For a year now, I’ve lived in a three-story rowhouse in Bushwick, with two units on each floor. The management company runs a website where tenants can pay rent, or complain. You log in with your apartment number, and open a ticket for anything you might otherwise bother them about with a phone call.
“Flies,” I wrote in the subject line. Priority level: Medium. Message: “My apt is FULL OF FLIES. I came home from work today and there were at least TWELVE (!) large black flies flying around. It’s unsanitary. Please advise.”
I was sure there was a massacre of rats or humans putrefying in the basement, though I wasn't ready to put this theory into writing. After what had happened the week before, I had reasons to play it cool with management, but they were quick. They called me the next day with an explanation so disgusting, I didn’t believe it until I saw it with my own eyes.
The truth starts with a long story, which starts on my fire escape.
Meeting the neighbors
It was a balmy Tuesday night in late May—that blessed slip of a New York sub-season when outside is the same temperature as inside is supposed to be—and two months before the flies arrived. My window was cracked wide that night; I imagined I could hear the cicadas of my childhood singing over the drone of the white noise app before I fell asleep.
Cut to 3 am. I was sitting straight up in bed, listening to a man’s voice booming from directly outside my second-story window, in a thick bong-water drawl. "Dude. It’s going to be sick!" Then a pause, and a chaotic laugh. "We got the keys today!" Beat. "Haaahahahahaaaa."
My bedroom faces a dried-up backyard nobody ever uses. Was someone trying to break in, while talking loudly on his cellphone? Was he talking to me? Or was the voice coming from inside my own head?
I went to the window and threw it open far enough to torque half my body out and around. I saw someone was perched on the fire escape landing directly above my head.
"Hi. I live downstairs," I slurred, groggy tongue grappling with the sudden call to sound authoritative. "I have to get up for work in four hours, and I can’t sleep because of you.” I was going for warm but firm, like when talking to small children. “Please shut up." In my building, people keep to themselves. I wasn’t used to hearing my neighbors at all beyond the lurch of plumbing from a shower turned on, or the echoed hallway histrionics of a kid who didn’t want to go to school.
The firefly of a lit cigarette zagged as he looked for me in the floodlit urban-industrial night. The apology that finally arrived was contorted and rambling, and lasted about three minutes before I cut him off. He digressed into a brief justification of fire-escape sitting at any hour, and finished with an invitation to a barbecue, presumably in the backyard we shared. The one that faced my bedroom.
“Okay, sounds great. Welcome to the building. Please keep it down so I can sleep,” I said. About thirty minutes later, just as I was drifting off, I heard his terrible laugh again. This time my body made an energetic leap to the window before my mind even started working: “Be quiet, or I’ll call the cops.” He went completely silent then, but I swear I heard him giggling hysterically as I slammed the window down. I finally fell asleep when I managed to channel outrage into creative revenge fantasies, which had a soothing effect. By the time I drifted off, I was almost looking forward to the next confrontation. I did not have to wait long.
The next afternoon I was dialing into a conference call with Berlin from my bedroom—I’d just started a job so new, we didn’t even have an office yet—when a familiar cackle drilled into my ear, followed by ten seconds of hacking cough. It sounded something like a down-on-his-luck Spongebob Squarepants after 20 years of chain-smoking. "Come look at this," he demanded of whoever else was up there, "I need you to come look at this. If it’s herpes I’ll kill myself." More wet laughter.
I muted my end of the call, walked to the window and slid the screen up so I could pop my head out. As I was twisting my neck around to get a stealthy read on what was happening up there, a cigarette butt bounced off my windowsill an inch from my face. "Hey!" I said. "Remember me?" He set down his tallboy can, said “Oh yeah, hey. What’s up?” in a casual way that made me wonder how well he actually remembered me.
"You woke me up last night and I asked you to keep it down, twice. Can you please keep it down again? Or if you’re going to talk, maybe don’t do it on the fire escape? I’m working down here and I can hear every single word you’re saying."
“Aww, okay. Whoa. I’m really sorry. But you can’t tell me what to do on my own fire escape. And I don’t mind if you can hear what I’m saying.”
So much for reasoning with him. I told him it wasn't technically his fire escape, and that I'd call the cops again if he didn't stop. He ignored that, changed tack, without segue now hyping the Nirvana cover band he fronted. That phone call the previous night? He was booking a real show, he explained, and suggested I look his band up on YouTube. (From that day forward, I thought of him as Fire Escape Cobain, FEC for short). As he ranted on, I also learned that: He was going to be a star, he lived with his girlfriend, she was an actress, and also a star, and the only one of them actually on the lease, because he had his own place in the East Village.
In hindsight, I think he was threatening me, like I’d kick myself one day for not abiding their punk rock detritus, when they hit paydirt and went on talk shows to tell the story of their loser downstairs neighbor in front of a live studio audience.
