We're re-running this story as part of a countdown of the year's best personal essays. To read all the entries in the series, click here.
Last January I was at a party when my wife texted that our walls sounded like they were raining. She wasn’t on LSD. She was at home with our two children, and it was much too cold for rain. I asked her to feel the walls to see if they were wet. They weren’t. I told her I’d listen when I got home, then forgot all about it. Later, when I passed my neighbor’s door, I heard the rain and knocked. No answer. I looked outside for my neighbor’s car, but it was gone, so I did what seemed the neighborly thing and called the guy. When he didn’t pick up, I left a voicemail suggesting he check on the noise. My wife nodded, and I fell asleep.
Two or three hours later, I heard banging on the front door. My neighbor was angry. His entire apartment was flooded. Why didn’t I tell him? I pointed out this was exactly what I’d done. I should have done more, he told me. Everything was ruined! I apologized, but this only emboldened him. He got angrier and louder. Eventually, my wife told him he was going to wake our kids. She closed the door, but because she was half asleep, she closed it with me outside, so I stood eye to eye with my accuser. It occurred to me he might punch me in the face. Some people need an antagonist, and I was the person he’d sought. My neighbor was older but wiry. He ran regularly, though with a notable limp, as if one leg were shorter than the other. I wished him the best before anything more happened, returning to my dry apartment.
My wife and I had been living in this apartment on the Long Island edge of Queens for almost five years. There were things we liked, such as the public transportation and public schools and parks and trees and variety of food. We also liked that we were paying less for more space than we’d had during the preceding years in young, sexy Brooklyn. One of the things we didn’t like was our neighbor, who embodied a non-optional mandate toward friendliness. If you didn’t stop to chat about who was visiting whom, if you didn’t comment on the weather (really, the weather!), there was something off about you. Probably you thought you were better than everybody else, especially if you arrived with subtle signs of foreign invasion: different diction, a smile that didn’t last long enough, unfamiliarity with the things that matter.
He seemed not to like me right away, which was okay because I didn’t like him either. Specifically, I thought he was a fake, that his commitment to all matters local masked a judgmental streak that seemed the driving animus of his life. When you live above somebody for five years, you see things; more to the point, you hear things, and never have I heard a more aggrieved human being. Every evening he paced the shared hallway or porch, cataloging to his brother or ambiguous girlfriends/friends the people who had wronged him. I was hardly alone in earning his ire, which was comforting, except there’s nothing comforting about entering the orbit of a man who believes there’s a right way to act, knowing you don’t act that way. Worse, the neighborhood was with him. People congratulated us on acquiring such an enviable neighbor. He’d lived in the building more or less forever, so there was little hope of him leaving.
When I recounted the flood story to my friends, they eagerly took my side. It wasn’t my fault his pipes burst. What did he expect? This was the question I couldn’t leave alone. While I didn’t feel as though I’d done something wrong, I didn’t feel as though I’d done something right either. I mulled a more genuine apology or, better, offering to help in any way I could. In the end, I did neither. It would be uncomfortable. Plus, I was annoyed. I concluded I didn’t owe this man anything, just as he didn’t owe me anything in turn.
There’s a lot of talk about neighbors in the Bible. Here’s a line you know: Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. There’s a lot of talk about neighbors in children’s programming, as well. Won’t you be my neighbor? But I’m not a Christian anymore, and I’m not a kid. I’m an adult with neighbors who sometimes challenge me in ways I don’t feel like being challenged. Whereas I feel like I have to endure the challenges my closest family or friends present, I don’t feel the same way about my neighbors. I’m not even sure what "neighbors" means.
My grandfather, who implausibly supported a family of six by raising chickens and selling eggs, had to know his neighbors. They were his livelihood. But my day-to-day existence no longer relies on neighbors. My income comes from a university. My food comes from supermarkets. My interests come from all over the place. I can talk to my friends from home or school or wherever on any number of electronic devices. I can have a face-to-face conversation with my brother in Japan from my computer. The "Jetsons" future so many of us waited for so impatiently has arrived.
If I don’t need my neighbors, and they don’t need me, why should I place a premium on a relationship dictated by chance? The last time I did that I was getting a physical before school, and the other kid waiting for the doctor started talking to me, or I started talking to him—I don’t remember. It was 30 years ago. I stopped making friends that way when I turned 5.
I understand the need for decency. I understand being nice to my neighbors in the way I understand being nice to anyone I have a superficial relationship with, like the person buttering my bagel. But if the person who butters my bagel moves next door, should our relationship grow deeper?
This mindset, I recognize, separates me from others, potentially for the worse. Many people’s best friends are their neighbors. My parents were these people. Some of my happiest memories from childhood are of my parents drinking and laughing with the neighbors. We had family nearby, so it wasn’t out of desperation that my parents befriended the neighbors. My parents genuinely liked them, and the feeling was mutual. After many years away, my mother eventually moved back to the neighborhood; indeed, she moved in with the neighbors, who still treat me as part of their family, even though they have two children and six grandchildren who live closer than I do. This was the example I grew up with, a meaningful one I carried into adulthood when I formed my own family.
The first places I lived on my own--Charlottesville, Iowa City, Ann Arbor--all felt a long way from rural New England. Small towns with large state universities are famously good places to meet people who look and sound different from you, to nurture self-indulgence and self-righteousness, to try on and discard different personae. Upon arriving at college, I permanently ditched what remained of my Boston accent. (On the phone, my mother told me I sounded like a snob.) I also made some of my best and most enduring friends. They were my neighbors. My first-year roommate performed my wedding ceremony 11 years later. I loved the people I lived with as much as anyone I know loved the people he or she lived with at school. Eventually, I moved to a neighborhood in Brooklyn, where like many parts of New York, it’s normal not to talk to the people around you. So I didn’t. I never felt like I was missing something.
