Part of what gives city living its charm are the minor details that you adopt when you choose to make your home one of several dozen dwellings within a single building. Though often hidden from sight, the smells and sounds of neighbors becomes a part of your conception of home. Returning home from a day at work, the hallways of my quaint, practically downtown brownstone are often filled with the mouthwatering aroma of a simmering curry, sauteed garlic and onions, or the occasional earthy, funky scent of collard greens. On Sunday mornings: eggs, bacon and coffee. Inexplicably, and far too often for my taste, the smell of wet, meaty cat food. Later in the evenings, the smell of incense thinly masking marijuana is often overwhelming. The creaking floorboards over ceiling let me know that my upstairs neighbor sleeps an average of 5-6 hours a night, usually from midnight to 6:00am. My neighbor to the south blares the television to help block out the other random creaking noises of the building and the slam of the front door, audible all over the first floor. I've been warned via notes slipped under my front door that listening to music in my bathroom first thing in the morning is a practice not appreciated by my neighbor to the north. Disco music filtering through my ceiling as I vainly try to sleep in on Saturday morning. The sound of running water as someone in the bathroom showers, brushes their teeth, takes care of other unmentionable bathroom activities. Boyfriend and girlfriend snarling profanities at one another at the top of their lungs over some unknown impetus. It's all part of the soundtrack.
There are the charms, the occasional excitement of audio voyuerism or exhibitionism, the ability to let your imagination construct rooms you've never seen based on the polite nods and muttered "hello"s you share with your neighbors. Then there are the less common occurrences that make you shift uncomfortably in your own space.
I've been having trouble sleeping recently. I'd always counted myself lucky NOT to be an insomniac...instead, my response to stress is often to fall asleep for hours at a time, no amount of rest being too much. Lately, though, "bedtime" is somewhere between 10:30 and 12:30, with restless, interrupted sleep following at minor intervals until my alarm calls me to action (or at least tries) at 7:00. It's difficult for me to tell whether I'm awake or asleep because my dreams are so vivid and active...last night I was rewriting the words to a song to "Friday I'm In Love" with some coworkers so that we could use it as some sort of themesong. At 3:00am, I woke (or was I asleep) to the sound of a woman wandering down the hallway, weeping uncontrollably. Upon realizing that I was, in fact, awake, I struggled with what to do. I considered getting up, throwing on a bathrobe and going outside. Who knew why this woman was crying? Had she been jilted by a lover? Suffered a loss in her family? Drank too much and become overly sentimental? Would she be embarrassed at the appearance of a total stranger? I'd heard this sound from my next door neighbor before, crying herself to sleep. I'm fairly sure she's heard it from me. We share this strange intimacy that has physical boundaries, that feels wrong somehow - it crosses the line between sharing space and invasion of privacy. The walls and doors cannot keep out the compassion, the desire to wrap your arms around the afflicted, to find out if there's anything you can do. I thought too long, lying down in that place between sleep and waking, and the sound of her footsteps passed my door on the way to the stairs, the 2nd floor. I felt haunted, fully awake, and then, as though a light switch had been flipped off, I was instantly asleep again.
An hour and a half later, my door buzzer rang. Or did it? It did. Didn't it? Again, more insistently. I could hear other bells ringing in other apartments. By the time I'd blinked my eyes in the dark enough to figure out which buttons were which, I heard the door release...someone else had answered first. At least this time I was standing up in that place between sleep and waking, but again, I struggled with what to do. Should I leave my apartment to figure out what was going on? I peered out of the peephole to see what I could see...nothing. Then the sound of a police walkie talkie came through loud and clear. "What did she say?" the officer asked some invisible person. "She called me to say that she was home, and that...[footsteps]...what are you going to do?" "I'm just going to make sure she's okay." The footsteps faded down the hallway to the stairs, the 2nd floor.
Was she okay?