Thursday, October 21, 2010
One Man’s Ceiling is Another Man’s Floor: Reflections on a Life Lived in a Box
An Over-Dramatization of Apartment Living in the Big City
An Essay with a Couple Too Many Subtitles
“Oh the noise, noise, noise, noise, noise. There’s one thing I hate, all the noise, noise, noise, noise!” - The Grinch
“It's just apartment house sense
It's like apartment rents
Remember: one man's ceiling is another man's floor!
One man's ceiling is another man's floor!” - Paul Simon
Saturday, October 9th, 6:30am - I am awakened by loud rhythmic clapping and the repeated top-of-the-lungs shouting of the single word, “Yankees!” First pitch of the game is scheduled for 8:37pm, some 14 hours later. Welcome to life in a densely populated New York City apartment building.
There will probably be nothing particularly unique here for many of you. Unless you grew up in Wasilla and have no real worldly experiences of your own, or any realistic perception of how the majority of your fellow citizens exist (got that out of the way quickly) there’s a good chance that you’ve lived in an apartment building at one time or another. But, like Oscar and Felix before me, I’m a more mature fellow still persevering in the world of monthly rent checks (alas, I have yet to locate my Pigeon Sisters) and find myself mostly surrounded by callow, rosy-cheeked, fresh-faced neighbors still in the embryonic stages of life’s long journey, and what they primarily appear to bring with them to this, their post-matriculation phase, are those things that they learned within the confines of the frat house. But soon enough, if they wish to survive and prosper, they will hopefully ascertain that there is more to life than the drunken exuberant screaming of the f-word, the 3am sounds of wall and floor shaking thumping bass and the smoking of the demon weed on my fire escape. Along with other more sober neighbors I have spoken with these children across the hall, have slipped notes under their door, discussed them with the Super and on one particularly extreme party night, even alerted the gendarmes, who failed to arrive. On any type of special occasion - a birthday, a 3-day weekend, a holiday (they really kicked it on Arbor Day), a major sporting event, an awards ceremony, Emo Phillips’ birthday, a day with the letter “y” in it - it’s simply best to just seek shelter elsewhere, even the Port of Authority would be preferable. These rowdy boys, keepers of the half-Delta House, half-Limelight lifestyles, are close cohorts of the landlord and accordingly feel impervious to any possible consequences of their actions. With no obvious kryptonite to play, one considers the crossbow, the catapult or the commando team but, legally and economically, those options are very likely unrealistic.
Currently, I am listening to the mellifluous sounds of a Section 8 woman who at times resides in Bellevue and at other times lives in the hovel directly across the airshaft from me. She spends much of her waking hours engaged in strident and boisterous squabbles with herself. On occasion, her dog does join in on the deafening disagreements but, much to my disappointment, rarely adds anything of value to the debate. When she is about, one must be wary of the glimpse through the levolors as a likely result would be to spy her naked in her kitchen window cooking at her stove top - in my eyes a somewhat dangerous activity to be engaged in when unclothed. Now normally, the chance voyeuristic peek would be a positive happenstance but not when, at first glance, the subject of the naughty nude-view appears for all the world to be Oscar winner and beloved Hollywood icon, Ernest Borgnine. And while maybe he momentarily did it for Ethel Merman he doesn’t really quite boil my cabbage. Interestingly and very strangely, when encountered on the street she’s the embodiment of sunshine and roses and, here’s the kicker, acts as though we are enjoying a relationship and, of course, a romantic one at that. “There you are!” she sing-songs cheerily in my direction, a large Joker-like smile terrifyingly lighting up her face. I wonder how much danger I’m in from this situation. I see a bickering couple, accidentally happening upon my lifeless body, Law and Order opening in my future.
Have I mentioned sex yet? Obviously, I mean not my own sex, as I prefer that the discussion remain in the realm of the realistic rather than delve into the world of the fanciful. No, I speak of the sexual stamina of the dynamic downstairs duo whose ceiling shared a plane with my floor. The promiscuous pair whose bedroom lay directly beneath my very own. They have since moved on but their amorous actions, while here, will dwell forever in my memory. Their frequent and vociferous expressions of shared affections appeared to occur in a very deliberate and scheduled manner - twice a day, everyday. It eventually became part of my daily calendar to be aware of exactly at what point the carnal carnival would commence, and even more disturbing, at what latter time, based on the speed, rhythm and pacing, said passionate performance would reach its conclusion. At that juncture I was free to attempt slumber once more. When I would run into them in the hallway handshakes were never in order as I knew precisely where they had just been.
Then there is the banging, (pardon the inadvertently lowbrow segue, I refer to noise) in populous, old New York apartment buildings you are assured of hearing banging. Constant banging. Incessant banging. Never-ending banging. Ever-present banging. Non-stop banging. Morning, noon and night, 24/7, forever and always, sunrise-sunset, night and day, day in and day out, summer, winter, spring and fall of my life, come rain or come shine (sorry, I’ve wandered into Frank Sinatra’s discography now) banging! If you’re not getting my gist, if you‘re puzzled about what exactly I‘m trying to communicate to you, I’d say it’s that there’s a lot of banging. Be it someone hanging a picture, someone repairing something, someone constructing their Ikea hutch, the heat coursing through the ancient pipes or the enraged neighbor venting his or her ire through recurrent and constant contact of fist on wall – there’s almost always some form of banging sound. If you’ve ever daydreamed of living in a fantasy musical theatre world, congratulations, you’ve made it into Stomp. I would imagine if one has to exist within the parameters of a show, Oh Calcutta might be a more enjoyable choice.
There’s also the rehearsals of all the, not quite Brian Stokes Mitchells or Bryn Terfels, Broadway and Opera wannabes who surround me here in the theatre district of Manhattan. And the never-employed lady above me who somehow can afford to live in the same apartment building subsisting only on her daily collections of cans and bottles which she drags up the stairs in metal carts numerous times everyday. It’s Marley’s ghost and the chains he forged in life, but I get it nightly, Scrooge only had to deal with it on Christmas Eve. As Ebenezer discovered, it can be quite a frightening and alarming sound when jarred awake by it in the wee small hours, whether you’re wearing a nightcap or not. There’s the choir group that regularly works on new harmonies at 1:30am, and the roach problem which has morphed into a bedbug problem, and the something that’s always leaking whether it's your toilet tank, the kitchen sink or the pipe in the wall that eventually causes a ceiling collapse in the apartment below - luckily the aforementioned frisky couple were not involved in anything of an intimate nature at the time. Is it at all a natural existence to live in a cluster of rooms piled on top of each other, sharing our musical tastes, our cooking aromas, even our vermin - our roaches, rats and bedbugs? As a rightfully rejected Devo song might have asked, are we honey bees or are we men? As I posed the questions, I too will answer them. Yes, and I’ll go with honeybees. I love Manhattan, I love my building. And I love my, desperately in need of a paint job, apartment in which I’ve resided for over 15 years. I’m a little more ambivalent about the Google Earth shots of me exiting it, but that’s a matter for another day. When all is said and done, please give me a little box surrounded on all sides by other little boxes in the heart of amazing Manhattan, and not some little box on the hillside made of ticky tacky anywhere else.