A couch-surfing tour of Brooklyn

dsc00762Squirrel is jittery and lean, with a look of confusion on his face. “Do you know the Rainbow Family?” he asks. “I’m part of the tribe. You can call me Squirrel. It’s my Rainbow name.” For a student of couch surfing, Squirrel is an intriguing character study, but the encounter ends as a cautionary tale.

I meet Squirrel during a five-day experiment in couch surfing through Brooklyn, which takes me from a shag rug in Bed-Stuy (not all couch surfing is done on couches) to a plush white sofa with a view of McCarren Park.

The practice of couch surfing—crashing at a stranger’s home for free rather than at a hotel or hostel—is growing among thrifty travelers both here and abroad, many of whom find each other through the five-year-old web site of the CouchSurfing 2.0 Project (CSP). Here some 1.3 million road trippers and prospective hosts (many of them one-time couch-surfers themselves) post detailed profiles listing their occupations, travel experience, personal philosophy and interests, along with action shots from the road.  As on eBay, members review one another, a practice that usually—but not always—encourages good behavior.

While couch surfing is on the rise, it isn’t entirely new. One of the earliest known attempts dates to 1949. While living in Italy, American Bob Luitweilera created Servas, a (still functioning) foreign-exchange home-stay service for adults. Snce 2004, CSP has given anyone with an Internet connection and a good back the opportunity to find a sleeping surface in a willing stranger’s home, and according to Wiki lore it’s now the most oft-visited travel site on the Internet.

As it happens, Brooklyn is something of a couch-surfing hub, with more than 1,000 registered overnight hosts. I joined the CouchSurfing Project and set off on a surfing trip across Brooklyn to find out who they were.


Couch A, Greenpoint
Modern gray ultra suede, chrome frame futon

Jeff and Jen are a hip couple who came to Brooklyn from Cincinnati roughly a year ago.  Their apartment’s bipolar decor, part West Elm mod and part DIY/flea market, hints at their transition from travel bums to successful creative professionals—he a graphic designer, she a freelance writer. Dog-eared travel guides filled a homemade wood-beam-and-cinder-block bookshelf. They’ve been around. And like most hosts, they surfed while traveling and now offer their couch as a way to keep the practice alive.

They’re not married, but—guessing by the DVD sleeve on the counter—have reached the NetFlix stage of their relationship. We spend a mellow Friday night with beer and a “pro-logically good things” conversation. In some cases, hosts will want you to chip in on expenses, but things like frothy beverages are often offered for free. I repay the favor the next day, which turns out to be Jen’s birthday, by making my breakfast specialty, chilaquiles, a recipe from my time volunteering in Mexico.


Couch B, Bed-Stuy
White shag area rug

James has a wide grin and a bold red-orange goatee. He’s approaching 50, but seems much younger owing to his cheerful disposition and the wiry frame of an admirable metabolism.  He spends his days educating newly arrived foreign high schoolers, a job with ties to his ESL days in South America.

His apartment, listed on CSP as a gay-friendly place to stay, is a clean, cozy dwelling; with the home office, living room, and bedroom combined into one space.  Instead of a couch, he offers me a spot on a shag rug next to his bed, but it isn’t as strange as it might sound. He goes through his morning work ritual and yoga warm-up, and I sleep right through.


Couch C, West Williamsburg
Classic wooden frame with dense tan cushions

My third couch is at an alcove studio sublet tucked among the corpses of half-completed waterfront condos in (West) Williamsburg.  My host Jill, who is finishing up a fine arts masters at NYU, is working late, but another couch surfer will be there for a key with me.

Jill rescued Squirrel from the SOS board, a forum for short-notice hosting to help surfers in a bind.  He said he’d come north to the city, got robbed of everything while sleeping on the docks of the Hudson (to save on a hotel), and turned to the kindness of strangers until his family could send money. She let him stay for a week and a half (2-3 days being the surfing norm) in exchange for an offer to build an online portfolio for her paintings and mosaics. To accomplish this task, he asks to borrow my laptop for a few hours, fidgeting and murmuring as he works.

When Jill returns from her art studio, he unveils an amateurish site that in no way resembles her instructions, and Jill and I wind up spending most of the night discussing the incident. But she’s had worse. Prior to Squirrel’s arrival, Jill hosted a Turkish man who behaved courteously when he stayed with her in a different city. This time he smoked in the apartment against her wishes, dirtied the kitchen, and left the shavings of his thick beard in the bathroom sink. “I’ve had some negative experiences,” she explains, “but very few compared to the over 100 incredibly cool people I have met through couch surfing.

I leave mid-morning, and Squirrel throws his few belongings in a duffel bag and leaves with me. When we part ways, I give him $20 for a MetroCard. Later that afternoon, I open iTunes while returning some emails and receive an alert from a defeated virus scan, remembering that only after I loaned him my computer did Squirrel boast about his virus-building prowess. When I try eradicating the virus, it triples.


Couch D, East Williamsburg/Bushwick
Twin air mattress

Ginny is deep into preparations for going abroad for a few months and wants to acquire hosting references. (Some hosts won’t even consider surfers unless they have opened their own homes to travelers.) The encounter is dutiful rather than social, but the accommodations are comfortable.


Couch E, McCarren Park
Plush white three-cushion sofa

When Kimberly opens the door, I’m taken by her unexpected good looks.  She has dark, Mediterranean features and a worked-out physique whose virtues are evident in her exercise clothes. The apartment is also attractive, in a stylishly modern way, and the whole package feels like a carefully crafted presentation, all aspects casually at their best.

