The Phantom Punch

by

07/08/2023

Neighborhood: Astoria

The two apartments I rented, one after the other, in Astoria from 2009 to 2011 were on the same block of lower Ditmars Boulevard in modest buildings, under the faded dominion of the Hell Gate Bridge, within sight and smell of the East River, and across the street from the Kodachrome canvas of Astoria Park.

In 2009, I shared a two-bedroom, top-floor walkup with a roommate I barely knew. Ben and I had worked together on the set of a local PBS travel show and connected on our shared desire to move to Brooklyn. After realizing that the only places we could afford there were hovels, we opted for the slightly cheaper confines of Astoria.

In the beginning, the apartment was enjoyable. There was a certain regality to living above everyone else. But at about the one-month mark, during a fall heat wave, that changed. Our downstairs neighbors started combating (what we thought was normal) noise with bangs to the ceiling and shouts through the open windows that went something like: Shut. The. Fuck. Uuuuuup! Confident in his abilities to deal with troublesome neighbors, Ben made matters and relations worse by yelling back.

Since I was a part-time bookseller, I was home a lot; and, because I have the luck of an ill-fated fictional character, when I did leave the apartment, I frequently ran into the shouting husband half of our downstairs neighbors. He looked like a trucker or roadie, with a just-lit cigarette pasted to his lips, a gray mustache (surrounded by a medium-length field of glinting whiskers) and an unbuttoned shirt.

Possessing the height and build of a tight end, I am not physically intimidated by many. Then again, I had no desire — even in my relative youth — to volunteer for the hell of a New York City neighbor war. So, I would avert my eyes and jog ahead, living to argue — through the floor — another day.


To be expected, avoiding the issue and continuing to exchange threats through open windows didn’t put us on the path to neighborly reconciliation; not until one bright afternoon when I ran into Nick (let’s call him) on the stairwell again. The conversation began with Nick voicing the same recriminations we had been hearing for months. I responded by reminding him of the natural consequences of living below another tenant in an old building. He nodded impatiently and then — finally — blurted out the actual problem, the main source of the perceived noise abuse.

“The stomping around, in the morning and at night. Stomp, clack, stomp, clack,” he said, instantly bringing to mind Ben’s coming-and-going dress-shoe clatter. Yet, by the way he was looking at me, I could tell that he thought I was the culprit.

My under-employed, book-retail lot in life didn’t afford me much occasion to don formal footwear; but, Ben’s — full-time gig in video production — did. In fact, I was often taken aback by his thunderous entrances into the apartment and his subsequent Riverdance marches to his room. I told Nick I’d talk to my roommate.

That night, I informed Ben that he needed to remove his dress shoes in the entryway, not only to be courteous to our neighbor, but also because — who the fuck wears shoes that have been in intimate contact with New York City streets around his apartment?

The next time I saw Nick, he said that the noise had reduced considerably and that he knew I wasn’t the one to blame. He thanked me sincerely, but told me to still be aware of our noise levels. I nodded patiently and then used my new cache of goodwill to ask him to wait to light his cigarettes once he’d exited the building, not on the way out. He paused as smoke trickled from his slow-burning cigarette and spread like fuck-you scrawls over my face. Then he tweezered the cig from his mouth and said, “I’ll work on that.”

At the end of our lease, I moved four buildings up the block and my circumstances flipped. I lived in a one-bedroom apartment on the first floor, I had started teaching at two colleges, and for a while neighbor issues were limited to gas-stove (carbon-monoxide) mishaps.

I was also dating Alison, whom I had met at an ESL teacher-training course. While our time together had comprised many fine moments, the relationship had started to strain. We hadn’t paced ourselves, and doing everything early on at peak levels had exhausted the very reasons for our pairing. That’s why one late-winter Saturday night, feeling stuck and burdened, I was gulping down bourbon after bourbon as though preparing for an imminent home-style amputation while watching TV with Alison.

At about 10 p.m. we began to hear music, loud chatter, and light rhythmic thumping — that some might call dancing — emanate from the apartment above

By 11:30 p.m., I had stopped drinking and we got in bed. We tried to read, but the volume of the noise trifecta increased and we knew we had a full-blown party on our hands. Since I had never been one to begrudge others a good time, even in the compressed confines of New York-apartment living, I continued to let the noise go but set a deadline of 12:30 a.m., at which point I would begin my quieting campaign.

The deadline came and went and, against Alison’s wishes, I trudged up the stairs to the second floor — trying to stay in an amiable, neighborly frame of mind — and knocked genially.

The door flew open and my assumed neighbor, as if he had been expecting much-needed alcohol reinforcements, smiled and then frowned once he saw it was me.

