With the grim housing situation in New York, leaving so many looking for an affordable place to live, I’ve decided to tell a cheery apartment tale.
By luck, I got a cheap tenement sublet in Manhattan eight years ago. It has all the familiar tenement drawbacks: insane tenants, ski-slope floors, kitchen bathtub, few outlets, general filth. The airshaft, instead of light and air, brings gloom, soot, and, the toilets being adjacent to it, distressingly intimate sounds. My warm, lucky bohemian feeling was soon replaced by bourgeois indignation.
Fortunately, my upstairs neighbor was quiet as the dead. Then, after several tranquil years, she left.
She was replaced by a lively young man. He’s not loud by way of parties and music, he’s just someone who seems composed largely of noise. He can only have phone conversations while sitting at his open shaftway window; I could easily have reached up and pulled him out. He sets his alarm clock for roughly an hour before he intends to arise, so: BEEEP, BEEEP, BEEEP—snooze button; BEEEP, BEEEP, BEEEP—snooze button. On and on. Then, THUD! His feet hit the floor. THUMP, THUMP, THUMP! Over to the commode. TINKLE! His piss stream sounds like a person’s protracted shout as they fall from a great height. COUGH! COUGH! COUGH! AUGHH! HACK! PTUI! SPLASH! His sputum hits the water. KKKKKKKKPLUGH! He clears his nose. FLUSH! I lay in my bed taking deep breaths, and trying to make a 10 count last an hour.
This goes on for quite a while, as I try to rehearse a conversation with him about being a good neighbor. But, I’m stymied. How do you explain to someone that their existence is too loud?
Then, one day, a new set of noises begins. Dragging, scraping, slamming, ponderous rolling sounds. Massive, drawn-out groans of agonized straining, followed by harsh thuds. “Oh, good,” I think. “He’s put in a bowling alley and swingers club!” I’ve had enough. I resolve to deal with him without losing my temper or dignity—a long shot at best. I go upstairs and knock on his door.
“Yeah?” he says. He’s a big, strapping guy, I sadly note, with a handsome, vapid face besieged by staring, fervid eyes. I offer my practiced gritty smile.
“Hello. I live below you. I was wondering if you could cut down on the banging a little.”
“What banging?” Stupidly, I have not predicted this answer, and am quickly flummoxed.
“The—the, you know, the banging,” I stammer. “It’s very loud for me.”
“I dunno what you’re talkin’ about, man. No banging up here.” I feel that this is not going well. He looks at me with an expectant sneer. I try establishing a bond by speaking his language.
“Hey man, look, I’m not tryin’ ta hassle you, you know, man, like, I don’t wanna be up here. But it’s pretty fuckin’ loud, you know?”
“Hey man, it’s a fuckin’ tenement, you know? The walls are paper thin!” He crashes his hand against the wall a couple of times to demonstrate, setting the building atremble. I wince.
“Yeah, man, yeah, I know. That’s why I’m askin’ you to be a little quieter,” I say, my voice firmly tremulous.
Suddenly, he says, “Hey, c’mere man. I’ll show you a secret!” I briefly wonder how an imminent altercation had become a time for sharing.
But then, smiling gratefully, I say, “Okay.” I step inside, and he gestures proudly at his kitchen. The room is ravaged. He’s ripped up all the flooring, leaving only the slumped and splintered subfloor, and that with big holes punched through it. He’s ripped out all the plumbing fixtures; water drips from dangling pipes onto the mangled floor. The main waste pipe vomits a clot of debris, so it’ll soon be clogged for the lower apartments. Plaster hangs in great, jagged planks from the walls. The rest of the apartment is a horrible tangle of construction material and tacky furniture; it’s like looking at someone chewing with their mouth open. Over it all looms a widescreen TV, turned on. And there’s another young man, bare-chested, lifting free-weights while lying on a gym bench. He moans mightily as he does his last rep, and lets the weights crash to the floor. I blanch as the floor quakes.
“I’m renovating my apartment, man,” the neighbor says. “Don’t tell anybody, okay?” I imagine him carrying sheetrock up the four flights of stairs:
Tenant: “What are you doing with that?”
Tenant: “With that sheetrock there.”
Him: “No sheetrock here, man!”
Breaking my reverie, he says, “What do you do?” He thinks there’s something friendly about this visit, a brilliant tactic I would never think of.
“Construction,” I say dispiritedly.
