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May 20, 2024

Howdy, Neighbor!

By Barry Udoff

She wears a mask and wraparound goggles. Twice a year, he sits with his mouth agape while she cleans his teeth. Her name is Anne. She lives by herself in Manhattan. She likes to go to Las Vegas with her friends.

He lives in a one-bedroom condominium in the 70's just off Third. His apartment is on the 18th floor. At the far end of his hall is apartment 18-B. He knows nothing about this neighbor, whether a man or a woman, young or old. He's never seen nor wondered about the person behind the door.

It's entirely possible that the occupant of 18-B and his dental hygienist are the same person. It could be that both have lived in the same building for years, and it doesn't stretch credibility far to assume that not even once have their paths crossed in the halls or the lobby of the place they both call home. How can we be expected to love our neighbors if we haven't a clue about who they are?

We can remain oblivious to our neighbors' existence beyond the expiration date of their lease, beyond the expiration date of their lives. A long time resident of a large Upper East Side Co-op admits she hadn't the slightest idea who occupied the corner apartment on the south end of the building. The south end units were serviced by their own elevator. This ruled out the possibility of even a brief encounter while waiting for the car to arrive.

She came home late one night and was alarmed by an EMS ambulance parked in the front of her building and a policeman in the lobby." I asked the concierge what was going on and told me that Mr. Fisher in 209-S had died. He lived on my floor but I didn't know anything about him, not even what he looked like. I felt so ashamed in front of the concierge." Her children had grown up in this building and for all she knew, 209 could have been vacant the entire time. When she finally learned who had lived there, it was too late.

Suburbanites say, "Good Fences Make Good Neighbors." In New York City the fence is a wall. As effective as the one that once divided Berlin, or the one that keeps strangers from getting a table at Rao's. The only good neighbor is the one I don't know. Or else they'll surely be ringing the bell asking to borrow Spanish olives and a foot massager. The walls, however, are not impenetrable.

A divorced woman had recently moved into an Upper West Side apartment. A post-war building constructed in sheet rock instead of plaster. She began to hear sounds coming from the apartment next door. It was occupied by a man she knew only by the name listed on the tenant directory. What she heard were the unmistakable sounds of a woman nearing the end of some very loud private relations.

The neighbor and his companion seemed on a clockwork schedule. "During the week they were at it right after the news, weekends at 2:00 A.M." She noticed something else that seemed abnormally regular. She made exactly the same sound for exactly the same length of time every night. "They were obviously new lovers and I didn't want to bang on the walls and become known as the 'frustrated old woman who lives next door' so I just tried to tune it out".

A few months later with the help of an inveterate eavesdropper, they discovered that the ecstatic sounds were coming from his television. Apparently her neighbor and had fallen in love with a certain 'actress' who appeared in a particular scene of an adult DVD. She had him now. Knowing her neighbor would never risk the revelation of his secret lover's identity, the next time they began, she gave their common wall a few loud raps. The couple's relationship cooled considerably after that.

In the office, an intense dislike for a co-worker must be heavily frosted with civility or else risk the brand, 'Not being a team player'. As uncomfortable as office discord can be, it's a day in the hammock compared to a war on the home front. Hostility between neighbors can unhinge that feeling of well-being we experience when we open the door and enter our homes. Inside, we are safe, at least for a while. Until those damn neighbors start fighting about how much she spends or how much he drinks, or until that little hooligan starts playing "The Blitzkrieg Bop" on his fuzzy amp, or until those people in 4-B let loose their rug rats to ride their plastic 'Big Wheels' down the marble hall, bumping and banging doors as they go.

Of course not all of our neighbors live on the same floor. Apartment neighborhoods have a vertical axis as well. Upstairs/downstairs relationships come in two varieties. The first is called the 'Ghost in the Ceiling'. In this relationship, a bottom dweller will occasionally hear vague noises that sound like a heavy chair is being dragged across a carpeted floor, which is exactly what it is. These vertical neighbors meet in the elevator and make small talk all the way down to the lobby. This state of neighborly rapport is the envy of those who suffer in the second condition of vertical dwelling. A condition called war.

