For most of us, neighbors are best kept behind an imaginary fence: We’re glad they are around to sign for our FedEx packages but would sooner endure an electric shock than run into them. And the more anonymous they are, the more elaborate the backstories we can project onto them. The guy down the hall who keeps odd hours? Must be a drug dealer. The couple who hosts Sunday-night parties while the shower seems to be running? Those are obviously shower orgies. In this spirit, we conducted an experiment where we asked five novelists — people who invent other people for a living — to meet the real-life characters in their midst. We also extended the idea of fantasies by soliciting some from other, anonymous New Yorkers who have spent more than a few waking and sleepless hours wondering what on earth the person upstairs is up to. As it happens, sometimes it’s better to just knock on their door and ask. (Except when it’s not.)
Turns Out, My Neighbor Didn’t Want to Choke Me
Several years ago, I overheard one of my neighbors talking on her phone about Al Pacino’s character in The Godfather being based on her uncle, the mobster known as the Snake. “I’m a Persico,” she said while leaning out her third-story window smoking a cigarette. “People on this street,” she said, “they know better than to fuck with me.”
After Googling her uncle, I carefully avoided throwing any more apple cores in her compost bin. Carmine “the Snake” Persico is still alive and serving a 139-year sentence for racketeering, extortion, and bribery. I live in a small building near the Gowanus Canal on a block of brownstones that all once belonged to Italian-American families. My neighbor’s family is one of only a handful left.
Despite the constant, deafening rattle of jackhammers (new buildings are sprouting up on both sides of the canal), my neighbor has continued to lean out her window and curse on her phone and I’ve continued to watch her. I learned her name is Christine but couldn’t find out anything else about her until I finally had an excuse to knock on her door. The January blizzard had just begun, and a few sentences into my rambling introduction, she interrupted and said, “But what is it you want? You want to know about my family? You want a glass of wine? Just come in already. It’s snowing.”
After ordering me to take off my boots, she led me down a hall to the kitchen, where, she declared, “the magic happens,” gesturing toward a plate of frozen duck and pork braciole she was defrosting for a gathering.
As Christine poured me wine from a jug next to the pork skins, she told me she came from a long line of wiseguys. Her great-grandfather got kicked out of Italy, she said, and the Snake wasn’t the only one of her uncles who ended up in jail. “And I’ve got the Persico attitude, too,” she said. “I’m the nicest person in the world, but if you cross me, I’ll choke ya.”
Unsure how to respond, I reached for my wineglass. Christine abruptly grabbed my hand and jerked it upward with such alacrity there wasn’t any time to react. I froze, wondering if I had inadvertently provoked her.
“What’s on your face?” she asked, using my hand like a napkin to wipe my cheek. As I exhaled with relief, Christine inquired if I had eaten cheese for lunch, which indeed I had.
As for being a member of the crime family that inspired such a legendary movie, Christine lowered her voice to a more confidential tone and said, “To be honest, all the families in that world thought The Godfather was about them. But we Persicos are the best looking — like those actors. I know it was about us.” Then she grinned, lit another cigarette, and told me I lived on the best block in Brooklyn. “I wouldn’t leave this street,” she said, “for the Taj Mahal.”
—Idra Novey, author of Ways to Disappear
Turns Out, ODB’s Mother Is a Mensch
I met Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s mom a week after I moved to 4th Street in Park Slope. It came as a surprise, to put it mildly. My new block is in the heart of the Slope, just off Seventh Avenue, where three-wheeled jogging strollers rule the streets and everyone’s husband or wife is in finance and the “renter problem” is debated at Christmas parties in the same hushed tones people in Jane Austen novels use when discussing the gypsies. Cherry and her husband, Frank, were sitting on their stoop one sunny afternoon — something no one does on the block anymore — and I introduced myself.
“I’m Cherry, ODB’s mom,” she said right away. “This is ODB’s stepdad, Frank.”
