A History of Bad Neighbors

The latest crappy neighbor incident set me thinking about all the weirdos I’ve lived next to in the past. I’m wondering–is this what every apartment-dweller goes through or do I just have uncommonly bad luck?

For all the people who made my life that much more like a Hitchcock movie – this one’s for you.

First apartment–Albuquerque, New Mexico
The first place I ever lived in was a complete shithole near the University of New Mexico. My mom, who hated my boyfriend at the time, had thrown me out the summer I turned 17. Being young and stupid, I thought our love was worth trading my comfortable suburban home for a flea-bag in the war zone. I was afraid the entire time I lived there. It was a cramped, dirty little studio apartment on the top floor of a building most slum lords would be embarrassed to admit owning. It was populated by scary types and was miles from my high school which meant I had to ride three buses every morning and afternoon just to finish out my senior year. I hated it.

My boyfriend must’ve hated it too because he almost never came home. He was working so he’d find excuses to stay at work or say he was working and go out with friends. Anyway, I spent a lot of time there alone. One night I was lying on the ratty carpet listening to music when I heard someone come up the stairs and bang violently on the neighbor’s door, shouting for him to open up. I peeked outside and saw a big, meaty biker looming within a few feet of my window. From what I gathered, he was there to get some money the weasel in the apartment next door owed to him. There was a shouted exchange through the door, followed by more banging and then I heard the biker guy say, “You don’t open this door, I’ll shoot it open!”

I threw myself on the floor, hoping the guy would just open the damn door and praying the walls were thick enough to at least slow bullets down. Eventually the door did open and I lay there on my stomach, barely breathing, waiting for the sound of shots. I guess the two old friends resolved things amenably because the shots never came. From then on I slept on the floor.

Grad School apartment, Evanston, Illinois
Moving from my mom’s house in Albuquerque, New Mexico to Chicago was definitely a change. After the widespread flatness of an all-suburban town, the high rises of the city excited me, and living on the top floor of one made me feel like Holly Golightly. What I didn’t get though is that the key to being Holly Golightly is to pre-empt the annoying neighbor issues by being the annoying neighbor. Being pretty normal, I failed to be sufficiently irritating to those around me and so I should’ve realized someone else would have to take up the slack. And it was a dedicated group of tenants at that building, boy howdy.

Across the hall from me lived the building supers, although that’s really a strong word for what they were. Ed and Marsha were a strung out, skinny biker couple who I’m convinced shared one set of dentures because I never simultaneously saw both of them with teeth. They “maintained” the building for a break in the rent. What they did mostly was hang out in the lobby chatting up the tenants. What I remember about them most is that they said they belonged to the most powerful church in Evanston. What does that mean, “most powerful church”? The pews are upholstered in cashmere? The priests all look like Schwarzennegger? All your sinners are belong to us?

To me Ed and Marsha were mild on the annoyance Richter scale but then again, I didn’t live under them. One night I was jolted out of a sound sleep by the sound of banging. I jumped up and looked through the peephole just in time to see Ed open the door to a very angry, muscular black man. From what I gathered from their heated exchange, Ed and Marsha were up late drinking and were tossing the empty bottles right on the floor. The sound was keeping this hard-working man awake and by the time he came up to the 16th floor, he was pissed. It was pretty scary to listen to. I was convinced the guy would just snap Ed in half like a breadstick but after Ed agreed to keep it down, he left. The two of them had this kind of repartee several times while I lived there, so Ed and Marsha either had serious short term memory loss or a death wish.

If only Ed and Marsha had been the sum total of the colorful Evanston neighbors. Next to me lived an aspiring folk singer who had two bothersome late night habits: washing dishes and practicing her act. I could never figure out how one girl could dirty enough dishes in a day to be washing them for an entire hour. Maybe she was obsessive-compulsive. Maybe all her best song writing ideas came to her when she was soaping a skillet, I don’t know. All I know is that every night I’d get settled in around midnight and then the clattering would begin. If it had only been the dishes, I might’ve stood it but several times a week after washing the dishes, she’d get out her amplifier and microphone (I think she was afraid they might not hear her on the first floor) and start plinking away at her guitar.

I might not have minded if she was any good but…she wasn’t. Actually I think she must’ve just started taking guitar lessons because she’d strum a chord and try to sing a couple lines, stop, then pause a long while before playing the next chord. I can’t tell you how painful “Proud Mary” is played in slow-motion at 2 o’clock in the morning.

Again I’ll say, if only Ed, Marsha and Joan Baez junior were all I had to contend with, but they paled in comparison to the firebug on the 4th floor. I’ve noticed inconsiderate jerks are a nocturnal breed. They’re fairly inactive during the day but once the sun goes down, watch out. I awoke on another night to the blaring of the fire alarm. Losing everything in a fire has always been my biggest fear so that sound put my heart right up in my throat. I went out into the hallway where my sleepy neighbors were milling around and heading downstairs. We stood outside shivering in our robes for a good hour while the fire department checked the situation out and finally told us that some Einstein on the 4th floor had set his bed on fire by falling asleep smoking a cigarette.

