Dear Ms. Occupant

by

10/30/2003

West End Avenue, NY, NY, 10023

Neighborhood: Upper West Side

For three years, I lived with the blinds that came on the windows when I’d moved in: plastic, listing, motel-room-beige blinds. While barely scraping by on a teacher’s salary, purchasing window treatments isn’t a high priority. When the blinds finally collapsed, the bare windows looked so tall and bright, so pleased to have been freed-up, that I didn’t have the heart to cover them again. And I hardly ever looked outside—a second-floor apartment on an ordinary side street; what was there to see?

Then, at the end of June, the first letter from the man across the street came in the mail. The envelope was addressed to “Ms. Occupant,” and the letter inside to “Dear Ms. Occupant.”

“Assuming I figured the right apartment,” it began, “I am your across-the-street neighbor, who has pretty much a direct line of sight into your apartment. Allow me to assure you that I am not a masher nor a peeping tom nor a stalker. For 21 years I’ve lived here in peace with my neighbors and I don’t want that to change. At the same time, as a healthy, single guy who lives alone, the sight of a beautiful woman wearing little or no clothes is a blessing and makes my day.”

I hurried to the kitchen, where the window faced an alley instead of the street. I was shaken-up, mortified, a little creeped-out by the Penthouse Forum overtones. But I was also flattered. Let’s just say it had been a long time since anyone had found the sight of me so appealing.

“Growing up in NYC,” he continued, “with neighbors just across the street or airway, privacy was impossible. Our household rule was, ‘When the sun goes down, the shades come down.’ This is not a rule I want to impose on you. Nevertheless, this is a situation with great potential to take a bad turn and make it difficult for us to be comfortable as neighbors. So if (and, I emphasize, only if) you feel that your space is being invaded, may I request that you make your space a little smaller by putting up drapes, blinds, etc.”

He’d signed his name, saying that he thought the letter would be “less alarming with an identity attached,” although it actually made it more alarming: more civil, more thoughtful, more real. I dug out a hammer and nails and a box of garbage bags from the cabinet above the sink, then went back into the living room, keeping my head down as I worked, in case he was watching.

“When the sun goes down, the shades come down…”—I imagined him sitting at his computer as he’d typed the letter, tinkering with the words, trying to get the tone right, wanting—unreasonably, maybe inappropriately—but wanting to connect with another person. I climbed onto the windowsill and nailed the garbage bags over the windows. Not just flattered, I was angry, or was I angry because I was flattered? It was like he’d sprayed his loneliness all over the sheet of paper, the way girls at summer camp spray perfume on letters to boys back home, and I was already holding my nose at the smell of my own.

It was one of those summers when almost every evening I took a long, solitary walk: up Broadway, down West End, over to Riverside, through the park. It was 1998, the summer that Dr. Dolittle came out, and one night I happened on a screening of it at the Riverside dog run. People sat on blankets, drinking beer and eating popcorn while their dogs chased each other around, but during a scene when some sheep appeared on the doctor’s doorstep, a couple of dogs started barking at the screen, those drawn-out howls that sound like keening, and then more of the dogs were set off and then more until it got so loud that the movie had to be stopped.

It was that kind of summer, is what I mean, full of chaotic, inexplicable longing. When I was finally so tired I couldn’t walk anymore, I’d make my way home, stopping for a second outside my building and glancing across the street at what I thought might be his window. The only room ever lit seemed to be a kitchen; through a space in the curtain I could see a slice of yellow wall, and a single copper pot hooked to a wooden beam.

Sometimes I caught sight of a pale face, a pair of old-fashioned, wire-rimmed glasses, and then I’d panic and race upstairs, although I wasn’t even sure I had the right apartment.

The second letter came a few weeks later, again addressed “Dear Ms. Occupant.” He started with an apology for the first letter. “The problem was that my pleasure may have been at your expense (there was no way to be sure at this distance). It would have been better to make it clear that you were rarely less than fully clad. The indignity to you would have been lessened if that thought had occurred to me sooner.”

I was glad for the garbage bags on the windows. The thought of him seeing me read his letter, the intimacy of it, seemed unbearable. But I couldn’t help thinking how hostile they must have looked from across the street. “However, I don’t apologize for noticing you, and for two reasons. Most important is just being a good neighbor. For example, I know my next-door neighbor’s movements from hearing his door open and close. I take comfort in knowing that he’s safe at home as I am. If he made no travel announcement and I didn’t hear him for an overlong period, I would make calls and inquiries. I’m sure he would do the same for me. The second reason for noticing you is self-evident. I have no apology—just the ‘excuse’ of living alone longer than I like.”

That mix of distaste and empathy came over me again. So many people living alone in this city—how many hundreds of thousands?—listening out for their neighbors, reassured by a stranger’s presence. There was something so lovely about it, and also so sad.

“In any case, with all the control now in your hands and none in mine, there should be less chance for misfortune. If, in the future, you should brighten my day again, I will be certain that it is a marvelous gift (or accident) on your part, and not a theft on mine.”

That weekend I put up real curtains, triple-layered fabric panels that have been there ever since. And that was it, although I wish this story had a more definitive ending. That I’d sent him a note to thank him for his concern, acknowledge his decency. Or that I’d just thrown the letters away and forgotten about them, undisturbed by what they stirred up in me—or better yet, unstirred altogether. Except I fell, and still fall, somewhere in between: I never wrote back, but I’ve saved the letters all these years, and sometimes when I’m walking down the block, I glance up at his window, though I’m not sure I have the right apartment.

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