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
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
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
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.