Cherry is a lively woman who seems somehow ageless; Frank is a charming, slightly sleepy-eyed gent who’s lived his whole life on the block. It took me a moment to metabolize what I was hearing — the Wu-Tang Clan, after all, is a group one tends to associate with “Killa Hill” on Staten Island, not with Brooklyn’s most privileged Zip Code. I recovered my composure and said that I was a longtime fan of her son’s music.
“I don’t know if you’d call it music,” she replied. “I don’t really listen to that stuff much, myself.”
I said that I could see how ODB’s records might not be for everyone, but assured her that I liked them very much.
“I want you to know he never used that language around the house,” she informed me.
“Profanity. He had to talk like that on the records, of course. That was part of the show.”
“He liked all kinds of music,” Frank put in. “He used to listen to my old vinyl albums when he would come over.”
Frank was about 60 and Italian. I asked him what kind of albums his stepson liked to hear.
“I remember one time I had a single playing in my room, pretty quiet, and I looked up and Russell [ODB’s given name] was standing there, in the doorway, almost in a kind of a trance. Just listening. After a while, he sort of remembered I was there and said, ‘This is the most beautiful song I’ve ever heard in my life.’ That’s what the guy you call ODB was really like. He was a sweet person. A sensitive person.”
“What song was it?”
“ ‘Into the Mystic,’ by Van Morrison,” Frank answered. “Do you know it?”
I told him I did, and he nodded, as if nothing more needed be said. I was starting to feel as though moving to 4th Street was the best decision I’d made since coming to New York when Cherry told me they were moving.
“I’m still kind of getting used to the idea,” said Frank.
But where would they live now? Cherry gave me a grin. “Frank’s thinking about heading back out to Staten Island. What was it my son’s group called it? Return to Shaolin?”
—John Wray, author of The Lost Time Accidents
Turns Out, I Can Be Neighborly With the Right Person
Three months ago, lured by rent control, I moved into a minuscule two-bedroom in the fissured anus of our city: Times Square. No, really. I live at 42nd and Eighth. If I stand outside and turn left, a blitz of neon resolves itself, after a moment, into Chevys, Dave & Buster’s, and the clawlike hand above Madame Tussauds.
I don’t know my neighbors. It’s not that I’m a jerk, exactly. It’s that this time of my life is illegitimate; very soon I’ll leave this tiny sublet for an apartment, rather than a scale model of one. I’m not here to make friends.
This mystifies my roommate, Jen, who moved in here after a breakup and whose Arkansas accent makes you want to rest your head on her bosom. When we lost power once, I decamped to my boyfriend’s, and she threw a party for the other tenants. Now they text each other just to say what’s up.
One day, as I’m drilling into my porous wall to mount a TV, Jen says she’s going to Nadia’s.
She squints. “She lives down the hall.”
Nadia sounds like the name of a nice human. I’ll meet her — be a nice human, too.
She’s in the hall, just getting home. “Hey,” I say. “I’m Katie.”
She smiles, sort of. “Okay,” she says in an Italian accent. She has a tattoo on her forearm.
“What’s that tattoo you have?”
“It’s a racetrack.” She turns. I finally see the iPhone in her hand. “I’m on the phone with my mother in Italy, okay?”
Okay. I go sit on my bed. (There’s nowhere else to sit.) The TV isn’t mounted; I bought the wrong mount.
I head for the boyfriend’s.
His place, a share on 70th and Columbus, is absurd: two bathrooms, sickeningly large TV, extravagant showerhead, wine fridge. That I prefer his neighborhood, with its cupcakes and cold brew, makes me uneasy. Sometimes my beau wears New Balances and a Patagonia fleece emblazoned with his corporate overlord’s logo, and I feel so normal I get chills. I’d rather talk to his neighbors than mine, and I’m ashamed.
And yet. After Greg, a resident of my boyfriend’s building, agrees to let me waste his time, he says he works in medical-malpractice insurance, identifying liabilities in hospital protocols. He’s thin, young, quiet, so shy I want to pet him. He’s from New Jersey; he says he calls it “Taylor ham” not “pork roll.” He likes the Giants. Went to Fordham. Likes Arthur Avenue. Eats a lot of yogurt. Watches Rick and Morty.
