- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 28, 2011

The carpet was clean, the counters clear, the clutter confined to a closet. But the sink was full. So Jesse McLaughlin did what he always does: the dishes. By hand. Soap, scrub, rinse and repeat. With gusto, almost as if he was having - no, wait. Preposterous. Can’t be.

Was Mr. McLaughlin having fun?

“I actually really enjoy doing dishes,” said Mr. McLaughlin, 26, a security analyst at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. “I don’t even use the dishwasher too much. There’s a satisfaction in seeing something go from a disaster to perfectly clean.”

Mr. McLaughlin looked toward the window of his third-floor Arlington apartment. “I love mowing lawns, too,” he said. “I would mow the lawn outside if building management would let me.”

He makes homemade ice cream. Takes out the trash. Vacuums the ceilings. He’s never short on rent, consistently quick with pizza money. A finalist for an ongoing national Roommate of the Year contest held by the real estate website Apartments.com, Mr. McLaughlin isn’t just to shared housing what Alexander Ovechkin is to hockey. He’s a precious, overlooked social commodity. An archetypal good roommate.

In fact, Mr. McLaughlin’s current roommate, Lisa Harbin, has only one complaint.

He doesn’t vacuum the ceilings enough.

“I vacuum them regularly,” said Ms. Harbin, 23, Mr. McLaughlin’s girlfriend and a personal assistant.

“Really?” Mr. McLaughlin said. “I only do them three to four times a year.”

“I vacuum when you’re not here,” Ms. Harbin said.

Roommate roulette

Who doesn’t need a good roommate? Someone to share laughs, bills and, yes, dust-busting duties? From the Pilgrims on the Mayflower to Joey and Chandler on “Friends,” ours is a cohabitation nation: freshman dorms, summer-intern housing, group houses, minor-league road trips. The young, entry-level masses, yearning to live in the big city.

Studies show that cheery housemates increase our own probability of feeling happy. That healthy diet and exercise habits rub off. That rooming with someone of another race reduces prejudice. As the economy continues to sputter, splitting rent even can make the difference between getting by and getting left behind.

Yet roommates never have been held in lower cultural repute.

Once upon a time, pop culture celebrated living together, even when it wasn’t perfect. Vive la difference! We had Felix and Oscar, the quintessential odd couple. Tom Hanks and Peter Scolari, dressing up as women. Jack and Janet and Chrissy.

Then came “The Real World.” The granddaddy of reality television. A series about … roommates.

Mouthy roommates.

Obnoxious roommates.

Rock ‘em, sock ‘em roommates.

The show embodied a zeitgeist shift. Somewhere along the way - possibly when Jennifer Jason Leigh stabbed her roommate’s boyfriend with a stiletto heel in “Single White Female,” probably when Kevin almost quit the first season of “The Real World” - the genial roomie of yore was replaced by a more sinister paradigm. The roommate from hell.

Or, as MTV viewers called him, Puck.

The roommate from hell was different. Scary. The dreaded Other. She was liable to borrow your jewelry without asking, if not murder your friends, like Leighton Meester in the recent film “The Roommate.” Perhaps she would plan out an adult website business, complete with graphic photos, right there in your shared living room.

And no, the preceding sentence is not the plot of another movie. It’s an actual story from a Chicago newspaper.

Art imitates life. In the 1960s, Lucy from the comic strip “Peanuts” charged 5 cents for general psychiatric advice; these days, she could retire a billionaire before finishing junior high simply by specializing in roommate-related talk therapy. Go online. At sites including ihatemyroommate.org, anonymous angst radiates from every pixel, with stories of dirty dishes and clogged toilets, untrained puppies and unwanted sexual advances.

For one contributor, the only thing worse than a roommate from hell was said roommate moving out: “… he trashed the room, stole my leftover pizza, left air fresheners plugged into every socket - and he knew I am allergic. He left the carpet in what I can only assume is a health-hazardous condition, black marks on the wall, broke the blinds in his room; I’m actually scared to touch anything in his bathroom; there’s bits of weed and stem in every dresser drawer … to top things off, he went into my room and stole $500 - the same amount as his damage deposit … “

“Since I entered this contest, six or seven people have come up to my desk at work,” Mr. McLaughlin said. “It’s always a roommate horror story. Some have been ridiculous.”

To wit: Mr. McLaughlin works with Mark Evers, 52, an information systems analyst from Bethesda. Years ago, Mr. Evers rented a spare bedroom to a student couple. The pair was friendly but messy, prone to leaving dirty dishes and pots strewn across the common kitchen.

