“Whenever John and Martha pass in the hallway or in the elevator, they inquire whether or not the noise from the dogs bothers us. We shrug and say, ‘Oh well . . . dogs will be dogs.’ After 25 years, we tolerate each other the best we can. We always told ourselves it could be worse. And then it was.”—Ross Konikoff
West Side Stories
By Ross Konikoff
“Good floors make even better neighbors . . .” Anonymous
MANHATTAN New York—(Weekly Hubris)—December 19, 2016—In our Manhattan condo, Deborah and I roam across carpet-covered expanses of wood, isolated from our downstairs neighbor by two levels of plywood, spaced six inches apart, offering negligible noise attenuation from one floor to the next.
In our building, when one couple has sex, the couple upstairs feels like smoking a cigarette afterwards.
When the apartment below ours became vacant two years ago, we crossed our fingers, hoping the new tenant would demonstrate the same level of courtesy and consideration as had the previous one. As it turned out, our worst fears were realized when a witch moved in below us, and I don’t mean the adorable Elizabeth Montgomery, “nose-twitching-to-make-things-right” type witch. I can’t say whether or not this ghoul was capable of apportioning curses or utilizing sorcery to her advantage, but it wouldn’t surprise me to learn that she had dabbled in the occult, and had transformed her closet into a shrine to Satan, promising him the soul of her first-born male child in exchange for success in the world of finance. Here was a girl, so encrusted in bitterness that even Hannibal Lector would have refrained from eating her, her flesh dispossessed of the spice of humanity. Before we proceed any further regarding this shrew, however, let’s first go upstairs.
Our neighbors above, John and Martha, (with whom Deborah and I have maintained an uneasy truce for 25 years) have always owned a minimum of four dogs, replenishing the pack when one or another goes the way of all flesh. Martha has made her living as a dog walker for most of those years, doing quite well I would imagine, as I’ve observed her, from the beginning, entering and exiting every residential building on our street, tethered to five or more mutts simultaneously. The motivation for a dog walker to wrangle four of her own at home, to me at least, remains a mystery but, every day, John, Martha, or both, appear thrice daily, dutifully herding their quartet of bladders-on-the-hoof, straining at full capacity, out to the curb for waste disbursement. For one full minute prior to each recess, we are serenaded from above by a mad frenzy of hysterical barking, accompanied by the percussive sounds of 16 stampeding paws, each containing four razor-sharp nail-tips, rapidly spanking the planks like tiny chainsaws, proving as effective as any professional strength orbital floor sander in abrading the varnish right off the parquet while, at the same time, honing our nerves to a razor’s edge.
In addition, every five years or so, the couple makes a noble effort to adopt and reform another rescue dog, who, within a day or two, invariably demonstrates his overwhelming gratitude by viciously attacking one or both the moment their backs are turned.
I recently endured the terrifying experience of boarding the elevator, only to find that I was trapped with Martha and her latest parolee, a previously abused Staffordshire bull terrier (minus half an ear and covered in scar tissue) in a 6 X 6 foot elevator cab for the long ride down to the lobby. When the doors closed, I was careful not to exhibit any sudden moves, nor to let the scent of fear emanate from my terror-infused underpants, especially since, with his snout, a mere five inches from my second-best feature, the beast tugged persistently at his leash for a closer olfactory inspection of my unmentionables, which were also being careful not to make any sudden moves.
As Fluffy and I exchanged nervous glances, he made it very clear to me with his pitiless, direct stare that his favorite bone was inside my leg. To make things worse, the only restraint on this semi-domesticated Velociraptor was an arthritic 65-year-old woman loosely grasping a silk French Poodle leash with the tensile strength of kite string. Fortunately, the cur was slow in deciding which portion of my anatomy would best satisfy his sweet tooth, enabling me to do my Usain Bolt impression the minute the doors opened again, moving me swiftly out of nipping range.
Try as they might, John and Martha’s heroic attempts at mongrel rehab never seemed to end well. Without fail, within hours of what seemed to be a peaceful assimilation, the new arrival, ignoring his fresh bowl of Alpo, suddenly misperceives the other pups as hors d’œuvres, an assortment of canine canapés. When his intention to chow down on his roommates is thwarted by his new step parents, however, they become the entree.
