The Brooklyn Rail

APR 2010

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APR 2010 Issue


“It’s different than this building,” Hector said as I counted out the bills.

“What do you mean?”

He hesitated.

“Less quiet.”

Photos of 3rd St. and Ave. C by Miller Oberlin.
Photos of 3rd St. and Ave. C by Miller Oberlin.

Huh. Less quiet. So what? It was a $600 one-bedroom, and I was getting off Clinton Street. Moving east, yeah, to C—but also north, to 3rd. It was the same landlord—a slippery character who, by turns, insisted the rent checks be made out to the XYZ Corporation, the 123 Company, and New York Cardboard & Foam—and the same super, Hector, who’d been the one to mention in passing about the apartment coming up.

There was only the matter of the “key money”: $600 in cash—allegedly to buy out the previous tenant—which wasn’t much, even in those days, before the neighborhood changed. Hector seemed oddly reluctant, almost regretful, when I handed him the cash, but I attributed it to a misplaced sense of ethics.

The new place was on the second floor of an old walk-up, facing back, onto an empty lot. It was big: a real one-bedroom, not some phony renovation, cut-and-paste job. High ceilings, an enormous kitchen, even a balcony off the living room—although you had to climb through a waist-high window to get to the balcony, and once you did, you were standing under a tangled canopy of telephone and TV cables, looking eight feet across at the opaque, red windows of a Pentecostal church.

My first night, I had a few celebratory beers on the balcony, then climbed back inside to sleep on a mattress on the floor of the bedroom, dozing off happily buzzed as I looked up at the big moon in the big night sky outside my bedroom window.

Sometime deep in the middle of the night—three, four o’clock—I woke up to the sound of voices in the hallway. Lying awake, I recognized the familiar pattern of the conversation: the heated mumbling, the urgency, then a flash of anger or laughter—you couldn’t tell, exactly—followed by an almost audible diffusion of energy as the voices evened out and trailed off… satisfied, for the moment.  I’d stayed one summer with a depressive girl in her loft in a Brooklyn crack zone, and I remembered the 20-minute cycles of agony and ecstasy played out over the course of a hot Saturday night by the chorus of users on the corner.

The noise in the hallway picked up again: a sudden shout, then several voices at once. I went to the door to try to get a read on the number of people outside. It sounded as if two or three of them were moving up and down the stairs, from my floor to the foyer on the first floor, where an alcove housed the mailboxes. I could hear the big steel door at the entrance to the building repeatedly squeaking open and banging shut: the rhythm of commerce, with an apparent parade of users shuffling in and out.

I decided to venture out and make a reasonable request for quiet—in the spirit of peaceful coexistence, if nothing else.

As I came down the stairs, three men standing in the foyer turned to look up: two of them, skinny creatures of the night; the other, a broad-shouldered fellow wearing track pants and a muscle shirt and sporting a sharply etched goatee.

The three of them stared up at me—a look of who-the-fuck-is-this-guy?—as I paused on the landing above them.

“Fellas,” I said, with a comradely jut of the chin. “Could you do me a favor? I’m right upstairs, and the noise really seems to travel in this building.”

The guy with the goatee smiled broadly.

“No problem, bro,” he said. “We’ll keep it down.”

“Right?” he said, nodding to one of the other men.

“Right,” the other fellow said.

Then they turned back to one another and resumed their affairs.

“Thanks,” I said, and headed back upstairs, feeling pretty good about the encounter. We understand one another, I was thinking. You have your business to do, I’m respectful of that; I’m not one of these guys who doesn’t know the neighborhood. Just be cool about it, and respect my space.  I felt that came across. Which was a nice feeling.

I fell back asleep about as soon as my head hit the pillow. Then, maybe an hour later, I was yanked out of a dream by more shouting in the hallway, followed by what sounded like a stampede down the stairs and the serial slamming of the front door. I thought about heading down again, but whatever was going on seemed to have taken itself outside—and I was too tired, anyway.

I drifted in and out of sleep until six in the morning, when the insistent bass line of merengue came throbbing through my bedroom floor. It was the bodega directly beneath my apartment. In a virtual drugged state, I clumsily pulled on some clothes and went down to find the bodega manager cheerily sweeping the floor to music pounding out of a boom box behind the counter. It took some doing, but I made myself understood in halting Spanglish; he seemed genuinely perplexed, and then amused, by the idea that the music was too loud. But he turned it down and nodded pleasantly as I thanked him and backed out of the store.

