The second installment in the DOOM20 (Distinctive Occasions Of My 20s) series takes us to the not so distant past of 2021. This is one of those stories that I can laugh about now that time has passed, but in the moment had me shook. I promise there are more positive stories in the pipeline, but the time is ripe to recap this fecal tale.
He is all pine and I am apple orchard.
My apple trees will never get across
And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.
He only says, ‘Good fences make good neighbors.’
Mr. Frost was onto something when he wrote Mending Wall, though I’m not sure what the country poet would’ve had to say about modern NYC apartment buildings.
Before moving to the Upper West Side of Manhattan in 2021, my experiences dealing with neighbors had been mostly neutral, leaning positive. Aside from the landlady of my first apartment who lived in the building, I never sought out my neighbors for any reason, and for the most part they never gave me a reason to need to speak with them. I was blessed to have neighbors who didn’t stomp too loudly, have their TV volume at full blast (too often), or act in any other manner unbecoming of a neighbor. 2020, a year bereft of in-person interactions, saw me interact with one of my floormates on the Upper East Side the most. An older woman down the hall asked me to come over a few times to help with a variety of tasks, including setting up her wifi, ordering a new computer, and buying plane tickets to Texas. I was rewarded for my assistance with large containers of homemade soup, and the one time she wouldn’t let me leave her apartment without taking the money she forced into my hand.
If Covid had never struck, I’d probably still be in that UES apartment. Positive experiences with that neighbor aside, the rent was fairly affordable, the location was convenient for my needs, and I genuinely liked the space. I often thought I had one of the best deals in Manhattan. However, I fell prey to the allure of Covid deals, and with an eye to replacing three flights of stairs with an elevator, I migrated across Central Park to the UWS.
I moved into my new apartment on April 22, 2021. The first couple weeks went by without incident, and I was happily settling in to my new place. Living three blocks from Trader Joe’s was a dream come true, and being so close to Central Park was great for my on-again, off-again running habit. This all changed on the evening of May 3. As I lay in bed trying to fall asleep, I heard the neighbor on the other side of the wall for the first time. She walked around her apartment heels first, stomping from one end of the space to the other, occasionally accompanied by the sound of dragging furniture. From what I could hear, it sounded as if my bedroom shared a wall with her living room (her apartment actually wrapped around mine, highlighting the odd layout of the building as a whole). As this was the first night I’d heard her, and with no other data to establish a trend, I wrote it off, though it did keep me from falling asleep for the hour or so she was active.
May 4th is when everything truly went to (metaphorical) shit. That night, my neighbor invited several friends over for a raucous celebration of the Mexican army’s defeat of the French at the Battle of Puebla. There was loud music, people buzzing into her apartment all through the night, and one woman in particular who shrieked at every joke as if she were Lucille Bluth seeing Gene Parmesan remove his disguise. The conversations switched between Spanish and English, the latter I was able to pick up most of what was said thanks to the paper-thin wall between us. Around 3:00 AM on Cinco de Mayo I resigned myself to move from the bedroom to the living room to seek sleep on the couch. I could still hear that one woman squealing, but most other noise faded out. Peace on the couch was short lived, however, as the party inevitably made its way outside my neighbor’s apartment into the hallway, flooding the rest of my apartment with noise.
I didn’t sleep a wink that night, which unfortunately would be a sign of things to come. While never approaching Cinco de Mayo levels, My neighbor made a habit of playing loud music, talking on the phone with speaker phone enabled, having people buzz into her apartment at all hours, and other noise making from dusk till dawn. By May 15, after a days of non-stop disturbances at night, I wrote a letter to my neighbor and slipped it under her door. This was a time when not everyone was fully vaccinated with the Covid shot, and I didn’t want to take any chances with a face-to-face meeting. I know she saw the letter, because that night I heard her—through the wall—read it out loud to the friends she had over.
The letter didn’t do much to change how my neighbor behaved. Luckily for me, with the approach of summer’s warm embrace, the hum of box fans and the AC provided some much-needed white noise. There were nights I still heard her even when the AC and fans were on full blast, but she was much easier to ignore. Even though I was getting used to the living situation, after only 3-4 months I was already counting down the days until my lease was up and I could move somewhere more tranquil.
Saturday, August 7, 2021.
I was nearing the end of my first-ever two-week staycation, centered around my birthday at the end of July. That Saturday, for the first time since before Covid, I met up with friends in Coney Island to attend the Brooklyn Cyclones’ annual Seinfeld Night. The trip from the Upper West Side to South Brooklyn and back is a long one, so by the time I returned to my apartment after the game it was late, and I was exhausted.