I tell him, “You know, we’re, like, always home, and we cook way too much food. Come by anytime.” He nods, makes a noise of assent, and says, “Right, I see you bringing in groceries sometimes.”
A beat passes. “Yeah,” I say.
In June, the boyfriend and I are getting a place. Nadia and I — Times Square and I — may never be friends. But maybe Greg will help eat our pretentious groceries. I’d like to think so.
—Katie Arnold-Ratliff, author of Bright Before Us
Turns Out, She’s a Big Deal in Santo Domingo
For over a decade, my husband and I, and now our daughter, have lived across the hall from an elderly woman whose door is often cracked open, leaking smells of rich cooking, blaring Spanish TV into the hallway. Though we have lived next door to each other for over a decade, this woman is a mystery to me. A parade of people come and go from her apartment — women bearing things wrapped in foil; a dark-haired woman and a tiny girl who seem to live with her. I imagine she is a much-loved grandmother, perhaps the head of a vast family.
Finally, I had a reason to knock on her door. The young woman with the black hair opens it. She leads me into the bedroom where the wizened woman lies on the bed. I take in the old cracked walls, a table covered with medication bottles, a closet overstuffed with clothes. Just then, a little girl comes running in. “Are you all related?” I venture. The young woman, Patty, shakes her head. “She is like a grandmother to me,” Patty says, then tells me that she and her daughter, Melannie, live with the elderly woman, whose name is Teresa. They sleep in the living room on a pullout cot. She’s a home health-care worker, no relation at all. Ginger ale, some cookies, and a bowl of beans and rice appear next to me, as Teresa and I begin chatting about the food (too weak herself, she now instructs Patty in her recipes), her health ailments, and where she is originally from (the Dominican Republic). Her voice rises when she tells me: “My oldest sister was traded for a pig when I was really young.”
“Excuse me?” I ask.
“My mother died giving birth to me. My father was so poor he could only feed us one meal a day. A man said he wanted my sister, so my father traded her for a pig.”
I look shocked, so she says, “A pig was worth a lot in those days.”
“And then what happened?”
“My sister moved three miles away to live with the man who bought her. There was no one to raise me. I never went to school. When I was 7, my father remarried, and I was sent to live with my sister and her husband.”
When she was 28, in 1963, Teresa flew to America — “No one met me at the airport,” she says—penniless, illiterate. By working cooking and cleaning jobs, sometimes three or four at once, she says, “in 1976, I bought a house in Santo Domingo for my sister and the children.” As Patty’s little girl hands Teresa paper Valentine hearts that she’s been making on the floor, she says, “I took care of everyone. They come to me — ‘Teresa, I need this, I need that.’ When I go to Santo Domingo, people tip their hats at me and help me up the steps.”
—Sari Wilson, author of Girl Through the Glass
Turns Out, He Thought I Was a Cool Kid, Too
The boys are out on the stoop tonight, laughing, smoking. One of them must live there, but I don’t know which one. Eight years have gone by, and I don’t know which one is my damn neighbor. By the looks of it, they’re about college age. I try to look without staring too hard. That’s how living here has changed me: I don’t interact with neighbors in simple, kind ways.
One evening, around eight o’clock, one of the boys steps outside the apartment with a girl. Ah, so this is the one who lives there. I say hello, and they are friendly, as if this were the most natural thing. We exchange names, and I learn that he is Armando. I apologize for my unfriendliness and admit that I’m 33 and felt awkward approaching a group of cool kids. He’s shocked at my age, guessing we were the same age. I love this, so I invite them over for a hang, and he says sure, after this date.
Around midnight, Armando sends me a text that he’ll come by my place with his best friend, Damian. My boyfriend looks at me, like, Who are these guys? Why are they coming here at midnight? I shrug. “Come on in,” I say.