“Yeah? What local? We’re Local 666.”
“I’m non-union,” I murmur.
“Tshhh,” he spits, and gestures at me dismissively while looking at his friend and shaking his head in wonderment. “See that?” he says. His friend shakes his head too. I often get this reaction when I tell a union member that I am not; it seems like a mild form of ‘fuck you, scab.’
“Uh,” I say. “Maybe you could, um, I don’t know, put a mat under the weights or something.”
“Hey, I ain’t like that, man! I don’t drop weights like I’m inna gym, I put ’em down easy!” His friend drops some weights—CLUD.
“Well, that’s good,” I say. “But, you know, you don’t have a floor here. You could come right through my ceiling. I’m not trying to stop you from doing what you wanna do, but, you know, I had to learn how to not disturb the guy beneath me. It’s just the way it is here.” (I gloomily remember that this is the top floor, and he doesn’t have this problem.)
“Hey, what’s your name?”
“Scot,” I say.
“Pleasure to meet you.”
“Yeah. Hey, what are you, a carpenter?”
“Hey, what do you think I should do with this floor?” He gestures at the room. He seems in earnest.
“I don’t think you should be doing any of this.”
“Hey, nah, man, it was all fucked up in here! I gotta have a shower!” (I look dismally at his bathtub filled to the brim with plaster rubble. I estimate its weight at four or five hundred pounds. I look at the pile of weights. I can almost hear the joists splintering.) “Yeah, man! I gotta put in new tile, gonna level all this up, new sink, tear all this out, everything!” “Stop,” I beg inwardly, “please, just…stop.”
I elect to continue concealing my loathing. With a snarl on my face, I explain how I think he should redo his floor. I tell him to let me know if he needs help. I tell him I’ll pay for sound insulation. We part amicably.
The next day, I return home to a large hole blasted through my kitchen ceiling. My sink is filled with rubble, my stove covered with filth. I’m not furious. I’m just watching a long-held view of life being confirmed. I have to show Johnny and his crew the damage, because they somehow failed to detect it themselves.
“Wow,” Johnny says. “I’m totally devastated.” His expression is like that of a child who’s dropped his gum in the dirt.
“Yes, it is depressing,” I say.
I don’t like this man at all.
A year passes, relatively uneventfully, giving me all the restful peace of mind that entails. One day, my grandmother dies. Two days after that, my girlfriend’s mother goes into a coma. I go out to Jersey to lurk with her family around the deathbed, which is what it turns out to be. While there, I check my messages. My apartment building is currently on fire. I rush through traffic back to town. Yes, a fire. My apartment, though not burned out, is trashed; windows smashed out, door ripped open, smoke, water, all that. Other apartments were gutted. The following day, I’m at my local bar at 11 A.M. having my first medicinal beer and making calls. I check my messages. My father has had a stroke. I rush to that bedside. He doesn’t die. Really not my week, this one.
Where, you may be wondering, is the happy part? It’s here.
The fire has everyone in a tizzy. We’re afraid they’ll condemn the building, which is probably what should happen, but all would rather risk their lives than their apartments. I’m edgy because I don’t have a legal lease. I meet the landlord for the first time as he tours the damage. He’s a fastidious, distant, awkward man without blood dripping from his talons, although he did seem to be carrying a rodent in his mouth.
“And who are you?” he asks. After having failed to come up with a clever mode of attack for this moment, I’d decided to simply tell the truth. I know that my usually reliable good luck is at an end anyway.
“I’ve been subletting from James for eight years,” I say miserably.
“Uh-huh,” he says mildly. “How much are you paying him?”
I tell him.
“What are you making him rich for?”
“Uh,” I say eloquently.
“Do you want to stay here?”
“Well, fine. You keep the apartment and I’ll turn the lease over to you. You just pay me the same rent you were paying him.”
“Okay,” I say, my heart surging. The rodent turns out to be Trident.
And it all happens. I joyfully renovate my place, and he pays me for it. Doesn’t this give all you apartment hunters renewed optimism?
And that’s not all.
Battered by all these recent events, I slink from town for a few months.
When I return, they’re still not finished renovating the damaged apartments, including Johnny’s. But it’s quiet up there for the first couple of weeks. Either he left, or got evicted. Then one day the slamming and banging starts again suddenly. Someone is yelling into the street from the fire escape above. I look out the window. Heeere’s Johnny! He’s standing there on the fire escape with that fervent, shark-eyed look. My heart oozes into my shoes.
