Meeting the Neighbors
I moved into my first apartment in New York City almost a year-and-a-half ago. After a hellish process that saw my roommates and I back out of a unit in the middle of a lease signing, we finally agreed upon an apartment in the East Village that suited our needs (within a 15-minute walk to Washington Square Park, fairly affordable, and containing three full bedrooms, which meant no temporary wall building, or bookshelf buying).
It was on the ground floor, which, for me, was icing on the cake. After sleeping on friends’ couches during the apartment hunt, I was relieved to finally call an apartment “mine”—no more living out of a suitcase, no more deceptive brokers, and most importantly, no more over-the-phone yelling matches with my parents about why I hadn’t started looking for housing sooner.
After we signed the papers, my roommates decided to hunker down one last night at their friends’ apartments, which gave me the new digs all to my own. I embraced the minimalism of the untouched space—not yet neglected and overlooked by three college students masquerading as overgrown children. It was just me, my duffle bag stuffed with rumpled clothing (much to my Jewish mother’s chagrin), and a brand new mattress that I refused to put sheets on.
That first night, the apartment was serenely empty and silent. I expected a peaceful drift into a delightful, relieving slumber in my brand new home.
I wanted to soak up the totality of the experience before I let darkness invade my glistening new domain so I kept the lights on while I lowered myself onto the mattress’s never-ending foam layers. That’s when it started.
“Who the fuck is that?” came the voice. “Why is there a light on down there? No one has lived there for months. Who the hell are you?”
They were screams—high-pitched and maniacal—and I had no clue where they were coming from. I could tell though that they came from a woman. She sounded disturbed and elderly, and she was only getting started.
“Hijo de puto—vete a la mierde,” she hissed next, essentially calling me a son of a bitch, and telling me to go fuck myself in Spanish, which I knew from having just spent a semester abroad in Madrid, where, during soccer games, I shouted many of these same proclamations at Barcelona soccer players in order to endear myself to the Madrileños.
Now, however, these statements were darting at me from what appeared to be a deranged bilingual woman.
My initial reaction was astonishment. I wasn’t quite sure what to do. Was this why the apartment was so cheap? Had the landlord been forced to lower their asking price because of the unstable woman living upstairs?
As I sat on my barren mattress—not yet concerned but utterly bewildered—the screams quickly escalated from inquiries and bilingual vulgarity to actual death threats.
“WHO THE FUCK ARE YOU?” the voice yelled shrilly. “If you don’t turn that light off, I’m going to come downstairs and KILL you.”
This is when I became scared shitless. I sprinted for the door, latched both locks, and scrambled to find something sharp that I could use as a weapon in case a psychotic elderly woman stumbled into my apartment with a meat cleaver. I’m nearly 200 pounds, but faced with the threat of a senile old woman, I took every precaution available.
Because I had just moved in, however, no weapon of self-preservation was to be found. My best weapon turned out to be the two-inch nail cleaner attached to my nail clipper, which I figured, if it came down to it, could serve as a makeshift shank. I felt like a character in a cheap horror movie—the defenseless newcomer fending off the psychotic elderly woman with a nail-cleaning device.
To exacerbate my terror, the voice upstairs began to describe just how she planned to dispose of me.
“I’m going to come down there and fucking STAB you,” she screeched. “I want you and them all DEAD. ”
The collective noun she used took me by surprise. Who was the “them all” she was referring to? What group was I suddenly apart of? Was I going to be slaughtered because she lumped me into a group I had no knowledge of joining?
Her screams and threats were then met in equal uproar by her stomps on the ceiling above.
“BOMP, BOMP, BOMP,” went the sound of her feet against the floor above, as she actually mimicked the noise with her own yells of “BOMP, BOMP, BOMP.” This would have been comical if I weren’t about to piss myself.
Her de facto Stomp performance, however, gave me my first clue. Looking out the window, I couldn’t decipher where she lived. My window overlooked an alleyway leading to the back of the window, aligned by various side windows, too numerous and elevated to pinpoint the location of the screams.
When she stomped, however, I immediately picked up that she lived directly above me. Instead of playing Junior G-Man though, I decided it might be time to call the police.
I’d never called the police before. I grew up in a sheltered home in what used to be the safest city in America. I’d barely ever spoken to a cop. I didn’t even know what number to call—surely not 911. Despite the severity of the threats, I still wasn’t sure whether this warranted a Code Orange terror threat. I didn’t want to be the laughing stock of the precinct.
The cries were growing more shrilled, the threats more macabre, and I finally reached for my cell phone.
Just as I grabbed the phone though, I heard the front door of the building open.
“Perfect,” I thought. “Maybe this person will know what the fuck is going on in this homicidal loony bin I just moved into.”
I unfastened what seemed like 16 locks and peered my head out the door at a demure looking older woman. As she approached, I whispered and gestured upstairs.
“What is going on over there?,” I asked. “I just moved in here and this woman has threatened to kill me multiple times. I’m truly scared for my life.”
She looked back at me blankly, almost with a “so what” disposition, as if she was unmoved by my plea.
“Maria?” she asked (Note: Maria is not her real name). “Oh, don’t worry about her. She’s just an old lady who’s going through a rough time with her health. She has a drinking problem; she must be drinking again. She’s harmless though, actually a very nice woman.”
“Harmless?” I thought. “This woman just threatened to plunge a knife into me!” It couldn’t be true.
“Well, I don’t know what to do if she threatens me again,” I told the woman. “I’d like to call the police. You can’t just threaten to kill someone and get away with it.”
“Oh, please, don’t, “she said, surprised that I even suggested it. “I’ll go up there and calm her down. She’ll stop. We’ve both lived here for over 25 years. She listens to me.”
At this, the woman walked upstairs and I tried to follow her with my eyes but the staircase blocked my view.
All I heard was, “Hey, Maria, you gotta calm down. You’re disturbing the new neighbor downstairs.”
Then, shockingly, instead of ranting and raving in the demonic pitch she delivered her death threats in, Maria calmly and softly said, “Okay.”
That night, the screaming stopped and so did the death threats. But I’ve lived in the same apartment for almost a-year-and-a-half (you can’t beat the rent, or the space) and for the first year, Maria, without relent, hollered every night in English and Spanish. She’s a frail woman in her mid-60s who has the mouth of a South Boston bricklayer. I can’t imagine my grandmother calling someone a “fucking whore,” but after living below Maria, I believe anything to be possible now.
In addition to the incantations and swearing, Maria also delivers labored diatribes about East Village gentrification. She’s lived here for almost thirty years, she says, and nobody is going to “kick her out.” I believe she is originally from Puerto Rico and used to teach high school in New York City. One neighbor told me she was a wonderful, kind teacher.
One of her favorite talking points is how nobody speaks two languages these days. In between the alcohol induced death threats and incessant stomping, Maria has managed to raise a great point.
Eli Epstein is a recent graduate of NYU and a freelance writer in New York City. His work has appeared online at The Atlantic, Fortune, and Esquire. Among other things, he enjoys cereal, Alice in Chains, and corgis. He’s a sworn Bostonian. Photo: Caitlinator