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My Dealing, Stealing, Squealing Neighbors

Illustration by Roderick Mills  

I lived in fifteen different places in the 28 years I spent in New York City: brownstones, prewar apartment buildings, and more than a few tenements; ­uptown, downtown, and in Brooklyn. I had hundreds of neighbors all told: silent and invisible wraiths, loudly ­querulous parties who inhabited the hallways as much as their own homes, heedless young things who went right on with their noise ­despite my complaints, studious types who complained about my noise. I lived upstairs from violin teachers, downstairs from drug dealers, and next door to gun-toting militants. I shared a bedroom wall with a couple who practiced alarmingly violent sex, an air shaft with people who liked to throw their trash out the window, a roof with an ad hoc flophouse for middle-aged alcoholics. Many of my neighbors I never actually met; most I knew only on a nod-and-grunt basis. You know how it is in New York: Unless it was a question of noise or the possibility of a fire, we fastidiously ignored one another’s activities, because that was best for everyone’s health.

The place I inhabited the longest—a bit over ten years—was a double tenement on the Lower East Side. It was built in 1903, at five stories and seven apartments per floor, and when I arrived in 1979 (second-floor rear), the building differed from most of its neighbors chiefly in that it was fully inhabited. The landlords, a couple of elderly European postwar immigrants, lived on the third floor, but they did such a poor job of maintaining the building that the courts had threatened to put it under receivership. The place was held together with spit and caulk. You could see cracks running down the length of the back wall; the beams in the cellar were sagging. One of the first things I tried to do was strip off the duct tape that zigzagged across my living-room walls. I tugged at an end, ripped—and found nothing but plaster dust behind it.

The duct tape was most likely the work of the former tenants, two men and a woman who performed as some band I’d never heard of. They also left behind a broken guitar-effects box, a toilet wallpapered with porn of all flavors, and inexplicable clusters of nails studding the walls everywhere, high and low. When I moved in, the downstairs neighbor was a mystery and the one next door was married to a rock star and seldom came around anymore. The apartment overhead was occupied by a little old man, very courtly and very sad, who lived with a wife and daughter I never saw. I did hear the two women, however. Both were apparently insane and, for a year or so until they were carted away, they moaned all the long nights through. The sound was unearthly, like the lowing of sea creatures on a sandbar at dawn. The first few times I heard it my hair stood on end. It was undoubtedly a good thing I did as many drugs as I did in those years or I would never have gotten any sleep.

As it was, I was often awakened by a poet who lived two flights up and enjoyed singing “Your Cheatin’ Heart” off-key out his window at dawn, taking advantage of the natural amplification provided by the air shaft. But those were human noises, and as irritated as I might have been when my eyes started blinking and my hangover kicked in, I could forgive them later in the day. No such warmth attended my experience of perhaps the worst torture-by-neighbor I’ve ever endured. The apartment below me, perpetually in flux, was sublet for a season by a young couple who argued furiously and often. One day, after a particularly raging spat, one of them left, slamming the door. Ten minutes later the other followed suit. Five minutes after that the phone began to ring. And ring, and ring, and ring. It rang for three hours. I supposed that party No. 1 was attempting to reach party No. 2, but in any case the piercing tone of the bell of the old Western Electric set, reverberating in the empty room below, was driving spikes into my skull, and for reasons I don’t recall, I couldn’t leave my apartment. I didn’t know whose name was attached to the account, and Bell Tel declined to disconnect the line. I went so far as to attempt to break into the apartment myself, but was stymied by the window gates. When the torment finally stopped, I lay for a long while, shuddering.

I cursed their window gates even as I recognized they were essential. At first I had none. One morning I woke up to noise coming from the living room, and walked in stark naked to find a teenager in the process of dismantling my stereo. He fled out the back window to the fire escape, and returned a few days later to finish the job. I couldn’t afford to replace my stereo, and went without one for three years, since I invested what little money I had in a set of secondhand gates, purchased from a celebrated peddler called John the Communist. Although they might have discouraged further prospective burglars—a moot point, since I had little left to steal—they were useless in preventing further violations. One hot summer day, two tomcats jumped in and proceeded to spray the back room I used as an office; it stank of ammonia-intensive feline spunk for years afterward.

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