A few months ago, my husband and I found ourselves awake at 6 a.m., two hours earlier than usual. As I brewed the coffee, he answered a knock at the door. It was our downstairs neighbor, Saul Goldberg (not his real name).
A note from the Goldbergs means we have not been quiet enough. A phone call means water is dripping (or gushing) down their walls. A pre-dawn visit in COVID-19 times? We were afraid to learn what we had done.
Our footsteps had awakened Saul and his wife, Betsy. For months, he explained, they’d been hearing thuds and scrapes and clanks and bangs at all hours. Trapped in their apartment by the pandemic, Saul and Betsy had endured our fumbling morning routines, afternoon quarantine workouts and midnight pilgrimages to the kitchen. We had unknowingly become their oppressors.
I phoned them later to apologize and try to figure out what they could hear. I capered about the apartment, and they heard nothing. That was a relief. The building is sturdy, and we had installed a subfloor to deaden any noise. But when I dropped a pen on the wooden floor, they heard a pop. When I dropped one of our cats on the rug, they could hear the thump.
Saul patiently reminded us of the co-op rule that 80% of our floors need to be covered with padded rugs – which they were. But to avoid another early-morning encounter, we bought a runner for a bare patch by the front door and hoped for the best.
We know from experience how irritating neighbors can be. In our former apartment, a kingdom of roaches in Ditmas Park, Brooklyn, a spectacular symphony issued from the upstairs apartment. Sometimes our neighbors seemed to be wrestling; other times, bowling. One night, they fought so loudly and with such potent displays of emotion that my husband checked in on them. And the leaks! Water poured from cracks in our ceiling. Once, a mysterious red liquid dribbled from the ceiling onto our coffee table and rug. Mercifully, it did not congeal.
And so we were excited to move into an apartment on the top floor of a Yonkers co-op. We would never again hear wrestling matches or bowling balls or chairs being dragged across the floor! But until we moved in above the Goldbergs, we didn’t realize how noisy we were – and had always been. Sure, we didn’t have enough rugs to cover 80% of our floors at first, but rugs didn’t solve the noise problem. We were bad neighbors. We had always been bad neighbors.
We don’t wear shoes in the apartment, except when getting ready to leave. We don’t clomp, but occasionally a heel lands with a thud. We try not to drop coins or drag chairs. And yet the noises accrue.
The cats are hardly team players. Most mornings at sunrise, our younger cat, Albee – who is middle-aged but acts like a kitten – taps my face with an icy paw. I wrest myself out of bed and carry him around the apartment, kissing his fur while he purrs ecstatically. I call this “promenade,” as in, “Albee wants promenade.” Then I feed him and Miles, which requires more dexterity than I can muster uncaffeinated, and I often drop a can or dish on the kitchen floor.
“Sorry, Goldbergs,” I say to no one.
The cats see our rugs as a challenge. They knock objects off tables strategically, aiming for the uncarpeted areas. After all, why bother when the object doesn’t land with a crack? In the middle of the night, they chase each other over alleys of bare floor, their claws scraping the wood. They’re deaf to my frequent lessons on decorum and respect.
Humans, like all predators, need territory. It doesn’t seem natural for neighbors to be close enough to smell each other’s fish curry or hear each other’s footsteps. No matter how considerate we are, though, it’s impossible to exist in a big building like ours without impinging on someone else’s peace.
Ultimately, everyone in our building – in all apartments – has made a decision to sacrifice space for other comforts. We have made that decision with eyes wide open, and it behooves us to live more considerately.
This hit home months after Saul had knocked on our door. One morning in January, we woke up early to catch a flight. When we returned from our vacation, we found a note under our door with a copy of the house rules. Dragging our suitcases out the door on our way to the airport had awakened Saul and Betsy.
Sorry, Goldbergs. We’re trying to be better neighbors. We’ll try harder.
Jonathan Vatner is the author of “Carnegie Hill,” a novel about the members of an Upper East Side co-op board. “The Bridesmaids Union,” his new novel about an online support group for bridesmaids, will be published in 2022.