Back upstairs, I threw myself into bed and plunged to sleep.

Around 7:30 the merengue started up again, only marginally quieter than before. This time I grabbed an extra pillow from the closet and squeezed it over my ears.

Over the next three or four weeks the scene with the boys in the foyer was repeated several times. Usually, I did nothing as the voices in the hallway alternately spiked, then muffled themselves through the graveyard hours. But every few nights it would get so loud that I had to summon the will to go down in the middle of the night and ask them to keep it down. Each time I did, the big man—the dealer—would smile broadly and say, “No problem, bro.” Then I’d go back to bed and within an hour the noise would rumble down the hall again.

It was a similar pattern with the merengue: early most mornings it would filter up from the bodega and I would drag myself downstairs to complain; the music would soften for a while, just enough for me to fall fitfully back to sleep, then come charging through the floorboards again an hour and a half later.

I tried getting hold of the landlord but I could never get past the elaborate phone tree of whatever shell corporation he was hiding behind at that point.

I was supposed to be writing a book on prescription drugs: a contracted gig for an educational publisher’s run of hastily produced paperbacks on subjects like divorce, taxes and menopause, geared to women coursing past the racks of impulse items at grocery store checkout counters. I didn’t particularly know anything about prescription drugs, so I’d taken some popular guides out of the library, most of which seemed as tossed-off as the one I was likely to write. So far I had only written the personally-signed, introductory letter from the author, explaining to my concerned, impulsive readers, “Why I Wrote This Book.”

“We live in an age of information,” it opened, on what I felt was an appropriately sober, yet expansive note. “Sometimes it feels as we are bombarded with information. But, too often, we can’t get the information we need when we need it.”

Continuing on in that vein for a bit, it soon zeroed in on its theme: “There’s nothing worse than feeling like you are in the dark—especially when it comes to your health and the health of your family. I know that’s how I feel. That’s why I wrote this book…”

I was pleased with it and re-read it occasionally in the middle of the night when I was unable to sleep. With everything going on in the building, though, I wasn’t making much progress on the actual body of the book.

Meanwhile a construction crew broke ground on the empty lot next door, so that even my waking hours were soon punctuated by the pounding of ballpeen hammers, an occasional jackhammer, and pile-driving that made the entire building wobble.

By now I’d begun cranking the air conditioner to full volume, night and day, to drown out the noise, and I started drinking myself to sleep—neither of which really helped, and only meant that I was getting up sleep-deprived, hungover, and with a chill. In fact, I felt I was becoming seriously ill. I’d been having disturbing dreams and waking up in the middle of the night with a searing headache, my hair matted with sweat. I’d read only a few days before about the sudden appearance of West Nile disease in New York—the virus borne along by mosquitoes and dead birds—and had noticed the mosquitoes buzzing over the standing water below my kitchen window. I was certain I could feel the tiny viral organisms burrowing into my brain tissue. I even convinced a skeptical doctor to send me for an MRI, which didn’t show anything—but I’d also read that traditional tests often missed that kind of thing.

One night the hubbub of voices in the foyer kicked up as usual. When I went down to the landing to say something about it, the fellow with the goatee didn’t respond at all, just looked up at me, his smile thinner than usual.

The next day I got up late, around two, and stumbled out for Chinese food. The dealer and his girlfriend were leaning arm-in-arm against a car at the curb, and as I passed he muttered something to her and they laughed. When I came back with the takeout they were standing at the entrance to the building, the dealer with his back to the street and the girlfriend standing above him on the concrete step, facing out as I approached. As I tried to casually slide by them and push the steel door open, she leaned over and whispered something that sounded like “You’re dead.”

I hesitated for the slightest moment, then pushed the door open and continued numbly up the stairs. When I got to my apartment I tried putting the key into the lock, then realized it was gummed-up with something. Bending over and looking closer, I could see that they had Krazy-Glued the keyhole. Or someone had, anyway. Maybe that was the connection to the laughing out front, and her whispering to me like that. Unless I misheard her; I wasn’t even sure she’d been talking to me. Maybe I had imagined the whole thing. Maybe the Krazy Glue was just kids in the building fucking with the new guy. Or maybe my life really was in danger somehow. The truth was, I was so exhausted and feverish, and now unnerved by the business at the front door, that I couldn’t be sure of anything.

