WHEN MY BOYFRIEND AND I decided to move in together, we were both escaping noise. His was an early morning downstairs door-slamming, which caused us to construct many explanatory scenarios, such as that his neighbors operated a catering business from their dark apartment. We pictured a complex system of conveyance—carts of baked goods rolling from their basement kitchen to the ground floor, out the front door and into a waiting van (a vehicle which irregularly appeared in the driveway). This scenario explained parts of the noise at least: the sound itself—repetitive door-slamming, or perhaps I should say it might have explained repetitive door-closing; its five a.m. inception; the stacked cases of soda in the hallway; that our neighbors didn’t seem to go to jobs.
But it also ignored a good deal—no business sign, no wafting food smells. Also, by our calculations, each run would take four door-closings. But in actuality we heard many, many more door-slammings. And Shawnteen did not fit my notion of what a caterer should be like—homey, sweet. Shawnteen was unfriendly; I’m being kind. Upon reassessment, a drug cartel is probably a likelier explanation. But those were innocent times.
My situation was insignificant by comparison, but frustrating nonetheless. The noise came from the apartment next door, which belonged to the goose, so-named because of her voice. Once you heard it—a constant water-laden trilling instrument that burbled through the wall, breaking into insipid giggles at the end of every, and I do mean every, phrase—no other image was possible to conjure but that of a goose padding about the apartment, cellphone in webbed foot. I never actually saw the goose, which added to the mystery, and permitted my imagination free-range. So I never bothered to give her human form: I heard the voice, I pictured the farm animal.
Her voice didn’t produce the type of noise, like a slamming door, that would awaken you from sleep. It wasn’t even exactly a noise, but more like an invisible presence. It was its unchosen nature that disturbed me most, reminding me, in this aspect, of one of my persistent complaints with life in general. Why was this idiotic voice, I wondered, the backdrop of my life? What did I do to warrant insipid cell-phone conversations as my soundtrack? Why couldn’t I, for once, live next door to a classical pianist? A monk? Or better still, no one at all?!
And though I tried, I could never make out words; the sounds just spilled and rolled along, barely audible, like whiney water. It was similar to the way my father played music—as background, just loud enough so that you knew it was there, but indistinguishable, making you want to either shut it off or crank it up—anything but leave it needling on your psyche like a gnat.
Once, perhaps of note, a cat appeared. I could tell by the constant rolling of objects across the floor—barrettes? loose change? I’m ruined! I silently screamed. But just as quickly, and perhaps more disturbingly, the cat dis-appeared. What did she do with it? I wondered, which reminded me of a girl I once knew who got tired of her little dog, Angus, and set him free on the Mass Pike. Why would she get a cat and then get rid of it within two weeks? And then the realization overtook me: cats and birds do not get along.
As I said, these were innocent times, times that, because of what was to follow, I look back on with an affectionate nostalgia, times I long for, times that at the time they occurred, were irritating enough to cause my boyfriend and me both to move, yes, move, that series of actions statistically documented to be as stressful as contracting a fatal illness or being the victim of a natural disaster.
We began looking for apartments in the three Brooklyn neighborhoods which, at the time, we had not yet been priced out of: Bed-Stuy, Sunset Park, Kensington. I’m sure I won’t have to belabor what a demoralizing process this is. Talking with real-estate agents is some kind of silent agreement to not blow their cover. Time and again the words and images did not match up: beautiful, sun-filled gem, says the agent; dark, roach-infested closet, we observe. After several months of this, we agreed to give up, to keep living in our separate noise chambers, and to try again when our spirits renewed.
The day after arriving at this agreement, we had a drink with friends of ours, a couple. They told us they were moving out of their apartment in Kensington. I had known this but, well, I didn’t love Kensington, and I’d also figured that if they were moving out there must have been a reason. They urged us to come by right away. We did.
The house was quaint—with bushes and a brass door-knocker in the shape of a fox head. The foyer had a runner, a mirror, candles, and potted plants. And the apartment itself was the entire top-floor of a two-family home. It entered onto the kitchen, the floor covered in a beige-patterned linoleum, whose very attempt to be tasteful would prove much worse to me than had it been lime green. The room was immense, although we wouldn’t, upon first seeing it, quite comprehend the magnitude of it due to our friends’ loads of accumulated stuff. What I would notice—with force and immediacy—was something I’d never before seen in an apartment: directly in front of us, stacked on top of each other next to the sink, was what can only be called, looking back on it, a vision: it was a washer-dryer.
