Squirrel 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.