That night, after I’d called a locksmith and gotten back into the apartment, I dragged my mattress into the living room, as far from the hall as possible. It was also above the other end of the bodega, away from the merengue-blasting boom box. It didn’t turn out to make much difference, noise-wise, but it gave me some psychological distance from my tormenters.

Over the next couple of days I passed the dealer and his girlfriend two or three times outside the building; each time, they put their heads close together and laughed conspiratorially. I tried to strike a nonchalant look since I figured that would serve me best, no matter what.

In the middle of all this I managed to wrangle a date with a woman I bumped into at a political meeting in a Lower East Side church basement. I’d gotten a flyer about the meeting from the same woman, Sarah, when she was tabling for her community group in Tompkins Park. I thought she was very cute—and I couldn’t argue with the group’s agenda—so I’d made a point of going to the meeting and chatting her up.

On our date we went for dinner and a few rounds of margaritas at a Mexican place in the neighborhood, then got margaritas to go and took them back to my apartment. We settled out on the balcony in the summer night air and got quietly smashed on the margaritas—while I climbed through the window every so often to change records.

Even drunk, Sarah was fairly humorless, talking on end about Paulo Freire and “the pedagogy of the oppressed,” but she looked lovely in the moonlight on the balcony. For my part, I felt I was finally enjoying my new place the way I’d expected when Hector had first shown it to me. It was obvious to me that Sarah and I didn’t have much in common—except that it was a summer night and we were drinking margaritas. And given everything that had been happening the previous few weeks, that was more than enough.

Soon we were inside, on the mattress on the living room floor, rolling around, grappling with one another. She was surprisingly aggressive: straddling me, jamming her tongue down my throat and grinding her pelvis into mine. It was extremely hot in the room, however, because I’d turned off the air conditioner to open the window to the balcony. Between the stifling air and the margaritas—and Sarah’s long hair draping my face as she leaned down to kiss me—it was all I could do to catch a breath and keep from passing out. Her response was to hump even harder, like a jockey on a fading horse. After several sweaty, labored attempts to get me up to the task, she finally shoved me aside, pushed her own hand inside her, and brought herself to climax. Then she sighed loudly, rolled over and went to sleep.

Despite my exhaustion, I barely slept at all through the night. Periodically I made a frantic attempt to will an erection, fighting off the feverish feeling as I reached out to stroke her body. She sleepily responded to these entreaties, rolling over and absently fondling me, but to no avail.

When, at last, the sun came through the living room window, I was feeling wretched, a film of sweat and grease covering my face. Sarah was lying beside me, snoring open-mouthed. Suddenly the wail of a Fendercaster guitar lashed the room. It was seven o’clock on a Sunday morning and the Pentecostal church outside my living room window had apparently gone electric. I didn’t know if this was a recent development—I’d never woken up in the living room on a Sunday morning—but I was fairly sure I’d have heard the clumsy guitar-bass-drum ensemble that was rattling along to the throaty ravings of the preacher.

Stepping over Sarah, who was just beginning to wake up, I grabbed a handful of change off the bookshelf, climbed out on the balcony in my underwear, and began throwing quarters at the red painted windows across the way while cursing at the top of my lungs. The quarters simply bounced off the painted windows with a dull clack, and my cursing was drowned out by the caterwauling in the church. When I turned to climb back in, Sarah was standing at the living room window watching me as if I were some sort of madman. 

Back inside, I explained about the ordeal of noise in the building, and that, yes, I realized it was a church, but there’s got be a limit to these things, and so on, while she kept a watchful distance from me and pulled on her clothes.

“I hope we’ll see each again,” I said half-heartedly, adding a garbled apology about the night before.

She said she was sure we’d run into one another but that for now she had to get back and feed her cats.

After she left I went into the bathroom for some Advil and studied myself in the mirror. I looked like a sweaty gargoyle with hair swirled up into a point, like Tintin’s.

