Too Close, No Comfort

by

02/10/2008

Upper West Side, 10024

Neighborhood: Upper West Side

Living in Manhattan and dwelling in an apartment depletes a person of standard, taken- for-granted privacies and idiosyncrasies that I believe every person and family exhibits. Here, on this grittiest of islands, we are intimate and strangers. Think of all of the people you comfortably smile at and gossip with, not knowing (or caring) about the intimate details of their mealtimes, bedtimes, arguments, sex lives, or general living habits. Now, imagine if you did intimately know those eccentric, irritating, or plainly nondescript details of your work associates, acquaintances, or what have you? The structure of fraternity and socialization would be changed! Your middle-aged boss does naked yoga in her G-string after work: droopy tits, dimple ass and clay mask on her back acne, all for the world to see through open blinds and windows. Your too-hot-to-be-true personal trainer at the gym lives like a squatter pig and avocado pit-sized roaches creep throughout his apartment. The perky office manager with frumpy pants has neighbors banging on her ceiling and floor after she gets drunk on two-for-ones and howls ominously like a cat in heat with outdated Dido blasting through her speakers. Being next-door-apartment-neighbors-with-the-world would be embarrassing, disgusting, or maybe just overall disappointing, which would bring us all together through unanimous misanthropy. New York City is the world, or at least, the best damn microcosm of it.

Really, though: If all of the flies from all of the rooms of the planet got together and started talking, we’d all learn and appreciate that we’re pretty much committing the same rather screwed-up and dysfunctional crimes of living. Nobody is perfect: it’s the reassuring adage of sage and practical thinking that just lets us go on living our lives as we live them, with room for error and marginal improvement. But, it’s tough being right there, next door to it all: In the case of us New Yorkers, I rarely hear about next-door neighbors wanting to join a commune together somewhere. I think most people would agree that we all give that quick and best-managed, friendly wave in passing and then hurriedly slip into our own worlds behind the meager privacy of our front doors.

The problem is there are varying degrees of imperfection. If we were all the same and committing the same crimes of humanity, there wouldn’t be any neighbor issues. Unfortunately, not every person you live next door to (much less, yourself) is having terrific, voraciously loud “let’s call the authorities” sex every night at two a.m.; not every person down the hall is cooking highly suspect meals promising three days of wafting odor; nor will every child will be having forty-five minutes worth of “it sounds like my mommy is killing me, but really, I am just tired” temper tantrums, and not every couple will be having a “Cops”-worthy screaming match filled with “’Yo Mamma” level threats and glass shattering, either. And let’s not forget all of the crimes of untrained pets and their strangely oblivious pet owners…the point being: each one of these bad neighbors is usually on their own island. Five other people on their floor cannot commiserate and say, “Hell, yeah! I love it when they do those crazy, obnoxious and weird things. I can totally relate: I do them all the time. Now! About those Yankees–”

So…let’s just say that in a normal apartment building with fairly normal people within it, you have two neighbors who have very different degrees of imperfection and they happen to live next door to one another?

Here’s a great example:

I happen to have lived next to neighbors whose imperfections were much less and more mild than my own and my husband’s. Their apartment was perfectly renovated. Their son could be heard on many occasions reciting his lessons from preschool, or maybe at his worst, getting a little testy about eating his vegetables at dinnertime before getting his dessert. Mom never raised her voice, got her hair Japanese straightened and rain or shine and in ninety-degree summer humidity, was freshly powdered, lip-glossed and completely at-ease in passing. Dad was a hospital administrator and would be greeted at the door with Mommy and Junior when he would get home from a long day’s work. Their joyous greetings would be heard through the thin walls and doors. These people were not gritty New Yorkers; in fact, they are no longer New Yorkers at all: they just sold their apartment and moved to Jersey with a nice, big yard and an upscale mall nearby. To top off matters, they were warily, inhumanly, graciously nice people. But, there would be that nervous “Hi” with unsmiling eyes and an averted gaze at various stages of our three-year neighbor relationship. My husband and I at times have had a “War of the Roses” (without the privacy and comfort of a big house) type of marriage: it’s been hairy speed-dating, speed-marrying and becoming an instant family of four (our twin daughters just turned two). I am an artist with an artist’s temperament and my husband is no artist, but a lawyer who has a temper. Let’s just say the stars have at times been insane and dysfunctional; definitely “off” at varying stages of our marriage for no good reason except lack of time and lots of stress. We’ve called out a few four-letter words and names and there was even a “Cops” level argument. Anyway, I am sure our neighbors knew a lot more than I would’ve liked them to about our finances, disciplinary skills and love life…in fact; I know they did and others do. The cheery, red lipstick-laden, nosy neighbor to our right tells me to “Go, girl…they’re all on your side…” (They? Who is T-H-E-Y?) If that doesn’t make you want to bury your head in the sand with your ass up in the air, I don’t know what will. It is no consolation, that “nobody’s perfect” when everyone around me confirms that yes, in my case, they know this fact is indeed true. “Chin up, Sweetheart!”

Nonetheless, when I saw the movers across the wall carrying out our neighbor’s wood-coordinated furniture and neatly packaged boxes, instead of relief, I got this tinge of sadness. It was the same feeling you get when you say good-bye to anyone in your life that has known you. There were those handful of times we had shared transcending awkwardness: The time she ran over Motrin for my inconsolable teether…the “Yeah, I know it’s ridiculous” NYC preschool conversations and the first time we met when the kids were days old and I was sweating in the heat with leaking breasts and on pain killers…let’s not forget about all of her son’s toys we inherited, either. Regardless, despite everything, we shared nothing momentous enough to merit my sudden, unexpected sentimentality. I really think it was all of the things we didn’t share and all of the things I probably could’ve taken the time to explain that saddened me. It’s like the romantic relationship, or falling out with the friend where you want to say what you always wanted to say, but only when it’s far too late and they’ve had their mail forwarded to Colorado. The difference and great thing in this case, is there is no long-term pining, or “I wonder what ifs.” Yeah, they were our neighbors, but really, strangers, so whatever they knew or thought they knew left the building, along with them and their minds.

Thankfully, the intimacy of strangers has no lasting effect and the absurdities of daily life will carry on in our fragile, little enclave: my husband and I may fight like the cat and dog opposites we are (hopefully, just on occasion) until we decide to find an existence more boring and compatible; the kids will cry too long and too loud at given moments — there are two of them and one of me and they are in the “terrible two” stages, after all.

I must say that with children around, you do tend to keep the bedroom noise on mute, as some senses of propriety overrule the sexy inhibition of passion. I am a good cook, have no pets and am an infamous neat freak, so we are exempt from those neighborly crimes. However, beware: I can be heard vacuuming before ten a.m. on weekends.

It’s really simple. I’ve resigned myself to the fact that my family’s behavior may embarrass and irritate from time-to-time. I suppose that one could argue that discretion is the polite thing to do, but what difference does it make, anyway? I am an active member of imperfect humanity and I’m pretty sure that someone will always be witness to that fact.

I just heard my new neighbor’s French-maybe-Israeli girlfriend slam a door; “Sheet-head!” resonated off our shared dining room wall. God, it was music to my ears.

Samantha V. Chang is working on her first novel. She’s a mother of twins, a natural foods chef, and a big supporter of animal rights. Her work has appeared previously on mrbellersneighborhood.com and in The New York Times Magazine.

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