I was smitten. Twenty years of five-story walk-ups, of devoting entire afternoons to laundry, twenty years of elaborate procrastinations, of turning garments inside-out, of sometimes buying clothes rather than subjecting myself to this chore, twenty years of saving quarters, of burned and escaped clothing—it all seemed to be resolved in that vision. The apartment had a terrace, a walk-in closet. It could have had a family of rats. Laundry, laundry, laundry! Clean clothes whenever I wanted! No planning, no exercise, no rationing of favorite articles!
In this hallucinatory state, I asked about the downstairs neighbors. Portland? My friend said enigmatically. I didn’t understand; was there a city living down there? Oh, they’re nice; three women. We inquired about noise. They shrugged their shoulders: the only thing we’ve ever heard is Queen. As an offense, it seemed slight; moreover, to my way of thinking, tasteful.
The next evening we met with the landlord to sign the lease. I explained that we were refugees from noisy apartments. The landlord shrugged her shoulders: It’s peaceful out here, she said. And so we signed.
The day we moved in there was noise—music. It wasn’t Queen. It was hip-hop that shook the front of the apartment. And at the back, where my boyfriend and I sought refuge, was the sound of what would prove to be everlasting, surround-sound TV. To accompany this there was laughter—evil and entitled.
We soon learned the structure of the downstairs relationships—and the hierarchy: Portland, a woman probably in her fifties, was the mother of Stepfanny; Stepfanny, who looked to be in her forties, was the mother of Corny, a girl of about seventeen. Stepfanny’s middle position seemed to spread her power both backwards and forwards: it was clear that she was the head of the family.
We tried to ignore the hip-hop, and we concentrated our anxiety in the bedroom. We’d wait in bed for the TV to shut off—midnight, one a.m., two. We blasted an industrial strength fan through the winter, bought rainforest, jungle, and ocean CDs and cranked them until we were overtaken by waves and cawing tropical birds and couldn’t hear each other talk.
But the surround-sound was nonplussed: its bass pumped up through the floorboards, its constant car crashes smashing any joy we might have had in living together.
It seemed obvious that we should have a chat with the people downstairs, the Finermen, as I called them, pluralizing their surname, Finerman. But Stepfanny was intimidating. When I’d introduced myself to her on the front stoop shortly after moving in, she didn’t look at me. Her face, however, registered a supreme disgust. It also seemed to be suppressing a laugh. Her box-like body, ending in reckless scuffing heels, be-littled me. And that was, in fact, my interpretation of her sneer: that she was sizing me up physically—not in the usual way women do, but in the way some men assess each other. And it was clear that she could take me.
So we waited—six months all-told, until finally, with trepidation, I composed a letter:
To Our Downstairs Neighbors,
Hi. This is Priscilla and Brian from upstairs. Sorry to bother you with this but we’re having trouble with the noise coming from your apartment at all hours. It’s really loud up here. We’re not sure if it’s a volume issue or a sound-proofing one (sometimes, I’m sure you know, sound is magnified when speakers sit on wood).
In any event, this letter is a request for you to please consider us when you turn on your TV or your stereo. We’d really appreciate it.
Thank you for understanding,
Priscilla and Brian
Soon after, one night when Brian was home alone, the bell from the street started ringing like crazy. And, before he had a chance to respond, there was knocking on our apartment door, fast and hard—the kind of knocking that conveyed emergency.
He opened the door to find Stepfanny standing there, coming to talk about our note. She readily admitted that she often fell asleep with the TV on. At first Brian interpreted this as a gesture toward accommodation. But he soon realized that Stepfanny was just telling it like it is—and like it was going to stay. She talked viciously loud, and Brian felt intimidated. It was something about the way she stood, the way she refused to meet his eye, her defensiveness, her loudly scuffing heels. She seemed to have shown up to defend her rights—not to discuss our complaint or to do anything about it. Brian said he wound up apologizing a lot, and that he wasn’t really sure what, if anything, had been accomplished.
