the world does not immediately appeal to me and I imagine the worst. I picture crazed lunatics with creepy eyes and dribbling mouths, and restless nights on sticky, uncomfortable couches while my 'host' patiently waits in the next room, ready to pounce and steal my kidneys in the dead of night. But, then again, I have a very active imagination.
My parents raise similar concerns, but I promise to stay with the most mentally stable-looking hosts possible – although I make no mention of my shark-loving friend.
And so, with the Beach Boys' classic 'Surfin' USA' and my worried mother's concerns ringing in my ears, I set off on a couch-surfing adventure.
Joe gives me a warm welcome and shows me around his spacious West Village apartment before introducing me to his half-blind dog, Gin J Vitus. "Short for Gin Joseph Vitus Naftali," he tells me. He makes me feel very much at home, and my fears evaporate almost immediately when he hands me a key and tells me to come and go as I please.
He's 39 and manages a commercial building mostly used for studio space, but his passion is producing burlesque shows, hence the aquatic nickname.
"I've lived in this neighbourhood for almost my entire life, but funnily enough I don't have a New York accent," he tells me, in a thick New York accent.
I admit I've never seen burlesque live and he insists we head to a nearby Mexican bar to catch a late show. Joe orders two burritos and the most feminine-looking pink cocktails I've ever seen, complete with little umbrellas and tiny slices of fruit.
The host – a theatrical brunette with a booming voice named Broadway Brassy – jumps on stage and introduces the performers. There's Tawdry Owl, Nikki Le Villain and Poison Ivory. Lady Brassy says it's customary for newcomers to perform an onstage dance-off, and asks if anyone in the audience has never been to a show before, prompting Joe to excitedly point me out.
The manner and speed at which I sink into my seat is only comparable to suds retreating down the drain under the flow of a heavy tap. Less than two hours in New York and I've already dodged a dance-off by the skin of my teeth.
Later, Joe introduces me to Tawdry Owl, still dressed in her performance 'outfit', complete with cat ears, nipple tassels and skimpy underwear. I focus so hard on maintaining complete eye contact at all times that I give myself a banging headache.
Joe gives me a tour of the bohemian Greenwich Village, eagerly pointing out the sights and happily sharing personal anecdotes about the neighbourhood. "You used to see guys and you would just cross the street because you were sure they were gonna take your wallet, but it's much different today, much safer."
He cancelled an appointment with his stockbroker at the World Trade Center on the morning of September 11, 2001, and says he's lucky to be alive. "I'm not claiming to be psychic, I just didn't want to go. I had to wait four days to find out if the guy survived."
We stop at Katz's Delicatessen for lunch, where Meg Ryan's famous "I'll have what she's having" fake orgasm scene from 'When Harry Met Sally' was filmed. I consider recreating the iconic moment, but decide against it. I'm no Meg Ryan.
After lunch we say our goodbyes and I jump on the subway to meet my second host, Sunny, who lives on the Upper West Side, just a few blocks from Central Park. She is a 21-year-old former model and lives alone in a stylish studio apartment with her adorable four-month-old son.
She has two other couch surfers staying with her – Melissa, a 20-year-old student from Cape Town, and Julian, an 18-year-old German student.
Sunny exudes goodness and beams with generosity. The sheer force of her positive attitude is enough to make me feel guilty about my moody ways. She has hosted travellers every night for more than two months, and insists guests take the queen bed, sleeping in a single one herself.
"Parents say all the time that their kids need to share, but then they themselves don't share. Couch surfing is a way I can show my son how to share."
Dozens of multi-coloured pins stick out of a large world map on the wall – one for every traveller who has stayed with her.
We play word-association drinking games. A topic is called out and the next person has to say the first word that comes into their mind. "Germany," Sunny suggests. The Nazis, I think to myself, making sure to keep quiet. "Nazis," blurts out Melissa.
I awake to my phone's familiar text-message beep. It's Monica, my next host. "On Wednesdays, I usually go rock climbing or salsa dancing. Which would you prefer?" I ponder which activity poses the greatest threat to my pride, before realising I have absolutely no ability at either. "Rock climbing," I reply.
At 7pm, Monica calls and asks me to meet her at a trendy Japanese eaterie on the Lower East Side. There is no mention of rock climbing.
Monica's friend Vanessa – who works at a distinguished New York auction house – joins us and the two girls chat about their men and work woes. "What part of princess don't they understand?" asks Monica, sipping a lychee martini.
