I emerge from the subway and am surprised it is snowing. It’s the first real snow of the season and for some inexplicable reason I am glad to see it; an old friend of sorts, perhaps a reminder of the life I left back in Maine. I like the way the snow seems to give the street lights halos, and for the first time in months I smile as I trudge down Broadway and turn onto Thayer. My apartment building is in the middle of the street – a six-story, pre-war monstrosity with a cement courtyard out front. Bolted to the building is a sign that says “Absolutely No Ball Playing Allowed”, under which two pre-teens kick a ball in the snow. The smell of marijuana floats down from a window, and the front door is propped open. As I climb the first floor stairs, with my ipod on full blast, I can already hear the music from upstairs: “Duhhh-da-da-da-duhhh, da-da-da-duhhhh”. I know I’m in for another long night.
Back in August, when I signed the papers for the sublet, the tiny opera singer mentioned that sometimes the kid upstairs played his bass guitar too loudly. I dismissed this; the rent was comparatively cheap, I was right near the subway, and I was in love with the idea of living in Manhattan. It turned out that “sometimes” was in fact every day, generally between the hours of 10 pm and 4 am. He knows one electric base riff, and he plays it over and over again, for hours at a time. Every night. When he’s not playing his bass, he’s playing rap and Latin hip-hop on his stereo, the bass turned up so high that I feel the thumping in my chest, competing with my heartbeat. Sometimes the music is so loud that the vibrations cause photos to fall off the wall. When I first politely knocked and asked him to turn the music down, The Kid let me know in no uncertain terms that my need to sleep was myproblem, not his. The twenty or so teenagers standing behind him in the doorway emphasized his point with their collectively- raised middle fingers.
I wanted to appeal to his parents, but there was no father to speak of and a mother that appeared only sporadically. The few times she was present, I could hear her through the ceiling screaming in Spanish, accompanied by sobs of anguish and slammed cupboard doors. I never interrupted, because as long as she was screaming there was no music. My earplugs silenced her just fine.
I discovered that The Kid and his friends were also a major source of problems for Josè, the building super. They regularly overflowed the kitchen sink and bathtub, causing serious water damage. They often trashed the building’s hallways and stairwells, which Josè got stuck cleaning. Josè told me the landlord had been trying for months to evict them, first for nonpayment and then for causing flood damage when their unsanctioned dishwasher overflowed, causing thousands of dollars in damage. Everyone else in the building hated them too and complained to the landlord about the noise, but Josè said many of them were here illegally and refused to involve the police.
I had no such qualms. Night after night I called the city’s 3-1-1 complaint hotline. Afterwards, I would crawl into bed with industrial-strength ear plugs that provided no relief. The walls and bed vibrated from the bass upstairs, and sleep was impossible despite my exhaustion and need to get up at 7 am to go to work. Sometimes the police came, but more often they did not. Sometimes they came during a lull and closed my complaints out with “no evidence found”. Half an hour later the party would start back up again. All I could do was continue calling.
I became obsessed with checking the online NYC Housing Court docket, tracking their case. It was repeatedly continued, usually because my neighbors failed to show up for court. I learned that NYC housing law overwhelmingly favors tenants, and evicting someone is practically impossible. At first I felt guilty for wishing for their eviction – I had been raised to not wish ill upon anyone, and how could I want someone to lose his home? The guilt, however, was quickly replaced by the basic human need for sleep. As the weeks wore on I dreaded coming home every night. I literally cowered on the street when cars passed by me with the bass cranked. My head was foggy from lack of sleep, and I had little energy for my new job. I felt sad and beaten.
But this cold February night it’s different. Something has shifted. Maybe it’s the snow. Maybe it’s just the futility of it all, or maybe it’s just that I’m tired of feeling so helpless. The anger in me, stored up for months, creates a heat inside me that is much, much hotter than the old radiator hissing in the corner. I am going to burst.
I grab the broom and stand on a wooden chair in the middle of the living room. As hard as I can, with every ounce of my being, I pound the ceiling with the broom handle. I bang harder and harder; I don’t even care if the plaster cracks. I begin screaming curses and I use only the really bad ones. I am screaming louder than I knew was possible. The nice girl from Maine has disappeared. In this moment, I am a New Yorker.
The music stops. I am shocked. Is this all I needed to do? I pause, and the silence echoes in my ears. Smug and satisfied, I climb down from the chair and put the broom back in its corner.
A few minutes later there is pounding on my door.
I look through the peep hole and see The Kid and his friend, grinning, wearing baggy jeans and hooded sweatshirts covered in skulls. The anger is back, boiling under my skin. I hesitate for a second, and then as fast as I can, I unlock the door and throw it open.
“Wha’s the mattah? Why you complainin’?” The Kid asks. His friend glares at me in a menacing manner that makes me hope he’s not carrying a weapon.
Despite my fear, I lose my temper. I begin yelling, shaking my finger in The Kid’s face. He tries to argue with me and I scream back: I am now officially the Loco Lady and I don’t care. The Kid and his friend laugh at me and joke to each other in a hybrid of English and Spanish, mocking me when I sputter about having to go to work in the morning. I silently chastise myself for all those years of French classes, and slam the door in their faces.
Five minutes later, the music starts again. I call 3-1-1, file my complaint, and then run a bath. I sit in the hot water and cry; there’s nothing else I can do.
In March the housing court will finally issue a judgment: no eviction. Josè is even more deflated than I am; there are tears in his eyes when he tells me that because they receive Section 8 housing assistance they could only be evicted if they had somewhere else to go, and there was nothing else in the entire city available. I have no idea if this is true or not but really, the “why” doesn’t matter. Josè and I are both stuck. I can’t afford another apartment, and he can’t afford to quit his job. A few weeks later, my sister calls: my brother-in-law is being transferred to California for two years, would I like to house-sit in suburban Boston for them while they are away? I jump at the chance of bass-free nights and begin planning my escape. A month later I move out. I can’t bear to say goodbye to Josè, knowing he has no such opportunity to leave.