My neighbor didn’t have any friends over that particular evening, but the bass from her music was just loud enough to be audible and irritating. I did my best to cope using the methods that had gotten me that far through the summer, but the anxiety brought on by hearing her on the other side of the wall kept me tossing and turning. As I did every night, I hoped she would eventually shut it all down and go to bed, but after almost four months of living in that apartment I knew better than to believe such fantasies.
By the summer of 2021 I was already fully vaccinated against Covid (#TeamPfizer). The prospect of catching or spreading the virus was no longer something I feared. The only thing holding me back from attempting an in-person meeting with my neighbor was a general aversion to human interaction made worse by the pandemic, though mystery banging of uncertain origin around 4:30 AM broke me. Reluctantly, I put on presentable clothes (gym shorts and a t-shirt), walked out and around to her apartment (as you can see from the image, no easy feat), and knocked on the door. I gave her some time, but didn’t hear any acknowledgement from the other side of the door. Not wanting to aggressively bang on her door for fear of disturbing our other neighbors, I decided to ring her door bell.
“Who’s there?” a familiar voice called after a beat. The door remained closed.
“It’s your neighbor,” I said.
“Can you turn the music down please?” I asked.
“No! Fuck off! Call the landlord. Call the police.”
To say I was stunned would be an understatement. For all the times I rehearsed how the conversation could play out, responding to “fuck off” wasn’t something I was prepared for.
“Okay,” I said. I turned around and proceeded back around the corner to my apartment.
It was only then that my neighbor decided to open her door. “Where did you go?” she called.
“You told me to fuck off, so I did,” I said.
She emerged from her apartment and came into view from mine, which afforded me my first ever glimpse at her. She was a short, older Hispanic woman with long black hair. She wore a blue t-shirt and jeans. She didn’t appear to be under the influence of any substances, though I’m usually a poor judge of that.
“Can you please turn the music down?” I repeated. “My bedroom shares a wall with your living room, and I can hear everything. It’s late, and I’m trying to sleep.”
“Oh, get a life,” she said.
“It’s 4:45 in the morning! This isn’t an unreasonable thing to ask for,” I said. I was again doing my best to spare the neighbors by not raising my voice, but I was certainly getting flustered. Months of anticipation had led up to this interaction, and it was quickly turning upside down.
“Where are you from?” she asked.
“Where are you from?”
“I’m from here,” I said.
“Oh, yeah. Okay. There are a lot more people like me moving into this neighborhood. We’re not paying $5,000 a month for rent like you are. We’re here to stay.”
She took a step back. “Are you vaccinated?”
“I am,” I said. “Are you?”
“I actually wrote you a letter a couple months ago before I was fully vaccinated.”
“That was you? I thought that was written by a woman. The handwriting,” she said. The first time anyone described my handwriting as feminine (you can be the judge from my photo above, though I very clearly gave my name).
“Nope. It was me.”
“Are you gay?” she asked. The malice she showed earlier began to melt away. She smiled when she asked the question.
Another question out of left field. “No, I’m not,” I said.
Without asking any follow-up questions, she reached over and touched my shoulder. I immediately got the impression she was trying to toy with my emotions in a way to get me to drop the issue somehow. Was she trying to hit on me?
I took a step back to break physical contact. “Can you please turn the music down?” I repeated.
“Come on. One more night? That’s it,” she said.
“Fine,” I said. I held up my hands, turned around, and escaped back to the safety of my apartment. Shortly after I closed my door I heard hers slam shut with gusto. It felt like we had been in the hallway for an hour, though the conversation couldn’t have lasted more than five minutes. I had my doubts she would keep her word to not make a ruckus after one more night, but sticking around to call her out on it wouldn’t have helped anyone.
I changed back into my pajamas and crawled back into bed. My neighbor’s music continued on without interruption. I tried to make myself comfortable, but after an interaction like that, sleep was not in the cards. Around 6:30 AM I resigned myself to get out of bed and make breakfast.
Since I had breakfast early, I was ready for lunch before the clock struck 10:30. By 10:50 I was already preparing a sandwich. As I milled around the kitchen, I heard more shuffling going on on the other side of the wall, but thought little of it.
