For 11 years, I have stared out my front windows at the most mysterious mansion in New York: 124 East 80th Street, until April 11 the home of Mohammed Al-Douri, the now-ousted Iraqi ambassador to the U.N. These days, the block trembles with reverberations of that historic eviction. People are still talking about the Last Days of Al-Douri, how he threw a hissy fit and wouldn’t accept his subpoena, then fled crying “I love New York!” while admitting that “the game is over.” War raged across both sides of 80th Street. As Mr. Al-Douri fumbled to unlock his town car’s door, one mansion-owner leaned out of his window and screamed “We don’t want you here!”, while across the way, a building superintendent barked: “They never bothered us!”
Everyone is responding in character-even me. Caught in the suspense, I wonder: Am I too suggestible? Why does a light burn late at night when the house is said to be uninhabited? Who is the short, bald man who drives the maroon Ford Expedition with diplomatic plates? And what went on behind that stained brick façade all these years? Dinner parties, or discussion of weapons of mass destruction? Why did they throw out that armchair and the taped bundle of almost comically huge knives? And why did I feel compelled to collect them in the lunar glow of the street lamps? Was it the former Bronx urchin in me that couldn’t overlook something serviceable left on the street, or did the journalist in me understand that the hot seat and cutlery might become significant ? I have the chair in my possession-it’s ugly but solid, with an unremovable stain-and the knives, too. (They need sharpening.)
East Side Gothic is the mood on the block now: Humpbacked rats, bigger than cats, emerge from behind the townhouse. The remaining neighbors buzz and peer through their windows. Where is the life-sized portrait of Saddam that sulked back at us for so many years? The Hussein visage, so prominent that I could see it from the street, seems to have vanished along with Mr. Al-Douri. And while some 80th Street residents mutter that their neighbor might have had poisonous gas, most of Mr. Al-Douri’s former blockmates seem more preoccupied with disputing the news descriptions of the house as “posh.”
“Posh?” asked Mario Buatta, the “Prince of Chintz,” who “shared a wall” with the mansion. “There was no décor at all,” Mr. Buatta said. “Sad, very sad. The Iraqis did not do a thing inside. It’s in sad shape-has been since they got in ’77. The house could have been beautiful; it was beautiful before they bought it. These are historic houses-Astor had them for his friends. There was a beautiful communal garden.”
Did the Iraqi presence, so close by, unnerve the famous interior designer? Did Mario mind being a brick-and-plaster partition away from a nation accused of hiding weapons of mass destruction and maybe collaborating with Al Qaeda, too?
“No, no, they were very quiet,” the amiable Mr. Buatta reflected last week, “except for all the tapping at 1 and 2 a.m. That kept me up, the tapping. What were they doing-making a tunnel?”
“Posh?” repeated the mansion’s other next-door neighbor, Mary Beth Tully, the manager of the Junior League. “Please. It’s the worst-looking townhouse on the block. These were ‘the four super townhouses,’ landmarks, but the Iraqis let theirs go.”
Not so super, then, is No. 124. Oh, it has five and a half stories and gracious lines, but it looks like the sallow stepsister of the stars on either side. At the Junior League on its east flank, chandeliers glow. “We always look like candlelight,” said Ms. Tully. What bothers her most is the Iraqis’ garden, “decorated with propane tanks.”
“Big ones?” I asked, imagining some fearsome incendiary device.
“No, the kind you use for barbecues.”
Even when inhabited, the house seemed deserted. I would note the occasional motion-a servant’s hand reaching out to accept a package. Occasionally, a family-Mr. Al-Douri’s?-would arrive for a visit. Bags would be pulled into the foyer; the diplomatic cars would appear and disappear. Very little light shone from within. The upper windows remained dark, shuttered most of the time.
At first, I was simply curious. Later, I began to appreciate the availability of parking places, as some block residents feared an explosion and parked elsewhere. In the last half of the 90’s, my interest grew as an atmosphere of international intrigue descended on East 80th Street. Fidel Castro suddenly appeared on the block one night-hustled through, hidden in a Jeep Cherokee. He visited the house two doors away from the Iraqis. While the Secret Service cleared the block, whisking cars off to the never-never land on the docks, police ordered residents, “Don’t go near your windows.” Entering my building, I was questioned: “Which window are you?” I told them, and the officer said, “Stay back.” But even standing a few feet back in my dining room, I could watch from my window as Mr. Castro put away a good dinner and sloshed down a ruby red wine.