In the weeks following my letter it seemed the television got louder, and Corny, who was responsible for the hip-hop, went on a bender. For added effect, on Saturday mornings a man would visit Portland and reverberating conversations would overtake our kitchen. The desk in my writing room, adjacent to the bedroom, was positioned over a vent that drew up cell-phone conversations and incessant radio. From my writing sanctuary I was also privy to weird, distant-sounding, echoing family arguments—their origin inexplicable to me, but their content so familiar and black-holish that I began to feel a depression similar to the kind I’d had as a sullen, self-harming adolescent: in these arguments a teenage boy would run away from his mother, slamming the door, and yelling, “Don’t come near me! You’re ruining my life! I hate you!”
Much later, I would figure out that these fights were coming from the house next door, which was attached to ours. I was being attacked from all sides.
The solution was to never be home. But the apartment was far from the subway and there was nothing to do in our neighborhood except sit on Ocean Parkway and watch the traffic. There was a coffee shop about a ten-minutes’ walk away, which at first had encouraged me. I thought I could spend some of my time there. But soon enough I realized the impossibility of my dream: the coffee shop was run by a man who sold his own books there—9/11 conspiracy-theory stuff. It could take half an hour to get your coffee (when they hadn’t run out of it), and the coffee itself was so strong and fairly traded that you began to fantasize about writing your own rants and manifestoes. The food was terrible, the music awful, and there was no air conditioning in summer. The prices were higher than in SoHo (three dollars for a moldy mint iced tea), and the owner once pointed to a picture of John Lennon displayed on the counter and informed me that it was a picture of John Lennon. They charged extra for soy milk (when they had it), and once when Brian asked for soy milk, the owner spent ten minutes searching the premises for some (next door was a health-food market that sold this). He then located some soy milk that was crusted to the bottom of a silver pitcher and scraped it into Brian’s coffee, informing him that this time he wasn’t going to charge him extra.
Not liking your home and not wanting to be there is an awful beginning to a life lived together. I was hurt and disappointed beyond measure. We moved out of that place almost a year ago, and I still cannot walk past that apartment; it’s a year I like to forget.
One night I was home alone taking a shower when the street bell started ringing maniacally. My first thought was that Brian had forgotten his keys. But this sort of ringing wasn’t his style. I was alarmed and quickly got out of the shower and put on my clothes. I ran downstairs and opened the front door fearfully, my hair dripping. It was Stepfanny. She barreled past me without meeting my eye, barking out her annoyance at how long it had taken me to respond. She didn’t thank me, just scraped past into her apartment, slamming the door.
The next time I heard these warning bells I knew what to expect. It happened one morning just before I left the apartment for work. I opened the door to see the triumvirate, Stepfanny, Portland, and Corny, waiting for me at the bottom of the stairs. Stepfanny immediately began complaining that Brian’s motorcycle was parked in the driveway (he had just bought one and had pushed it to the side of the drive so that the Finermen SUV could get past). I told Stepfanny that Brian wasn’t home and that the landlord, Miriam (a nice, ineffectual person), had told us we could park it there. Stepfanny wagged her finger in front of her face, informing me that she and Brian were “going to have to talk.”
In the meantime, the noise was destroying our sanity, as was the discomfort of living above unfriendly people, and the fear of running into any of the three women when entering or leaving our home. For many months I was willing to pretend that it wasn’t so bad—I was afraid that admitting my unhappiness was the same as saying that living together wasn’t working out. But Brian was much more honest. Looking at him was like looking at my own misery on someone else’s face. But also, his misery meant much more to me than my own.
Then one day, as if by chance, while searching for some music to play, something happened—a turnaround of habitual thought. I had been scanning the spines of my records and CDs, admiring my bottom-heavy collection, when suddenly my vision blurred, releasing a tear onto one of the plastic sleeves. It splashed back into my eye. She can’t win, I said out loud, smiling down at my records as into the eyes of the beloved, She can’t win. It was then that I knew my entire approach had been wrong—writing notes, speaking softly, treating Stepfanny as though she had an interest in getting along. She was going to taunt me until I acted like a man.
I had connected my record collection to a purpose beyond my own listening pleasure, which helped justify it to me. I had every kind of metal: speed, sludge, black, goth, doom, thrash, industrial, death. She can’t win, I repeated, giggling a little too uncontrollably, a little too privately.