Deborah and I learned to recognize the sounds related to the new-dog-attack: SIT! NO, NO! BAD DOG! BAD DOG!!! followed by the sounds of a dog walker and her husband fleeing the raging beast. Unable to outrun him, they lure him into the bedroom, doing their best to keep their arms and legs out of his bear-trap jaws. Once Fluffy has been trapped inside the bed chamber, they telephone the shelter for emergency assistance. Meanwhile, the raging tail-wagger makes it his business to urinate on all the pillows, the mattress, the rugs, and any clothing left lying around, while making chew toys of every shoe in the closet. Finally, the ASPCA arrives, dragging in nets, chains, poles, and tranquilizers. The moment Fluffy has been neutralized, coaxed to somnolence by a nasty looking blow dart containing 60 ccs of Thorazine, the ungrateful recidivist is dragged out to the truck, where he is returned to the shelter for his final, short stay on death row.
Whenever John and Martha pass in the hallway or in the elevator, they inquire whether or not the noise from the dogs bothers us. We shrug and say, “Oh well . . . dogs will be dogs.” After 25 years, we tolerate each other the best we can. We always told ourselves it could be worse. And then it was.
Anita (last name available on request), 28 years old (in our Earth years) and fresh off an Air India flight from the jewel in the crown (Mumbai, to name names) had arrived here to commence her employment with the Bank of India, US Operations. How she had interviewed for, and then won the position could only be explained by the timing of her interview coinciding with the bank’s intention to automate the teller windows at all branches, and amid the confusion, mistaking Anita for a robot, packing her into a shipping crate, and then sending her off to the US as cargo. Of all the condos in Manhattan, her parents purchased the apartment below ours so that their daughter would reside in close proximity to her midtown office. After moving in below, Anita’s refusal to acknowledge the presence of another human being, either in the elevator or in the hallways was, at first, attributed to her unfamiliarity with American informality. However, it didn’t take long before she firmly established herself with the doormen, the super, and each of the residents as the most ill-tempered, selfish, and rude human being, not only in the United States or India, but on any other continental shelf, planet, moon, comet, or asteroid in this or any of the billions of other galaxies in the universe. If Carl Sagan were alive today, even he would be hard pressed to speculate on where a creature might exist who could trump Anita for pure malignancy.
It took less than a week before a ritual she’d put into practice left me no choice but to attempt contacting her. I later learned that the reason she had begun using her stereo system at full volume every morning at 6:30 a.m. was that she was a heavy sleeper, and conventional alarm clocks were unable to rouse her sufficiently. Her wake-up time being four hours before ours, however, made the situation untenable. The previously described sound transmission problem demanded that I ask her to seek another alternative. I composed a very polite note, pointing out the variance in our schedules and asked that (if she would be so kind) she please lower the volume.
My plea went unacknowledged for several days. I left another note under her door, again begging for relief. When this one also failed to elicit any sort of response, I tried calling her. She neither answered her phone, nor returned the message I left. In my mailbox, a few days later, was a cease and desist order from her attorney, stating that if I tried again to contact her in any way, I would be slapped with a lawsuit, accusing me of harassment, and would be in need of an attorney of my own. I was stunned and frustrated, finally reduced to pounding on the bedroom floor every morning when awakened prematurely. Eventually, the volume began lowering a bit over time, until it became something I was able to abide, but only marginally.
Then, suddenly, one day, she had a roommate. A young man, a few years her junior was now her live-in boyfriend. His social skills were less Neanderthalic than Anita’s, but he was never in danger of being described as charming. With his presence came the smell of marijuana, and frequent shouting matches, punctuated by the sounds of physical abuse, although it was difficult to determine who was on the business end of those loud slaps. It could have gone either, or both ways.
