The Man in Apartment 6



Neighborhood: East Village

Apartment 6 is on the third floor, so I guess that’s why I don’t notice the odor. But I have been wondering why suddenly my super has put lavender scented Air Wick stick-ups all over the hallway walls. I also notice urinal cakes have been stuck under the staircase near my apartment door on the first floor. Their harsh disinfectant mixed with the cheap chemical lavender fragrance makes for a strange scent. 

My five-story East Village building has been host to other strange smells during the 14 years I’ve lived here. A month after I moved in, I was convinced something had died in our building. Other tenants thought so as well. The stench would hit me the moment I walked in the front door of my East 6th Street building. A bunch of us called the landlord. He told us it was from the Indian restaurant below. They had pulled up their wall-to-wall carpeting, and the smell was from the particles of food that had been trapped underneath for years. I found this hard to believe, but eventually the smell was replaced by the scent of curry, beer, and cigarette smoke.

Now I’m greeted in the hallway by distressed neighbors asking me, “Can you smell it?”

“Yeah, I can smell the urinal cakes and those stick-up thingies,” I reply. “They stink!”

They shake their heads and whisper, “No … it smells like someone’s dead.”

“Oh, no,” I say. “It’s just this weird stuff the super put in the hallways.” I think they’re imagining it. But a few more residents of my building stop me and say the same thing. They’re agitated. I wonder how could it be that where we go about our daily lives—sleeping, watching TV, or cooking our meals — that possibly there lies a body. I’ve always thought it’s an urban myth about people dying in their apartment, only to be discovered later on, half-eaten by their hungry cat. 

But this is New York City. We live on top of each other. I can overhear my neighbors sneeze, argue, have sex, and use the shower. They do all this, and I act like I can’t hear any of it in the hopes they do the same for me. I also can tell when people cook onions and boil cabbage or smoke pot. It’s part of living with so many others, all of us pretending the doors, ceilings, and walls give us privacy from our neighbor’s smells and sounds. But a person dying in their apartment—that’s a big deal.

Most of my neighbors claiming there’s a weird smell coming from Apartment 6 have never even met the person who lives there. I’m one of the few tenants who actually know the man. He’s an older gentleman named Mark who has apparently lived here for years. I don’t know his last name. He’s solitary, quiet, and keeps strange hours. The super tells me that Mark’s paranoid and wouldn’t hand over a spare key for emergencies. 

I occasionally see Mark sitting on our stoop late at night, sometimes well past midnight, when I return home from a waitressing shift. Spotting him at this hour has allowed me to gather just a tiny bit of information about him, besides his first name. He mentions he’s from Haiti, which accounts for his slight French accent. He tells me he’s rarely around because he has “business” that takes him out to Queens. Mark looks very fit and dresses nicely in khakis, dress shirts, and sometimes a blazer. His wrinkle-free skin is the color of cafe-au-lait, and his hair and mustache are salt and pepper. I figure he’s probably in his early sixties. He has a debonair and mysterious manner that reminds of me of the actor Ricardo Montalban. I’m usually pretty tired getting home late, so I never hang out too long on the stoop to find out more about the man who lives two stories above me.

A few more days pass, and I run into the same frantic neighbors who live on the upper floors. They claim the smell is getting worse, that not only is it in the hallways, but now it’s in their apartments as well. I don’t bother to go upstairs to check; it’s all I can do to hold my nose by the first floor mailboxes. The whiff of urinal cakes mixing with the smell of fake lavender is nauseating. I still think they are confusing the odor coming from Apartment 6 with our super’s bizarre attempt to freshen the air in our hallways, so I remove the urinal cakes from under the staircase and throw them out. I’ve had enough of the stink of a men’s restroom near my apartment door.

A man who lives directly above Apartment 6 is absolutely convinced the smell is coming from Mark’s apartment. He claims he hasn’t seen him in a while. But then we both agree we can go months without seeing Mark. The upstairs neighbor is being driven crazy by the odor and he asks me, “Don’t you smell it?”

