Summer of 1993.
The first place I lived in Oakland was a dumpy slum on Montecito by the lake, with a hilarious manager named Erica who always had a cigarette smoldering and whose preferred outfit, even for grocery store excursions, was robe, slippers and becurlered hair.
The place was twice the rent and a third the size of the boring but amenity filled box we’d left behind in Fresno; none of those take for granted items like air conditioning, garbage disposals, or dishwashers. No tennis courts, swimming pools or covered parking included. We had to pay $65 extra for off street parking in the dungeon like garage.
The neighbors moved quickly through the tunnel-like hallways. Making eye contact was taboo. Saying, hello, could cause a heart attack. The only friendly person was our chain smoking apartment manager.
The place was roach infested, the plumbing leaked, the plumbers who were supposed to fix the leaky plumbing stole my jewelry instead. Our main view was a wall of grimy, beige, stucco that belonged to the building next door. I fantasized about figuring out a subversive way to paint a mural on that wall but I am terrified of heights, clumsy and never could figure out a safe way to span the six foot gap.
The elevator was noisy and terrifying. It shook and rattled as if it were straining to reach the penthouse instead of floor number two. There was actually, no penthouse. It was only a three story building. As far as I know, my keys on their beautiful unicorn key chain, victims of moving night, still lie at the bottom of that elevator shaft, an illustration of why one is warned to, “mind the gap.”
The best thing about the place was the huge water heater housed above our unit which allowed fabulous long hot showers. Actually that was the best and only good thing about it our stuffy little lake proximate hovel.
When we moved in, Erica warned us about the downstairs neighbor, Janet and told us to ignore her. Janet was always complaining about the noise we made even though we were pretty quiet. Sometimes she’d accuse us of making noise when we weren’t home or even when we were sleeping. I began to wonder if she was hearing things because she was schizophrenic or perhaps just that particular kind of person who needs something to complain about.
One afternoon, not long after we’d moved in, Erica came to our door, cigarette dangling between the fingers of one hand, lighter in the other. Rolling her eyes she rasped at us, “Janet just came up screaming that you were watching football and had your TV up really loud.” Hot on her heels, the notorious Janet appeared moments later making the same accusation.
The thing keeping us from having any sympathy was that our television wasn’t on. If it had been, we wouldn’t have been watching football. In response to Janet’s protests of disbelief, we turned on the television, boosted the volume and Erica went downstairs to Janet’s apartment where she said she really didn’t hear much of anything and told us not to worry.
The other notable run in we had with Janet occurred late one evening when I had called an artist friend back in Fresno. I hadn’t fully transitioned to living in the bay area and was still traveling back and forth managing a large cooperative gallery there. Larry and I were chatting. I was speaking softly, almost whispering, partially because of the late hour but also because my fiance was sleeping in the same room.
We’d been talking a while and were in fact, wrapping it up when I was startled by a pounding on our front door. Oh my god! Was there some sort of emergency? Had Erica finally fallen asleep cigarette in hand? Was the building on fire?
Heart pounding, still clutching the phone, I rushed to the door and opened it to Janet, mousy haired and red faced, eyes bulging with rage, fist still poised in the air ready to pound again.
I took a step back, “Are you alright?”
“No!” She screamed. “Are you on the phone?”
If I hadn’t been so shocked I might have thought quickly enough to lie and say, why, no Janet, the phone’s in my hand because I was about to call 911. I figure if someone’s pounding on my door at this hour they must need an ambulance.
Or they’re going to.
But I was too stunned to be clever. “Uh, yes but I was talking very quietly. You must have amazing hearing.”
She continued loudly, “I’m a teacher. I have to get up early.”
Oh those poor kids, I think.
At this point my fiance had gotten up to investigate the ruckus.
I wish I could remember what he said to her. He had a way with condescension that only my mother could top. I’m pretty sure he pointed out that she’d woken him and probably, the rest of the building up with her screaming and that if I hadn’t disturbed him with my talking then there’s no way I could have disturbed her! She was lucky to have upstairs neighbors as quiet and considerate as us and if she was so fucking sensitive why did she move into a ground floor unit?
She left in full blown, “well I never!” and that, as I recall was the last we heard from her.
Years later, when we’d find ourselves annoyed by lawnmowers or neighbor dogs; nuisance barks we’d joke about how they’re lucky they live next to us instead of next to Janet. If we had to deal with a complainer, we’d refer to them as, a Janet.
She moved not long after the, ARE YOU ON THE PHONE incident. I like to imagine she took up residence as a solitary tenant in a well insulated, isolated building in Siberia where she complained to the foundation for settling too loudly, the field mice for exceeding acceptable decibel levels for grass chewing and screamed at the snowflakes for making such a racket as they landed on the roof.
What inspired me to write about this is , unfortunately, I’m having to deal with a particularly nasty and noisy housemate who frankly, hates me because I won’t give into her bullying. She’s in her early 30’s but if stomping, door slamming, pouting and dirty looks were sporting events she’d be beating out the most terrible two year olds for Olympic gold! Among other things she has developed a sudden supposed hypersensitivity to noise. In fact when she goes to bed she expects all household activity to stop, she actually yells, IT’S TIME TO BE QUIET, and when she gets up she expects to be able to make as much noise as she pleases. It got me thinking about my old downstairs neighbor and other anecdotes people have told me about their downstairs neighbors with super hearing powers. We think a friend of ours must have lived above Janet’s cousin. This prize of a neighbor had fits of rage because they swore they heard a bar of soap being dropped in the shower!