Mr. Evers would scrape and scrub, then ask the couple to do the same. The messes continued. Eventually, he started preparing meals and storing them in the refrigerator, telling the couple simply to use the microwave and place the plates in the dishwasher.

Oh, and when the couple placed their broken-down automobile on blocks in the home’s driveway - and days of inactivity became weeks - Mr. Evers fixed their car.

“The thing is, you have to work with people and give them breathing space,” Mr. Evers said. “Make them comfortable. We parted on great terms.”

Does that make Mr. Evers a better roommate than Mr. McLaughlin?

“I guess,” Mr. McLaughlin said with a laugh. “Or it might be kind of passive-aggressive.”

When Mr. McLaughlin was studying abroad in South Africa, he lived in a house with 10 other people. The group mostly got along. However, a few of them threw a large party without asking for their housemates’ permission - and days later, the house was robbed.

“Off went six laptops, iPods, cameras,” Mr. McLaughlin said. “The thieves got in through an entrance that you wouldn’t know about without already being inside the house. I guess you could blame it on my roommates.”

Did Mr. McLaughlin blow up at them?

“You have to pick your fights,” he said.

Mr. McLaughlin’s attitude is admirable. It’s also quaint. Today’s prospective co-inhabitors increasingly are adopting a variation on Ronald Reagan’s old maxim regarding the Soviet Union and arms control.

Trust, but verify.

Couples sign prenuptial agreements. Roommates use detailed written agreements that cover everything from food sharing and pets to overnight guests and recreational drug use. Welsh on the cable bill? See you in small claims court.

Meanwhile, renters and colleges alike are using technology to make the roommate selection process less random. Websites such as URoomSurf.com employ the matchmaking model of online dating: Users complete questionnaires about study habits, sleep schedules, musical tastes and the like, then receive lists of like-minded potential housemates.

The goal? Avoid the roommate from hell. And the moderately annoying roommate from somewhere just north of purgatory. Encase an otherwise risky experience in bubble wrap.

Mr. McLaughlin has never used an electronic roommate service. But he sees the appeal.

“Finding someone through Craigslist, you’re leaving yourself to chance,” he said. “That’s real hit-or-miss.”

Ms. Harbin - whose top roommate horror story involves an intoxicated male housemate mistakenly attempting to snuggle with her and a former boyfriend - concurs.

“It’s way harder to break up with a roommate than someone you’re dating but not living with,” she said.

Learning to get along

During her freshman year of college, Ms. Harbin roomed with a girl named Colleen. Their pairing was random. Colleen liked to party, stay up late. Ms. Harbin was more studious, an earlier riser. The two butted heads.

They became great friends.

“Living together helped us both grow,” Ms. Harbin said. “We stretched our boundaries. You learn what you can live with. You learn what you like.

“I used to be that bad person who let the dishes pile up. As a kid, I never had to think about them. But with roommates, at some point they say, ‘Hey, surprise, one of us had to wash your cereal bowl before it started to mold.’ “

Such is the secret value of roommates. They teach compromise. Provide perspective. Maybe, just maybe, make you both a better dishwasher and a better citizen. As Canadian writer Katrina Onstad once observed, there is “a kind of self-awareness that can occur only by living with people who don’t love you.”

In a culture of like-minded self-selection - of personalized social networks, hyperpartisan politics, niche cable programming and Google searches just for you - friction-producing human difference isn’t just another blip to be avoided, like a cellphone dead zone. It’s to be embraced.

Really, isn’t that the whole point of “The Real World?” Besides the drunken hot-tub scenes?

“The end of serendipity is a general phenomenon of our digital age, but I think it’s particularly tragic for an age group that is supposed to be trying on new hats and exposed to different ideas,” said New York University sociologist Dalton Conley, a proponent of random college roommate assignments. “Other than jail or the military, there aren’t many institutions other than a college dorm room that shove two folks into a 10-by-10 space and expect them to get along for nine months.

“Besides the new social networks it opens up and the cultural tastes it exposes one to, it’s a basic lesson in how to get along with others.”

As for the alternative? Mr. McLaughlin once spent a year in Japan, teaching English, residing alone. He didn’t speak Japanese. Couldn’t communicate with his neighbors. He felt depressed. Started talking to himself, then singing in his car, the radio turned off.

Anything to hear a voice besides the one in his head.

“I’d catch myself and feel embarrassed,” Mr. McLaughlin said. “You feel like you’re going crazy. I was living in a bubble. When I got back to America, I knew immediately I would have a roommate, one way or another.”

Good roommates do more than dishes. They do connection. Because contrary to Sartre’s famous assertion, hell isn’t always other people. Without a roommate, it can be you. Living with a sink as full as you like. Living in an empty room.