Around 10:55, someone knocked loudly on my front door. I had a sinking feeling that it was my neighbor, and I was truly not in the mood to speak with her again. I also remembered how she had ignored my first knock earlier that day, so I decided to ignore her with the hopes that she’d go away. Sadly, after I didn’t open my door the first time, there was a second round of knocking. Seeing as whoever it was wasn’t deterred, I walked over to the door to look through the peephole. From that vantage point I couldn’t see anyone. Taking a risk, I opened the door anyway, as someone could’ve been hiding just out of view.
It didn’t take long to notice the present someone had left for me.
“Oh,” I said. It was a bowl of (literal) shit.
I stared at the poop on the ground for a few seconds before closing my door. Thinking it best to document the occasion, I whipped the door back open, took the blurry picture you see here, and shut the door before retiring to my desk to question my life choices. Shortly after I sat down I heard my neighbor leave her apartment to retrieve her fecal creation. The unmistakable sound of a metal mixing bowl being handled could be heard from her apartment.
I called my parents in Westchester to tell them they should be expecting me later that afternoon. After throwing whatever clothes were clean into a suitcase, I met up with my sister and walked to the nearest police precinct to file a police report. I didn’t intend to press charges if push came to shove, but I wanted official documentation (other than the photographic image of the crap) in case my corporate landlord gave me trouble during the lease termination process. The police were not very helpful, but they agreed to take a statement so I could file an official report. Since I did not witness my neighbor deposit the bowl at my door, they told me that there was nothing else I could really do, and recommended I get something like a Ring doorbell (which, to my knowledge, no one living in an apartment in NYC owns).
Once safely in Westchester, I wrote a flurry of emails to anyone I had the contact info for who worked for the building’s management company. At the time, the contacts I had were ghosting me after I’d asked repeatedly about a discrepancy in my balance on the online portal used to pay rent. I finally was able to reach someone two days later on Tuesday after using the broker who’d shown me the apartment as a mediator. The guy who I eventually connected with was receptive to my tale of woe, and agreed that I should be able to break my lease without penalty. He let me know that my neighbor had been a problem tenant for a while, with issues ranging from years of unpaid rent to being found unconscious in the lobby of the building. Because she occupied a rent-stabilized apartment, it was more difficult for them to get rid of her. He let slip her full name, and a quick search online found that I was lucky to escape with just poop on my doorstep.
I returned to the building near the end of August to pack up my belongings. I’d tried to find another apartment to move to, even asking the landlord if there were any currently available in buildings they owned. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to find a place up to my standards on such short notice, which meant that I resigned myself to move all of my stuff to self storage to wait for better apartments from Westchester. I never crossed paths with my neighbor again, but the potential for another face-to-face meeting filled me with dread every time I entered and exited the building. I moved out on the last day of August after dealing with the worst movers I’d ever hired (undermanned, more than a day late, and hassled me about a parking ticket). It would be two months before I finally found an apartment that met most of my needs, and I moved back to the city at the start of November.
The trauma imparted by my neighbor stuck with me for a while. Even after moving back to Westchester, I’d have moments at night where I swore I could hear the base of latin music. One of the features of the apartment I live in now that appealed to me most was that it doesn’t share a wall with any neighbors on my floor. I can hear people stomp up the stairwell, and noise from the lobby leaks in from the floor below, but after dealing with a madwoman next door those are noises I’m much happier tolerating. I’ve even experimented with white noise apps for when noise from the lobby becomes a nuisance (something I wish I’d thought of while living on the Upper West Side).
One thing that hasn’t changed is a reluctance to seek out interactions with my neighbors, even if they’re engaging in bothersome activities. The woman who lives just above my apartment will often lose herself in manic episodes, shouting obscenities at the top her lungs while stomping about and slamming doors. She can be heard for two floors in either direction, including in the lobby of the building. The desk attendants I’ve spoken to about her say that she’s a known drunk, whose behavior has only deteriorated since the onset of the pandemic. I’ve been tempted to go upstairs to ask her to keep it down, but having learned my lesson from my last apartment I settled for emailing the management company to deal with the issue for me.
Neighbors of every type are something every New Yorker has to deal with, though not everyone is as lucky as I’ve been to live next to some very interesting characters. Finding a place out in the countryside or spending big bucks on a penthouse apartment are quickly becoming very appealing options. Until that day when I become independently wealthy, I’ll have to continue learning how to live with my fellow apartment dwellers.
Honorable mentions for other important moments of 2021: The Great Atlanta Crossover Episode, Getting my vax card, The day I walked from the UES to Coney Island