I never did decipher who it was that hosted Fidel, and if he was in some way connected to our Iraqi neighbors. The host’s house was said to be rented at the time, for $43,000 a month, and whoever lived there then threw all-male parties, for men I imagined to be C.I.A. operatives. It looked like that kind of party, anyway-too serious to be gay. Bulky jackets. No Armani.
The best sources for Iraqi-spotting were my doormen, who were mostly Albanians. They would become excited when Mr. Al-Douri was in town, and even more so when Tariq Aziz visited. “He’s here!” they’d say. “They had to stop opening the Park garage till he passed!” As an unmarried woman who tended to return home late at night from the theater, I found the presence of police, Secret Service and unmarked cars a security boon.
My interest intensified, of course, with the deteriorating situation over Iraq. After 9/11, a creeping suspicion of all connections in the Arab world made the curious turn ominous. That fall, I watched the only gala I ever observed held at No. 124 with disbelief-what were they, who had remained so hidden, suddenly celebrating?
Of course, I was a writer working on a novel, Dreams of Rescue , that features a mysterious neighbor who signals from his window in the wee hours … so perhaps it was my imagination. Some nights, a shadowed figure seemed to stare back from behind the tattletale gray window veils. What if they were watching me watching them? Many nights in a row, my phone rang at 3 a.m. Collect calls from Saudi Arabia. I refused the charges.
Proximity to the Iraqi house provoked subplots. On Sept. 14, 2001, while the city moved in somnambulant horror after the attack, I drifted, trance-like, to resume copying my manuscript at the Kinko’s two blocks away. If the Iraqis had not been my neighbors, would I have been so startled to see the trash beside the copier piled high with torn papers scrawled in Arabic? I reported the huge amount of ripped Arabic material to the staff (the Kinkons, as I think of them), who, three days after the terror attacks-and one day before it was reported that the terrorists had used out-of-state Kinko’s to conduct their business-were unconcerned. I insisted the police be summoned to collect the Arabic papers. No sooner was this done than I spotted a sealed FedEx overnight letter left on the counter. Had my comings and goings with the police frightened someone into bolting and leaving behind the evidence?
Strange, I thought. I noted an Arabic name as the addressee. But it was the alleged sender that truly threw me-Kofi Annan. Surely, three days after the World Trade Center collapsed, the head of the U.N. was not doing his own mailing at Kinko’s? I read the rest of the address-the Moroccan consulate. My mind went into a le Carré whirl. The men who had assassinated Ahmed Shah Massoud in Afghanistan only two days before the Sept. 11 attacks had carried Belgian papers and claimed to be Moroccan. Connected? Maybe. I phoned the police and told them to return. Two officers collected the FedEx; a few days later, a man who identified himself as an F.B.I. agent called me at home as I cooked pasta and said, “The envelope you found has been entered into evidence for a task force investigating the destruction of the towers.”
I spoke with a friend who said that someone using copying machines for illicit purposes would not use a machine in a private building, where information could be retrieved. The closest public copy center to the Iraqi house? My Kinko’s.
A paranoid leap, or a neighbor’s intuition? I will never know. There remain the Iraqis’ good-neighbor deeds of recent months. Two bodyguards shoveled out my Subaru, impacted in six feet of snow on Presidents’ Day. Our eyes met over the white-domed car. If there could be peace on 80th Street, why not the world? Even today, the mystery servant who remains in the mansion is known to offer the ultimate street courtesy: “He saved me his parking place,” my doorman told me. “Not just gave it to me, but waited ….”
And so I watch at my window as No. 124 sits, sullen and stained, a rusted TV antenna listing beside a black mesh “dish” on the roof. A vent fan swivels, its metal head rotating atop the otherwise still building. White cables dangle like severed bonds. The windows remain shuttered or veiled with those soiled see-throughs. The Iraqi house sulks, its frontal brass hospitality pineapple posts tarnished, the black enamel door shut.
This dour post–Al-Douri décor is in direct contrast to the springtime gaiety of 80th Street between Lexington and Park. The tulips, bright yellow and red, nod their double-blossomed heads, as if in affirmation of our new, uneasy peace, our undeclared victory.
Meanwhile, the street value of the house is debated. “If that’s worth $18 million,” cried Ms. Tully, “what is the Junior League worth?” It must be under $10 million, holds the consensus, as the townhouse opposite squats, for that price, on the market. But the Iraqi house is not for sale. Whoever is governing Iraq has the right to occupy it. The neighbors hope, in true Upper East Side style, that whatever else happens, redecoration-or even restoration-is in the future.
Laura Shaine Cunningham is the author of seven books, most recently Dreams of Rescue (Atria Books). She is also a playwright and journalist.