The neighbors start fighting
FEC’s apartment was the 3L to my 2L—directly above me, and identical in floor plan except that where my apartment was a two-bedroom with one front bedroom and one in back, his unit split the front further into two to make it a three-bedroom. Both units had been gut-renovated about six months prior, when the current management company took over the lease, and we were the first tenants to occupy our respective spaces. (If this weren’t already a story about bad neighbors, it could be one about gentrifying Bushwick, and the enterprising shell companies flipping old warehouses and single-family homes into glossy apartments for young professionals who can’t afford other parts of north Brooklyn. I do not know what happened to the Rodriguezes, whose mail I still receive.)
Contrary to FEC’s claims of domestic independence, both he and his girlfriend slept nightly (on the nights they chose to sleep) in the back bedroom of 3L, which was the upstairs clone of mine, while an apparently rotating roster of drifters lived in front. I found myself tramping upstairs to knock on their door around 11 pm or midnight pretty regularly after our initial fire-escape chats, and each time a different sleep-deprived twentysomething answered and promised to ask FEC to stop playing guitar/hurling expletives at his girlfriend/using a long-throw projector to beam YouTube videos of live performances by the 90s alt band Dispatch onto the exterior wall of the building on the other side of our yard.
One day I was working at the desk in my bedroom when I heard the early rumblings of an argument and raised my antennae; the first thing I got was: “How am I supposed to be a fucking rockstar, if I have to go back to working at Chipotle?!”
Once or twice I heard him crying, or to be exact, talking tearfully on the phone to someone about how he’d been crying a lot lately.
I didn’t know what to do with the pity this awoke in me, as his behavior slid from ugly to hideous. I was by now commuting daily into Manhattan for work, which meant I’d be escaping all but the nocturnal transmissions from 3L, and hopefully taking a step toward peace of mind. But another change was happening around this time: the night scenes were turning scary. I never thought I’d miss FEC’s grating chortle, but when the long, day-drunk jam session flopped over into a dark night of punched walls, slammed doors, and screaming, I did get a skosh nostalgic for the party days. There was a night where I heard their bedroom door click shut before he shouted, “Bitch, I dare you to come back in this bedroom before you lose ten pounds!” And between his outbursts, there was only static: I never heard his girlfriend's voice at all.
Around 4 am one morning, I woke up terrified: I could hear him bellowing and banging around not in his apartment, but seemingly out on the second-floor landing, with nothing but some drywall and a deadbolt between us. From the sound of it, he then crashed up the stairs and started slamming his weight against his own apartment door: “When I say open the fucking door I mean open the God. Damn. Door!” Some brave soul did let him in eventually, but once inside, he didn’t stop thrashing until the sound of shattering glass gave way to eerie silence.
The neighbors get a pet
Just when I thought it couldn’t get worse, they got a dog: a pit-bull mix that I never stopped feeling sorry for, even as I grew to resent it bitterly.
No hour was too early or too late for it to suddenly go nuts: yelping, scratching, and launching itself against the sides of the big wire cage that they locked it in most of the day, regardless of whether they were in the apartment or out. Now, whenever the humans were home, they bickered, fucked, or laughed raunchily at jokes I couldn’t hear; and when they were gone, the puppy freaked out until it exhausted itself to sleep. I tried staying out, inventing reasons to stay up late, afraid of the first noise from the room upstairs, and the brain-stab of angry adrenaline that would keep my neurons crackling until dawn.
As weeks went by, I got used to waking up cranky and desperate from whatever nightmare-poisoned demi-doze I’d managed that night, and sleeping in, when possible, to curb my nerves. If there was a consistent eye to this hellstorm, it was the early daylight hours between 6 am and 9 am. So I started making excuses to arrive at work an hour or two late when I could get away with it, in hopes of scraping together enough rest to function.
What could I do? I’d called and emailed the building management company a few times to complain, but so far they’d always politely deflected me. They said they were aware of and addressing the issue, but I hadn’t seen anything to indicate that was the case. When 3L cranked the music late at night, or I heard them fighting loudly, I'd use the 311 app on my phone to file a report. Once I dialed the number the old-fashioned way; I’ll never forget the saintly patience of the operator on the other end, who promised that help was on the way. But still nothing happened. And the hurricane upstairs raged on.
I was ready to throw in the towel, to give up on the idea of living in this building in Brooklyn, or any city, or any place where homes for the middle class are nothing but loosely stacked sheetrock shoeboxes, and sleep is an entitlement the successful have learned to do without. Mainly, I was done with neighbors forever.
The rest of the building teams up
Imagine my surprise, then, when a neighbor saved me. I was up late, reading to pretend that I was up late by choice. The dog had been whining without a break for almost an hour, and the couple was clearly not home—if they had been, I would have heard them yelling at the dog over the barking.
My phone rang out with an incoming text: "Are. You. Hearing. This???" It was E, the girl in 3R, whom I’d met the day I moved in, but hadn’t seen since. "OMFG right?!!!!" I wrote back, cementing our alliance. Over the next few weeks, we ran theories past each other, exploring possible explanations behind new sounds; we looped each other into emails to the landlord, for corroboration; we had each other’s texts for company late at night, when the dog was throwing itself against the bars of its cage, and took bets on how long before it passed out.