That night I passed out after dinner, on the mattress in the living room.

A few hours later I was jerked out of a deep sleep by yelling in the foyer. Fed up finally—sleep-deprived, plagued by what I was sure was a case of West Nile, and now possibly impotent—I grabbed the nearest clothes, the blue jeans and sweatshirt I’d been wearing in a short-lived attempt to clean up the place, and marched into the hall, making sure to slam the door behind me. Stopping at the landing, I called down to the dealer and the other two men gathered below.

“Listen, fellas,” I said in a controlled, confident voice that came to me all of a sudden from one television show or another, “this isn’t gonna fly any more.”

The dealer and the other men looked up at me, bemused.

“All of this shit,” I said in a forceful, even-tempered tone. “Not gonna fly, okay?”

They looked at each other, incredulous, as if they weren’t sure whether to bust out laughing or run up the stairs and kick my ass.

Meanwhile my lizard brain took over and time slowed down, as if I were in the middle of a car wreck.

“And if you’re thinking of doing something stupid right now,” I said, “I wouldn’t recommend it.”

Then I turned around and went back to my apartment.

I slept soundly through the rest of the night and woke up the next morning more refreshed than I’d felt in weeks. But I didn’t know if it was because they’d actually listened to me and kept it down, or if, dog-tired, I’d slept through it. That afternoon, though, I noticed that when I passed the dealer and his girlfriend outside the building, they looked at me, then looked away, skipping the conspiratorial laugh.

In fact, over the next few days I noticed other people in the building giving me a wider berth than usual, while the bodega manager seemed to have put a lid on the merengue. I figured it all had to do with me standing my ground: maybe word got around and it had earned me the grudging respect of my neighbors.

Then, one afternoon, as I was heading down the sidewalk towards the building, I saw two boys, maybe ten years old, tauntingly restraining a couple of young pit bulls with choker chains, letting the snarling animals get within inches of tearing one another apart.

As I got closer, the boys looked in my direction. I heard one say to the other under his breath, “Be cool. He’s a cop.”

“What’s he gonna do?” the other boy said defiantly. “Shoot us?”

When I got upstairs I took a moment to digest the scene. Now it all made sense: the sudden deference of everyone in the building; the confused, hesitant looks on the men’s faces that night. I’d heard about landlords trying to flip drug-infested buildings: how they rented cheap apartments to cops to chase out the dealers. I saw how I must’ve appeared: somebody with a lot of time to poke his nose into things…vaguely Irish-looking… Not to mention the way I came on that night with the TV cop’s voice—or how I was dressed, in blue jeans and a sweatshirt. I flashed back to my days just out of college when I had to show a student ID to the dealers in Washington Square to prove I wasn’t undercover.

I realized at that point that I could go out of my way to let people in the building know I wasn’t a cop, or I could let them continue to think I was—which would be a dangerous game, in a way, especially if they found out. But the idea of the alternative—going back to the nightmare scenario I’d been living with—convinced me to give it a shot.

So over the next few weeks I played up the cop routine. I wore dark shades and dressed in blue jeans and sneakers whenever possible. I picked up a New York Rangers warm-up jacket at a Salvation Army. I even adopted a jock-like saunter, bouncing on the balls of my feet and swinging my torso from side to side as I moved down the street. After a while it began to feel pretty natural.

One night I came sauntering in to find a couple of skinny men—potential customers, I figured—lingering in the foyer.

“What’s up?” I said in a commanding voice as they quickly shoved what I surmised was paraphernalia into their pockets.

“Listen up,” I said, stepping closer. “The store is closed. You get it? Out of business.”

They looked dumbfounded.

“Now take off,” I told them, going up the stairs. 

On a couple of occasions I took the opportunity to walk slowly past the dealer’s girlfriend as she stood at her perch outside the building, staring her down as I did. She would lock eyes with me for a moment, then look past me into the middle distance, her face a blank. Sometimes I’d even take a stroll around the block in my undercover getup, surveying the landscape for any sign of disturbance and nodding benevolently to the locals.

Despite this newfound feeling of control over the situation, my fever dreams persisted. They had blossomed, in fact, into more frenzied, sometimes violent productions, especially the more I’d had to drink; even though there was less noise in the building, I was still drinking myself to sleep every night—which I wrote off to the normal stress of being a cop.