The damage wasn’t great, but the building smelled like smoke and from then on, I was never comfortable living there. My fears proved totally legitimate because a few months later, the same scenario played itself out again. The alarm went off late at night and we all went outside to enjoy the cold. This time however, the fire department informed us that the crazy sleep-smoking bastard from the first incident had piled cardboard boxes in the hallway in front of his apartment door and purposely set them alight. I moved the minute I got out of grad school.

City loft–Chicago, Illinois
I left the Evanston apartment to do what I’d always meant to do; live in the heart of the city. I found a loft above a cafe in Lakeview, a very cool up-and-coming neighborhood being slowly gentrified by the gay population. At first I loved my new place but as anyone who’s lived in a loft knows, the walls are so thin you can practially hear the people next door breathing. I rarely saw my neighbors but I noticed the unit across the hall was shared by a couple of frat-boy types.

From the first weekend on, they held loud parties with people talking, music playing and people slamming the door until the wee hours. I’m the type to suffer in silence anyway and in this case I admit I was intimidated by these guys. I mean, if someone will be that rude in the first place, I figure they’re not gonna be particularly glad to have their rudeness pointed out to them. For the most part I figured these guys were harmless until one night I was coming up the stairs and saw that they’d locked themselves out. Not so unusual–until one of them pulled a credit card out of his pocket and jimmied the lock in like, two seconds. I didn’t sleep too well after that.

Not that I could have anyway. The neighbors next door to me made sure of that. They might’ve looked like a nice young professional couple but I came to know them as dangerously deranged. It started with the fights. I was watching TV one afternoon when I heard raised voices. They got louder and louder until it was like they were arguing in my livingroom. They were arguing about the husband’s drug habit, which later on explained a lot. These fights of theirs were infrequent but nasty and whenever they happened I left or turned the TV up.

Not too long after I’d moved in, I was coming home from work and as I reached the top of the stairs I smelled something burning. The hallway was hazy and having lived with the pyro in Evanston, I was more than alarmed. I ran into my apartment to see if the fire was in there and didn’t see anything so I knocked on the neighbors’ door. It took a long time for them to answer and when the door finally opened, it was the guy looking sleepy and disoriented. “Do you smell smoke?” I asked, unnecessarily. “Oh yeah, sorry,” he said. “We were baking cookies and we fell asleep.”

“Fell asleep.” Yeah.

This kind of thing happened repeatedly in the months before they finally moved out. It got to be kind of a game I’d play in my head as I was walking home. “I wonder if the neighbors will have set the place on fire today?”

What finally prompted me to revenge was when they had one of their loudest parties, one that went on until six in the morning. I hadn’t had a wink of sleep and wondered how I’d sleepwalk through the slew of errands I had to run that day. As I was leaving, I got an awful idea. A wonderful, awful, evil idea. Knowing their party guests had just left and they’d probably be settling in to sleep it off, I turned on my stereo and turned the volume way up. It took me a minute to determine what song would be punishingly suitable and then settled on Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song”. You know, the one where Robert Plant keeps going “Ah-ah-ah-AH!” at the top of his lungs? I popped the CD in the player, put it on repeat and left for the day, cackling as I went down the stairs.

I came back eight hours later and seconds later heard a knock at my door. I opened it and there stood my neighbor, shaky and baggy-eyed. “Hey, did you know you left your stereo on? We haven’t been able to sleep all day, ” he whimpered. “Oh really?” I said, feigning surprise. “I’m so sorry. I’m make sure it doesn’t happen again.”

Richmond District Apartment–San Francisco, CA
I moved to San Francisco in 2002 and confirmed that the species “Tenantus Dementus” is not confined to Chicago. My first apartment was the bottom flat in a beautiful house built in the 1940′s. The place was immaculate, the landlady was great and I couldn’t believe my good fortune. As they say though, there’s no such thing as a free lunch. My two years there inspired my now non-negotiable resolution to never again live under someone else. Ever.

The two bedroom flat upstairs was inhabited by a five-member Russian family. They were hard-working and pleasant and at first we got along. That was before I realized how all five of them working round the clock would affect my ability to get a good night’s sleep. With five adults and only two bedrooms, they must have been sleeping in shifts because someone was always up and making noise. No matter what time of the day or night, there were pots clattering, microwaves beeping, doors slamming and footsteps. Gah, the footsteps!

If they had a shortage of beds, they must have lacked seating altogether because someone was perpetually marching back and forth across the wood floor. I’m not exaggerating at all here. I’d go to bed and instead of sleeping I’d count the number of times someone (apparently wearing wooden shoes) would clomp across the entire length of the ceiling. My highest count was 89 times in a 90 minute period. I’d lie there, trying to imagine what the hell they could be doing that would warrant doing this. The only thing I ever came up with was that they must have had a Costco-sized jar of jellybeans in the corner and they liked to get them and eat them one at a time.

The family eventually realized the place was too small for them and they moved out. The new tenants were a young couple who occasionally had a small boy with them. It seems they moved in just so they could act out a gripping domestic drama for me. In three Acts.