Most vertical-neighbor wars begin with a din, a racket or a reverberation. A young West Sider who considers herself only slightly obsessive about the cleanliness of her one bedroom apartment was taking her new Miele vacuum cleaner out for a spin. The German machine has the lines of a European sports car and enough power to suck dimes from beneath a subway grate.

From the floor below a fully cranked Miele sounds like an industrial belt sander let loose on its own. Her first drive drew a complaint. The building's Quality of Life representative was soon knocking on her door. She agreed not to vacuum after work. Now weekends would be sliced even thinner with a chore she liked to check off her list during the week. She asked, "How could it bother him? My place isn't that big. It took me 15 minutes... He played his stereo loud at night and it came up my heater vents. I never said anything about that".

The 'Weekends only' arrangement didn't settle the conflict. She continued to take her Miele vacuum out for weekend spins, he dialed up his Krell amp to number nine. The Miele-Krell war had begun. He began leaving Hip Hop and Electronica on all night, she countered with by laying her speakers face down on her vents and blasting back with flamenco and classical music early on Sunday mornings. She admitted, "The Quality of Life rep gave up on the whole thing. I got worried about the board getting involved...(they) would do something, like sue us or throw us out." Then one day the man downstairs withdrew his forces. Or at least it sounded like he had.

She asked the doorman, was he was out of town or something? He replied that the guy had sold his place and was gone. Peace at last. Peace at last. Until she found out the place was bought by the owner of the adjoining apartment who was planning a renovation to combine the two units. The polite note under her door asked for the 'Understanding of all the neighbors during the eight-week renovation.' The electric saws started at 9:00 AM. Eight weeks eventually became twelve. Except for an occasional hammer, the downstairs construction seems almost complete. For now, all's relatively quite on the Westside front.

There are apartment buildings where neighbors live in harmony, each keeping an eye open for the other's well being. Who count on one another for a spare75-watt light bulb, a Chinese take out menu, and someone to feed the hamster while they're away on vacation. A married couple that once lived in such a utopia recalls "Parties almost every weekend at a different neighbor's place. We knew everyone in the building... it was like a big family." Why then did they move from what sounds like the arms of paradise? "We all moved away to find better things". What could be better then what they had? A luxury Hi-Rise with a rabid hedge fund manager on one side, a litigious attorney who sues for having the wrong color door mats on the other?

A New York City apartment packs dozens of dwellers into a box that could FedEx a double-door refrigerator. To live successfully in such a crowded neighborhood, residents need to follow the rules. In most apartments, two of the rules are ironclad. The first is never to mix plastic water bottles in with the regular trash, the other covers a much more serious offense. Breaking this one unleashes all the demons from the darkest regions of the basement boiler room. Never, but never should a relationship between neighbors evolve into something more personal. There is no outcome to this infraction that doesn't involve taking the service elevator to avoid the judgmental glances of the building's staff and most of your neighbors. As a man who once ignored the rule said, "When it goes bad, you better just move out. One day you're going to come home and find your mailbox has been Crazy-Glued shut."

Maybe we shouldn't blame ourselves for our desire to keep the people who live closest to us as far away as possible; after all, this is how we deal with our family. It might be our human nature at work. Once we all lived together in caves but moved out as soon as we could afford our own. Does this mean it's impossible to be good neighbors? Are we expecting too much too much of each other?

The perfect neighbor does exist. He's the guy who helps the older people with their taxes and teaches the kids how to tie fly-fishing flies. You know him. He lives in 16-J. The one with the yellow police tape around it. He seemed like such a nice guy, how could he do such a horrible thing? He always said 'Hello' in the hall ...

-- Barry Udoff

Article © Barry Udoff. All rights reserved.
Published on 2008-09-01
2 Reader Comments
Terri Gilmore
10:33:30 PM
your writings are intoxicating; makes one truly think
06:16:31 PM
"As effective as the one that once divided Berlin, or the one that keeps strangers from getting a table at Rao's. The only good neighbor is the one I don't know." nice
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