In NYC we all live on top of each other.
Crying kids, yelling neighbors, loud parties, sex, you hear it all. In my little coffin of a room I have neighbors above, below, and beside. Walking up the stairs to my apartment, I pass more neighbors than used to live in my South Dakota development composed of two acre lots. In NYC your personal space, your personal life, is separated from others by thin walls.
You run into people on staircases. Smile, nod, get out of the way. It’s polite but curt. NYCers have a reputation for being brash and unfriendly, and that’s partially true. We got places to go, things to do, and whereas the rest of the country gets from place to place hidden in their cars, we walk the streets exposed to the weather and the smells and when we bump into someone its flesh and blood and not an exchange of insurance information. Further, while you can hide from the world in your car when you’ve had a bad day, in NYC it’s all on the street. So yeah, we’re all on edge a bit more, but maybe that’s just perception because there is nowhere to hide. But we’re friendly, too, and when parties collide on the roof (the night of the lunar eclipse was special, people playing music and dancing around, and burning lists of past pains in pagan revelry) we enjoy meeting a neighbor or a stranger. Not friends, but friendly. And in a pinch we help each other out (forgotten keys, package pick up, feeding the cat).
It’s in moments of conflict, though, that neighbors begin exchanging notes and because the walls are thin, everyone knows when something is going down. In this way it’s easier to be a good neighbor in NYC.
I am standing on the roof, earbuds dug deeply into my ears as I talk with the lady friend on the phone. My door bursts open on the opposite side of the bulkhead so I can’t see who it is. Yells. A party? Anger or mirth? Anger. Terra the neighbor that lives above me, but on whose roof I walk, stumbles out from behind the bulkhead with an angry woman in hot pursuit. Terra, who I’ve never met sober, sees me and scurries my direction. Grabbing my right arm she cowers behind me peeking out over my left shoulder. Her young, black, female pursuant is now yelling in my face, through my face, at Terra—me and and the girlfriend on the phone caught between. “You fucking bitch, you harass me and my girlfriend. Call us fucking dykes. Fuck you!”
I tell the girlfriend I’ll call her back.
The lesbian’s friends, in close pursuit, try to talk her down but she’s not listening.
I turn to Terra, “Hey, lets get you to your apartment.” Normally opinionated and defiant, she’s cowering with a pathetic, frightened look on her face—for once she’s at a loss for words. As I try to convince her to go downstairs, the two begin to circle me. I finally opt to slip from Terra’s grasp and that’s when the lesbian pounces, her hand shooting out and grabbing Terra by the throat. “Hey, hey,” the lesbian’s friends say, approaching, “Rosie calm down.” But she doesn’t, and after a burst of invective, she throws Terra to the ground where Terra sits up stunned as Rosie is escorted downstairs by her friends.
I want to call the girlfriend back, but now I’ve got Terra sitting on my roof, crying, drunk, and insisting that she’s no dyke.
Terra’s had it pretty hard. Her parents passed their apartment onto her after they died. Her siblings have all died. And tragically, a couple years back, her husband suddenly died. Last January she invited me to a birthday party with some of her friends at her apartment but I was away. I suspect she has no friends. Now she’s a sixty year old alcoholic—the days all bleeding into one another, repeating conversations she’s had a million times without realizing it. Rosie had it right when she yelled at her, “You’ve drank your brain away. There’s nothing left in there!” Drunk one night on the roof, Terra said I should come over some time once I had gotten back from vacation and that we’d have “some fun.” Amused but pitying her, I offered what was left of my wine (I was leaving early in the morning), and told her she should go to bed.
Now I try to coax Terra back to her apartment, but she’s angry and calling the cops. I go downstairs to check on the neighbors, who as it turns out, have also called the cops. I’ve never met them (“Hi, nice to meet you”) but we make acquaintances quickly.
Of course, there is a bit of a rub here. As far as I’m concerned, throwing someone to the ground is assault. But Terra was being a pain in the ass, so I point at Rosie and tell her, “You shouldn’t have done that, but she got what was coming to her and I won’t say anything to the cops.” That’s my South Dakota, frontier sensibilities coming out.
I sneak back upstairs hoping Terra has left. That was dumb. Of course she’s still sitting there, slobbering and stumbling over wrathful speech. I help her up and then down the stairs. That’s when the gay neighbor across from me comes up, “Hey Terra, what’s wrong Terra?” Terra is digging in her bag and out comes the key chain. There are a lot of keys. I rub my eyes, this is going to take a while to find the right one. We alternate helping her, she’s still mumbling and ranting at the lesbians across the hall.
Then the cops show up. She continues to yell about the dykes. “Ma’am,” the bald, tough, Irish cop asks, “Do you want to be written up for a hate crime?” She’s somewhat cowed by this, but this isn’t their first trip up the stairs to deal with her. They finally get her into her apartment. But she keeps reopening the door to yell, so they hold it shut.
I slip back upstairs and finally call the girlfriend back. “Everything ok?” “Yeah, it’s all good.”
But it’s not.
Love your neighbor as yourself.
I live in her basement and walk on her roof. If that’s not “neighbor,” I don’t know what is. She needs help. She needs to be committed somewhere. But she also needs to go for the peace of the other neighbors.
What to do when neighbors are at loggerheads and one is an alcoholic? How to be a neighbor?
There is being a good neighbor. There is being a bad neighbor. And there is being simply caught in a tragic situation with no solution.