You Don’t Know How Good You Had It

I have lived in this increasingly dilapidated apartment for decades.  Over the years I’ve had many upstairs neighbors as the apartment has changed hands many times.  Some lived quietly and considerately, others were an ongoing source of aggravation.  It’s hard to appreciate how lovely the quiet ones are until some flouncing, stomping, inconsiderate dick (of either sex) moves in.

When I first moved into the place, an old woman named Mrs. Freudenstein lived upstairs.   She was a German who had, so I learned from another original neighbor, committed the racial crime of marrying a Jew during the days when Hitler was making Germany great again.   (Yes, I know, believe me, sometimes the inevitable comparisons are impossible to avoid, believe me, believe me). Mrs. Freudenstein had been a widow for a while by the time I met her in 1975, her husband possibly met a gruesome end, for all I know, as they escaped Germany together.

She was a quiet, friendly, unassuming woman who walked over my head with the grace of a cat, on little padded feet.  She early on padded down one flight and silently slipped a note under my door.  

The short, elegantly handwritten note begged me to be a good neighbor by keeping my kitchen sink clean.   “Please, I am very clean.  I never had roaches, but now I do.  Please, please, don’t leave anything in your kitchen sink at night!”   Words to that effect and words I continue to live by to this day.  I bought a can of Ajax and a scouring pad and never leave anything in my sink overnight.   She thanked me weeks later when we passed in the hall.  

I soon know if my new neighbors are unsanitary types when roaches return to my kitchen– which the clean sink helps insure is never a vast army of them.  The sink, I don’t need to point out, is the only part of this place, outside of sections of the bathroom, that could be called clean.  Every roach I crush on the edge of the stove or in the sink I mumble an apology to, it is truly nothing personal, as opposed to the new anonymous slob above or below me, who I curse in the most intimate terms, for letting the cockroach colony in the walls between our apartments thrive.

The building has changed hands several times over the years as speculators tried to make money off this hundred year old six story apartment building.  One group decided to replace the boiler in November.  There was no heat or hot water for literally two weeks, which I know now is highly illegal.  There are portable boilers that can be parked in front of buildings to supply heat and hot water, through long hoses, while the main boiler is being repaired or replaced.  

I wore sweaters and hats and cursed a lot during those frigid November nights, but didn’t think to call the City and complain about this unconscionable violation.  A landlord, I now know very well, is required to provide heat and hot water during cold weather (hot water in all seasons), and restore it immediately or pay fines that mount daily.  These profit-driven real estate speculators were playing fast and loose with a law few tenants were aware of in those days.  

While I cursed against the cold, and boiled water to shave with and wash with, Mrs. Freudenstein upstairs, who had survived far worse, contracted pneumonia, and was taken to the hospital finally, where she died.  I always blamed this group of rapacious snakes, who owned the building for a very short time, for her death.  I remember seeing her son for the first and only time, carrying the dead woman’s things down the stairs in boxes.  

The new short-term owners of the building were not punished for her death in any way.  They were rewarded, actually, by a generous increase in the rent they could charge for the dead woman’s apartment.  The tenants who moved into the apartment that had been Mrs. Freudenstein’s home for the past forty years paid a 20% vacancy increase and a monthly portion of any costs incurred by the landlord to renovate any or all parts of the place, things like putting in a new ice box or a modern bathroom sink. 

This process has continued each time the apartment upstairs turns over and as a result, the place I pay about $800 a month for costs the tenant upstairs two or three times that.    

I endured a period when a young hyperactive buffalo named Thunderhoof stampeded from one end of the apartment to the other and back for hours at a time.  It aggravated me daily, but at least the heavy little guy eventually tired himself out and went to sleep at a childishly early hour.  On the other hand, the one-boy stampede got up with the sun and was off on his tiny, thunderous hooves as soon as he did.   Fortunately, they did not live above me long.

But this is not a trip down memory lane.  It’s an illustration of the old cliche Joni sang about: you don’t know what you’ve got til it’s gone.   We don’t appreciate our good health, until it turns bad.   We often don’t appreciate the best things in life, until they are no more.

A woman moved in upstairs recently, an early rising night owl with a very heavy, seemingly pouty step.   All of her footwear is iron soled.  She is energetic and flounces heavily above me when she arrives home at one or two a.m., just the hour I am finally fully relaxed, and in a state of contemplation.  She hurls herself across the floor, seems to be flinging heavy objects as she goes, there are unaccountable thuds and crashes in her wake.  

