Some weeks ago, my top-floor neighbors taped a map onto the rooftop door of the Avenue B apartment building where I live. “Please do not intrude on our private space,” it warns us lower-floor dwellers, cheerfully illustrating the territorial claims in pink and blue. The map’s bizarre and arbitrary borders seemed drawn by 19th-century diplomats, or perhaps by a deranged kindergartener with an eight-pack of Crayolas, not by our previously unremarkable neighbors. It was a cartographical declaration of war.
I was going topside to show a guest our incredible rooftop panorama, from the Seagram Building to Williamsburg Bridge, when I first spotted the map. To my right, where taking a few steps would normally reveal the skyline, flower-planter boxes blocked our path. Now only the occupants of the two top-floor apartments, with their private entrances, could enjoy the full rooftop without feeling like they were unlawful combatants.
Our neighbors were in the midst of a party, and seated in a patio chair in the Pink Zone (or was it the Blue?) was one of them, smiling sheepishly at me. Let’s call him Slobodan. Slobo, his girlfriend and the other top-floor couple had imposed their statecraft onto what had been, for the rest of us, a free city, enjoyed by all, claimed by none. He watched me carefully, waiting to see if I’d cross his begonia-studded Maginot Line.
Feeling humiliation at the sudden ejection from Eden, I checked the disputed map again, noticing the gray box they’d labeled the “common area,” hoping I had overlooked some vista that I already knew wasn’t there. But this no man’s land was walled off on three sides, with nary a skyscraper in sight.
My friend turned and looked into the useless dark space, old graffiti replacing skyscrapers. Still stunned at the unilateral action, we beat a hasty, silent retreat from the battlefield.
It recently became clear to me that the chess pieces were being moved into place for some time. On spring afternoons, my girlfriend and I often shared drinks on the then-barren roof, taking in the early setting sun and appreciating our good fortune at being able to escape up there whenever we pleased.
One day , two fancy deckchairs had greeted us. “How nice,” Wendy commented, both of us unaware that the chairs were really the first pieces of artillery on the field. On successive days, a grill rolled in, then a second grill, then two tables, filling in the east and west sides of the roof.
I suddenly understood the feeling of being surrounded on all sides by heavy armament. As spring heated into summer, in came Patio Corps reinforcements: Astroturf carpets, strings of lights and the aforementioned planters, heavy with dirt and flora, like field works to push back invasions. Our roof had officially been Balkanized. We wondered when the checkpoint barricades, surely on order, would arrive.
The maneuverings were a textbook military operation, if the military shopped at Pottery Barn. I began to wonder whether the map hadn’t been drawn up months ago, a secret top-floor friendship alliance, drafted over takeout and Beaujolais in one of their apartments, right above our unsuspecting heads.
If the map meant war, Independence Day had been, in retrospect, the opening salvo. On our roof, waiting for Macy’s fireworks, we mingled with the enemy and their laconic friends. As my girlfriend remarked on the new décor, diplomatically ignoring its tactical implications, Slobo’s girlfriend, drunk on power and cheap beer, sashayed over and let us know that our presence was being tolerated, just barely.
“You know, this is actually our space, but we let people up here. We pay more, you know. Ohhhh, do we pay more.”
Nouveau-luxe building or not, the landlord hasn’t exactly come to our rescue. “We’ll have to check the lease,” his secretary says, when she bothers to pick up the phone—her Staten Island version of Swiss neutrality. Our building super is a young Russian man who appears disinterested, fatalistic and powerless all at once. We can’t even get a broken ceiling light replaced, so I don’t see any prospect for building-wide peace talks.
Like all hopeless partisans, we considered guerrilla tactics. Bleach in the notorious flower planters? Rearrange the furniture? Clever, but easily remedied. Throw everything off the roof? For liability and insurance purposes, we decided against that.
More potent would be a building-wide uprising. We learned that the guys across the hall, nicknamed “the frat boys,” purchased a patio set for the roof. Not the fancy L.L. Bean crap our aggressors bought, but the cheapo hardware-store variety, the stuff that screams “community property.”
My girlfriend gently knocked on their door one night, as if convening a meeting of the Resistance. The frat boys said they’d been ordered by our neighbors not to assemble their furniture anywhere but the preposterous common area, which is physically too small a space for the table; the frat boys also expressed a marked apathy about having to sit between three cinderblock walls, a ventilation shaft and the neighboring Middle Eastern restaurant’s exhaust fan. Even with our natural alliance, however, they are hesitant to act, wary of being caught on the wrong side of the barricades.
Therein lies the problem with building a coalition of the willing. We, having committed no wrong, are forced to battle two couples who fancied drawing a map to their whims, acting like both imperious rulers and grasping, greedy children.
Alphabet City is full of open rooftops with people milling about on lovely nights, drinking beer, playing music and enjoying a rare, tiny respite from the choking streets below. Our roof, from one of those buildings, must look showy and expensive, but only we know that three-fourths of the residents are forbidden to share it, even as the child-kings above eat, drink and carouse with their friends, their enjoyment all the sweeter thanks to their unilateral exclusion of others.
We just hit upon a simple solution to our rooftop battle, one requiring no destruction of property, only some imagination. When we want to see what colors the Empire State Building is washed in, my girlfriend and I go up to the verboten rooftop, ignoring our neighbors’ attempt to bend reality to their will.
We turn right and, like East Berliners with visas, walk past the common area, right through the begonia’d Brandenburg Gate. We hop a short cement wall to the warm freedom of the neighboring roof, wandering with pleasure, unhindered by deck chairs or patio tables. We haven’t yet run into Slobo or his comrades on these expeditions. But I imagine they’re watching us from their private doorways, hastily searching crateandbarrel.com for decorative razor-wire fencing.