Afterthoughts: At Close Range

The cast of characters is half the fun of apartment living.

Photo: Linny Morris

My whole adult life has been spent living in apartments. Right now, I’m in a building dating from 1964, designed by the same architect, Minoru Yamasaki, who created the World Trade Center. While I sometimes pine for more elbow room, there are distinct advantages to apartment dwelling. I don’t worry about the status of my roof or spend Saturday afternoons at Home Depot picking out driveway sealer. And our old, concrete building has super-thick walls, so I rarely hear my neighbors unless I’m in our breezy hallway.

Actually, having other people in close proximity is, to me, one of the most rewarding and engaging parts of apartment-hood. It’s never lonely. There’s always someone home, baking something yummy, or playing the piano. When I’m lucky, I’ll catch Alan down the hall performing a concerto, but even when he’s just practicing scales, it’s a happy, proficient sound. Or the sweet lady across the hall. Her sisters live in the building, too, and they always seem to be having a riotously good time. I like to think of them as the three singing siblings in the French film The Triplets of Belleville.

Of course, having close neighbors can be challenging, as well. Sometimes the cooking smell isn’t so yummy, but a mysterious, salmon-skin odor. I don’t know who’s eating it for dinner, but the fishy fumes are so vile, it takes fans blowing and incense to keep me from leaping off my la-nai in pursuit of clean air.

Illustration: Jing JING Tsong

Or Mr. M. He and I couldn’t be more different. He’s elderly, Japanese and has some strong opinions that can clash with my New York feminist sensibilities. At first, he’d always ask me—dressed for the office and leaving at 8:45 a.m.—if I was off to “go shopping.” Then came inquiries about my husband’s job. Brett works from home, and, while I tried to convey that he’s a director and writer, Mr. M. decided Brett was obviously … a telemarketer. He then asked me repeatedly when I was having children, and when I demurred, “Oh, not yet,” told me that I could adopt if I couldn’t HAVE BABY, while gesturing vigorously with both hands near his crotch. Wow!

It got to the point that I cringed whenever I’d see his door open, inevitably just as I was passing by.

Then a funny thing happened. I saw this as an opportunity to practice compassion. It’s not his intention to insult me. He’s just making small talk, in his own way, based on his culture and era. And if you told him he was offending me, he’d probably be horrified—few of us really want to be on bad terms with our neighbors. So I concentrate hard on the idea of intent, and suddenly, his good qualities—he volunteers at his church, swims every day and is certainly very friendly—come into focus. 

Thank goodness I’ve gotten to practice with Mr. M., as I have a new neighbor. One with four legs, a yappy bark and an incessant need for—well, I don’t know what, but the little guy obviously wants something. Listening to the dog yap! yap! yapping! from 4 to 5 a.m., the same hour it’s been barking at for three mornings in a row, I reasoned, Boy, am I going to get to practice some compassion.

It’s probably a new puppy, I thought. It’s not barking to annoy me or wake me up, but to annoy and wake up its owner. Wait, no, compassion … Okay, it’s barking because it doesn’t feel safe. It’s probably scared and lonely. And, lo, my urge to find the dog and hurl it off a ledge subsides.

Compassion may be the secret to living closely with others. That, and a good pair of earplugs.