The restaurant is shrouded in darkness and feels like a nightclub, complete with a thumping, bass-heavy soundtrack. Every time a table is seated, the waiters scream "KANGEI" – Japanese for welcome – in unison. It gives me a fright and I spill noodle broth all over my jeans.
Vanessa's eyes light up as I talk about Dublin – she leans forward and asks: "The Glasgow, is that in Ireland?"
I realise Monica and Vanessa remind me of every single character from the HBO series 'Girls'.
After the meal, we jump in a cab to Monica's super-flash one-bedroom apartment on the Upper West Side. It's the most impressive yet, featuring high ceilings, glitzy chandeliers and a spotless grand piano.
My next host, Ben Trivett – a 29-year-old celebrity photographer – invites me on a photoshoot with 'Californication' and 'Greek' star Scott Michael Foster.
We spend the morning setting up lights and equipment in the penthouse suite of a fancy downtown hotel.
Valerie, an eccentric flame-haired stylist working on the shoot, sincerely claims the song 'Valerie' was written about her.
After the shoot, we celebrate with a bar crawl and it's not long before I'm slurring my words and talking passionate nonsense to barmen.
"Brooklyn is not New York. If you want to live in New York, live in New York. If you want to live in the suburbs, live in the suburbs. But don't live in Brooklyn and say you live in New York," says barman Mike.
"Absolutely, yeah," I say, bobbing my head in agreement.
We head to another burlesque show – they are all the rage here – before jumping on the Brooklyn subway to Ben's basement apartment in Park Slope.
It's a frosty morning and I am making the short journey to Williamsburg, which has long been heralded as the hipster capital of New York. My host, Harmony, is a 23-year-old Californian yoga and reiki instructor whose spotless apartment doubles up as a studio for her classes.
"I'm not sure my housemates are down with couch surfing, so just tell them we met when I was in London, okay?"
Harmony speaks with a slow Californian drawl and her eyes open wide during conversation, which gives the impression that she's trying to look deep into your soul.
She is horrified to discover that I don't believe in star signs. "That is exactly what I would expect a Cancer to say," she says.
After knocking back a few mojitos, she leans forward, all wide-eyed and sincere. "I don't want to sound like a bitch or anything, but in my opinion, if you're not from LA or New York, you're a farmer."
I have little time to digest the statement before she asks: "Are you open-minded? Because my friend Xavier is coming over later and he has magic mushrooms.
"He's a lawyer," she adds.
I sleep on the floor on a roll-up mattress and leave early the next morning.
My next host is a friendly 33-year-old Texan named Kyle. He speaks with a strong Southern accent and wears an oversized belt buckle with brown cowboy boots at all times.
"I like having the odd traveller stay with me," he says. "It's good to meet new people."
His third-floor Bushwick apartment is carefully decorated with a variety of antiques, including an old rifle and a pitchfork which hang on the wall.
He takes me on a walking tour of the impressive graffiti which is everywhere in the north Brooklyn neighbourhood, before embarking on another bar crawl. We meet his friend Mark at a sports bar to play football and it quickly becomes apparent that they take the 'sport' very seriously.
"Damn it to hell," Mark cries as his inept little goalkeeper concedes yet another goal.
The next bar is holding a charity fundraiser for a local chef who was diagnosed with a deadly form of cancer.
There are cakes and art for sale, but Mark is solely interested in a pair of kissograms – two beautiful twin sisters – who are offering a kiss, hug or slap for a modest donation.
"I'll just get a cake," I say. "Too late, I bought you all three," slurs Mark, before launching into a passionate kiss with one of the sisters and pushing me towards the other. This time, I have no chair to sink into.
My Sunday host cancels at the last minute, so I fire up CouchSurfing before bed and post in the 'emergency couch request' section.
Brooklyn is covered in a beautiful carpet of perfect white snow but I have yet to find a couch. I have two offers. The first is from a 46-year-old man who sends me a long and detailed email inviting me stay with him. "Oh, and I'm a nudist. Hope that's not an issue," the last line reads.
The second is from an 18-year-old English guy named Ollie, who is minding a friend's apartment. "She's away for a few weeks and I'm minding her place and taking care of the cats. She said it's cool to have couch surfers stay," he says.
Ollie has travelled from coast to coast using CouchSurfing, and says he's only had one bad experience, in which a flamboyant doctor convinced him to share a bed.
"He said two of his colleagues were in town to perform emergency surgery and needed the couch. We slept top and tails, although I couldn't really sleep. And I never did see those doctors," he adds.
As I drift off to sleep on my final night, I reflect on all of the friendly hosts who kindly welcomed me into their homes, and my worries about creepy underwater shark fantasies seem a world away.