Then, one day, he decided that her apartment was in need of renovation and, soon, the demolition began. The sounds of walls being torn down, nails pounded, and lumber sawn filled eight hours of each day, for weeks on end until, one day, it all abruptly ended. The word came down that the apartment was not the only thing he had been renovating. Rumor had it that Anita was now pregnant. Doing what any red-blooded American boy would do upon realizing that his life would soon become a tragic, life-long episode of “Bewitched,” without the laugh track, he promptly vamoosed for Texas, where he moved back in with mom and dad, hiding under the bed every time the telephone rang. The result of this unfortunate turn of events was that the additional sounds of Anita, sobbing and crying every night, were added to the overall cacophony. We all but gave up until Anita gave birth.
After returning home with the bad seed, the bedroom became the child’s room while Anita moved into the living room. Now, we were to contend with the roar of Rosemary’s Baby, waking every two hours throughout the night, and screaming like the goats in the viral YouTube video. Weeks later, she switched rooms with the child, and installed a 60-inch television on the bedroom wall, assuring our continued fitful nights. The TV, programmed to automatically shut off at 1:00 a.m., provided us the soundtracks of Andy of Mayberry and “Gunsmoke,” against which to attempt sleep every night. I wrote another gently worded note begging for relief, and again, I was ignored completely, so I called and left another telephone message, harassment suit be damned. The volume came down a bit and we went along like this for a while, until one morning, we were awakened at 6:30 a.m. to the sounds of a child banging on piano keys.
At first, I thought I had fallen asleep underneath the stage at Danny’s Skylight Room following a night of revelry. When the cobwebs dissipated, I sat up and realized that mother and child were playing an actual piano in the child’s room. How was it possible, I thought, for a person to be so disconnected from reality that she would do something as outrageous as moving a grand piano into her bedroom and playing it at 6:30 a.m. without realizing the jeopardy in which she had placed herself? I was seconds from charging downstairs, breaking down her door, and plunging a 10-inch, extra-wide Wüsthof into her chest. Instead, I picked up my feet and slammed them down onto the floor, again and again, while the piano continued, uninterrupted, as though they never noticed the thunderous pounding from above. After 30 minutes, we both stopped. The next day I limped over to a podiatrist for a foot exam and discovered I had cracked my heel, requiring me to wear a $600 support boot for six weeks until the fracture healed.
The boot may have been on, but the gloves were off.
For several weeks I pounded out the Gene Krupa drum solo from “Sing, Sing, Sing” on our bedroom wall with my fists, (and got pretty good at it, I might add) during the daily concertos of “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star,” and “Row, Row, Row Your Boat.” I spent the remaining hours of that week on the phone, jousting with our condo board, our building management company, and the city agency for noise control, ultimately coming up empty on all counts. Then, to top it all off, her lawyer sent me another threatening letter. I wrote back, asking him what he would do, faced with my situation. I received no reply, of course, so I penned an additional, more personal note, strongly advising him where he might stick Anita, her son, her grand piano, and his license to practice law, so that none of it would ever again see the sun shine.
I had finally arrived at the conclusion that I needed to act in defiance of all rules dictating gentlemanly conduct. One lesson from my college days finally proved itself useful, as I dusted off a tactic previously put to good use in emerging victorious from a college dormitory noise war.
The next morning, I arose early and set up my tape recorder, recording the 30-minute piano lesson I had been tortured with for the previous four weeks. I converted the recording to a computer file where I quadrupled the volume level, looped it, and then burned it to an audio CD. I was now in a position to finally dispense, with a slight twist, the sort of divine justice spoken of (early) in the good book: an ear for an ear.
Deborah was scheduled to be out working on an overnight television shoot so, after bidding her farewell, I watched television until 2:30 a.m., after which I fired up my 200-watt stereo system. Figuring this to be the same time, proportionately, that I had been awakened in my sleep cycle every morning for almost two years, either by heavy metal alarm clock, the stentorian cries of the bellowing baby behemoth, or by grand piano, I lowered my speakers to the floor, face down, and then slid my weapons-grade CD into its slot. My volume setting was adjusted to eleven, and then I hit the Play button. In seconds, the sound of mother and child banging out their rough versions of “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star,” “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” and “Row, Row, Row Your Boat,” boomed from my speakers, roaring through the floorboards and into the startled ears of both mother and child. I could see them, in my imagination, their eyes fluttering open in disbelief at hearing 110 decibels of grand piano yanking them from their deep reverie, then realizing that they not only recognized these songs, but that it was their very own performance being projected back at them! The poor child must have freaked out as Anita, first startled and then outraged, must have begun crying in frustration, and then progressed to hysterical, choking sobs, while seething with rage. The little tyke, upon seeing Mommy falling apart at the seams, must have then chimed in, screaming in confused terror along with her.