Kimberly is a professional publicist who invites me to join her at dinner with two of her friends. She’s a one-time surfer who’s just starting to host. It speaks to the Couch Surfing Project’s strong sense of community that a beautiful young woman—seemingly the least likely to participate out of safety concerns alone—is willing to open her home to a stranger. On the way to dinner, she describes one of the creepier surfer requests she’d received (and declined) since joining the site two weeks ago.

“There was this guy, he was talking about some really strange stuff,” she said. “His name was Squirrel.”

She brings me to a barbecue at a friend of a friend’s house, and we laugh watching wealthy white kids blast gangster rap music, bastardize Ebonics, and shoot dice against a graffitied living room wall. Someone even uses the word shizzle.

There are never any romantic efforts on either end, but when she goes to bed I hear the clicking of a lock. At first, I can’t help but wonder if I seemed “rapey” or something. But I understand the impulse, since I’m her first surfer, and still a stranger.

The duality of sharing an intimate experience with a random person requires some social dexterity.  It’s part of the appeal of surfing, but for others it’s the biggest challenge. That and the occasional computer virus.

20 Comment

  • Bitch Blogs has a different take on couchsurfing that this Brokelyn article fails to explore. http://bitchmagazine.org/post/is-couchsurfingorg-safe-for-women

  • The author of this article contacted me through Couchsurfing and I turned him down. His message back then, and certainly this article lack the most important aspect behind Couchsurfing, and that is culture exchange. Certainly the idea of free couches allows a whole new arena of travel opportunities, but I do not think the author read the vision or mission pages on the website, which are very easy to find. These days, more and more (I would estimate my daily messages at 90%) people are writing simply to save money and have probably not even looked through my profile to see if there is a match. They have cut and pasted there message to dozens if not hundreds to improve their chances. Once or twice a week I even get a message that is addressed to a different name! I even get requests from people between apartments that live here in NYC. It’s tragic the difference between now and four years ago on the site, when hardly anyone is interested in true education and experience through the eyes of travelers and culture exchange. This is just another person that fails to appreciate that and sees it as a free lunch.

  • I can’t imagine why you say that. Trevor clearly did enjoy the “cultural exchange” part of the experience.

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  • Jared – I think the cultural exchange is inherent to the process of surfing, and a story can only be so many words after all. I do recall your reply to my inquiry, and I respect your efforts at protecting the purity of surfing. But as with anything that hits the web, it grows with its user base and will continue to evolve in ways that some might not like. The story is relevant for Brokelyn because of the financial implications, but I pursued it to meet the kinds of people in Brooklyn that make surfing possible.

  • Trevor – Your article is actually quite nice, and you have captured the spirit of these folks very well, I guess I was just a little disappointed by the approach. I suppose I’m just tired of wading through stacks of heartless messages (as you can imagine NYC is a popular place to couchsurf do to it being itself and also really expensive for travelers) from freeloaders, all in search of the people I truly want to meet and host. Sorry if my frustration of it all came off 100% on you, but they don’t post articles on blogs I read daily :)

  • Great piece.

    I’ve never done official couch surfing but have had many guests on the couch over the years – even four Bosnian Gypsies at one time.

  • Great article! Really enjoyed the part where you talked of going to the friend of a friend’s party. I can just imagine what the scene was like, as I’ve been in similar situations. The article fits in with the point of the site quit nicely, I mean isn’t the site about frugal living? Although it is unfortunate people use couch surfing for nothing more then being bums to society, but thats the way it goes sometimes when a site becomes popular. Occasionally the wrong crowd abuses the site for selfish purposes.

  • Jared – I want to concede to how right you are. In one of my drafts, I suggested people who use the community read a profile carefully (even for hidden subject line instructions) and reply on common ground. I decided to cut it for fear of a ‘how-to’ feel. I want to mention it here out of respect for you, in hopes that someone glances at these comments and gives hosts the respect they deserve. And respect indeed for sifting through all the thoughtless messages, which unfortunately included my first attempt. You were among the first people I emailed, and the more I got talking the more I learned sharing the experience with someone is what makes it so special. So my approach is more thoughtful and I intend to be a positive part of the community.

    As an addendum to the story, I was just invited to a group dinner for folks in my neighborhood. At a place with a “recession specials including a ‘super supper’ 3-course
    meal for $16.50 and $2 beers with the purchase of a burger.” The organizer went on to requests only those people with hosting references and a 50% respond rate (newbies welcome). Now I understand what the community element really means.

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  • Cool couches! :-)
    I should start taking photos of the bombs i’ve rideshared in.
    For those not familiar with ridesharing, its the couch surfing of cars. Check out http://www.lifttowoopwoop.com for ride sharers or even craigs list.

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  • Hey boys and girls !
    i found a new website for gay hospitality exchange : http://www.mygayst.com
    nice website, nice community and very open minded people. i already used it to travel through europe and it works ! i found a code for one year free access (instead of 24€) and i give you the code to register : HNUX8ZN1
    hope to see you soon there and meet you everywhere on the earth !!
    hope it will be useful for you all !
    have nice trips !

  • This article truly made my day. I enjoyed the character Squirrel very much. Congrats Trevor on the finished product! -ML

  • This article was written very well.

    “They’re not married, but—guessing by the DVD sleeve on the counter—have reached the NetFlix stage of their relationship”
    -I just about died laughing!
    “whose virtues are evident in her exercise clothes.” -clever description
    And you really made Squirrel’s antics come alive for me as well.
    Nice job!

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