“No, really, I don’t.”

Then a week later, walking out of my apartment, it hits me. There is a sickening, sweet stench of decay in the hallway. It almost makes me miss the aroma of the urinal cakes under the staircase.

I bump into the upstairs neighbor and inform him that I can finally smell it. He tells me he can’t take it anymore and calls the landlord’s office. They tell him they have no emergency contact for Mark and no spare key. The landlord suggests he call the police.

Later that same day the upstairs neighbor does call 911. When the police arrive, they can smell something too, but aren’t sure what it is. They bang on Mark’s door. There is no answer. The upstairs neighbor crawls down the back fire escape and peers in. There is so much junk piled up against the windows he can’t see in, but when he cracks a window open the smell hits him. The officers inform him there’s nothing they can do because they can’t just barge into an apartment unless it’s an emergency. The police suggest he call the landlord.

Several more days go by and the stench becomes overwhelming. I can even detect it inside my apartment now. The upstairs neighbor has had enough. He calls 911 again. He tells me that this time when the cops show up they get a whiff and they agree, “Oh yeah, that’s a body.”

The upstairs neighbor tells me he pleads with the cops to do something. They inform him they’ll come back later with a battering ram. The upstairs neighbor begs them to do something NOW! The cops suggest that he can force open the door himself, but they cannot do this without a battering ram. So with the cops’ consent, the upstairs neighbor kicks open the door to Apartment 6.

The upstairs neighbor tells me, “I could barely get the door open because Mark was right up against it … lying there naked. He looked like he was dead for awhile.”

Mark’s body is finally removed the same day it is discovered, but the smell lingers for almost a week.

The death of the man few people knew is the talk of the building for some time. The super tells me Mark was actually 75 years old. The super also lets me know that, according to the police, Mark appears to have died of natural causes.

Not too long after, the Air Wick Stick-Ups lose their artificial lavender scent. But they remain affixed to the walls for several more months. I wonder about the people who had to remove Mark’s body, and those who had to clean up his apartment. I wonder if he had family or friends mourn him. I feel awful about him dying alone. His body lying there for over two weeks while all of us complained about how horrible he smelled, as if he could do anything about this.

Time goes by and a new person moves into Apartment 6. I wonder if I should tell the new tenant what happened before he moved in. Then I figure, at some point someone has probably died in most NYC apartments. I think what bothers me most is not the dying so much as a person’s body left undiscovered for weeks and then greeted with horror when it was finally found.

I feel a small jolt when occasionally above our mailboxes I see a piece of junk mail or a utility bill addressed to Mark. It’s like being visited by a ghost. It’ll sit there for several days, much as his body did, until someone finally scrawls, “Deceased” across it. 

I wonder if Verizon will still send bills to me after I’ve gone to meet my maker and am no longer making phone calls. Will pizza and dry cleaner coupons addressed to me arrive long after I’m deceased? Will people who still live here shudder when they see my name on a jury summons, knowing I’ve been dead for two years?

The circumstances of Mark’s death horrify me. The indignity of it reminds me to plead with my friends, “If you don’t hear from me for a few days, please come and check to see if I’m still alive.” I certainly don’t want the very last thing I am on this earth is to be a bad smell that everyone complains about. Even in death I do not want to offend.


Coree Spencer arrived in New York on February 4, 1989 from Athens, Georgia. 10 minutes after getting off the bus from Newark Airport, she was robbed of her wallet while trying to get through the turnstile at the Cortlandt Street subway station. She has spent her thirty-two years in the city working in the restaurant and catering industry.

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§ 11 Responses to “The Man in Apartment 6”

  • Tsb says:

    I loved the quiet of this piece. The dreamy interior space of the writing, matching the hushed interior of the vestibule, hallway, stairs.

