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I'm an NYC-based director, and this is an outlet for my various musings about theater and about the city of New York. Sometimes the subjects run together, sometimes they are entirely separate, but between the two they comprise the most fitful, most intense, most trying love affair of my few years. They fill my head, my heart, my mouth every hour of every day; they could fill a book.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Harlem Grey Gardens

Our downstairs neighbors are gone. Evicted -- I saw the notice go up on their door at the beginning of August, and now, at the beginning of September, they have long disappeared.

I've been meaning to write about their departure since I saw the eviction notice go up, but every time I try to piece together the significance of their going, how sad and strange it is that they should go now of all times, I come up a bit short.

To understand how much their presence marked the time Sarah and I spent in this little apartment, I have to go all the way back to the beginning, to when we first moved in. We become aware of the two women, a mother and a daughter, who lived directly below us almost immediately; they didn't make themselves easy to miss. They babbled and muttered to themselves on the stairs. They averted eye contact when we saw them, or sometimes simply had that bleary look of someone whose vision is not in this plane of space and time. They dressed in dirty, disheveled clothing, the mother's immense dinnerplate glasses permanently skewed across her face. They cursed at us under their breath as we passed them.

In our first few months in the place, we were plagued by a number of pestilences. Mice, bugs, and, most troubling to me, a weird, unpleasant smell that drifted through the pipes. The super blamed them all on the women downstairs. "Their apartment is filthy," he told me. "And they won't let nobody in to clean it." More gossip floated in over the next few months: They lived in complete squalor; the apartment hadn't been cleaned or renovated in years; they had four big dogs that they didn't walk enough and the apartment was covered in newspaper and shit. When people knocked on the door, they never answered.

It's hard to separate the truth from the myth, but I will say that once their door was left open long enough to get a peek inside.  I didn't look squalorous, it looked abandoned.  Wrecked.  It looked like the gutted out remains of a crumbling building before it's completely rebuilt.

Sometimes Sarah and I speculated on the two ladies who were the apparent source of all our apartment problems. Sometimes we swapped unbelievable stories. Once, I ran into one of them rounding a corner and she took a swing in surprise. Once, Sarah let her pass on stairs, ushering her through with a friendly, "go ahead," to which the woman responded, "Don't f*cking tell me what to do, f*ck you."

They were frustrating and tiresome, but mostly just a joke or a crazy anecdote. We called them "Harlem Grey Gardens," a name that fit even more aptly when a neighbor told me the daughter once sang at the Apollo and had been booed offstage. Then in the fall of that year, Sarah again ran into the same woman, the daughter, on the stairs, only this time she not only swung, but made contact, hitting Sarah a couple of times in the head before Sarah could get away. Then they became scary.

We called the company that at the time managed the building, and thus began a several-year-long oddessey of us asking them what they intended to do about the violently disturbed neighbors downstairs and them doing the management company equivalent of shrugging and sighing and avoiding our questions. They told us to file a police report, which we did - now what? They told us to file a police report if we had another altercation with them, which we did - now what? They eventually handed us off to a lawyer who would periodically email us about upcoming hearings that went nowhere and accomplished nothing, guardians supposedly assigned by the state who changed nothing, and would occasionally ask us to be available to "testify" in some hearing or another, but would never follow through.

I went through a very fearful period, as I know Sarah did as well. The daughter, whose name was Denise (we learned a lot about the women in this time - the daughter was Denise, the mother was June and while both seemed deeply unstable, only the daughter appeared to be violent) never hit either or us again, but she did try to attack Sarah once or twice more but both times Sarah screamed at her so loudly she retreated. And she chased me down the stairs a number of times, issuing curses and threats the entire time. It was during this time that I held my breath every time I walked past her door, avoided unnecessary trips up and down the stairs, was afraid to do laundry because of the noise I made dragging my laundry bag.

Eventually, things died down. The daughter stopped accosting Sarah in the hall. Although she would occasionally open the door and hiss as I walked by, she stopped chasing me down the stairs. Sarah speculated that she had been "off her meds" when she had attacked her - it would explain the relative peace after that brief, violent period.

We stopped contacting the lawyer. We both got tired. And I, for my part, decided that I didn't want to have a hand in their eviction. I saw a legal document once that stated their rent, which was $125 per month, all of which paid, no doubt, with some kind of government aid as they clearly had neither jobs nor anybody taking care of them. If they lost this apartment, I doubted their ability to find a new place to live. This is how homeless people are made, I thought to myself.

Things eventually assumed a state of normalcy, although their presence was never really forgotten. The ownership of the apartment building changed hands, but the new management company seemed as impotent as the last on this issue. The women would still occasionally issue threats as I passed their door, I'd ignore them. Sometimes they'd bang on their ceiling - our floor - when they felt we were being too noisy, but sometimes they'd bang on their ceiling when I was sitting quietly on the couch so I ignored that too. I never really stopped holding my breath as I passed their door, never stopped feeling my heart beat in my throat when I heard steps approaching me on the stairs, thinking, is it her? Never stopped idly wondering if someday she'd snap and lunge at me from her door with a kitchen knife or a frying pan.

It's kind of hard to wrap my head around the fact that I know the answer now. No. No, no she'll never snap and come at me with a frying pan because she's gone. I still hold my breath walking past her door and then remind myself I don't have to. And I even start a little when I hear someone on the stairs of a different building.

And it's bizarre, almost confusing, that these women - these women who have so defined my time in this apartment and thus my time in New York City are leaving now, now of all times. When Sarah and I are both vacating the apartment, and my time in New York is coming to a permanent close. It makes things feel frighteningly final, like it's not just me leaving, a whole world is shutting off.

The good news is, I hear they're moving somewhere in the Bronx, not to the street. Sarah ran into our new landlord in the hall, and he told her the story. But it's still a little sad, I think. Sarah also learned from the landlord that both the mother and the daughter are in fact diagnosed with schizophrenia, so I hope this means someone actually is looking out for them, that they'll be taken care of the way the need to be. I hope they do okay in the Bronx, or wherever they land.

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