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.
My burglar, as it turned out, lived on the top floor with his parents and brother. His mother, Susie, was a beauty whose extraordinary resemblance to Billie Holiday was undiminished by decades of drinking. The boys ran wild, and before they went to prison for unrelated matters they had at least attempted to rob everybody in the building.
On the top floor lived Mary, the building’s doyenne, who had been born in the house not long after its construction, when it stood in the middle of a four-block Italian enclave. By the forties, the storefront had become the Sea Breeze Club, a Bonanno-family clubhouse. Mary, who was in her eighties when I met her, enjoyed talking about her father, a bricklayer of unimpeachable character who nevertheless loved to hang out with the wiseguys; when his friends were rounded up by the cops one day and taken off in the Black Maria, he was disconsolate at being left behind and moped around like a kid.
By the time I left the building, the elderly Europeans had long since relinquished their deed to the property. Twelve more landlords had cycled through in half as many years, and the building’s selling price had climbed from $90,000 into the millions. And yet all of us who lived there spent the years wondering when the thing would collapse. Like most tenements, ours had been built on the cheap and was only intended to last a few decades. The plumbing corroded and the electrical circuits sputtered and the heating was extraordinarily unreliable. We were all aware of the time that a car had lost control on Avenue A and slammed into an empty tenement near 3rd Street, reducing the entire structure into a hill of bricks.
The task of holding the house together fell on the super, a man named Zygmunt, whom everyone called George. He lived in the first apartment on the right as you came in, was usually available—except on Sunday mornings, when his hangover took precedence—and was a dab hand with a pipe wrench. He did commendable work under the circumstances, although he never was able to fix the bathtub of Rose and Simon, my neighbors across the hall, with the result that they came over to use mine a few times a week for the entire term of my residence.
By and large, I loved my neighbors, although I worried constantly, owing to the presence of so many loose cannons in a single fragile container. One afternoon I took myself out to the movies. Film Forum was showing the last picture directed by Erich von Stroheim, which he called Walking Down Broadway although it ended up as Hello, Sister! It contained a subplot about a construction worker who, after getting plowed at the saloon across the street from his work site every night, would sneak back in and steal a few sticks of dynamite, which he’d throw under his bed when he got home. In the third act, naturally, nature took its course. I walked home thinking about how such a character would not be out of place in my building. Then when I opened the door I beheld my neighbors, all of them, out in the halls, rushing around with buckets of water. We had very narrowly escaped a conflagration.
It seemed that the art critic on the fourth floor had become immersed in crack to the extent that he had neglected to pay his Con Ed bill. His service cut off, he had been lighting his way with candles, although he was perhaps not as attentive as the situation might warrant. Furthermore, his apartment contained several years’ worth of newspapers, as well as a small fortune in contemporary oil paintings. Nature had taken its course.
It had to have been a miracle that his was the only apartment affected—or, for that matter, that the building still stands today. Nearly everybody smoked back then, and very few were attentive housekeepers. Drugs in particular caused many to lose track of key details. Take, for example, the couple on the third floor with the boa. They loved their boa, loved feeding it mice, loved the sight of its glistening scales wrapping around a table leg—but drugs made them distracted. They neglected their biweekly purchase of mice for long enough that the snake was driven to find his meals elsewhere. One day he just disappeared. Had he been stolen? Had he chosen to join the alligators in the sewers? The question was answered definitively a few months later. On the ground floor, a tenant, going to brush his teeth first thing in the morning, opened his medicine cabinet—and very nearly had a heart attack when the boa rippled over the shelf from a hole in the wall. To my mind, this illustrated an important principle of apartment living: What goes around comes around, although it may very well hit your neighbor instead.
Luc Sante is the author of Low Life and the essay collection Kill All Your Darlings.