As soon as we started chatting, I was amazed I hadn’t thought of reaching out to E myself. I’d had her number all along, but until now had somehow accepted my total isolation on blind faith. Looking back, I wonder how the situation could have played out differently if I hadn’t been so hasty to cocoon myself in misanthropy. Maybe I could have found strength in numbers sooner and spared myself a week or two of lonely suffering, if only I hadn’t let one bad-apple neighbor spoil the bunch.
E impressed me on another level too: For weeks already, she had been running a full-scale attack, using all the resources she could think of to get rid of 3L, and evidently immune to the fits of guilt and hesitation that plagued me. She inspired me to up my game with building management. I began using my phone to record the dog’s and FEC’s noise, then bundling up the files and emailing them off as attachments to rambling accounts and spreadsheet inventories of the latest notable disturbances. I still have a file called “Loud Neighbor” in my Google Drive; in it, the spreadsheet called “DOG” has a column for Date, Start Time, End Time, and Notes.
The pedantry makes me cringe now, but if nothing else it had therapeutic value in the moment, like tally marks on the walls of a prison cell. In the practical sense, I’m still not sure what I was trying to accomplish (and felt that I was acting manic), but I had a vague idea that eviction was a legal process, and that lawyers need hard evidence to build a case.
That is to say, by this time I had embraced the idea that I was not only okay with getting these people evicted; I would pour all my insomniac energy into fighting for that outcome at all costs.
I don’t know what did the trick, but toward the end of June, management apparently started sending their guys around to intimidate 3L. I know this because I witnessed a series of bellicose confrontations on the third floor landing where FEC would cuss someone out for upwards of 20 minutes on end. I still have some of these moments saved as voice recordings on my phone, and listened to them in writing this story. With only snippets of audio and peephole glimpses of black-clad figures sweeping past my landing for evidence, it’s hard to say exactly what happened in these stand-offs, but E eye-witnessed a few of them and described the group that showed up at 3L’s door as no less than a “posse.”
I have no idea who they are, but I have a strong hunch that FEC’s fuck-peppered tirades against whomever was stopping by his apartment during this period sealed his fate as far as our landlord was concerned.
Plus, after E and I added animal abuse complaints to our 311 campaign, the actual NYPD began showing up. FEC found the most creative ways to evade them, suggesting prior experience. Usually he just hid out in his room, refusing to answer the door, uncharacteristically silent. But there was one time E found him standing on the fire escape at her window and tapping on the glass. He called to her inside, explaining that he needed to go through her apartment to escape the cops, and could she please remove her window A/C unit so he could crawl through? If her boyfriend hadn’t been there with her, she would have certainly called 911. And maybe the whole thing could have ended then and there. Instead, after being refused entry, FEC climbed up onto the roof to lay low until 5-0 cleared out.
One July morning, I got a text from E while I was at work. It was a photo looking out her front window onto the street, where FEC and his girlfriend were standing next to a small U-Haul truck, facing each other with their arms spread-eagled in argument stance. E and I opened a bottle of champagne that night.
After 3L got kicked out, I felt a lot of feelings. At first, I was happy but still mad. Exhausted, too. In the last days, when they were fighting it out with the landlord’s people, they had been worse than ever: stomping on purpose, bouncing a rubber dog-ball back and forth across the hardwood floor above my living room for hours, blasting 90s rock all afternoon, a weeks-long eviction party. I was also scared of some future revenge scheme. What if FEC showed up on the fire escape again one night, for old times’ sake, but this time with a crowbar? I had looked forward to a giddy victory glow, but instead I was traumatized and sad. Now that they weren’t ruining my life anymore, I mostly felt sorry for them.
So I was already on a hair trigger when the flies showed up. Big, dark ones; healthy and sleek. “They’re coming from upstairs,” said the lady from the management office who answered my complaint. But how could this be? Were FEC and his girlfriend still in hiding up there, with muzzled dog and broken dreams, hoarding filth? “No, they’re gone. But there’s a lot of ... cleanup left to do.” She was polite, but wouldn’t say more.
That evening, curiosity drew me upstairs to ring 3L’s bell. The first thing I noticed when a friendly, tall kid opened the door was the smell: Decidedly fecal. On a futon by the door sat a middle-aged woman in a tank top and elbow-length rubber gloves, dabbing at her forehead with a folded paper towel. “This is my mom,” he said. “She’s helping me with the deep scrubbing.” The kid introduced himself as R, and told me he’d been living in one of the front rooms when FEC moved in; R was usually out of town for work, but even so, the stench and mayhem finally forced him home to Jersey City for a spell. When he got wind of the eviction, he tiptoed back, expecting the unspeakable. Still, the depth of the squalor had shocked him. It shocked me, too: the scene in front of me trumped anything my mind’s eye had conjured. With a sweep of his hand, R indicated gaping wounds in the walls, doors drooping on smashed hinges, and the moonscape of a six-month-old hardwood floor pitted and grooved with abuse. Everywhere I could see, the floor showed a dense polka-dot pattern of dark brown stains. “The dog shit took hours to bag up,” he said, “and we’ve been bleaching all day. This is as clean as it’s gonna get.”
To fill my stunned silence, he added, “Sorry about all the flies.”
“Hey, it’s not your fault,” I said, “neighbor.”
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