Afterthoughts: Neighbors and Strangers

You don’t get to choose them, but you have to live with them.

Illustration: Daniel Fishel

As I write this, there’s a loud, intermittent chirp echoing through my McCully block. It’s been going on for three or four days now, at an interval of 35.4 seconds (I timed it with my phone’s stopwatch). The high-pitched noise is spaced out just long enough that you can almost forget about it, and then … chirp! I was content to leave it a mystery for a while, but the chirps wouldn’t stop, so I finally ventured out last night to track down the culprit.

I didn’t have to look long; the chirp was coming from the apartment right next door to me. My neighbor, an older, single woman, moved out last week, and now no one is around to unplug whatever it is that’s beeping (a smoke detector low on batteries, I’m guessing).

It occurred to me that, in the more than a year that she’d lived next to me, this chirping is the biggest impact the woman had on my life. We shared a wall, sometimes passed each other on the stairs, but otherwise we were strangers. I was happy about it, honestly. I love living in the middle of a city of a million, tightly packed people, but I also love pretending—while I’m in my neighborhood, at least—that I’m the only human being for miles.

My neighbor was an obliging non-presence, which was a huge improvement over the guy she replaced. He lived in that next-door apartment for more than two years, a span of time that seemed like an eternity, because he actively disliked me.

Weird, right? Who wouldn’t like me? This guy, for one. He lived alone, and was a paranoid maniac who more than once accused me of messing with his crappy Pontiac (our parking spaces were also adjacent and, for the record, no, I didn’t). He would glare at me in the hallway, drop disparaging remarks about me to friends stopping by to visit me and generally make it clear that he’d be happier if I dropped dead. I’m not sure what I did to earn the man’s hate, but living next to him felt like some kind of domestic Cold War. When he moved out, finally, I lifted a triumphant glass in celebration of outlasting him.

The neighbor before Mr. Paranoid, I remember mostly for the loud, early-morning sex marathons she would have with her boyfriend on the other side of my bedroom wall. Enthusiastic, athletic, frequent—I had to grudgingly give her love life 9 out of 10 stars. We never did much more than wave hello when passing on the stairs, but the stuff I overheard, lying sleepless in my bed, gave me an odd sense that I knew her a lot better than that.

My favorite neighbor was the guy who was living in the next-door apartment when I moved in. He was an old retiree, must have been in his 80s. We didn’t talk much, stuff about the weather at most, but he always seemed happy to see me. I changed a flat tire for him, once, when I saw him having trouble with the car jack. I would see him at Zippy’s on weekend mornings, drinking coffee and talking story with his buddies, and give him a wave. He lived by himself, but had a cute girlfriend, also in her 80s, who would come visit him sometimes.

And then, one day, she came knocking on my door—they were scheduled to go on a date that evening, she said, but he wasn’t answering the door, or his phone. Had I seen him? Did I know the landlord’s number? It turned out my neighbor had died in his sleep. The rest of the evening was noisy. Police and ambulance sirens, relatives arriving and crying, gawkers milling around outside. It was more fuss than the guy had ever made while living there. And when it got quiet again, after all his stuff was moved out and the apartment stood empty—I found myself really missing this neighbor.

I’m not sure who my next neighbor is going to be, but I sure hope they turn off that damn chirp.