“Yeah?” He said, his curly hair poofed and fried from the sauna-like heat that wafted out of the apartment and encased me as I stood there.

“Hey, man,” I said, going with the casual, sympathetic tone of an off-duty partier. “Could you do me a favor and lower the volume.”

Before he could respond, a short, belligerent fellow hopped between us.

“It’s his birthday!” the friend said, pointing at the neighbor, and bouncing. “It’s his fucking birthday, so no!”

I looked past the friend and focused intently on my neighbor.

“Just turn it down a little bit, please,” I said. “Thank you.”

“No!” the friend, said again, and then, “fuck off,” as the door shut.

I returned to Alison like an over-sized Woody Allen: neurotically flustered and mumbling about the existential crisis I found myself in.

So I waited — attempting to read, sleep and converse with my girlfriend. But as 2 a.m. approached, I snapped out of bed and marched out the door in my threatening pajamas of basketball jersey and shorts.

I pounded on their door, with the intention of being firm, uncompromising, a tad menacing and, if push came to shove, threatening to call the police. This time the door flew open at a greater speed, with both neighbor and his drunken sprite companion at the entrance. I spoke before the gang of two could say anything.

“I asked you nicely to lower the volume and you didn’t. Now, I’m telling you to end your birthday bash at two in the morning or I’ll call the cops. OK?!” I said, leaning in.

As I turned, I caught a glimpse of the neighbor and a girl restraining the friend. I walked away nonchalantly, but as I rounded the post and looked back, I saw that he had escaped his human restraints and was coming after me. I sprinted down the stairs while he gave close scampered chase, reaching out for me like some demented hobgoblin. As I got to the third step — and as he got closer and closer, nearly stomping on my heels — I jumped to the ground floor, pivoted, and punched him just as he reached eye level.

He fell backward, stunned, with a red mark visible on his face. I was still in a pugilistic stance when the girl, who had been attempting to hold him back, rushed to his aid, shrieking and cursing at me.

“You didn’t have to hit him, you asshole,” she said, almost spitting in my face.

Although I was incensed by her accusation, I couldn’t counter because I couldn’t stop looking at the guy who had just been chasing me, the guy who — hand plastered to his cheek — now resembled a different person than the vengeful imp intent on retribution. He appeared transformed, as though he had exited a trance and found his way out of a spell.

I saw the door to my apartment open, with Alison standing in the threshold, looking worried and confused. I tried to wave her inside, but there was nothing left to do but call the cops.

To Alison’s credit, she didn’t blame me entirely for the whole incident. She did think I’d taken things to an unnecessary level by slugging my diminutive antagonist. But my action-hero punch — while skillfully conceived — wasn’t much of a punch at all. In the split second before my fist connected with his face, the desire to properly hit a drunken moron evaporated; so, I loosened my fist and didn’t follow through, turning the right-handed cross into a closed-handed smack, the thump into an illusion, a phantom punch.

The police, as it turned out, couldn’t have cared less that I (technically) punched a loud neighbor who had chased me down the stairs after I made reasonable noise complaints.

Still, when I got a knock on my door Monday afternoon, I expected legal consequences. Instead, it was the friend, the hobgoblin, the recipient of the phantom punch. I tensed at the sight of him, but given the contrite look on his face, I quickly understood that he was there to apologize.

“I just wanted to tell you that I’m sorry about what happened the other … well, yesterday,” he said, his face furrowing as though he were still trying to make sense of it. “I was really drunk — I know that’s not an excuse — and I got carried away.”

“I was just trying to protect myself,” I said. “I just wanted it to stop.

He smirked sheepishly, and I saw that the mark on his face had evolved into a slight cut, but no more.

“About that,” he said, looking down and then slowly looping back up, “thank you for taking it easy. You could have punched me a lot harder than you did.”

I nodded, suddenly filled with a joy more genuine and real than anything I had experienced in a long time. Before he left, he introduced himself. We shook hands, further quieting my general indignation, and he ascended the stairs.

And as I stood inside my apartment, I belatedly grasped that this person I had assumed was the friend — having returned to the scene of a vague crime on a Monday at 4 p.m. — was actually my neighbor.

He was one more person who would become just another piece — as Nick, Ben, and Alison were slated to do — in an odd puzzle that was yet to take shape.

***

Justin Goldberg is a writer and editor and another New York transplant living in the Triangle Area of North Carolina. He holds an MFA in creative writing from Hollins University. 

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§ One Response to “The Phantom Punch”

  • TSB says:

    There is a German word for the pleasure afforded by this piece, or there should be. It’s not the pain of others, exactly. More like the neighborly feelings of curiosity and voyeurism, but without guilt or consequences. Very enjoyable read.

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