“Aw, this is nice, we’ll take off our shoes,” says Armando, stepping inside. He begins unlacing his Nikes. “You know, I always see you guys, out on the stoop,” he says. He points at my boyfriend. “He’s always got his Ray-Bans on, lookin’ like Cyclops. It’s crazy, you guys look mad young.”
“It’s because we don’t have kids,” I tell them. “I just found out my upstairs neighbor is 45, and I thought he was my age.”
“That Hispanic dude?” asks Armando. “What the fuck? I remember him giving me a baseball glove when I was a kid. I grew up here. I remember when there was a meat factory across the street.”
“That smelled terrible, I bet.”
“You’d think so, but not really. This whole shit was industrial.”
“There used to be a candy store down the block,” says Damian. “The worst kind of candy you can imagine.”
“Damian and I met when we were 10,” says Armando. “We used to sneak into warehouses, meet up with homeless people who stayed warm by fires.”
“Sounds surreal,” I say, struck with longing for something I’ve never known.
—Tanwi Nandini Islam, author of Bright Lines
Neighbors in the NewsThree headline-making disputes, and what you can learn from them. By S. Jhoanna Robledo
Madonna’s Stomping work.
Tomei vs. Lennon vs. Tree fees.
The $2,000 Cigar apartments.”
Experiment: Knock, KnockWhat happened when a New York Magazine staffer decided to go meet everyone in his building. By Abraham Riesman
Interior: Apartment building in Cobble Hill. Abraham knocks on the door of apartment 3L.
There is no answer. Walks upstairs and sees a middle-aged woman leaving apartment 4L. Her doorway is adorned with an Israeli flag and a mezuzah.
Hi! I’ve been here for about a year and haven’t introduced myself. I’m Abraham.
The woman seems harried and rushed. She leans down to put on boots and struggles with the task.
4L resident: Oh, hi. Hello.
What’s your name?
Do you need help with that boot? you.
She walks past him quickly. Abraham knocks on the door of apartment 4R. A tall woman in a tank top and gray sweatpants opens the door while holding a French bulldog.
4R resident: Hi!
Abraham repeats his greeting from the previous interaction.
My name’s Kathy.
Oh, no way! The woman next to you just told me her name is Kathy, too!
There is a silence.
Well, it was nice to meet you!
She closes the door. Abraham walks down to the second floor. He is about to knock on the door of apartment 2R when its resident opens it and looks at him with surprise. Abraham repeats his greeting.
2R resident: My name is Joanne. Excuse me.
She walks past Abraham and goes downstairs. Abraham knocks on the door of 2L. There is no answer. He sees a light in the peephole, but it is quickly turned off. Abraham walks downstairs to knock on the door of 1R. A tall man in a New Orleans Saints T-shirt answers. He appears to be in the middle of dinner.
1R resident: Oh, hey, what’s up, my name’s James! How you doin’, man? You live here long?
Oh, about a year. I just wanted to meet everyone for the first time. from?
They proceed to have an extremely pleasant conversation about life in New York and the instant-messaging app Slack. It lasts about five minutes.
It was great meeting you. Let’s exchange phone numbers.
Y’know, I have access to the backyard and have barbecues in the spring. You should come by! Oh, and you should talk to Linda across the hall. She’s super-nice and she knows everybody.
Abraham knocks on the door of apartment 1L. A woman, looking to be in her late 30s, answers the door. There are sounds of children in the apartment. Abraham repeats his greeting.
1L resident: Oh, hey, great to meet you!
How long have you lived here? lucky.
Hey, do you know the people on the second floor? None of them would talk to me. everybody.
Linda proceeds to give gossip about everyone in the building.
This stuff is great! Jesus, you really know everyone! parties.
They exchange numbers.
Oh, one more thing. You have the cats, right? We’re pretty allergic, so in the spring and summer, make sure you bag up all the litter pretty tight when you take it to the garbage. Our window’s right on top of the garbage cans.