“Hey, Scot, how ya doin’ man!?” he cries.
“Oh. Hey, Johnny.” Again, my withering expression fails to do its deadly work on him; I worry that I’m losing touch. “What’s going on up there?” I heave.
“Oh, man, I gotta renovate my apartment, dude! I can’t wait for the landlord anymore, man. I need a place to live, you know!?”
“Your whole apartment,” I drone.
“Yeah, man, it’s a mess! I gotta throw everything out, gotta redo everything!”
“Ah-hah.” I just stare, dumbstruck, into the distance—or really just at the building across the street.
“Well, I gotta get busy up here. Gotta lotta work to do!”
“Yeah. Alright.” I go about my business. The noise continues. I briefly reflect on my newly developed ability to graciously accept the disintegration of my life.
At some point, the noise stops. I note it in the back of my head and continue working. Later, I hear policemen in the hallway: loud shouts of “Sarge, over here!” Crackling walkie-talkies. I listen at the door, but can’t figure out what’s going on. I look out the window—couple of cop cars out there. Doesn’t look serious. I decide I don’t want to know, and forget about it.
Later, I return from the bar and see my super in the hallway.
“Hello, Dave,” I say. Dave’s a kind of Beat/New Age spiritualist—Kerouac in a crystal mine—and often talks about capital-b Being: “Some people call it Zen, but I call it Being, but you know, same thing, right? Everybody’s gotta do what they gotta do, right? You know what I mean, you’re a smart guy, I can tell, here, let me recite this poem I wrote, ‘The World is One Being in a Unity of Oneness’,” and so on. I don’t like to ask Dave questions because he speaks with his face two inches from mine, which, because of my Intimacy Nausea Disorder, makes me recoil with stomach heaving. My illness causes me to often walk away as he’s talking, which he doesn’t see as offensive, and if that quality derives from his spiritualism, I may have found my faith.
I say, “Dave, what was all that hubbub earlier with the cops?”
“Oh, yeah, that,” he replies cheerfully. “Well, that guy on the top floor, you know, he decided to renovate his apartment himself.”
“Yeah, I know, I know. Johnny.”
“Yeah, well,” he continues amiably, “he was throwing his furniture off the roof into the courtyard, you know, but I wasn’t here. I was down at the Pick Me Up Café, you oughta come down there, lot of nice girls looking for a guy with a nice apartment.” (I’d thought “Pick Me Up” meant as in off the floor, not meeting women, but I often get that kind of thing wrong.)
“Uh-huh. I’m not surprised,” I say. I shrug and turn away. Johnny was throwing things off and somebody called the cops on him.
“Yeah, well, anyway, he fell off,” Dave says indifferently.
“Johnny fell off the roof?!” I exclaim.
“Yep. Shouldn’t have been doing that, we have to be careful, right? You know what I mean, you’re a smart guy, we’re not careful we can get hurt, you understand, I don’t have to tell you, right? We gotta take it easy, take it slow, don’t force it, our bodies are ourselves, they’re like machines, take care of ’em, change the oil, they’ll last forever.”
“But, did he live?”
“Ah, Scot. You ask very profound questions. Very profound. We gotta be safe in this.” And he shuts his door on himself.
And I flee, thunderstruck. I feel like high-fiving someone, a rarity, but I live alone. Some have suggested that my wild elation was inappropriate for the grisliness of the situation, but I reject that notion on the grounds that authenticity is important though elusive, and one’s emotions should be experienced holistically. Sadly, that thinking didn’t prevent an onslaught of guilt when my glee, much too quickly, dissipated.
Later, I go to the courtyard to confirm. It’s true. Johnny had been pitching chairs and other debris off the five-story roof. Then, apparently, he tossed the air conditioner, and somehow managed to go over with it. Blood everywhere. Very sobering and gruesome.
This event is the only time I’ve ever wished someone ill and gotten it, at least immediately and thoroughly. It’s not as disquieting as you’d think. Quite peaceful, really, with all the placid clarity horrified pity can bring.
He lived, surprisingly, but is mangled to a degree as yet unknown. As a friend said, it’s good to know that you can fall five stories and live. I guess she meant that if suicide seems the best option, my roof is not the place to go.
In any case, for all those out there with housing woes, this story should at least give you some hope.