I’m unaware as to whether or not Dr. Benjamin Spock would have approved, but I figured that a little terror, early in life, would be good for the lad, preparing him to handle the much greater horrors he would surely face later, with Anita as his mother. Even if nothing but a lawsuit resulted from this stunt, I derived such satisfaction from turning the tables on this porcupine of a woman, that it rendered any potential legal retribution worth risking.
Two hours later, after my redress had been administered, I turned off the stereo and returned my speakers to their upright positions. I went to bed and, to my pleasant surprise, there was no piano that morning at 6:30 a.m. Nor was there any piano for the remainder of the week. Over the weekend, I asked the doorman if he had heard any gossip and he told me movers had taken a piano out of the building that morning, that Anita and her son were moving out at the end of the month, and that she had listed her condo for sale. I could hardly believe my ears. I ran upstairs and told Deborah the good news.
The curse had been lifted.
Later that evening, I sat quietly in the living room, rereading one of the classics, pondering the purpose of life. Was it all just random chance, or was I here for a reason? Deborah asked why I appeared so introspective. I hesitated for a moment before putting my feelings into words.
“Deborah . . . the way I’m feelin’ now . . . as long as there’s a fight so’s tired people can sleep, I’ll be there. Wherever there’s a baby cryin’ all night long, and somebody needs to pick up that baby and quiet ‘im, I’ll be there. I’ll be there in the way guys yell and kick the floor and beat on the walls when they’re mad as hell. I’ll be there wherever a kid pounds on a piana at 6:30 in the morning, wakin’ up the fella sleepin’ in the room above (Cue the music), and when good, decent people can go to bed at a normal hour and sleep through the night, without some other fella makin’ more than his share a’ noise, I’ll be there, too. A fella ain’t got a soul of his own, Deborah, but on’y a piece of a big one . . . . I’ll be around in the dark. I’ll be ever’where—wherever ya look.”
“Take it easy, Henry Fonda. Maybe you should lay off the John Steinbeck for a while, and tuck into some Robert Frost instead,” she said.
“You ain’t referrin’ to . . . I mean . . . you aren’t referring to ‘good fences,’ and all that baloney, are you?” I said.
“Why don’t you see if he wrote anything about ‘Mending Floors?’” she said.
“Are you crazy? We can’t afford to rebuild our bedroom floor,” I said.
“Oh, I don’t know about that. I happen to know of a fertile, young pot smoker, hiding out in Texas, who knows a bit about construction. With the right offer, say, some of your marijuana, along with 30 pieces of silver, he might just enjoy the irony. Having pounded her for three months, he might just adore the idea of pounding her ceiling in retribution for having been tricked into fatherhood. With both you guys hammering away, we could kill one bird with two stoners,” she said.
“You’re diabolical. This is why I married you,” I said, seeing the perfect justice behind this coup de grace.
“I can’t imagine a more fitting pair to drive in the final nail. You get an acoustic expert to draw up some plans, and I’ll get the kid on the phone,” she said.
“Deal!” I shouted.
“An eye for an eye will only make the whole world blind,” said the great Mohandas K. Gandhi.
On the other hand, he also said, “Each one has to find his peace from within. And peace, to be real, must be unaffected by outside circumstances.”
I have no doubt that the “within” he referred to was his bedroom, and that the “outside circumstances” was a reference to his own, noisy next-door neighbor. When you’ve got the Mahatma on your side, you know you’re doing it right.
Note: Click on the cover of Ross Konikoff’s latest novel-on-Kindle to buy the book: