Neighbors

During the week, I work for a membership-based organization catering to healthcare professionals. (Words we use loosely.) It’s what I refer to as my “day job” whenever I’m asked the difficult question “what do you do?” and find myself describing my six very different jobs.

My day job often finds me mollifying people who are, at best, severely brain damaged and, more likely, homicidal psychopaths. It’s always a pleasure when I hit 6pm on Friday and begin my soulless commute to my little apartment in the suburbs.

My apartment (they call it a “condo” so they can double the rent) is in an old 1940’s three-story complex that looks more like some sort of pleasant rural insane asylum than an actual residential area. It’s split into closed sub-sections of nine apartments, three on each floor, and one laundry room for every four sections. I’m in one of those lucky sections, so that means that three alien clusters have access to our secure area and lurk in the basement laundry room, which greatly increases the “stranger danger” quotient for me. A deep-seated paranoia that took root during my latchkey childhood. It’s especially troublesome when you’re drunk in the early AM and you run around in the basement reenacting scenes from the classic 1987 Infocom game The Lurking Horror. (Not that I’m admitting to doing that.)

For years now, I’ve lodged complaints about the condition and management of our laundry room. The top complaint is that the washers are mildew farms, with standing water constantly sitting in them. I would be better off if I just did my clothes by hand in my bathtub. I also complain about one of those second tier, disenfranchised neighbors with whom we share the laundry room. She’s a member of my day job’s organization. Not a crime in itself, but if ever someone needed proof that our customers are insane (besides, of course, the crazy customer series), then this neighbor is it. From Friday at 7pm through Sunday night, she sits in our laundry room reading magazines and academic journals and strong arms everyone she encounters into awkward conversation. There’s no avoiding her. She’s there all day and all night, and she’s a light sleeper.

She does attempt to explain herself if you encounter her at odd hours. She claims that, in the summer, her top floor apartment is too hot. In the winter, she has the same complaint. Our apartments have a communist heating system that we can’t control. It clicks on in mid-October and doesn’t turn off till mid-March, ensuring that the building is always a steady 100 degrees. All through winter, the residents run air conditioners and keep their windows open.

If you encounter her in the middle of the night, she explains that she “couldn’t sleep” and that the laundry room “relaxes her.”

Chiefly because of her (and not the mildew, which I braved because I was lazy), I’ve stopped doing my laundry in our building. Instead, I visit friends and family twice a month and cart my laundry around. Then I force them to sit and have awkward conversations with me.

With the laundry room cut out of my life, things have started to feel a bit more normal at home. If there’s one thing I hate, it’s running into anyone I deal with – in any capacity – during the day. There’s a kid who lives in the apartments across the street who used to work for me at my weekend job and we share the same commute. I’ve been forced to commute erratically, cutting through the woods, leaving early in the morning, and racing through backyards just to avoid him. I hate the obligation of being socially connected to these people. Like we have something in common because you bedevil me during the day, or we once shared a few shifts.

Having been born and raised in DC, there’s a certain unwritten agreement that I expect from all my neighbors: We will never really know each other or exchange anything beyond the minimum social pleasantries. This makes it easier when we choose not to assist our neighbors when they’re in distress or, top of my list of concerns, when we have to murder them after the apocalypse.

Is that just me? I worry sometimes that I’m all alone when I walk down the street and judge who I’d kill and eat and who I would attempt to ally with when the next mega-snowstorm moves in and shuts us down for a week.

Going through life with this attitude can be troublesome when you live right on top of people, even if it’s just a tiny little warren of nine apartments. At my old building, everyone worked as much as I did, so the place might as well have been deserted. You’d take a day off and start to wonder if everyone else had died. From the balcony, surrounded by utter silence, my car would be the lonely sentinel in an empty parking lot. Then the hordes would start coming home in the late evening and all, apparently, go to their apartments and collapse face first in the living room.

Here at my current building, it’s exactly the opposite. Nobody works. Ever. All of my neighbors – young or old, married or single – wander aimlessly around the halls, compulsively check the mail all day, and sit out in the courtyard with cases of beer, books, laptops, and lawn games. I’ve come to the point where I take days off just so I can peer out the window and live vicariously through them. The cars never leave the parking lot except for a weekly shopping trip or something like that. I’m always surprised when the cars next to mine have changed. It’s only happened a few times.

In my sub-section, on the ground floor, in 101, there’s the twitchy guy with the buzz cut. He looks to be about 30 and entertains two women. He’s got his daytime girl, who leaves around 3pm, then his evening girl comes home from work at five. He’s quiet and seems incapable of speaking to me, even when the situation demands it. I’ve never seen him go any farther than the courtyard, and all of his groceries are delivered. When the weather’s nice, his daytime girl must be a bit tiresome. His usual habit is to sit in the courtyard from about 9am to 2pm with a large bottle of vodka that he’ll quietly polish off. On summer weekends, he tends to start around 8am.

In 102, one of the area’s premier poets has fallen into a Salinger-esque lifestyle. He’s 50’s, single, and shy to the point of it being a phobia. He spends his day wandering the courtyard or mailing out submissions to poetry contests. He does all of his shopping at the little Co-Op around the corner, and is another one who rarely leaves the property. Like his neighbor in 101, he’s never spoken a word to me. I envy him a bit, though. From what I’ve researched online, it looks like he’s living off of poetry contest winnings.

