Can You Love Thy Neighbor?

A few weeks ago,

one of those crime stories broke-landlord

kills tenant in rent-controlled building on Upper East Side-that, after

the initial shock, makes you wonder why it doesn’t happen more often. As it

turns out, however, this little piece of urban mayhem had nothing to do with a

scorched-earth solution to raising the rent, but with a feud that had been

raging for years in the bohemian backstairs of Madison Avenue between two

elderly relics locked in the Sartrean Hell of the city’s “No Exit” laws.

The scene of the crime,

700 Madison-I went and gaped-is one of those undistinguished row buildings in

designer territory where one imagines creaky stairs, peeling paint, antique

plumbing and S.R.O.’s disguised as apartments behind the modestly chic

storefronts. Indeed, this particular building, according to a follow-up story

in The New Yorker , had belonged to

the Hubrecht family since the father’s emigration from Alsace-Lorraine in the

20’s. Among the five children, it had fallen to one son to manage the building:

a frail 66-year-old, hypersensitive to noise, who did all he could do to keep

the commercial tenants happy, actually leaving apartments vacant rather than

upgrading them.

The victim, a little old lady living in a rooftop studio

since 1966, was shot by said landlord when she screamed at his door and wielded

a hammer-the last salvo, it turns out, in a 34-year war over her claims that he

had burglarized her apartment. She had begun accusing his older brother, then

him, of sneaking into her lodgings while she was at work, once taking her case

to landlord-tenant court. On the back of her rent checks-paid punctually each

month to avoid giving him grounds for eviction-she laboriously wrote out every

item that he had purportedly stolen. In recent years, she had taken to stuffing

her possessions in a luggage cart each day, clattering by his door as she

schlepped them to work at her teaching job on the Lower East Side.

All over New York, hearts bled for the little old lady,

beloved of her pupils, and stiffened against the landlord, member of that class

of venerable villains of Victorian melodrama and modern urban history. But not

this heart. In my experience, it’s not landlords but other tenants-sharing your

walls, hovering overhead and underfoot-with whom unwanted intimacy breeds

friction.

I grasped, even before I saw the photograph of that

meticulous list of “stolen” goods, the old lady’s paranoia; understood also how

she could appear sane to all except the object of her pathological fury. I know

how the moderately crazy-you and me-can be held hostage by the truly crazy-some

of our best friends and relatives.

My own saga of descent into intramural madness-turning from

“one of us” into “one of them,” if I may borrow from Foucauldian dialectics-was

a love-hate relationship with a barking mongrel in the apartment adjacent to

ours. Whenever he was left alone in the apartment, Fido (not his real name)

went into hysterical overdrive, barking and whining in the room that abutted

our bedroom. There, ensconced on a mountain of pillows, I spend much of my time

in writing, reading and contemplation, or just in burned-out collapse.

Proustian cork lining didn’t seem an option. I complained to the super and the

doorman, and for a while the dog was confined to another room in the apartment,

away from our shared wall.

Then, in the last few months, he returned with a vengeance:

“Ruff! ruff! ruff!” at the top of his lungs, then a maudlin glissando of woe.

Then silence. But no sooner had I relaxed, closed my eyes, than he would start

up again.

Now his owners are the

nicest couple you would ever want to meet-friendly, active in community causes,

responsible parents. We have watched their children grow up, have their own

children, return for playful bouts with Fido. But somehow my pleas fell on deaf

ears. Some thought I should speak to them, but I felt it was better to complain

through a third party. When, a few years back, another tenant on our floor hung

paintings along the corridor-the eyesores that hadn’t made the cut in that

person’s own apartment-the rest of us complained to the board, so a law had to

be passed against tenants hanging paintings in the halls.

I know of a fancy address where two tenants who share a

landing are suing the building, each claiming exclusive rights to the five

square feet in front of the elevator. What must it be like when they walk into

the tiny hallway simultaneously? We have to live with each other; but we are

also New Yorkers with hair-trigger reflexes, which means we are on the edge of

homicide several times a day.

I thought of poison. I’ve seen it in movies-watchdogs

becalmed by housebreakers who slip a mixture of dog yummies and sleeping

tablets (or more fatal potion) under the fence. Would I be indicted for

canicide? Then I tried barking back at Fido. A friend who lives in Chelsea,

aggravated beyond reason by the squawking of a neighbor’s cockatoo, had given

the pet a fatal heart attack by screeching back. But my barking only incited

Fido-inspired by some doggy vision of a Pyramus and Thisbe romance-to further

ululation. If anyone was on the brink of a heart attack, it was I.

Many of my friends took up for the dog. They wondered what I

was doing in my bed during the day. Or they lived in apartments large enough,

or with walls ancient and thick enough, never to be disturbed by neighboring

noise at all. They called me a dog hater. Then I had the brilliant idea of

recording Fido’s arias and sending it to his owners.

My tape recorder poised,

I waited for Fido’s bark and pressed the button to begin. I got a few good

samples, then he tapered off. The bark didn’t seem as loud as usual. Was he

sick? Come on, Fido, I urged silently, give it your all. I didn’t bark at him;

that would have been cheating. Ah, there-the yelp, the puling whine. Again, he

stops. He must know I’m listening.

Now it’s three weeks and several tapes later, and what was

to have been a Christmas project has become an end in itself. I’ll be in

another room, hear him barking and rush into the bedroom to catch it on tape

before he lapses into silence. Other occupations go by the board as I keep one

ear alert for Fido’s howls. But I’ve taken the offensive, gone from passive

wretch, suffering in silent torment, to active avenger, my forensic weapon

constantly at hand.

But where does it all end? How can it end? It’s him or

me-one of us must die.

Can You Love Thy Neighbor?