Act 1, “The Honeymoon”. Things weren’t bad except for the occasional late night music. The guy owned a restaurant and so he’d get home at 12:30 or so and putter around listening to music. I didn’t mind that too much and so their habits didn’t infringe upon me much–unless they had sex. These two had to either have been trying to impress one another or were filming their own porno because out of the blue I’d hear repeated thudding noises which would be followed by increasingly loud and theatrical moans. This would go on, getting louder and more ridiculous, for twenty minutes on average until I wanted to slam a tennis ball against the ceiling and yell, “Gimme a break! It can’t be that good!”

Act 2, “The Honeymoon is Over”. I didn’t know how lucky I was during the early moan-filled days of my tenancy. They were soon to be replaced by sounds of a different sort. I’d seen the guy go off to work and had noticed a different guy showing up soon after and wondered who he was. Apparently, the woman was gettin’ a little on the side because one day when she was coming home and had the little boy with her, I heard her say outside my door, “We won’t tell daddy my friend was here.” Hrm… It didn’t take long before someone let the cat out of the bag because the fights those two had after that were epic, complete with the sounds of stuff breaking. They’d usually end with the guy running out and slamming the door hard enough to shake the whole building, leaving the girl to sob in the apartment.

Act 3, “Le Divorce”. One afternoon I was lying on the couch reading when I heard the beginnings of yet another knock-down-drag-out. This one was mercifully short though and ended when I heard the guy say “I’ve called you a cab!” Out the front window I saw him throw the woman out of the apartment and slam the door. The woman stood disheveled and tearful in the driveway until the cab showed up, then she left never to return. -Fin-

Marin County apartment–San Rafael, CA
I moved up to San Rafael to be closer to work, this time to a tri-plex inside another cool 1940′s building. The neighbors this time were an artsy gypsy-looking woman of the sort found all over Marin and a young couple with a white Akita. They were a mystery from the beginning. I rarely saw the woman leave the apartment. Her husband was a fireman and I’d run into him on the back porch where he liked to stand drinking beer looking out at the weedy backyard. He gave me the creeps from the first and I’m not even sure why. He was thirtyish, handsome, but there was something about him that was menacing. The day I moved in, he was standing there on the porch. He looked at me somewhat bleary-eyed and offered to help, even to drive his truck to the city to transport my stuff. Maybe it’s me but I found that odd. I’d been begging my friends to help me–why would this stranger want to do it?

I declined and as time went on, he made a few more friendly overtures that were just as vaguely creepy. I found myself looking outside before leaving to make sure he wasn’t there and hoping he wouldn’t be when I came home. I guess that was a mild inconvenience but then I noticed they used the screened in foyer as their own personal garbage storage. They kept their dog there and the floor was carpeted with big white tufts of dog hair. The guy must have gone through a case of Budweiser a week and to get to my door I had to step over bags of his empty bottles and multiple pairs of his dirty, smelly shoes. If this was the worst of it, I might’ve counted myself lucky but he was just getting started.

He’d get up every day at 5:30 am and flip the porch light on, making it look like the sun had gone supernova in my tiny apartment. I’d put a pillow over my face and listen to him go in and out of his place for half an hour, repeatedly slamming both his door and the porch screen on every trip. Being convinced the guy might actually be a serial murder, I was too chicken to ask him to stop this foolishness so when my lease was up, I moved. Secretly, when he wasn’t home.

Sunset District apartment–San Francisco, CA
From San Rafael I moved to a four-unit apartment building across from Golden Gate park. I figured this time I had it made. The four units are divided, two on each side of a central secure entry so I have no walls in common with anyone and having the upper unit, there’s no danger of overhead clomping. My neighbors originally were a professional woman about my age who lived below me, and a young couple and elderly woman in the units across the way.

The elderly woman while not annoying, is definitely mysterious. I’d say she’s in her 60′s, but she drives a series of fancy muscle cars. I’ll see her backing out of her garage in them and it seems she never keeps the same one for longer than a few months. She comes and goes at odd hours and seems to be away from home intermittently. She receives a lot of packages and I notice the mailman leaves copies of publications from the Church of Scientology and a Rush Limbaugh magazine outside her door. She often has visitors of the most varied kind; a white woman about her age, a young mexican woman, a pair of middle aged asian men. I’m still dying to know what’s going on there.

Enigmatic as she is, she never causes any problems, unlike her next door neighbors, the young couple. They’re gone now but like my Richmond neighbors before them, they seemed happy enough at first but almost immediately that veneer wore off. Several times I’d wake up in the middle of the night to the sound of shouting and thumping. One particularly bad night, I heard them slam the front door and then they were screaming at each other on the stoop loud enough for people downtown to hear. The guy was moving out and the girl was hanging onto him and screeching. The fight escalated to a surreal climax when the girl pulled a knife on the guy, motivating him to throw her into the apartment. By the sound of her ensuing cries and whimpers I’m pretty sure he wasn’t blowing her kisses.

The police finally showed up and took the guy away but that didn’t permanently discourage them. They repeated this routine a number of times before finally breaking up, moving out and gifting me with the drunken crowd of emo kids I have today.

No question, I’m a magnet for assholes. I guess if I wasn’t though, I’d have nothing to write about.

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