A Disambiguation of Living Alone

“Why are so many Americans living by themselves?” Nathan Heller asks in “The Disconnect” (New Yorker, April 16, 2012). “Today,” Heller says, “half of U.S. residents are single, and a third of all households have one occupant.” We’re in the world of the sociologist, but while this issue’s “Table of Contents,” titled “Journeys,” promises “How to be alone,” we don’t learn how to live alone: what we get is a review of books about people living alone and why, and why the number of people living alone is increasing, and we are given to reflect on what it might mean to live alone, and how living alone might relate to loneliness, and whether or not living alone really means we are alone.

I find the topic interesting for a number of reasons, but mainly because I have never lived alone. In one sense, living alone might be compared to driving alone. Rarely are we on the road alone; we are surrounded by other cars, usually bumper to bumper, and if there’s a mishap, a flat tire or a blown hose, we soon learn who our neighbors are. Likewise, unless we live alone like Jay Gatsby did, in a giant, empty mansion on acreage twenty miles out of the city, we might be able to say that we have a room of our own, but is having a room of one’s own really living alone?

In South Bay for a time we lived in a one-room studio courtyard apartment. There were six, one story apartments, connected wall to wall down one side of a lawn, shaded by a single, large pepper tree, across from six apartments down the other side of the lawn. On each side, between the lawn and the row of apartments, a small drive led down to the carports. There used to be scads of places like this in South Bay, and they were very popular. They were sometimes advertised as “efficiency apartments,” but were often referred to as “bachelor pads,” and, for a time, we were the only ones in our courtyard sharing one of the apartments.

During most South Bay “solid gold weekends,” if we were home, we might for a little while leave our door open to the courtyard, and our neighbors did, too. One day, everyone in their places with sunshiny faces, the girl in the apartment attached to our north wall let out a peace shattering scream followed by a jet like roar, “Get that thing out of here!” followed by another scream, followed by an apparition at our front door.

Her cat, the situation quickly emerging in ghastly gasps, had carried a live lizard into her apartment. Would I please help her get it out? Susan tried to explain to her that the lizard was a gift, from the cat, but the look she produced at this irrelevant and impotent suggestion quickly gave way to an aggressive look back toward me that said, “Help me, now.” Thus it was that I became for the next half hour or so an alligator wrestler, while in the end it was the cat that wound up carrying the lizard back outside.

Cats can live alone, though Susan’s never had one that would, and the lizard seemed happy enough to be scurrying back up the tree to tell his tale back home, and while I don’t think our neighbor ever left her door open again, I always felt her presence.


  1. Great story! I do think that living alone and being lonely are 2 very different things. I don’t think I would mind living alone (although I would miss that guy I am living with now). But, I do not want a cat or a lizard to keep me company!! And believe me, living in the Mojave we have lizards all the time – but they know they are not invited into my house.

    1. Joe Linker says:

      Thanks, Barb. I mentioned the NYkr article to Susan and we got to talking and somehow I recalled the lizard incident, which I reminded her of, and then she reminded me that you guys had also lived in the courtyard for a time, which I had forgotten. Lizards and cats! Joe

  2. dan hennessy says:

    There is so much in this post that I can relate to . As kids we used to catch lizards by grabbing them behind the head . I could no more do that now than …………. Ada lets out blood-cuddling screams when our cat brings a lizard in to the house , too . It’s always a relief for me to see the problem is just a lizard and not what such a loud scream might otherwise indicate .
    I lived alone several years . I sometimes wonder how my house would look now if I had continued to live alone and to made my own decorating decisions . Might not be so bad —-but wouldn’t be close to my house now .
    Good post !

    1. Joe Linker says:

      Thanks, Dan. I sometimes think Susan keeps me around (rather than her living on her own) so she has someone to yell to when there’s a spider on the loose somewhere in the house. Maybe I should get a cat of my own and train it to fetch lizards who could then chase down the spiders? When I return from one of my spider expeditions, Susan will ask, “Did you get him?” A Good SpiderMan is Hard to Find. Joe

  3. Interesting subject. I live alone, apart from a lodger who is hardly here. After intense years, professionally, doing the family thing, many groups, being there for others, I find living with myself alone sheer bliss – it gives me space to allow friends and foes to be present inside.
    I was struck by how you kept feeling your neighbour’s presence after her emotional outburst over the lizard invasion. Strong emotions seem to tighten our threads, bring us closer in the collective human weaving. Loneliness is more often felt by people who did not experience their own space as children. Missing the buzz can be scary for them. My ideal community, a little like the South Bay you describe, would have independent units around a collective recreational space, like the old village green. A spider-man would be wonderfully re-assuring at times :)

    1. Joe Linker says:

      Thanks, Ashen. Yes, I grew up toward the top of a pile of ten kids. How’d you guess? My first abode apart from family was a barracks, where we slept head to toe separated by 36 inches of vinyl floor. Hotel rooms gives me the fantods – gotta have that buzz you mention. Maybe that’s why my ears ring and hum. But I like your “old village green.” There’s also something to this theme, about people who might feel most alone when in a crowd. You get that? Joe

  4. I like gatherings, they can be exciting, but I avoid public crowds, find them overwhelming, difficult to process. I think loneliness in a crowd could stem from the need to shut out the over-stimulation, resisting the collective flow. I did however enjoy music-festivals in my time, but then I was blessed-out :)

  5. alonegwen says:

    Read that article also. I have lived alone, on and off, for the past 20 years, but rarely have felt lonely. It is a choice, but my volunteer work, my friends and family keep me engaged in society, so I don’t turn into a wierd old lady. Well, maybe I am a tad wierd in a good way. You write well. Keep going…

    1. Joe Linker says:

      Thanks, Gwen, for reading and commenting. It sounds like you’ve got it together! Joe

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