When I ran into Sarah tabling in the park for her community group one day, I found myself slipping into the cop voice as I convinced her, despite her considerable reluctance, to come over to my apartment again. This time, even with all the drinking, I was more than up to it, taking her on the couch, in the kitchen, against the living room wall. I felt as if I could’ve jacked up a car with my hard-on. She refused to stay the night, however, and when we said goodbye at the door she looked as spooked as she had when she found me on the balcony in my underwear screaming curses at the Pentecostal church.

Coming out of my apartment after she left, I ran into Hector, who was fixing falling plaster in the hall.

“You don’t look good, my friend,” he said.

“What do you mean, I don’t look good?”

“I don’t know—you don’t look good.”

“I’m fine,” I said curtly.

“You know,” he said, “there’s an apartment open in your old building, if you’re interested.”

“My old building? Why would I go back to my old building?”

“I thought you might be interested. It’s small, like your old one. But this place is crazy,” he said, shaking his head slowly.

“Are you kidding?” I said, giving a sweep of my arm. “This is my domain, man!”

He smiled sadly.

“Okay, my friend. You let me know if you change your mind. It won’t last long.”

“I’m not going anywhere,” I said.

The next morning a rooster woke me up at dawn. I shot out of bed and ran to the window to see where the crowing was coming from, but all I could tell was that it was somewhere on the upper floors of the building in back of mine. In zero tolerance mode, I threw on my jeans and Rangers jacket, put on my dark shades, and marched around the corner.

Mashing several buttons at once, I got someone to buzz me into the building.  Bounding from floor to floor, I listened for the rooster, whose crow was muffled in the hallway. On the fifth floor, I thought I’d found the place. I banged loudly on the metal door as a jumble of voices carried on inside. After a minute or two I banged on the door again.

“I’m looking for the rooster!” I said.

The jumble of voices wove into a ragtag sing-along.

I tried the door, found it unlocked and pushed it open. I stepped into the cramped apartment and saw a roomful of men and women—small, mestizo-looking—gathered in a circle of folding chairs. As they heard me come in, they all turned in my direction, wide-eyed.

“I’m here about the rooster,” I announced.

They looked at me with obvious fear. I could see now that several of them were holding bibles and that I had interrupted a prayer meeting of some sort.

Out of the corner of my eye I caught my image in the mirror over the dining table: I appeared deranged. Turning back, I saw one of the women begin to cry. The man next to her took her hand in his.

I suddenly realized that I must’ve looked like someone from Immigration—or worse.

“I’m sorry,” I said, addressing the room as they stared up at me, uncomprehending.

I backed my way to the door.

“Really sorry,” I said and quickly slipped into the hall.

Out in the hallway I felt my heart beating rapidly. By the time I made it down to the street and around the corner my pulse was thumping in my ears and I had broken into a cold sweat.

Ducking into my building I came face to face with the dealer and his girlfriend. It seemed as if a tiny smirk played on his lips as they took in my panicked demeanor and exchanged looks. Then they moved past me, out the door.

Up in my apartment I crawled back under the covers and stared at the puckered ceiling tiles. I began to wonder if the dealer’s smirk meant something. Maybe they suspect what’s going on, I thought. Maybe they’ve known all along and they’ve been waiting to see how far I’ll play it out. The episode with the prayer meeting kept returning, too: the looks on their upturned faces, wide-eyed, terrified; and my own manic reflection in the mirror. I couldn’t leave my apartment all day.

That night I called Hector and told him I would take the apartment in my old building.

Over the next few weeks, as I readied for the move back to Clinton Street, I saw no sign of the dealer or his girlfriend. No one seemed to know what had become of either one of them. At the same time, the entire building—indeed, the whole block—took on a relaxed, almost cheerful vibe. It was if someone—some unsung hero—had cleaned up the place.

The day I moved out, ditching half of my things in Hefty Bags on the sidewalk in anticipation of my new, cramped digs, I noticed a tenant lovingly placing plants in the foyer. Across the street a smart-looking café had unveiled a Grand Opening banner.


Doug Cordell

DOUG CORDELL is a writer now based in the Bay Area.


The Brooklyn Rail

APR 2010

All Issues