DIY Soundproofing: Drown Out Your NeighborA mouse pad and a $10 vent cover can go a long way in blocking out the noise. By S. Jhoanna Robledo
For a barking dogIf you’re the complainer: According to acoustics expert Alan Fierstein of Acoustilog, barking sounds travel down through vents in kitchens and bathrooms: “They connect to a hollow, completely unlined duct that runs vertically through most buildings. It’s a perfect speaking tube.” Affix magnetic vent covers (available at hardware stores for $10 to $20) on floor, wall, and ceiling vents. (This also works for opera-loving shower singers.)
If you’re the offender: Put down a sheet of wood or Masonite — it can be cut to size at a lumber yard — above a rug or other soft padding. Toss another rug on top of this sound-barrier cake, and you’ll reduce even more of the reverberation that happens when your pooch makes a fuss.
For a crying baby Open your window — even just a crack. Fierstein says city noise will likely drown out a baby’s wailing. “People insulate their windows, but they don’t realize they’re covering up sounds that mask neighbor noise.”
The offender: Home Depot sells $20, easy-to-install rubber strips (called door bottoms or door sweeps) that you can either screw on or stick to the bottom of the door.
For a vibrating cell phone The complainer: Bring a bottle of Champagne along with the nicest mouse pad you can find, Fierstein suggests (see below). Psychologist and former real-estate broker Jeffrey Gardere says that when confronting neighbors, state your case plainly and respectfully, using “I” statements and avoiding an accusatory tone.
The offender: Place your phone on a plate and put both on top of a folded-over washcloth or mouse pad, Fierstein says. This way, you’ll definitely hear it buzz, but the vibrations won’t go down the leg of the table and find a solid transfer path all the way into the wall or ceiling or floor. (Pianos can be similarly problematic; putting a pad underneath each leg can help absorb some of the sound.)
For click-clacking high heels The complainer: While an acoustic consultant like Fierstein can make a custom “masking noise,” he suggests the patter of steady rain from a white-noise machine as a cheaper solution.
The offender: “High heels are almost completely muffled by carpeting,” he says. If you insist on wearing Manolos while doing the dishes, wall-to-wall carpeting is best, but covering 95 percent of the floor will work just as well. And a lot of interior designers these days seem to like the look of layering throw rugs over larger carpets, so you might just be on trend.
For stomping kids The complainer: “People can be very sensitive about their kids, so be aware of this going into the situation,” advises Gardere. First, avoid saying anything directly to the children. Sympathize with the grown-ups about how difficult it can be to have excited little ones. Then suggest the offender do the below.
The offender: Carefully placed obstacles can prevent running in the apartment. In areas like long, empty hallways, which readily invite sprints and slides, put down extra-thick runners or pads.
And: No banging a broom on the ceiling ceiling.”
Fantasy: Neighbor Fan-FictionWe polled New Yorkers, on- and offline, from Greenpoint to the Upper East Side, about their biggest suspicions (or desires) when it comes to the people living next door.
Arianna, Long Island City: “I met my next-door neighbor the day I moved in last fall, and I was struck by his muscles, burly beard, and adorable dog. I live in a studio apartment, and the adjacent studio is a mirror image of my own. I often imagine him and his dog hanging out; are they having a Netflix-and-chill night? Is he on the couch with his shirt off? What sealed the deal was the morning I woke up to the sounds of 2 Chainz blaring from his apartment; I made a mental note that this fantasy had to come to life someday.”
Jessica, Tribeca: “On Sunday nights, my neighbors who recently moved out would have what I imagined were shower orgies. The woman was in her early 20s, very unfriendly, never going to work, always going to work out. The man, a Brazilian-coffee-mogul type with a salt-and-pepper beard, was rarely around but sometimes could be seen coming or going with his carry-on suitcase. Starting at around 8 p.m. on Sunday, the music blasted, the cigarette and weed smoke seeped through the vents, and anywhere from four to 12 different voices grew progressively louder. And then sometime around 1 a.m., the shower would turn on. Through the techno beats, you could hear people giggling and splashing. One time — only one time — I happened to have people over on a Sunday night. When the rowdiness started next door, my friend decided he was going to ring the bell and ask to join in on the fun. But no one came to the door.”