In 103 is the animal lady. She has dogs, birds, and god knows what else. Passing her door sounds like you’re passing a portal to some primeval jungle. She does have a job. One of the few. She works regular hours three days a week, and spends the rest of her time with her menagerie. I can hear her at night… She moans constantly and, at 4am every morning, gets in a very animated argument with her dogs about how they can hold off having to go outside till a more decent hour. This has become my de facto alarm, which is actually quite handy. If I’m ever late for work, though, I’m not sure how to frame the excuse: “My neighbor’s dogs didn’t have to pee.”

On my floor, 201 is home to the feisty Irish lady. She’s frequently complained to anyone who’ll listen that I’m offending her by flying the Union Jack in my second bedroom. I have a UK flag hanging from the wall, which she can see from her living room window. Repeated attempts to have it taken down as a “racist icon on par with flying a Swastika” have failed, but they’ve gone as high as the management company and the tenant-based board of directors.

Her roommate is addicted to working out and prone to being attacked by men and overdosing on drugs. She’s always good for some sort of very public drama in the courtyard once a month or so that, usually, ends up with a horde of police and knock-down arguments.

Both of them appear to work normal hours, though the troubled roommate seems to put in half a day most days. She’ll spend the other half of the day wildly sprinting up and down the nearby church parking lot, hooting and yelling to herself when she finishes a lap. Then she’ll march off to yoga. Then she’ll come home and shoot up and the paramedics will come. Then she’ll get into a fistfight with them when she wakes up on the stretcher as they’re taking her out.

A spinster lives in 202, and she creeps around and is generally avoided by everyone. She goes out for long walks, so she’s better off than the pseudo-shut-ins on the first floor. She’s the habitual vacuumer that plagues every apartment building. The neighbor who vacuums frequently for a duration that simply can’t be explained. I know how long it takes to vacuum my apartment – 10 minutes. So what is she doing? She’ll vacuum twice a week for an hour nonstop…sometimes longer. Which can only mean that her apartment is the TARDIS.

In every apartment I’ve lived in since the mid 90’s, the chronic vacuuming neighbor has haunted me. Once, in Bethesda, they lived above me. Since then, they’ve lived next to or below me. I’ve found that to be more bearable… But the bitch who lived above me in 1995 tops my list of people I plan to murder some day when the world ends or I’m diagnosed with an incurable disease.

I sort of pity the spinster, but I do go through great pains to avoid her, as does the rest of my little commune of soulless suburbanites.

On the third floor, we move into true darkness. 301 sees my most stable neighbors – a young couple and their baby. They’re polite, aloof, and the husband works. They stick to themselves in their little corner and, being on the top floor, I’m sure their apartment is a steady 120 degrees year round. Yet they never stand in the hallway like my other neighbors and complain loudly about it to their imaginary friends.

Nobody has seen the residents of 302. We think there are two people in that apartment. They collect their overflowing mail once a week (though have never been seen doing so), they don’t make a sound, and they get everything delivered and dropped off at their door. From outside, their apartment is always dark, except for the lonely glow of a TV.

In 303, my upstairs neighbor, we have the belle of the misfit ball. A woman who never leaves her apartment, and hasn’t done so in 18 years according to my landlord. She makes the guy who delivers her groceries collect her mail.

Day and night, she paces the creaking floors of her apartment. She never sleeps, and her pacing wakes me most nights. She’s never still. Especially when she gets mad. Then she knocks over furniture and pounds the walls and floor. She’ll scream and rage until the police come, and then she’ll carry on a heated, lunatic conversation with them through her door. It’s the sort of situation where the police know her well so, everytime they come and we’re all standing out in the hallway watching them with wide eyes, they huff and sigh and laugh and whisper, “Your neighbor’s having an episode,” in a way reminiscent of how my grandmother used to describe bouts of insanity. Except she would pronounce “episode” as “epi-zoody.”

At night, my upstairs neighbor also moans. I can hear the strange, animal keening from the top floor quite clearly. Luckily, she seems to spend most of her time in the living room or dining room, well away from the bedrooms. But it can be haunting if you get up in the early AM for a glass of water or something.

Because 303 is at the end of the hall, she’s set up baffling with those screens you use to divide rooms. Something I see caterers do at my weekend job to keep the guests out of the prep area. Four six-foot screens, draped in black, set up in a way intended to confuse drunks, and maybe squirrels.

We all consider the third floor to be some sort of closed-off, haunted area. We’re polite to the couple with the baby, but we assume they’re tainted in some way by their neighbors. Apparently, my neighbor in 303 is very active in the world for a shut-in. Even strangers who live blocks away in single family homes hiss and curse about her, though they never explain why. I ask and they get a look on their faces like I’m a spy and edge slowly away. Are you working for her? Are you one of them?

From what I can gather, she sits at her window with a telescope and looks for people breaking the rules of either our apartment complex or the surrounding neighborhood. Lawns that go untended, noise violations, failing to clean up after your dog, and so on. Strongly worded complaints to the police go out as soon as she sees something.

So here I sit at my weekend job. My laundry is in a friend’s machine nearby, the wine is flowing, and I dread going to my day job on Monday and getting a call from my neighbor. Ooooh, Nacho! I’ve missed you in the laundry room! She started doing that about eight months ago, and calls at least once a week. Yay for me.

Share

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.