Three weeks ago I walked out of my apartment and nearly collided with a small man leaning against the wall in the hallway. He was carrying a pair of sneakers and seemed to be waiting for someone. He also wasn’t wearing a shirt.
Unless you’re prone to sleeping in bus stations, this is an unlikely scenario. The man smiled, teeth crooked and yellowed, and he made an effort to stand upright as if presenting himself for inspection.
Had I ordered a South American man and not remembered? What would I feed him? Were the sneakers some sort of ceremonial gift? I had gotten him nothing. What would I name him? Would management allow me to keep a miniature human in the apartment?
Before I could confirm any of these questions, the man moved past me, opened the door to the stairwell, and disappeared.
Where was he going? He had no leash, no tags.
It was then that I noticed a ladder leaning against the wall and assumed the man was simply the super I hadn’t met yet, and not a mail order South American. I was relieved, and a little disappointed, but hit the button for the elevator and waited. Then I saw his head poke back out from the stairwell, look over at me, and retreat again.
The elevator opened and I backed in, keeping an eye on the far end of the hallway. As the doors slid closed I saw him re-emerge from the stairwell, skin glistening with sweat, and turn towards my apartment.
Most people would assume he was going to fix a busted hallway light, or tinker with some cosmetic problem. I knew the real reason. He was going to hang out on my couch and watch TV.
Maybe he’d order some on-demand movies, or forego the couch entirely in favor of slipping into a warm bath, reading one of my novels and sighing as the tepid water lapped against his chin. He most certainly would change into my underwear when his bath was finished, but probably not before air-drying by candlelight. Or maybe he’d just stay naked, rolling around making snow angels in my cereal before replacing it in the box, and using my computer to cyber sex with his girlfriend in Ecuador, who he was planning on breaking up with anyway, since he was now fond of using my bed to nap with diseased prostitutes.
Paranoid? Illogical? I had my reasons. This is that story.
* * *
I moved to Manhattan in the summer of 2005. Unable to afford my own place, or a place with one roommate…or two roommates, I’d just signed my portion of a year-lease on 73rd & York with three others, none of whom I had ever met before. I had replied to an ad on Craigslist, and the three other roommates were women, so in my mind an orgy was inevitable.
I was just happy to have found a spot, and had been commuting from Philadelphia for the previous three weeks. The “apartment” we’d just rented was a 500-sq-foot, fourth-floor walk-up, and the layout did not include a common living space. You walked into a galley kitchen, and to your right was a long hallway with four bedroom doors. The “bedrooms” themselves had wooden ladders that led to tiny sleeping lofts which, when a mattress was added, meant you couldn’t sit upright in bed without hitting the ceiling. Coffins had more head room.
Most windows in front, including my bedroom, opened onto moldy brick walls, and we hung posters of beaches and forests on them to give the appearance of a view. The back of the apartment building was next to a garbage dump, and over time we found it convenient to be able to open one of the back windows and toss bags into a waiting pile. The mice found our apartment convenient though also, and had gotten quite territorial.
But I was twenty-three and those things didn’t bother me much. We adjusted to the lack of sunlight and hot water, and instead bided our time playing golf, taking full swings with sand wedges and slamming golf balls down the hallway because who cares and it scared the mice.
Warning signs of what was to come were evident from the beginning, when we found a squatter had been living in our bathroom. My parents had given me a ride up to the city and wanted to see the place. I had only been there once before, briefly on a group tour a few weeks beforehand, and when I opened the door this time, a bearded man stepped towards us.
“Oh, hello,” my mom said, in typical Catholic fashion. “You must be the realtor.”
The man, wearing cut off jean shorts and covered in filth, grunted in agreement.
“Yes,” I chimed in. “This is the realtor. Thanks for leaving the place open, Mr. Feldman. You can go now.”
The squatter grunted again, grabbed a roll of toilet paper and a bottle of vodka from the freezer, and stumbled down the hall. I later confessed to my mom that he wasn’t the realtor, but I think she got the hint when she saw him passed out in the gutter when we left that day.
Besides the dead mice and squatter residue, the main issue was that our super was crazy. One of the first weeks in the apartment, during a thunderstorm no less, he climbed in the back window from our fire escape at midnight. The girls all screamed (along with me), and we cowered in my room with a Whiffle Ball bat, which I still have to this day.
“It started raining when I was out there,” the super said as he stomped past my room. “What did you expect me to do?”
We always locked our windows after that.
While he remained insane for the year we all lived together, he didn’t let all of his crazy out until we gave notice that we were leaving. In that building, they needed three months notice, but based on our experiences there, we gave them seven. The problem was, our super took this as a white flag of surrender.
One morning, as I stepped out of the shower and wrapped myself in a towel, I heard some noises coming from outside the bathroom door. I opened it, and there were four Asian girls standing there giggling. The super was beside them.
“Put some fucking clothes on,” he yelled at me.
Then he made a dramatic wave of his arm.
“Here’s the rest of the place, we’ll see the bathroom later.”
It continued like that…for six weeks.
Almost every night we’d come home to find different people in our apartment, looking through our rooms, using the toilet. Of course we complained to the landlord, Eli Samuels, but he was an absentee slumlord, and rarely in the city.
And so we lived in constant anxiety, not knowing who would be guest starring in our sitcom each evening. Oh, and locking ourselves in our bedrooms didn’t work either, because the rudeness of this act would enrage our super so much that he would bang on the doors hard enough that they’d almost come off their hinges. I’d then open the door sheepishly, and apologize for the delay in the tour.
“Hello,” I’d say to the Eastern European man and his girlfriend. “This is my room, sorry it’s so messy.”
And flashbulbs would go off.
We heard later that the super died of a heart attack and they found him in the basement boiler room, but this was never confirmed. Most in the building assumed he had already died in the early 1900s, and was a demon cursed to roam the hallways of the building for eternity. That would have explained his constant agitation, but ghosts never smelled that bad.
Despite his maniacal tendencies, the super did have some redeeming qualities that impacted my life – such as his tendency to sit in the lobby quietly reading other tenants’ mail. That habit inspired a good part of my novel, and in his defense, the mail had usually been marked, “Return to Sender.”
But whenever I caught my super reading that mail, I noticed that he never looked happier. Propped on his ancient, wooden chair next to the stairs, I swear that once I even saw him smiling. It was like dipping into the world of someone else, if only for just a few moments, gave the man more joy than anything else his own life could offer. And who was I to take that away from him?
* * *
The morning after I bumped into my new super, 7 years later and over 100 miles away from my 23-year-old former self, I went to my bookcase and pulled out a novel I’d recently read, placing it on the coffee table before leaving for work. When I got home that night, I could have sworn it had been moved just a few inches.