Eventually she goes to sleep, loudly dropping her hard shoes on my ceiling and falling heavily into her bed directly over my head. This is all annoying, but just part of living in a city where people who grew up in suburban or rural ranch houses are inhabiting their first apartment where people live directly below their heedlessly stomping feet.

“You should go upstairs and talk to her,” Sekhnet suggested, not unreasonably.

Then I thought of former upstairs neighbor Bitch Boy, who came home at 2 a.m., from a job that apparently infuriated him, and blasted Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive” for an hour or more, presumably to calm his seething.  I went up to speak with him a couple of times, did not find him particularly reasonable.  He was a stomper too, my friend even bought a remnant of thick carpet, in a heavy roll,  and brought it up to him to lay under his heavy boot steps.  

I found Bitch Boy, late one night, pissing against my door.    I flung the door open and he made a dash up the stairs, leaving a trail of urine on the stairs as he went.   I splashed a pot of boiling water, and some disinfectant, over his piss and came back inside shaking my head.  I eventually did some research, got neighbors to petition the landlord, who was then forced to take Bitch Boy to court, and the successor to Bitch Boy’s apartment got to pay his former rent, plus 20%.

Anyway, the clumsy, seemingly angry stomping of this new young woman upstairs is not worth commenting about.   Pieces of plaster fall from the ceiling more frequently now, but this place is well overdue for some renovations in any case.  That my apartment is currently too jammed with mountains of papers and piled boxes of other things to allow the replastering is on me.  Here is the problem.

My new upstairs neighbor is a soprano.   That means she has a voice in the range of a high-strung violin.   The first time I heard her voice exercises, directly over my pillow, I thought my new neighbor played the Theremin.  The eerie gliding note sounded right out of a 1950s low budget horror movie.  This was not Brian Wilson’s Theremin player from Good Vibrations, it was Bela Lugosi’s.  It played a four or five note, nerve jangling trill over and over. I listened from my bed and wondered why anyone in the world would be practicing the Theremin so industriously, so unmusically, particularly first thing in the morning.

Alas, it was not a Theremin player but a soprano, doing endless voice exercises, not always 100% tunefully but always with the effect of a female cat in heat shrieking in an alley, a torture victim losing control of all dignity and bursting into his or her highest register, nails, impossibly loud, on a blackboard and continuing, literally, for hours at a time.

The first few times it went on, and continued, certain exasperated men would shout out “Hey, shut the fuck up, will you?!!”  We have since given up this practice, since it does not seem to deter her.  She apparently knows her rights.  

I used to defend tenants in New York City Housing Court and learned once, to my surprise, that a hyperactive kid has every right to play drums ten hours a day overhead and under foot in a NYC apartment, no matter how badly, as long as the hours of racket are reasonable ones, neither too early nor after, say, nine p.m.

So there’s really nothing I can do about this hard-practicing operatic hysteric upstairs.  She generally only struggles to stay on pitch, tuning her high, hideous voice, for a few hours every afternoon. It was eight hours yesterday, but who am I to complain, tapping here incessantly as I do all day.  To someone with a stethoscope to the wall, floor or ceiling, I am probably a worse menace than she is.

I will say that the recent ten minute bleating of a neighbor’s smoke alarm, which turned out to be irate over nothing more than cooking fumes, was far preferable to my neighbor’s vocal exercises.  I would easily take two more hours of the monotonous, attention-seeking robotic alarm over ten minutes of the human’s deliberate operatic exertions.

This morning I was up unaccountably early, 7:20. a.m.  I couldn’t fall back asleep for a while, though I had not slept very long by 7:20.  Some time after 8:00 I was drowsy and began to drift off.  Just then Boris Karloff’s just slightly off-pitch Theremin player began to do her repetitive, amusical thing directly over my bed.  It continued, with pauses only for breath, until 10:30.

“Will you shut up?!!!” an exasperated man’s voice finally burst forth from the air shaft.

“Keep tuning your voice!” shouted another man’s voice, in that distinct dialect that also announces sexual preference, “I support you!  Artists should support other artists!”

A noble sentiment, and one I truly endorse, seriously.  People who lack the generosity to encourage each other’s creativity are a stinking, stingy basket of deplorables in my book.  

That said, I hope both of these artistic cunts will take up painting.


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