After the pipes burst, my neighbor stopped trying to be nice. It was sort of a relief but mostly annoying and, for my wife, frightening. My teaching schedule allows me to be home most days, but the days I’m at work, I’m at work all day. She didn’t relish an angry man stomping around while she was alone with two children. And was he angry!
In fairness, living below a family with kids is a bad deal, particularly my kids, who learned to walk early and never stopped moving. Like many kids, they enjoy screaming, apropos of nothing. My neighbor’s schedule as a bartender in a city where bars close at 4 a.m. could not have been less complementary with our schedule. For a while, my son woke at 4:30 a.m. His graduation to 6:15 was viewed in our quarters as a major achievement, but that difference couldn’t have seemed like much of a gift to my childless neighbor. He’s one person, and we were two people and then three and then four. Plus, we would throw parties sometimes. We rarely invited him. We didn’t want him there.
Neighbors might turn out to be people you would voluntarily spend time with, but there’s no reason to expect this. The biggest thing my neighbor and I had in common is that we’re guys. We didn’t come from similar places, and we didn’t do similar things for work or pleasure. We didn’t read the same books, or listen to the same music, or drink the same beer, or follow the same teams. One might rightly protest that there’s value in spending time with someone unlike you, and I agree. But I don’t want to spend time with everyone: I want to spend time with people I like, whether that’s easily anticipated or a complete surprise. Never for a minute did I like my neighbor.
It occurs to me that maybe I’m thinking about this the wrong way. Maybe the concept of liking someone or something has gone too far. I criticized my neighbor earlier, but I sit in quiet judgment of people who obsessively like photos and posts on Facebook. In my fiction writing workshop, I admiringly quote Nabokov, who warns against readers who have to like characters. The high school version of myself would recoil at the very word likeable; perhaps the current version of myself should too. Maybe my inability to befriend a neighbor I don’t like represents a personal failing, a narcissism that demands everyone I spend time with share my little corner of the world.
On our last day, my wife told our neighbor she wished it had gone better. He sort of grunted, unwilling to cede the high road he walked alone. He wasn’t surrendering the personal injustice he nurtured for anything she was offering. I didn’t say anything to him, and he didn’t say anything to me.
In a parallel universe, I rub my eyes and say, Let’s get to work. I return to my apartment, but instead of going to bed, I grab a bucket and towels. I spend the night dealing with the pipes and dealing with my neighbor. Possibly, I call the landlord. Get over here, I say. We need your help. We’re all in this together. If my pipes ever burst, I know implicitly that help will arrive. Knee-deep in water, exhausted, I look at my neighbor, who is still internalizing all that’s been ruined. He can see from my look that I feel for him, and he’s grateful. Now he is the one who apologizes. He knows he came off hot earlier, and perhaps he hasn’t always been the easiest guy to live with, but he appreciates my being here.
In the universe I inhabit, I come home tired. I have my own apartment to worry about, my own family to take care of, my own problems to ignore. I don't want to spend my night dealing with another person’s flooded apartment, a person who doesn’t even like me. I might want to be the kind of person who does this, but I’m not. I want to go to bed, so I do.
Shortly before my wife and I moved out, we received an unmarked envelope. It contained a sarcastic note thanking us for being such good neighbors. One of us was called a peach. I showed it to my wife, and as I watched her reaction, I understood this was the breaking point. Perhaps our neighbor designed the anti-thank-you note this way.
My wife and I started looking at houses, something she’d long desired and something I viewed with ambivalence. Now we were in agreement: We couldn’t stay. We liked the first house we looked at, a small ranch. Nobody living upstairs, nobody living downstairs! We couldn’t exactly afford it, but we’d figure it out, and we did.
Even before buying the house, we began to meet the neighbors. We were, at this point, prepared to do whatever it took. We didn’t just smile and wave. We chatted. Eventually, we brought over our kids and asked questions and nodded. Between our making an offer and closing on the house, one neighbor erected a new fence.
The other day my wife and I were in a different neighbor’s house. This neighbor was showing us pictures of her children while our children ran around, nearly breaking everything. This neighbor seemed happy. I offered, preposterously, to help her move heavy things. A few days later, she came over with a magnet of the town’s recycling schedule. It doesn’t have to be hard.
We’ve lived here two months, closer to my office and far enough from our old neighbor that there’s a good chance we’ll never see him again, which feels strange because there were few days over the past five years that I was home without being aware that he was home too. Some rooms and times I could hear him better, but I always knew when he was there. When he left town, the space felt different, not just quieter but also more peaceful. I never saw the inside of his apartment beyond what I could view from the hall when his door was open. He never saw the inside of my apartment either, yet he was as much a part of my experience in that place as anyone outside of my wife and children.
Someone that ubiquitous, it seems clear, deserved better. Except when I try to imagine what I could have done differently, I have no idea. I wouldn’t have been happier sharing drinks with him on the porch. I tried: It was awkward. Nor do I think being more confrontational would have improved things. What would I have said? I want you to be more respectful of my efforts. He might have responded, quite reasonably, I want you to be more respectful of my ceiling.
Now I have a desk in my basement, where it’s theoretically quiet, except I can hear everything above me, the running and yelling and dropping and picking up and crying, crying, crying. I have high-powered headphones, into which I blast piano sonatas, and still I hear other people living their lives.