Living Next To

What it's like to live next door to a NYC firehouse

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What are the most useful neighbors you can possibly have in New York City? In Alyssa Haak’s case, the answer is: firefighters. When Haak lived in Washington Heights, the men next door from FDNY Engine 84 not only once fed her a huge meal, but they helped her put together furniture, taught her neighborhood history and even helped put a stop to a perpetually leaking bathroom ceiling. But as cool as they were, they couldn’t counteract life with a crappy landlord who allowed bugs to run rampant and the heat to break down.

I moved to a one-bedroom apartment on 161st Street in 2012 for which I paid $1,250 a month and only stayed about a year and a half, because it turned out to be a shithole. It was the apartment from hell, although the firehouse had nothing to do with it. 

I didn’t realize how bad it was when I first moved in; I thought it was very pretty. It was a prewar apartment with three closets, and had a very large bedroom that could fit a queen-size bed, a desk and a big IKEA bookshelf. There was a separate kitchen, hardwood floors, crown molding, and all those nice architectural details. 

But none of this would matter later on, when everything seemed to fall apart.

Meeting the neighbors

The first time I met the firemen, I was walking by the firehouse and two them were standing out front in their dress uniforms. I gave them a head nod because it looked like they were having a very serious conversation. And they gave me some attitude like, "Oh you're not going say hello?" or something like that and I responded, "You were talking, who interrupts people when they’re talking?" 

It turned out they'd just been to a funeral and they invited me in to eat. They made me a plate of food, but it was the same size plate a firefighter would eat, with chicken parm, two sausages and a full serving of spaghetti, way more than I usually I eat in one sitting. I had no idea what to do with so much food.

Then the fire alarm went off. Everyone in the room, except the guys in dress blues, ran out to the call. But just before they left, they put a plastic lid over their dishes of food, like what you would use to avoid splatter in the microwave, and then took off running.

And they said to me, "If you need anything, just let us know."

Soon after, I got an IKEA bookshelf and I tried to put it together by myself but I could not get the top piece on, so I took them up on that offer. And they actually came over and finished the bookshelf. You can't get that top piece on with just one person, let me tell you, it’s impossible. 

Another time they were standing outside and talking about the neighborhood, telling some tales that may or may not be true. They said there was a drug dealer on a nearby corner of 161st Street who decided to retire, and he sold the rights to the corner for a million dollars so next person could work there without competition. 

They said back in the day, there used to be such a bad rat population in the neighborhood that they couldn't keep the doors open or the firehouse would get overrun with rats. 

The firefighters were very nice, very friendly gentlemen. I don't think I ever saw a female firefighter.

I never actually heard sirens either. Living half a block away would have been louder, because they turned the sirens on when they pulled out and starting to move, rather than right outside the door. My apartment was rear facing, so I wasn't as worried, but I was pleasantly surprised.

And since it was rear facing, I had a view of an empty lot behind the building. On the day I moved in, I bought food and pizza for my friends who helped me move. I went to my room to get something and I got really excited because I saw chickens in the backyard. Everyone was convinced I was drunk, but there really were chickens out there. Chickens that slowly disappeared, one by one, so I’m pretty sure they were being eaten. 

Trouble upstairs

As far as the trouble with the apartment, which was on the third floor: There were cockroaches, bed bugs, the heat malfunctioned and the bathroom ceiling leaked, to name just a few things. 

When the bathroom ceiling first started dripping, I could manage with a bucket catching the water, but the water was coming from the light fixture, so I couldn’t use the bathroom light. Eventually the super came over and ripped up the ceiling. He said the leak was actually coming from the fifth floor, through the fourth floor apartment.

But the super left the ceiling ripped up and the water continued to spray all over the bathroom. For about a week, I had to pee while holding an umbrella over my head. 

I was pretty sure the woman who lived in the fifth floor apartment where the leak originated had been a tenant forever and the landlord was trying to push her out, so she wasn't letting anyone in to do repairs. They finally had to call the very nice fire department guys next door to come through my apartment, and go up the fire escape and break through her window so the leak could be fixed, even though she was sitting at home. I don't know how she reacted to that, but probably not well.

The firemen were the same ones who helped me with the IKEA shelf, but I didn't recognize them in full gear, with hats and picks. They came in and said, "Oh hey, yeah, we've been here before. Good to see you again! How's it going?" 

The woman on the fifth floor had a vibrating bed, usually you could hear it making noise between 9 p.m. and 11 p.m. One time my boyfriend was sleeping over and he woke me up at 3 a.m., asking, "What's happening?" It sounded like there was a jet engine taking off. I said, "It will stop," but it wasn’t stopping.

So I went upstairs and pounded on her door. She opened it, but just a little. I'm 90 percent sure she was naked. 

I said, "Turn off your bed!" 

"You could ask nicely,” she said. 

"It's three in the morning, I don't ask nicely when I get woken up by a vibrating bed at three in the morning!"

Time to go

After the second bedbug infestation I decided to move. It was far too cold to live there and the bedbugs were the last straw. I tried putting my rent in escrow for every day I didn't have heat. And I had hired an exterminator, so I subtracted the cost and I sent a bill with my rent explaining why I paid less. 

I broke the lease and told the landlord, "Just keep my security deposit, I'm moving out, this is my one month's notice."

They never fought me on any of it. It was time to go. Ultimately, it was a learning experience on dealing with a shitty landlord.