Jocelyn, Upper East Side: “Aside from the day the hot single guy moved in, I never saw him. A few months in, I began to notice women leaving his apartment almost every day. It was always a different woman, though I started to recognize faces. I became convinced that the guy was a pimp. He was running a ring right next door. I even started naming his girls: Jessica Rabbit, Veronica Vaughn, Mrs. Robinson. I later found out from a different neighbor that he would date — like, seriously date — multiple women at a time, who thought they were dating him exclusively. And here I was, waiting for the FBI to bust through his doors.”
Hannah, Nolita: “There are these two older Chinese women who live in adjacent apartments downstairs from me, and every morning, they meet on the stairway landing to walk in circles together, follow-the-leader style. Their apartment doors are propped open, and their hands are behind their backs. They wear matching shiny mule slippers. One theory I’ve developed to explain their behavior is that they are sisters who were track stars in their youth, but they were each having an affair with the husband of the other. The guilt of their indiscretions caused both women to choke in the final minutes of the 1948 Olympic qualifying trials. Shortly after, the husbands left them, and today the women reenact their failure as daily penance for the mistakes of squandered stardom and love. As the years passed, the laps have grown slower and smaller.”
Danny, Financial District: “My upstairs neighbor would have loud sex that sometimes lasted for hours. The noises kept my roommate awake at night. But here’s the thing: There was never a second voice. It was just her, moaning. I was chummy with one of our doormen, so I asked about the neighbor. He told us she was an actress who lives alone. We didn’t buy it: Unless she came from serious money or she was a highly successful actress, she definitely couldn’t afford that apartment by herself. We started trying to piece it together, and our best guess was that she was a sex worker or an escort who had only sure.”
Grayling, Bushwick: “One time the woman next door had a screaming argument with her boyfriend for hours over how to delete photos from their digital camera. Something about the tiny trash-can button. I imagined the woman to look like a really small, female version of Eminem. Who chain-smokes. Not that I smelled cigarettes or anything, it just fit my idea of her.”
Kunbi, Bushwick: “My upstairs neighbors are two guys: a real-estate agent and a waiter. So their professions didn’t explain the vocal warm-ups that we would hear them doing at 6 a.m. And then there were these scurrying noises, like a hamster was running back and forth on the floor. At some point, I decided that these guys were moonlighting as performance artists, and that they let small animals run free in their apartment.”
Kiera, Greenpoint: “Shortly after my neighbor moved in, I realized that he kept strange hours. I heard his door opening and closing all the time, late into the night. What kind of errands could he be running? He had guests too. He wasn’t having parties, just one or two people stopping in for an hour or two. All signs pointed to a little drug business. The guy must be a dealer. I had the guy’s phone number because he once locked himself out, and he’d stuck a note to my door asking me to call him to help him get back in. So one day I decided to confirm my suspicion. I had a friend text the guy and ask if he had anything to sell. But he replied: ‘I think you have the wrong number.’ Well, dang. Either the guy’s exclusive about his clientele or he’s not the friendly drug dealer I thought he was.”
Stephanie, East Village: “The people above me drag something extremely heavy around their room for about ten minutes and then have sex on a very squeaky bed. The sex is interrupted by extended coughing fits and then more dragging. At first I was confused because I wasn’t even sure it was sex, and once I figured out that it was I was concerned. I figured it was sex because of the rhythmic squeaking — it has a very clear pace. The dragging sound is really metallic, so I can only imagine they’re dragging the bed around. I’m not sure why — they do it in a lot of parts of the apartment? The coughing makes me think they’re both really sick, or else having some kind of violent oral sex I hope to never experience.”
Reporting by Clint Carter and Katy Schneider.
*This article appears in the February 22, 2016 issue of New York Magazine.
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