When you live in a brownstone in the West Village not far from Christopher Street, you expect a certain amount of color. In my 18 or so years here, I have endured street-fair vendors beneath my window, setting up clanking aluminum poles at 6 a.m. and hawking fried dough; parades that twinkle until the wee hours; and post-parade parties that pound and grind upon the roof. My husband and I live in a fourth-floor walk-up, and the disco roof is right over our heads.
I found the chirp of what sounded like a large bird from my rear windows rather charming, though I was curious that it chirped only at night. “Don’t they cover the bird’s cage?” I wondered. Then I peered down into the courtyard below. I saw no bird, but rather large, nimble-footed rats sampling the wares of myriad garbage bags put out by a Cuban restaurant on the block. The rats are actually much quieter than the wait staff and intoxicated customers at said restaurant (a sheet of waterproof insulation keeps out elements but not noise), where almost nightly I hear vulgar hoooo-hoooo whoops and strains of “Happy Birthday.” The super of our building pitches in at this restaurant, and we often see him dragging restaurant trash through our hallway, streaking the floor with slimy, stinky goo.
But for real seedy, clandestine color, just step over our threshold. Even before you step over, you’ll see globs of viscous sinus matter, ejected by the employees from the neighboring nail salon, who emerge occasionally to spit in front of our door. Inside is where the action is.
When our (oblivious, debonair) landlord removed the lock from the outer door of our vestibule, we became the only residence on the block to be open to the public. And what a happening hallway it’s become. Among the Thai, Mexican and Chinese menus and circulars from D’Agostino and CVS, there are cigar butts, cigarette butts (desperately smoked down to the filter), clumps of shredded tobacco, shiny aluminum vials, amber glass vials, a pipe made of clear glass, smears of ketchup, peeled-off pantyhose, matches, a red plastic Bic lighter, bedded newspaper. Half-empty (half-full?) bottles of Snapple, Budweiser cans and Coca-Cola.
But it’s the quality of guests that I find most interesting: a real cross section of humanity.
I have not seen all of them; the people who use the vestibule as a urinal, for example, are pretty much short-term, and I’ve never, fortunately, caught them in the act. (Note to self: Do not put down groceries or laundry when unlocking door.)
Then there are the bell ringers. Jehovah’s Witnesses willing to trek up any number of flights to save a soul. A mysterious, quivering Queen’s English caller asking for the last name that appears on the bell and claiming to be “a friend.” The pseudo deliveries, bogus baby-sitter and boiler appointments, and aspiring suitors, along with the simple opportunists asking, “Can you let me in?”
Once, at 3 a.m., the bell rang. Briefly. Sporadically. Three times. Four. We pressed the “listen” button and heard breathy groans. We rarely answer the bell, but when I sent my husband downstairs, he found a couple in flagrante delicto, one arm wildly and passionately flailing, randomly hitting the bell. Correction: My husband says it was her back that was pressing urgently into the buzzer.
The smoke from our vestibule crashers wafts up the stairwell and seeps into our apartment, alerting us to carcinogenic intruders. Since it’s tiresome to keep running down and up the four flights, and possibly dangerous to ask people to evacuate, I’ve taken to using the intercom to ask them to leave, usually announcing “I’m calling them now,” which our visitors implicitly understand to mean “We’re dialing 911.” This is usually followed by the sound of the door slamming; once, a well-mannered, lilting Southern voice replied, “Oh, yes, of course I’ll be leaving now.”
The other day, I came home and, when I pushed open the door, I hit something—some one, apparently disturbing her nap. It was a woman with an inventively wrapped head scarf, nodding off on a pillow of two Verizon White Pages, with a third phonebook serving as a mini-ottoman. When I told her she had to leave, she could not have been more polite—in that lilting Southern way that I was sure I recognized from the intercom days before.
She was more polite than the ever-so-cool couple my cosmically inclined downstairs neighbor encountered while they were puffing on cigarettes: impertinent and annoyed when she asked them to please step outside.
Once my husband was followed in by an unsavory character and quickly exited so he that he wouldn’t be trapped between the doors. The man confided that he’d just gotten out of prison and wondered if my husband could give him any money.
“I’m unemployed, too,” said my husband, which was true. (Of course he’s unemployed—he’s writing an 800-page historical novel.)
I wonder if someone had placed personal ads around in the New York Press, The Villager or The Village Voice announcing:
Step right up! UNLOCKED VESTIBULE IN GREENWICH VILLAGE. FREE! UNCENSORED! OPEN TO THE PUBLIC! Take a nap, take a leak, get it on, have a smoke, get high, do a popper, leave your trash!
And, in fact, our former downstairs neighbor once posted signs all over the Village announcing a party on our roof on Gay Pride Day and then left both the downstairs doors open. Strangers galore clambered up our stairwell, pausing briefly and clamorously in front of our apartment before scaling the rickety rungs to the roof. I was delighted to see a downstairs neighbor gyrating on the fire escape in a gold G-string and our 97-year-old neighbor in her purple T-shirt waving to “Dykes on Bikes.” (Later, she was shocked to learn that lavender was “their” color; what, she lamented, would her church think?)
I’m going to listen in more closely when I see those people giving Village walking tours, which inevitably end up on our corner. Might be something fishy going on. Maybe when they pause in front of our building, they announce:
“This landmark building is inhabited by genuine West Village writers, a retired-Mafia novelist, and a harpist-slash-ice-skater. The vestibule is well-known in the Village as a local urinal, crash pad and smoking haven, so if anyone needs to use the facilities, please feel free to do so now during our five-minute break.”
Do you suppose, if our landlord reads this, he’ll install a lock with a code and a video cam? With a little good editing, think of the excellent documentary film we can make with our vestibule footage—R-rated, X-rated, whatever.
Or do you suppose he will figure out a way to charge them rent?