That night we moved the stereo into the bedroom, placing Brian’s giant black speakers beneath the bed. I started light—with some punk rock, and a sense of humor: Noise Annoys by The Buzzcocks. Hahahahahahaha, I said to myself as I lay on the bed listening loudly. Then I cycled through some light heavy metal: AC/DC, Led Zeppelin. I thought of songs with the most bass, which led me to Amon Düül II’s “Arcangel’s Thunderbird.” But more important even than the actual tracks I selected was the sheer volume I played them at: pain decibel.
Stepfanny countered by turning her TV up. I responded by turning the speakers up. She answered back. So did I. It went on like this until Brian came into the bedroom. He looked at me oddly, a little bit scared. I’m sure I looked crazy—wild and clear-eyed, a person relieved of the constraints of society. I said, I think you better leave.
And he would leave every time we had our noise wars—go and sit on a bench along Ocean Parkway and read, watching the flocks of escaped green parrots that nested in the trees. It certainly wasn’t a solution that brought us together, and, of course, I worried it wasn’t a solution at all. How long could I keep this up? What would be the next step after this? Would I crank and crank the volume until I ruptured my inner ear? Until the house exploded? Maybe Stepfanny would raise the stakes, stealing my mail, waiting for me in the bushes and beating me up. After that she’d probably kill me. And the women next door, another mother-daughter combination, were high complainers; we’d heard the grey-haired daughter threaten to throw a pot of boiling water onto some kids playing in her yard. How long until she called the police, or threw a rock through my window?
But there was something unexpectedly enlivening in fighting back; I’d always taken the self-negligent route: I’d never stood up for myself.
At some point during the noise wars Brian bought an apartment in an adjoining neighborhood. We began counting down the months; we had about six to hold out—misery with a terminus.
I can’t really remember those last several months; the situation with Stepfanny blots them out. I know one night the Finermen had a big party, and the next day a black moving van pulled up in front of the house. I ran out on the terrace; the old lady next door ran out on hers. She asked me what was going on. “It looks like they’re moving out,” I said, trying to sound neutral. But I’m sure I was smiling. The old lady expressed deep appreciation; we hadn’t been the only ones to hate them.
I couldn’t believe my academic luck. We’d just bought a place, committed to move out, and now the cause of our moving was gone. That night it went totally quiet—peace fell over the house like a dream. And it stayed quiet. Nobody moved in. It was quieter than any apartment I’d ever lived in.
Meanwhile huge black trash bags rotted in front of the house, and at some point Brian and I, overcome by curiosity, got up our courage and crept downstairs. At the back of my mind I thought that Stepfanny would be waiting for me, that the moving van and the trash and the quiet were some sort of ruse to get me downstairs and finish me off.
We opened the door slowly and peeked inside. The first thing I saw was piles of stuff everywhere—clothes, hangers, trash bags, paper. I’d never seen the layout of the apartment and was surprised that it was completely different from ours. The apartment entered onto the living room, and tucked away inside of it was an embedded kitchen—a semi-circle with a microwave and dishwasher and food left out on the counters.
At the front of the living room was a raised, carpeted alcove with floor-to-ceiling shelving. If our interpretation of the noise had been correct, this front section was Corny’s bedroom, which went some way toward explaining why the curtains had always been drawn, something that at the time had added to my reading of the Finermen as couch-dwelling, book-fearing, nature-hating, entertainment-saturated.
Then we walked to the back of the apartment, wanting most (least?) to see Stepfanny’s domain. On the way we passed an open room and looked inside: it was a closet, the size of a small bedroom or study, and it had an electronically-operated clothing conveyance system, like at the dry-cleaners. Our mouths hung open.
Then there was nowhere else to go but to Stepfanny’s room, so we made our way stealthily to the back of the apartment. Black wall-to-wall carpeting greeted us; and there were mirrors lining the walls and the ceiling. Our eyes were drawn to the wide impression on the carpet where the “entertainment system” must have stood.
We had two and a half months of blissful quiet.
After we moved I told a friend this story; he was having noise troubles of his own, the kind that left him standing in the window at three a.m. shouting out the back of his apartment building: Shut up! Shut up! I’m going to call the police! He looked at me jealously when I’d finished my tale: Wow, he said, his red eyes and desperate demeanor making me feel right at home: You really did win.
PRISCILLA BECKER “is a dead-drunk writer. Her cart is currently empty. She has successfully logged out.”