  • Luke says:

    I enjoyed reading this piece It was well composed.
    I felt like i was there

  • Leigh says:

    As usual with reading Coree, I saw what she saw and felt what she felt, like I was her. Love her writing!

  • Bari Jarrett says:

    Coree Spencer conveyed a spectrum of concerns, starting with the smell and her neighbors’ reactions, but the most powerful image for me was the anonymity of Mark, about whom nothing was known. He many have been someone with hangups, but he may have also had attributes and interest that could be shared. Apartment living with its lack of close human contact is a hallmark of city life, and not a pretty one. Spencer writes well!

  • Celia says:

    Another great story from Coree. I’m a fan!

  • Anne says:

    Great, vivid story!

  • Joan says:

    Hi Coree, I thought this was a great piece for several reasons. For one, it was so well written, had a distinctive voice and ample details. Also, you got me thinking about the welfare of my solitary neighbor who may have some health issues. It motivated me to make more of an effort to check on him and let him know he can call on me if he needs help. Thank you!

  • Arthur Nersesian says:

    This is such a signature event of living in New York.

  • Thomas Pryor says:

    A “fly-on-the-wall” snapshot of East Village tenement living that a clever filmmaker might eat up for a short screenplay. Honest characters, pungent smells, and internal reflections by a watchful narrator abound. Insightful with a dark funny edge.

  • Dan Sallitt says:

    Nice, Coree. I remember that smell from the Los Angeles apt. building where a neighbor died in 1979…

  • Sandra Roque says:

    Coree’s sensible descriptions of smell reminded me of Patrick Süskind’s “The Perfume” with its incredibly vivid aromatic descriptions that put us right there with the protagonist everywhere he went.

    What stuck with me the most here, was the moment in the end about the possibility of the very last thing we are being a bad smell that all complain about. Poetically written… quite disturbing to imagine.

    But this beautifully written human story of isolation also unexpectedly connected me to my childhood. And sense of self. Which I often feel I must be specially diligent to protect, living in NY. And at the mercy of which I was ready to call the police for a welfare check on Mark or whoever, from the moment I ‘heard’ Coree’s neighbor say “(…) like someone’s dead”.

    But – you see – I grew up in an 8-apt building where we all knew who was where, and Ms. Dilar (that’s a given name, we use those after ‘Ms’ and ‘Mr’), 2 floors below, was my safe haven until my parents got back from work when I, at age 7, was too young to have my own key, but not so much to walk home from school by myself for half an hour. There was no alternative. And no cell phones to be checked on, either. You’d find out if your kid was alive, when you got home.
    Before that, I lived in a place where my parents would have ‘King’ night (a card game for 4) with a neighbor couple…
    And most of my adult life my neighbors were people I stopped to speak with, often being invited in to sit for a minute – much nicer than talking on the stairs, even if the will to get home would usually ‘overrule’ the polite acquiescence – and people who’d knock on my door for some eggs, and who’s doors I knocked on for help opening food jars.
    Those buildings were in Portugal.

    You can imagine the look on my American boyfriend’s face when I told him for the first time I was going to knock next door to offer something… in Brooklyn. But I did. My gesture was met with a certain ‘what’s-the-catch’ look, if I remember correctly, but then accepted. And now, 6 years later, whenever I ask some neighbor if they’d like some ‘this’ or some ‘that’, that boyfriend (now husband) doesn’t feel embarrassed for me anymore.
    And guess what: the other day, we got home to a huge bag of delicious apples on our doorstep – apples that last for weeks because they haven’t been in and out of freezers 50 times.
    And guess who’s door I’ll be knocking on, one of these days, with a home-made apple pie? (Which I only learned how to make because of the other huge bag of apples from that person’s mother’s farm-town, delivered in my hand not long before…)

    I believe our apartment, our building, our community… is only an island to the extent that we let it be.

    Oops, I didn’t plan to go on for so long… I apologize.
    But I thank you Coree, because I don’t remember much from my childhood… and your story connected me with mine.

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